Commentary Magazine


Morality and Self-Defense in Gaza

Today’s New York Times brings us a remarkable insight into the behavior of the Israel Defense Forces. As southern and central Israel were subjected to a relentless barrage of rockets from Hamas-run Gaza, the IDF sought to knock out the launchers and the bases from which they originated. But, as the Times reports, unlike Hamas and its other Palestinian allies, the Israelis are giving warnings to many of those they are trying to hit.

The Israeli practice of calling up people whose homes have been used as Hamas bases or centers of missile production to tell them that a rocket or shell is about to hit them was used in the 2008-09 counter-offensive against Gazan terrorists. Its use is now being stepped up as Israel continues to try to silence the Hamas rockets. But the idea of a country defending its borders and population against terrorist assault by politely asking the people living in and around a legitimate military target to evacuate the place before it is demolished is virtually unprecedented in the history of warfare.

The Israelis are doing it for a number of reasons. One is that the IDF’s code of conduct has always promoted the concept of avoiding civilian casualties whenever possible. The other is that the Palestinians have deliberately sought to provoke Israeli counterattacks that would cause civilian deaths that could then be used to discredit the Jewish state.

But the problem with the practice is twofold.

One is that often the Palestinians don’t heed the warnings. In the case of one building in Khan Younis that Hamas had been using to fire rockets from or otherwise conduct operations, the warnings—a cell phone call and then a flare fired at the roof—came in time for everyone inside the place to flee. Those inside understood what was going on but rather than evacuate the target, local Palestinians decided to gather around the house to form a human shield for the Hamas operations with some even going to the roof of the doomed building. Seven people were killed despite the attempt by the Israelis to demolish the enemy hideout without taking any lives.

The other problem with this method is that if the goal of the tactic is to avoid international criticism, it doesn’t work. Hamas is deliberately firing missiles into heavily populated cities in the hope that some will get through Israel’s missile defenses and injure as many civilians as possible. In response, Israel tries to target Hamas fighters who hide among civilians. But no matter how hard the Israelis try to fight a “clean” war, they still wind up getting attacked by human-rights groups who hold them to a standard that would prohibit virtually any form of self-defense against the terrorists.

While morality and warfare are incompatible almost by definition, Israel has always tried to reconcile the two with mixed success. The only way to win wars is to kill the enemy and make it difficult if not impossible for them to continue fighting. That means removing the means of supply and production of weapons for the opponent. But in the asymmetrical warfare into which the Palestinians have forced Israel, an international community that has little sympathy for the Jewish state’s dilemma has branded the normal means of fighting a war as atrocities.

The standing rebuke to Israel is that its counter-attacks against Hamas targets in Gaza produce more casualties than the Palestinian barrage exacts from Israel. That is as true in the current fight as it was in the past as more than two dozen Palestinians have been killed in the recent exchanges while there have been no Israeli fatalities despite the hundreds of missiles whose purpose was to kill as many Jews as possible. Israeli counter-attacks are always called disproportionate though the last thing the Palestinians would want is for the IDF to respond in kind with attacks that, like those of Hamas, aim to kill civilians.

The notion that Israel needs to apologize for the inaccuracy of Hamas rockets or the success of the Iron dome anti-missile defense system is absurd. But not as absurd as the notion that Israel need apologize for the fact that its strikes on Hamas targets have sometimes exacted a lethal price on the terrorists and those, whether young or old, who were, as in the case with the Khan Younis building, foolish enough to stay in a place that was an obvious military target.

But the discussion about morality in the conflict with Hamas is ultimately pointless. For those who wrongly characterize the fighting going on in the Middle East as merely part of a blood feud between two crazed antagonists, it’s easy to dismiss Israeli efforts to spare the lives of its foes as either inadequate or insignificant in the context of the conduct of an immoral war on the Palestinian people. But to adopt such facile moral relativism is to misunderstand the conflict.

The difference between Hamas and the IDF isn’t merely a matter of technology. It’s that Hamas’s goal is the destruction of the Jewish state and the annihilation of its people. Israel’s goal is to survive and to eventually force the Palestinians to make peace. For those who share the Palestinian belief that the Jewish presence in the country is the real cause of the war, IDF tactics, no matter how fastidious, are irrelevant. By the same token, they consider any form of Palestinian “resistance” to be legitimate even if that means tacit approval for terror such as the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers last month or the indiscriminate firing of missiles on cities.

One can only applaud the tactics employed by the Israelis to avoid needless deaths. Yet even those involved with this noble effort must understand that the most moral thing they can do is to end the terrorist threat to Israeli civilians. Destroying Hamas’s ability to wage another campaign of terrorist warfare is also the most moral thing to do from the perspective of saving Palestinian lives. The people of Gaza will only be safe once the Hamas tyrants who have ruthlessly exploited their suffering are removed from power and stripped of their ability to plunge the region into conflict. Until that is accomplished, any further effort devoted to the discussion about morality and the Gaza conflict is a waste of time.

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4 Responses to “Morality and Self-Defense in Gaza”

  1. JASON STOLLER says:

    It’s hard not to be totally captivated by this real life daytime soap when you have the most moral people in the world up against an opponent which can barely manage to walk upright.

  2. JACK LEVEY says:

    I have read that before Israel’s response, rockets were already forcing 1,000,000 or more Israelis to stay in bomb shelters. Others dare not be more than 15 to 30 seconds from shelter. Without these precautions, Israeli casualties would surely be much higher. No nation should be asked to bear that toll on its people, nor the economic toll.

    A few decades ago,either Rabbi Norman Lamm or Rabbi Maurice Lamm (my apologies to both for not remembering) spoke to us about the ethics of war. Some snotty kid in his 20’s or early 30’s asked, in a dismissive tone, “What’s ethical about fighting a war?” Rabbi Lamm instantly replied “Protecting my wife and children!”

    We can debate what means are off limits in pursuing that goal. But any debate that does not recognize the basic morality of that goal is pointless.


    Increasingly scarce commodities in the West these days are ” winning” and “victory”. History, however, is written by the victors, something that Israel is coming to appreciate more fully in this Gaza engagement. The price of loss leads only to humiliation, contempt,and reproach.


    But no matter how hard the Israelis try to fight a “clean” war, they still wind up getting attacked by human-rights groups who hold them to a standard that would prohibit virtually any form of self-defense against the terrorists.”

    Spot on.

    I propose a new term for Hamas members or supporters who rush to the rooftops provided by the IDF with foreknowledge of imminent IDF strike: “Suicide Squatters.” I would hope this is as pithy as liberal bumper-sticker-isms and capture the attention and consideration of the world, showing these fanatics for what they are.

    It should be a truism that A LEADER IS RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS/HER PEOPLE, AND THE PEOPLE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR LEADER, whether one is talking about Gaza, Syria, Iran, Mexico…any country…including the United States of America.

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