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Israel Is Fighting a Just War

Brendan O’Neill in Spiked writes that the cardinal rule of evaluating Israel’s actions is: Whatever Israel does is a war crime

Photo: AP Images


hatever horror the world expressed at the atrocities committed by Hamas on Simchas Torah has already begun to dissipate, and Israel again finds itself in the crosshairs of international public opinion. One hundred thousand people marched in London on Saturday in support of Hamas, including Jeremy Corbyn, former head of the British Labour Party.

And this is before the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza has even begun. When it does, Israel will be subjected to a constant stream of claims that it is engaged in war crimes, even genocide, against the people of Gaza, and that its response is disproportionate.

It is crucial that American Jews — indeed, all sane people everywhere — not listen to those claims passively or defensively, but rather respond to them forcefully. It must be understood that the accusations against Israel have little to do with the laws of warfare, and everything to do with the desire to see the State of Israel rendered incapable of defending itself — i.e., effectively destroyed. That desire to see every Jew in Israel dead is explicit in the Hamas charter, and it is implicit in the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” chanted in every pro-Hamas demonstration, including on university campuses, across the United States.

The first question to ask anyone prattling on about Israel’s war crimes is: Imagine that 5,000 rockets were fired from Tijuana into southern California, and that a force of terrorists under the auspices of the sovereign government of the Baja peninsula crossed the border into the United States and murdered in the most brutal fashion possible 1,400 Americans, wounded 3,000 more, and kidnapped 230 Americans and dragged them back to the Baja peninsula as captives to be paraded as war trophies. And imagine further that the terrorist forces are deeply embedded among the civilian population of Tijuana, among whom they have placed their weapons and command centers. How would the United States respond to such an attack? How would you advocate that it respond?

Could it be that the near certainty of civilian deaths prohibits any form American response? If it were indeed the humanitarian law of warfare that any terrorist force that uses civilians as human shields, could thereby render itself immune from countermeasures, then in the words of Charles Dickens’s Mr. Bumble, “the law would be [a donkey].” But of course, it is not. As Professor Michael Walzer, author of the classic Just and Unjust Wars, told interviewer Peter Savodnik last week, “There must be a way of fighting a just war, justly.” And he left no doubt that he considered Israel’s war to uproot Hamas from Gaza a just war.

The laws of war, writes Andrew McCarthy, the lead prosecutor of those responsible for the first World Trade Center bombing, are not a straitjacket that makes military objectives unattainable, and they do not insulate monsters who meld into civilian populations centers and stash their arsenals in schools, mosques, and hospitals from counterattack.

So the first meta-legal principle before even examining the laws of warfare is that those laws must permit a country the means to pursue a just military objective. A second meta-legal principal is that there cannot be one set of laws for every nation and a separate set for Israel. And yet that is often the case in the court of public opinion, and even among those who claim to be upholders of international law.

Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has continuously targeted purely civilian targets, such as hospitals, in Ukraine. Yet have you ever heard of demonstrations in any European capital or on any university campus decrying Russian war crimes? Or when over 300,000 Syrian citizens lost their lives in the Syrian civil wars, during which Bashar Assad employed chemical weapons on his own population, and millions more were displaced? Only silence.

Brendan O’Neill in Spiked writes that the cardinal rule of evaluating Israel’s actions is: Whatever Israel does is a war crime. If civilians die as a result of Israeli bombing of Hamas positions, that’s genocide; if Israel urges civilians to move to southern Gaza to avoid being injured in attacks on Hamas, that’s “forced transfer” or “ethnic cleansing.” When Israel seeks to remove an openly genocidal regime calling for the murder of Jews worldwide, it is committing genocide.

Somehow only Israel is held responsible for feeding or housing civilians displaced by the fighting, even though Egypt controls Gaza’s southern border and has plenty of empty spaces to create refugee camps in the Sinai, presumably with large-scale international humanitarian aid.

New York Times columnist David French, who served with the US Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps in Iraq, compares American and allied action against ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul, with a population of two million people, to Israel’s actions in Gaza. He notes that Hamas acted on October 7 just like ISIS, and Israel is fully justified in treating Hamas just as the US and its Iraqi allies treated ISIS. If anything, Israel has far more urgent military objectives than did the US in Mosul. ISIS was thousands of miles from the United States, and while ISIS had beheaded a few US citizens working in Iraq, nothing like in the numbers of Israelis who were slaughtered on October 7.

Despite their adherence to laws of war, in the main, US and allied Iraqi forces still killed up to 11,000 civilians in Mosul in the course of removing the deeply embedded ISIS terrorists, who had held the city for two years. And despite employing the most advanced precision weapons, Mosul suffered widespread destruction. In addition, the US and its allies took 252 days to recapture Mosul from ISIS. It is unlikely that Israel will be granted even two weeks to get the task done in Gaza. Nevertheless, French insists, Mosul demonstrates that the laws of war do not prevent Israel from destroying a terrorist army.

DAVID FRENCH MAKES ANOTHER important point: There is widespread ignorance, including among journalists, about the laws of warfare. For instance, in previous Hamas-initiated conflicts with Israel, the New York Times typically ran daily charts of the number of Gazan casualties versus the number of Israeli casualties, as if there is something immoral about Israel’s development of sophisticated rocket defenses to minimize civilian casualties, or something moral about Hamas’s use of dead civilians to score propaganda victories.

