Soon after the horrific, ghastly Hamas attacks against Israelis on Oct 7th, I began a long-planned working vacation in Germany. I spent a lot of time in Frankfurt and Mainz, which were among the many German cities decimated by Allied bombers. Unlike other places—like Dresden or the Japanese cities that were ruthlessly firebombed—these two included targets that aided the German war machine, as Frankfurt was a significant industrial city and Mainz included railway infrastructure. But thousands of civilians in both cities were killed, maimed or displaced.
After walking or driving past entirely reconstructed buildings and neighborhoods during the day, I watched and read the news at night and saw that Israelis were doing the same thing. They were bombing what they considered to be important military targets and, as a result, killing or maiming thousands of Palestinian civilians.
I believed—and still do—that Hamas’ military wing must be defeated, its ability to threaten Israeli lives must be eliminated, and that Hamas should no longer govern the Gaza Strip. Tragically, in this conflict many civilian casualties are inevitable, because Hamas’ fighters and weapons are closely intermingled with non-combatants, operating in tunnels directly underneath or near civilians’ homes as well as mosques, schools and hospitals.
Still, watching and reading about the deaths and agony of so many Gazans, I wondered if Israel really needed to bomb on such a massive scale? Were some of the air strikes indiscriminate? Was the IDF following the laws of war—most of them developed after World War II—and doing everything possible to minimize civilian casualties?
At times my reactions were the same as Winston Churchill’s when, in 1943, he was at home watching footage of one very brutal example of the RAF’s “area bombing” of the Ruhr in Germany. Churchill, who often publicly defended the bombing of German cities, reportedly sat up bolt upright and cried out “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?”
When I returned to the U.S. in late October, the Israeli air strikes got even more intense and many more innocent, hapless Palestinians were dying. Some friends and allies in the progressive, pro-Israel left reluctantly accepted the logic that Israel had no choice. That civilian deaths from air strikes were necessary to eviscerate Hamas was an “insoluble problem,” a Peace Now leader told anti-occupation activists on Zoom.
Emailing from his second home in Israel, Ameinu President Ken Bob recounted conversations with “some of the most left-wing, non-Zionist Jewish Israeli activists I regularly engage with. Some of them had said before the war that ‘accommodation with Hamas was possible.’ They now say ‘whatever it takes to get rid of Hamas.’ They DO express concern for the innocent Palestinian lives lost, but have not suggested anything the IDF can do differently precisely because of the way Hamas has embedded itself within Palestinian civilian society. That’s why there is no organized opposition on the left.”
The Laws of War
There’s not enough room here to sum up all the laws of war. Robert Goldman, Professor of Law at American University explains the most relevant principles:
“Protecting civilian populations caught in warfare essentially depends upon three factors:
Civilians must abstain from fighting. The party in control of the civilian population must not place them at heightened risk of harm by using them as human shields. The attacking force must take precautions to avoid or minimize excessive civilian casualties when attacking lawful targets.”
Goldman also notes civilians in Gaza are protected under International Humanitarian Law by the principle of “proportionality.” This requires Israel to make sure each air strike that could cause civilian deaths is not “excessive” when weighed against the concrete military advantages of the attack.
Israel insists it has taken many steps to avoid civilian casualties. That includes urging and enabling Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate to the south and avoid getting ensnared in the war. At least 800,000 did leave, and that was before Israel announced a daily 4-hour pause in fighting to allow civilians to move south and also facilitate humanitarian aid. That policy has protected untold numbers of people from the war in the north. At the same time, it has forced them to choose one form of hell over another, as southern Gaza still lacks enough water, food, and fuel because of an Israeli blockade. Moreover, the evacuation routes have sometimes been unsafe, as the south has also been bombed by Israel.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an IDF spokesperson, told CNN about “dozens if not hundreds of strikes that we avert in the early planning stages, even as they are being executed, because we see that the balance between the military advantage and collateral damage—as we say in military speak—isn’t good enough, and then we decide not to do it…Or we give advance warnings, or we call ahead.”
It’s true that this is Israel’s official approach. Each of Israel’s military actions will need to be judged on a case-by-case basis once the fighting stops. But there are likely to be many troubling cases.
For one thing, Israel’s warning system is insufficient. This report notes that “in Gaza, the call or text alerts are far from guaranteed and—at most—give residents a few minutes to evacuate. Warning phone calls from the Israelis also are more likely to be missed in Gaza because of rolling blackouts” that block phone calls and text messages. There have been three of those blackouts as of this writing. During one of them, on Nov. 6th, Israel attacked 450 targets. None of the civilians in the targeted areas could possibly have gotten texts or calls.
Moreover, people in Gaza often have nowhere to go even if they are forewarned of impending airstrikes.
Were the airstrikes disproportionate?
What about the rule of proportionality? Has Israel made sure that each attack was not excessive, and killing one or a few Hamas combatants was so important that it could be justified despite likely civilian casualties? Videos and descriptions of the bloody carnage in Gaza certainly make it appear that the entire campaign is disproportionate carpet bombing, but, again, each attack needs to be judged separately.
