Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflict: Perspectives from World Jewry

The densely-populated and complex arena in which battles are being fought (and the deep controversies over Israeli policy as a whole) make it hard for Israel to convey that its actions are justified and moral – certainly more so than those of its enemies. The operations in Gaza have exposed Israel to harsh criticism, fueled the de-legitimization campaign against Israel, and led to international investigations of its conduct.

The Dialogue on Israel’s use of force was conducted in the months following Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Israel undertook this operation in the summer of 2014 with the overall aim of keeping Hamas – the Islamic terrorist organization that controls Gaza – from carrying out acts of violence and terrorism against Israeli citizens, whether by launching rockets or infiltrating Israel via attack tunnels; it was hoped that Hamas would be deterred from such activity for as long as possible. Ever since Israel evacuated its settlements and military forces from the Gaza Strip in 2005, this arena has witnessed a regular cycle of escalation and confrontation. Hamas fires rockets into Israeli population centers,22 Israel responds aggressively from the air, and, sometimes, when the rocket attacks intensify and air strikes are insufficient to halt them, IDF ground forces enter Gaza. The outcome is turmoil and a frustrating cycle of violence.

Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has launched three major operations against the terrorist organizations there – in 2008-09 (Operation Cast Lead), in 2012 (Operation Pillar of Defense), and in 2014 (Operation Protective Edge). In each of these operations Gaza – and its inhabitants – suffered much greater damage than did Israel.23 These Gaza confrontations throw into sharp relief24 the inherent problems of what is referred to as “asymmetrical warfare,” “low-intensity warfare,” or “warfare in densely-populated areas.”25 This kind of warfare presents the engaged military force with both operative and moral-ethical challenges (sometimes framed as “legal” issues).26 And in recent decades this has been the main form of warfare in which Israel has been obliged to engage. The days when Israel fought the regular armies of enemy states have long passed; the country is now drawn into campaigns of a different, complicated and nebulous nature. The actors involved are not sovereign countries, and they alternately employ tactics of terrorism and military engagement. These forces – Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon – have large missile reserves, mainly target Israeli civilians, and base themselves in civilian population hubs, where there is a ready supply of “human shields” in the face of military retaliation. The fact that civilians on both sides are exposed to harm highlights dilemmas that, from Israel’s point of view, are hard to resolve. Continuous rocket fire on Israel’s civilian population is what drove Israel to send ground forces into Gaza in summer 2014 – where nearly any measure taken by Israel entailed a balancing act between military-operational needs and the fear of harming unarmed and, in many cases, innocent civilians.

The densely-populated and complex combat arena (and the deep disagreements about general Israeli policy on the Palestinian issue) make it difficult for Israel to present a clear picture of the situation, one that shows Israel’s actions to be justified and moral, particularly in comparison to its enemies. The Gaza operations have exposed Israel to harsh criticism on the part of foreign governments and international organizations. They have fueled the de-legitimization campaign against Israel and led to international investigations of Israel’s conduct. The best known of these investigations was documented in a comprehensive report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict – the Goldstone Report.27 But this was not the last investigation held; in 2014 the UN’s Human Rights Council appointed a commission of inquiry, headed by legal scholar William Schabas,28 to investigate claims that Israel had violated international law during Operation Protective Edge.29 Israel withheld its cooperation with the inquiry,30 arguing that the commission’s mandate had been formulated unilaterally.31 Ultimately, Schabas was obliged to resign,32 under persistent accusations of anti-Israel bias. In March 2015, the commission declared that it interpreted its mandate to include “investigation of the activities of Palestinian armed groups in Gaza; including attacks on Israel, as well as the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip and Israeli actions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.”33 (The commission’s report was published in June 2015.) Another report, that of a United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry on incidents that occurred during Operation Protective Edge, was submitted to the UN Security Council in late April 2015. This report criticized Israel for attacking UN facilities in Gaza, and Hamas for its “unacceptable” misuse of the facilities – i.e., to stash arms.34

It will be useful to present, briefly, a few examples of what Israel has been accused of in Operation Protective Edge – allegations similar to those mounted following other Israeli wars and campaigns of the past few decades – and Israel’s responses to them.

A. Israeli actions are “disproportionate.”
The essence of this argument is that Israel uses excessive force and endangers (or kills) too many civilians in its responses to Palestinian aggression, e.g. rocket attacks do not constitute a serious threat to Israeli citizens. The laws of “proportionality” in war are complex; no one denies that more people “on the other side” than on the Israeli side are harmed during armed confrontations, but Israel – like any other country in wartime – does not feel that this fact justifies the “disproportionality” accusation. International law does not require “game theory equilibrium.”35 Proportionality, according to Israel’s understanding, is not measured in terms of each side’s casualty figures but rather in terms of the potential and deliberate (“cumulative”) damage that may be attributed to the thousands of rockets that were fired on Israel, and with reference to necessary countermeasures, including the creation of long-term deterrence to prevent future damage. Beyond this, Israel maintains that it cannot be blamed for investing in the defense of its citizens (e.g., the Iron Dome system), even if the other side fails to do so, or if it uses its citizens as human shields during combat.

B. Israel does not try hard enough to avoid harming civilians.
Israel points out that its enemies (Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and others) generally operate from within the local civilian population. They deliberately try to trap Israel into generating the highest possible civilian casualty figures – thereby enabling them, later on, to accuse Israel of war crimes. This modus operandi creates structural difficulties for the IDF. Israel maintains that enemy combatants should not enjoy immunity simply because they operate from within civilian populations. On the other hand, it is exceedingly difficult, in densely-populated areas, to strike enemy combatants without harming civilians. Israel’s policy is to avoid harming civilians, insofar as possible. Israel has developed sophisticated mechanisms for warning civilians of imminent action, and is constantly occupied in developing and deploying precision-guided munitions in order to prevent “collateral damage.” Israel frequently endangers the lives of its own soldiers to avoid harming civilians. Compared with the norms of other armies, Israel can point to a superior ratio of combatant to civilian casualties (i.e., Israel harms fewer civilians while operating in populated areas than do other armies active in similar areas).36

C. Israel’s use of force is not merely a last-resort option
“Was Israel’s use of force in self-defense a last resort? Did Israel have any other option but to launch its war against Hamas?”37 In many cases, this “last resort” accusation is tossed around by critics who do not believe that Israel makes sufficient efforts to negotiate with its enemies. Regarding Hamas, with which Israel does not negotiate directly per official policy, this allegation is meaningless. Israel maintains that its refusal to negotiate with Hamas is a legitimate political stance, given the anti-Semitism that is enshrined in the Hamas charter and the organization’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Others view this stance as proof that Israel turns to the use of force without giving due consideration to other alternatives.

D. The Israeli occupation makes all military actions immoral/illegal.
Israel has a duty to protect its citizens wherever they live. Israel asserts that its control of the West Bank is not illegal or immoral, and that responses to terrorist activity that originate in the Gaza Strip or Lebanon – two areas from which Israel has withdrawn – can hardly be judged on the basis of this proposition.