Civilian Casualties and the Ethics of Jewish Power

The IDF set out to minimize civilian casualties and in the process became the most moral army in the world.
November 30, 2023
Members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) work at a staging area near the border of Gaza during a six day ceasefire. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

There has been a worldwide focus on civilian casualties in Israel’s war in Gaza. Frequent demands are heard for an immediate ceasefire on the grounds that there are too many civilian deaths and this killing must be stopped at once. These calls fail to face the bitter truth that a cessation of hostilities would leave Hamas in power, bloodied but not broken and able to massacre again. President Macron of France and Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada — who initially supported Israel’s right to defend its citizens after the October 7 massacre — are quoted as saying that Israel must stop killing women and babies. The implication is that Israel is engaged in a war of revenge, that the IDF is targeting women and children or at least not taking care to minimize civilian casualties. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is important for supporters of Israel to know that when the Jewish state created an army, its leaders recognized that this was a turning point in Jewish history. Instead of living on sufferance of the host society — and frequently being victimized due to their powerlessness — the Jewish people decided to become sovereign and take political and military power to have an important role in determining their own fate. This meant giving up the self-righteousness of being the victims (and never the abuser). This meant taking on the risk of exercising power where failure meant disaster for Jewry. This also meant taking on the risk of waging wars that would inescapably result in civilian casualties. The new ethical challenge was to fight with restraint and act to minimize collateral damage. The IDF believed that soldiers would be better fighters if they believed in the justice of their cause and that their army fought justly using moral standards. 

The IDF set out to minimize civilian casualties and in the process became the most moral army in the world. Note: Keep in mind the sad truth that the definition of a moral army is that it minimizes (but cannot eliminate) civilian casualties.

The IDF adopted a strong tohar haneshek (purity of arms) doctrine. The code started with the emerging ethical principles of international law: necessity (an army goes to war only if this is the only way left to enable life to go on); distinctiveness (the army is careful not to harm civilians and attacks only soldiers and military targets); proportionality (if the enemy mixes civilian and military so that it is impossible to fight without putting civilians at risk, then if the attacks would harm civilians more than the military advantage gained, it would not be done).

The IDF codified its rules and gives a copy to every soldier. Officers spend serious time instilling those values as part of the basic training process. After the IDF codification, a Judicial Advocate General office (praklitut tzva’it) was set up to monitor behavior, investigate deaths or abuses of civilians and hold people accountable before military tribunals. The Israel Supreme Court then took over ultimate review of military justice and tactics to ensure that the army fully lives up to its code. A free press and media also investigate abuses and check potential violations.

The army developed ordnance to minimize collateral damage, including smart bombs to ensure that only intended military targets were hit and special munitions that reduced explosive scatter. In the Gaza war, IDF introduced “Iron Sting,” a newly developed mortar munition that reduces scatter. Such munitions reduce the chances of wounding civilians in the vicinity of military targets. The classic case is the Iron Dome missile defense system, which neutralized rockets’ ability to destroy civilians and civilian life. 

The IDF developed tactics to reduce enemy civilian casualties. These included canceling missions in actual operation where it was determined that too many civilians would be hurt; mass telephone calls warning local inhabitants to get out before their area was bombed or invaded; dropping flyers warning of coming military actions; and “knock on roof” shells  that did not explode but gave a last warning to civilians to get out before their building was struck. Many of these tactics allowed terrorist fighters to get out of harm’s way, but the IDF was determined to minimize civilian casualties at all costs. In retrospect, this tactic boomeranged as some of those spared terrorists went on to murder hundreds and planned to murder millions. 

The real measure of the IDF’s accomplishments was articulated by Richard Kemp, leader of the United Kingdom’s armed forces in Afghanistan. Driven by the need to gain the support of the population against the Taliban, the Allied forces made an all-out effort to reduce civilian casualties. By strenuous effort, the Allies brought the ratio of civilian deaths to fighter deaths down to a historically unprecedented level — three to four civilians killed for every fighter. Hamas is a group which deliberately places its military installations and fighters among civilian populations. Yet by 2021, after repeated military conflicts with Hamas, the IDF brought the ratio down to one fighter killed for every civilian killed. No other army in the world has reached such levels of protecting civilians. It is literally true that IDF was the most moral army in the world — on the heartbreaking understanding that a moral army kills as few innocent civilians as possible.