Legal experts in the European Journal of Law, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Lawfare and other outlets argue that it’s just too early to judge whether Israel’s attacks have been proportionate. For example, Israel asserted that several strikes on the Jabalya refugee camp killed Ibrahim Biari a key planner of the October 7th attacks, a commander of Hamas’s anti-armored forces and other fighters. The attacks also killed dozens of civilians. In an analysis of one airstrike, a blogger for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute noted:
The military necessity of the target…is readily apparent. But was the loss of 50 Palestinian lives proportional to the military advantage Israel gained in conducting the strike? Were there other ways of disabling Biari’s ability to coordinate Hamas’s defense without killing him, other Hamas fighters and 50 Palestinians? Or was the opportunity to kill Biari a fleeting one, where firm intelligence placed him at that precise point but for only a limited time, precluding other methods of disabling his command? That is the type of information needed to make an informed judgement on the legality of strikes.”
That seems reasonable. Still, there’s no doubt Israel will have a hard time defending itself against troubling accusations of disregarding proportionality. For one thing, it’s not relying solely on munitions capable of striking precise military targets. It’s also dropping “dumb bombs,” which are using less accurate, unguided munitions on densely packed areas of Gaza, increasing the potential for civilian casualties outside of targeted areas.
Robert Goldman opines that the use of the “dumb bombs” weakens Israel’s case for proportionality. So do statements from Israeli military officials that “their operational intent is for damage and not for precision,” as reported in The New York Times.
Are there alternatives?
Does Israel have other options?
On October 31st, in a presentation to J Street that is well worth watching, Representative Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was asked how Hamas’ operational control over Gaza could be removed while minimizing civilian harm. He suggested “slowing down” and said “you can’t defeat a terror organization and ideology with military force. What you can do is contain it and to some degree degrade it. You can buy yourself some time to remove the base of support, the ideological base of support…so that you can pursue a political resolution to Gaza and the West Bank.”
Crow recommended a few things the IDF subsequently implemented to some extent, including “dividing Gaza into the north and south, with humanitarian couriers…to ensure that military equipment isn’t flowing north but you have freedom of movement for people flowing south.” But instead of a “full-scale sweep,” he suggested a “very precise and sustainable counter-terrorism campaign that would take the form of a special operations campaign, which I’ve conducted.”
While the IDF hasn’t slowed down and has opted for a “full-scale sweep” that has ravaged much of northern Gaza, it isn’t too late to take some of Crow’s advice. Even if it did, civilian casualties would still be inevitable.
Another alternative is to stop bombing and agree to a ceasefire, as much of the left and the international community are demanding. In contrast to brief pauses to allow for hostage negotiations or facilitate humanitarian assistance, a ceasefire “is usually meant to last for an extended period of time, to encourage the start of peace talks or other arrangements that deal with an underlying conflict. Much more than a pause, a ceasefire cements the situation on the ground until it is violated,” explains Daniel Kurtzer in The Atlantic.
I, for one, wish a ceasefire was the answer. My heart tells me the Israeli bombing attacks should stop. But my head tells me a ceasefire would enable Hamas leaders to remain in power, retain their current arsenal, recruit combatants to replace those who were killed and take other steps to recover from the damage Israel has inflicted. It would do nothing to eliminate the threat Hamas poses to Israel in general or allow the residents of Israeli communities in southern Israel to return home.
On October 24th, a senior Hamas official called for the “annihilation of Israel” on Lebanese television and vowed that Hamas would repeat the attacks of October 7th “twice and three times.” Progressives who instinctively recoil from supporting any war need to accept the morally wrenching truth that a military offensive is necessary to ensure that this vow cannot be fulfilled. That, unfortunately, means more innocent people will lose their lives.
At the same time, reluctantly accepting that reality doesn’t mean allowing Israel to escape accountability if it has broken the laws of war. It is good news that 26 Senators sent a letter to Biden on November 8th, urging him—among other things—to brief them on whether and how Israel is taking “all possible steps to protect civilians in Gaza.” J Street, APN and other pro-Israel groups strongly supported this letter, and they made the right call.
A new generation of victims
Aside from the fact that bomb attacks killed many innocent people in both World War II and the war in Gaza, my aforementioned analogy between the conflicts was very thin. Unlike Hamas, the Germans didn’t use their civilians as human shields and deliberately invite devastating military retaliation. They were very different wars fought with different munitions when there were different international standards for the conduct of warfare.
There is, however, one relevant lesson that we can learn from the earlier war. While historians have debated whether the Allied bombing campaigns were effective and contributed much to the war effort, there is agreement that the airstrikes on German cities made ordinary Germans feel like they were the victims. That sentiment was one reason for the delayed recognition that Germany needed to publicly acknowledge, apologize and pay reparations for the Holocaust.
The current conflict between Israel and Hamas will intensify the feelings of victimization on both sides. It will dramatically increase the difficulty of building enough trust for Israelis and Palestinians to believe in diplomatic solutions that call for them to live side-by-side, in peace. Yaakov Peri, former head of the Shin Bet, told the New York Times he “worries that Israel is creating a new generation of fighters. `We’ll be fighting their sons in four or five years,’ Mr. Peri said.”