Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: Israeli Press: Weighing in on Gazan Civilian Casualties

"Besheva" Hebrew weekend newspaper, has a weekly question on issues that are being debated by the Israeli public, responded to by three experts on the subject.
Published: Sunday, July 27, 2014 6:46 PM


The world talks about "proportionality" and casualty figures in Gaza. Friends of Israel and Jews in Israel and all over the world mourn the young soldiers who have given their lives to keep Israeli citizens secure. Does the first sentence affect the second?

Batya Mesika, a Besheva writer, asked three respected Israelis the question that is being debated in Israel as the war goes on:

Does the IDF's effort to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza justify endangering IDF soldiers?

Below are their responses.

1. IDF Lt. Col. (res.) Oded Revivi, Mayor of Efrat:  

Hamas is the Address for this Question

This is a non sequitur.  There is no such question. As a reserve officer and IDF commander, I permit myself to assert that have not been any IDF-inflicted civilian casualties in Gaza.  Hamas is the organization that is inflicting harm on Gazan women and children, using them as human shields.

Israel is not the correct address for the request of the UN Secretary General last week to stop inflicting casualties on Gazan civilians.  It is the Hamas leadership he should address, those that built a terrorist infrastructure in populated areas and put weapons stores in schools, mosques and hospitals.

The world – and Israel - should be pointing an accusing finger at Hamas terrorists when innocents are killed in Gazza.

The IDF takes its ethics from the Torah of Israel.  Accordingly, it acts powerfully against our enemies, but at the same time carefully maintains "purity of arms". IDF soldiers do not harm innocents on purpose, in accordance with the morals and values of the Jewish people.

But let us not forget that first and foremost,  the IDF's mission is to defend Israel and to protect Israeli citizens.  As part of this objective, it destroys rocket launchers, tunnel diggers and terror strongholds in Gaza. The IDF should continue doing this until the terrorist enemy is defeated.

It is important to note: the equation at hand is not about injuring Gazan civilians versus endangering our soldiers. It is about injuring Gazan civilians versus injuring Israeli citizens. If our soldiers did not put up a stubborn and stalwart fight against Gazan terror in a conflict that unfortunately costs some uninvolved Gazan's their lives, those harmed would be Israeli citizens.

During this period of battling the enemy, we must all strengthen the soldiers of the IDF and let them fulfill their mission.

2. Attorney Danny Zamir, Head of the Zionist-Israeli IDF Preparatory programs (Secular Mechinot) , head of the Rabin Pre-Army Institute:

The Importance of Proportionality:

It is difficult to relate to a question of this type in a period of combat, one in which 40 of our soldiers, among them 5 who had attended pre-army institutes, have lost their lives and many more have been wounded.

It is hard to answer especially since without doubt IDF warnings which neutralize the element of surprise and the army's attempt to prevent harming civilians limit the IDF's maneuvers and tactical attacks, and have real potential to increase the danger to our soldiers.

After this preliminary, I wish to say that in my view IDF warfare is that of a Jewish and democratic country, recognized by international law, subject to the principles of just warfare, to the moral and cultural DNA of the Jewish people and to the international limitations which can become strategic obstructions  if ignored.

That is why fighting in populated areas, especially when not engaging  a state's army and not in a situation where our existence is threatened, forces us to keep to proportionality when firing. Proportionality means warning the civilian population beforehand and avoiding purposely aiming at civilian areas when unnecessary.

Since Israel and the IDF adhere to these two principles, they have resulted in moral power that is a critical element in the motivation of each soldier and of  the national security that derives from that motivation, also allowing for international support for continuing the operation, one of its  important strategic elements.

On the other hand, the bottom line is that when operating after a warning (and in cases where the element of surprise is necessary even without a specific warning) there is no real possibility, especially when evacuating soldiers or providing cover for an attack, to prevent incidental civilian injury.

In sum: Just as the question of exchanging an IDF prisoner cannot be weighed on a personal or family level, and sometimes the soldier and his family will have to pay the price of what is seen as the general national good, so we cannot isolate the question of the limited danger to our soldiers because of the IDF's "proportionality", minimizing civilian injuries, from the national price we will pay if we do not guard this principle – whether in morale, belief in the justice of our cause and in the broader strategic arena.

3. Ido Rechnitz, researcher at the  Mishpat Haaretz Institute and co-author of the book "Jewish Military Ethics" (with Rabbi Elazar Goldstein):

 Not at the Expense of Our Soldiers:

The question of harm to uninvolved civilians is discussed in various contexts by contemporary halakhic arbiters, and theif conclusions reflect several principles which mesh into a whole (the quotes have been chosen for their clarity to the layman, but all the arbiters basically agree to them):

The first principle is that it is forbidden (i.e. there is an issur) to harm uninvolved people on purpose, as the late Rabbi Goren (IDF Chief Rabbi and later Israel's Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi) wrote: "We are commanded to have pity for the enemy as well, and not to kill even in a time of war, except when it is necessary for self defense or in order to conquer and win;  not to [set out to] harm non-battling populations, and certainly not women and children who are not taking part in the war (Meshiv Milchama Responsa, Part 1, p. 14)

The second principle is that one must make an effort to limit harm to uninvolved  populations, for example by calling upon them to leave the area of conflict, as the IDF did in southern Lebanon. The late Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli (Israel Prize Laureate for Jewish Law, Rabbinic Supreme Court Judge, head of Merkaz Harav Yeshiva) wrote in that vein: "It is understood that if there is the possibility to warn innocents to leave the area, one should do so." (Amud Hayemini Par. 16, 4, 1).

The third principle is that harming uninvolved civilians unintentionally while battling those fighting against us – is permissible and moral, as Rabbi Avraham Shapira (Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Rabbinic Supreme Court Judge and head of Merkaz Harav Yeshiva): "When [the battle is] necessary and when the danger is obvious, there is no room to compare the number of our soldiers who may, G-d forbid, be hurt with the number of enemy citizens who are haters of Israel that might have to pay the price of war ."  (Tchumin , vo.4, p. 182).

It should be pointed out, incidentally, that international law (added protocol to the Geneva accords, par. 51[3]) allows unintended harm to uninvolved populations, as long as this is proportionate and does not involve razing an entire village to get one soldier on furlough (example from original).

Translated by Rochel Sylvetsky from the weekly Hebrew "Besheva" newspaper