The Hamas October 7 massacre was so massive and cruel that it generated a wave of anger. Many Israelis called for revenge and retaliation. Extremist ministers called for indiscriminate collective punishment and wholesale destruction of Gaza. The IDF rejected these ideas as incompatible with its values. The government and the IDF determined that Hamas must be destroyed and its governance over Gaza ended — but the war would be fought according to the IDF’s code of ethics, including minimizing civilian casualties. The air bombing targets only military sites. The IDF called upon the inhabitants of Northern Gaza to evacuate the area in order to sharply reduce civilian losses. Israel itself evacuated over 120,000 civilians in northern and southern Israel to put them out of harm’s way. Hamas soldiers blocked civilians from leaving while its media department claimed Israel was carrying out ethnic cleansing. An estimated 70% of Gazans exited northern Gaza. 

Why then are Palestinian deaths so high? The first answer is that the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Department inflates the figures. In the Al Shifa hospital incident, Hamas blamed an IDF strike and claimed there were 500 deaths. Later evidence showed that the strike was a failed Islamic Jihad rocket aimed at Israel that broke up and blasted the hospital’s parking lot, with about 50 casualties. The Gazan report includes the 1,500 Hamas fighters who were killed inside Israel during the IDF counterattack to the massacre, as well as Hamas terrorists killed in the Gaza fighting. It also includes all the casualties caused by Hamas and PIJ rockets. Over 8,000 rockets have been fired toward Israel and an estimated 20% of them fall in Gaza, causing Palestinian casualties.

The definition of proportionality has also changed. In the past, a terrorist leader with a few civilians nearby would be spared. Now, knowing that this man, spared, could order the killing of hundreds of civilians, the strike goes on — justifiably.

Hamas turned Gaza’s citizens into human shields. They so intertwined their military with civilians that any and all attempts to stop their assaults cause civilian casualties.

The major reason for the increased casualties is that Hamas multiplied its military installations in Gaza. It dug kilometers of attack tunnels with numerous openings in civilian neighborhoods, and placed rocket launchers in proximity to schools, hospitals, etc. They placed command and control centers in (that is, under) hospitals. They turned blocks of civilian buildings into military posts. This mixing is a war crime. Hamas turned Gaza’s citizens into human shields. They so intertwined their military with civilians that any and all attempts to stop their assaults cause civilian casualties. The deepest cynicism in this strategy is that Hamas set up Gaza to maximize Palestinian civilian casualties, in the belief that civilian deaths bring sympathy and support to their cause. 

In the classic chutzpah narrative, a man kills his father and mother and pleads for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan. Hamas has done better. It sets up tens of thousands of civilians as human shields. Then, after massacring a thousand civilians, it demands a ceasefire. No one should fight back against its terrorism — since civilians will be hurt. 

We have to fight the false implication that the higher civilian casualties in this war proves that Israel is not trying hard to minimize them. The evacuation of Northern Gaza saved countless lives; however, this escape route also allowed many terrorists and Hamas’ top leadership to get out of the line of fire by moving alongside the civilians. Israel’s protection of civilians costs it dearly in terms of mortal enemies who take advantage to save themselves. It is important for Israel’s supporters, here and elsewhere, to let the world know that in the face of staggering barbarism, Israel is still making extraordinary efforts to reduce Palestinian civilian casualties.

When Israel took up the burden of defending Jews’ right to live, we did not imagine the devastating cost of that defense in Palestinian lives. Since every human life is of infinite value, we deeply feel the pain of every innocent Palestinian life lost. The death of children in Gaza is particularly painful. The fault is all Hamas’ and its deliberate use of human shields —but we still feel the sorrow of every loss of life.

The war carries a heavy cost in our own fighters’ lives as well as  Palestinian civilians’ but this is the outcome of the principle of necessity. There is no other way to stop the attempt to destroy Israel. For the same reason, a ceasefire now would save Hamas from destruction and allow terrorist groups to regroup. Those who sincerely are calling for a ceasefire in order to save civilians should know that unchecked, radical jihadists will kill hundreds of thousands, even millions, in the future —not just in Israel, but in the rest of the free world.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg serves as the President of the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life (JJGI) and as Senior Scholar in Residence at Hadar.

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