According to the twisted logic of the New York Times that the legal doctrine of proportionality has something to do the comparative casualties on both sides, Israel would now be entitled to behead as many Gazan children and incinerate as many families as Hamas did on October 7. That is absurd. Hamas’s actions were war crimes deliberately targeting civilians, and one war crime does not justify another.

The legal doctrine of proportionality, as the ex-JAG officer French puts it, does not require that there be no collateral damage from Israeli strikes on Hamas targets, and it certainly does not require Israel to absorb the same proportion of casualties as Gaza. Rather proportionality, according to the rules of warfare, requires commanders to balance the likely collateral damage to civilians against the importance of the military objective. It is worth making clear that in a war against an enemy committed to genocide against the Jews of Israel, indeed worldwide, Israel has an exceedingly important military objective. Without the total defeat of Hamas in Gaza, it is doubtful that the border communities with Gaza will ever be reinhabited, and Israel will, in effect, have ceded territory to Hamas.

Similarly, in the event of thousands of missiles being launched at Israel daily by Hezbollah, the necessity of stopping the missile barrage as quickly as possible would justify striking rapidly at all the hiding sites for those missiles, even if they are under the homes of civilians. In times of war, nations are permitted, nay required, to place a higher value of the lives of their citizens than of those of an enemy country. (Thus, in order to save up over half a million lives of US servicemen — and at least an equal number of Japanese determined to fight to the last man — President Harry Truman made the agonizing decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

Another important principle of the international humanitarian laws of warfare is “the principle of distinction,” which requires combatants to wear uniforms and clearly identify themselves. Hamas does not do that. Indeed, its entire strategy is to thwart Israel by hiding among Gazan civilians, the latter of which become human shields. But that means that civilian lives lost because Hamas command centers, weapons manufacturing shops, and arsenals are located amid civilians are attributable to Hamas and not to Israel.

Nor is the Israeli siege of Gaza and the cutoff of electricity to northern Gaza a violation of the laws of warfare. As logic would dictate, Israel is under no obligation to supply Gaza with electricity so Hamas can continue to wage war upon it. And no rule of law requires it to do so, as Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, points out.

Moreover, it is worth contemplating why Gaza has no electricity of its own, and relies on that supplied by Israel. Since 2005, Gaza has been fully self-governed by Palestinians, and by Hamas since 2007. Only because Hamas has diverted so much international aid to developing its military capacity to strike Israel has it failed to build an independent electrical grid for Gaza.

Moreover, The Law of Land Warfare, published by the US Army, makes clear that siege to cut off reinforcement, supplies, and communications is an ancient and permitted form of warfare, as long as it is not aimed exclusively at the civilian population. All the university progressives so “exhilarated” by Hamas’s October 7 slaughter of Israeli civilians would do well to recall that one of the reasons that the Union forces prevailed in the Civil War was the successful blockade of Confederate ports, which prevented the South from selling its cotton in exchange for desperately needed foreign currency.

As noted previously, Israel has by no means created a hermetic blockade preventing water and foodstuffs from reaching the civilian population. Were Hamas to permit all civilians to flee to southern Gaza, sufficient food and water could be provided by international humanitarian organizations via the border with Egypt.

FINALLY, ISRAEL IS ACCUSED of imposing collective punishment on the innocent civilians of Gaza. Yet that punishment is largely imposed by Hamas, which seeks to prevent the civilian population from fleeing to the southern part of Gaza.

And it is worth noting that while the civilians of Gaza may be entitled to certain protections under the rules of warfare, they are hardly innocent. Not only did they elect Hamas to govern them, at least once, but anyone watching the scenes of from Gaza City on October 7 — the passing out of candies to celebrate the slaughter of Jews, the parading of hostages before jeering crowds — could certainly be forgiven for thinking that the residents of Gaza were at least as “exhilarated” by dead Jews as their academic counterparts in the United States. More than one thousand civilians from Gaza poured through the broken security barrier on October 7 to loot nearby Jewish communities.

In some ways, the most depressing room in Auschwitz is the one with movies of hundreds of thousands of Germans cheering rapturously as Goebbels and Hitler, yemach shemam, call for the extermination of world Jewry, and some of that same rapture was on display in Gaza.

But pace President Biden, the desire to wipe Israel off the face of the map is shared by a large majority of Palestinians, as the social media accounts of Palestinian academics in the United States make clear. (See Andrew McCarthy, “Hamas Is the Symptom, Not the Disease,” National Review, October 21.)

Palestinian youth, whether in Gaza or the West Bank, have been marinated, at least since the beginning of Oslo, in hatred of Israel and taught only from maps from which Israel is removed. Fifty-seven percent of Palestinians in Gaza express support for Hamas, and an even higher percentage — 71% — for the more radical Islamic Jihad. And if elections were ever to be held in the West Bank, no one doubts that Hamas would trounce the Palestinian Authority.

A recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy Research found that Palestinians prefer a return to an intifada (armed struggle) to a negotiated settlement to end the occupation by a ratio of nearly three to one. Another survey by the same organization a few years back found that 70 percent of Palestinians reject a “two-state solution,” preferring to wait for the death of Israel. Innocents not.

I hope I have provided readers in chutz l’Aretz, including on campus, enough information to respond strongly to the predictable criticism of Israel for “war crimes.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 983. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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