It’s Important to Minimize Civilian Casualties, but Excessive Caution Leads to More Death on Both Sides

Yesterday, the IDF closed in on the city of Khan Younis, Hamas’s main center in the southern Gaza Strip, beginning what Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi has described as the “third phase” of the operation. Two days beforehand, giving a speech in the United Arab Emirates, Vice-President Kamala Harris declared, “Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating.” Such comments echo those of other U.S. officials, in what seems like a coordinated effort to hamstring the Israeli offensive in southern Gaza.

But how many “innocent Palestinians” does Vice-President Harris believe to be the right number to be killed? The laws of armed conflict in fact help provide a way of answering that question, as Shlomo Brody explains, through the oft-misunderstood doctrine of proportionality. Moreover, he argues, excessive restraint poses dangers of its own, a lesson Israel might have learned during the second intifada, after buckling to similar U.S. pressure:

In September 2003, the Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin gathered with all of his senior men in a three-story Gaza apartment building. . . . Yet Israel didn’t strike. Fearful of dozens of civilian casualties along with the local and international protests that would ensue, Prime Minister Sharon, at the urging of the army chief of staff Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, called off an attack using a massive bomb to topple the building.

An alternative plan was hastily proposed to shoot a smaller missile to destroy the third floor, where intelligence officials speculated the meeting was taking place.

They guessed wrong. The meeting, it turned out, was on the first floor. . . . Within a few days, sixteen Israeli citizens were dead and another 75 wounded by two Hamas suicide bombers.

Israel’s decision not to act cost the lives of many innocent Israelis. Fears of “disproportionate” accusations led Israel to shirk its primary moral responsibility, which is to protect its own citizens from being murdered by terrorists.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hamas, International Law, Kamala Harris, Military ethics


What Israel Can Achieve in Gaza, the Fate of the Hostages, and Planning for the Day After

In a comprehensive analysis, Azar Gat concludes that Israel’s prosecution of the war has so far been successful, and preferable to the alternatives proposed by some knowledgeable critics. (For a different view, see this article by Lazar Berman.) But even if the IDF is coming closer to destroying Hamas, is it any closer to freeing the remaining hostages? Gat writes:

Hamas’s basic demand in return for the release of all the hostages—made clear well before it was declared publicly—is an end to the war and not a ceasefire. This includes the withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip, restoration of Hamas’s control over it (including international guarantees), and a prisoner exchange on the basis of “all for all.”

Some will say that there must be a middle ground between Hamas’s demands and what Israel can accept. However, Hamas’s main interest is to ensure its survival and continued rule, and it will not let go of its key bargaining chip. Some say that without the return of the hostages—“at any price”—no victory is possible. While this sentiment is understandable, the alternative would be a resounding national defeat. The utmost efforts must be made to rescue as many hostages as possible, and Israel should be ready to pay a heavy price for this goal; but Israel’s capitulation is not an option.

Beyond the great cost in human life that Israel will pay over time for such a deal, Hamas will return to rule the Gaza Strip, repairing its infrastructure of tunnels and rockets, filling its ranks with new recruits, and restoring its defensive and offensive arrays. This poses a critical question for those suggesting that it will be possible to restart the war at a later stage: have they fully considered the human toll should the IDF attempt to reoccupy the areas it would have vacated in the Gaza Strip?

Although Gat is sanguine about the prospects of the current campaign, he throws some cold water on those who hope for an absolute victory:

Militarily, it is possible to destroy Hamas’s command, military units, and infrastructure as a semi-regular military organization. . . . After their destruction in high-intensity fighting, the IDF must prevent Hamas from reviving by continuous action on the ground. As in the West Bank, this project will take years. . . . What the IDF is unlikely to achieve is the elimination of Hamas as a guerrilla force.

Lastly, Gat has some wise words about what will happen to Gaza after the war ends, a subject that has been getting renewed attention since Benjamin Netanyahu presented an outline of a plan to the war cabinet on Thursday. Gat argues that, contrary to the view of the American and European foreign-policy elite, there is no political solution for Gaza. After all, Gaza is in the Middle East, where “there are no solutions, . . . only bad options and options that are much worse.”

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza Strip, Gaza War 2023, Israeli Security