Israel in Gaza: Investigating the Ethics of a War of Choice

photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

In Michael Mitchell’s recent piece for Forward Thinking “Israel’s Moral Army?” (July 18, 2014), Mitchell impressively deconstructs the Israel Defense Force’s conduct during its current military operation in Gaza. Using a variety of pedagogical criteria (international law, Jewish tradition, ethical theory) he ultimately challenges Israel’s claim to being a “moral army” (or to use an title often wielded by its politicians and supporters, “the most moral army in the world.”)

Mitchell notes that while there is “evidence that Israel is taking significant measures to minimize civilian deaths,” it is also “quite possible that innocent people have been killed by IDF decisions to strike a target when it knew that doing so could put civilians at risk.”

He thus concludes:

If the IDF aspires to be a “moral army,” especially one that affirms both the universal dignity of each human life and the respect for the human embodiment of the divine image particular to the Jewish ethical tradition, it is in these instances that its conduct falls from regrettable to wrong.

Given the overwhelming support for “Operation Protective Edge” throughout Israel, the American political world and the American Jewish establishment, it is courageous indeed for Mitchell, a Tel Aviv resident, to openly label the IDF’s actions in Gaza as “ethically wrong.” But beyond his relatively narrow analysis of the ethics of warfare, there are larger issues he leaves crucially unexamined.

Most notably, while Mitchell invokes the principles of self-defense in wartime, he ignores the broader question of whether or not this war itself is, as Israel claims, an actual war of self-defense. Indeed, while Israeli and American politicians – and Israel-supporters the world over – have been defending Israel’s actions in Gaza by invoking Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rocket fire, the timeline of events leading up to Israel’s military assault on Gaza suggests otherwise.

According to the terms of the last cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, signed back in November 2012, Hamas agreed to cease its rocket attacks against Israel, while Israel agreed to “stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.” Since that time, as Forward Editor-in-Chief JJ Goldberg recently pointed out, “Hamas hadn’t fired a single rocket …and had largely suppressed fire by smaller jihadi groups.” By comparison, Israel continuously violated the terms of the cease-fire during those two years with repeated military incursions and targeted assassinations into Gaza. Israel also failed to “facilitate the freedom of movement and transfer of goods within Gaza” as the terms of the cease-fire had stipulated.

This past April, Israel stepped up its rhetoric against Hamas following the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Then in June, Netanyahu publicly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping/murder of three Israeli teenagers – even though he provided no evidence to support his claims and Hamas repeatedly denied any responsibility.  It is now known that Israeli politicians and military leaders knew full well that the teens had been murdered shortly after their abduction – using the pretense of their kidnapping to brutally crack down on Hamas members in the West Bank and to re-arrest former security prisoners who had been released during the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap.

As Israeli public pressure to find the teens reached a fever pitch, right-wing Israeli politicians began to pressure Netanyahu to launch a military operation against Gaza. As Goldberg noted:

In Gaza, leaders went underground. Rocket enforcement squads stopped functioning and jihadi rocket firing spiked. Terror squads began preparing to counterattack Israel through tunnels. One tunnel exploded on June 19 in an apparent work accident, killing five Hamas gunmen, convincing some in Gaza that the Israeli assault had begun while reinforcing Israeli fears that Hamas was plotting terror all along.

On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire was over.

In other words, we cannot view the IDF’s actions during Operation Protective Edge in a vacuum. While Mitchell’s effectively analyzes Israel’s behavior vis a vis the ethics of wartime self-defense, he fails to reckon with the hard fact that Israel’s latest military adventure in Gaza was clearly a war of choice, initiated with cynically political designs.

If we factor in this larger perspective, the ethical categories invoked by Mitchell may well have deeper and more profound implications. For instance, Mitchell cites the Torah’s verse, “Justice, justice shalt thou follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20) together with Jewish value of Pikuach Nefesh (“saving a life”) to make the point that “we must be just not only because it’s right, but because by doing so we ourselves may live.” But while he applies this concept to the context of an army’s actions during wartime, it might be more appropriately invoked in regards to the sacred imperative to work for a just peace to the tragic crisis in Gaza.

If Israel was truly interested in following the course of justice in order to preserve life, it could have dropped its abject refusal to deal with Hamas following the November 2012 cease-fire and pursued further negotiations aimed at ending its crushing siege. It could have sought the course of diplomatic engagement – a truly just attempt at peace rather than merely a lull between its now regular military assaults into Gaza.

Moreover, when Hamas and Fatah announced its reconciliation agreement, Israel’s leaders could have seen this as an opportunity to enter into dialogue with a more unified and representative Palestinian leadership rather than reject another chance to engage in a truly authentic peace process. Instead, they opted for yet another brutally violent onslaught on Gaza that has, as of this writing, killed 370 Palestinians, including 228 civilians, 77 children and 56 women, as well as 18 Israelis.

In other words, before we seek to unpack the ethical question of whether or not the IDF can claim the title of “the most moral army in the world,” it might well behoove us to ask ourselves whether or not these useless, tragic wars need to be fought in the first place.

30 thoughts on “Israel in Gaza: Investigating the Ethics of a War of Choice

  1. Benjamin Ben-Baruch

    You give Michael Mitchell’s comments too much importance by composing your comments as a response to him. His comments, as you pointed out, had a very narrow focus and were not particularly insightful about either war or ethics. And by making Mitchell’s comments the focus of your piece, you weaken your own argument. Israel, as the aggressor and the party that is both stronger and deliberately escalated the conflict, has the moral responsibility for de-escalating the conflict. But it is unlikely to do so. This is a war of choice for Israel and it won’t stop the war until it achieves its objectives.

    By the way, does anybody know Israel’s objectives? From official pronouncements, the only goal I can discern is to defend itself from being hit-back after it attacks.

    1. Yousef

      There is no question what so ever about Israel objective.
      Get ready of the Palestinians population, by all means no matter how long it takes, all the Palestinian needs to be persecuted is breath,
      An Israeli General post sixty seven war asked by reporter what would happen to the west bank now, he replied it should be emptied of it arab inhabitant within fifty years, asked what if some people don’t want to leave he replied we will make his life impossible.
      Israel has driven the Palestinians to the point they have nothing to loose, no matter what they do death is waiting for them if they don’t leave…….and there is nothing more dangerous than a man that has nothing to loose.
      I once dreamed that between Palestinians and Jews they could make the Middle East a heaven. Sadly it evaporated.
      Just for the moment and supposing Israel have had good intention and after 1993 accord would have open the doors of economical prosper revolution, this would changed the life of most of the Palestinians and everybody would have something to loose……do you think anybody would choose to fight having so much to loose. I don’t think so.

  2. Dan webber

    Israel’s objective is to render Hamas unable or unwilling to attack Israel with their rockets…that should be the end of this mess,what will follow is anybody’s guess..the Israelis and Palestinians have developed a viral hatred of each other ..especially so with the Arabs protests all through Israel and the West Bank..and Israel’s rough handling of them..what very likely will happen is that the Israeli public led by the right will never agree to a two state deal.. in fear of the West Bank ending up as gaza has…which means that things will get worse before they get even worse…

    1. Shirin

      Israel’s objective is to render Hamas unable or unwilling to attack Israel with their rockets…that should be clear..

      Actually it is not clear at all because it is not supported by facts.

      Fact: Israel and Hamas entered into a ceasefire on Sept 21, 2012.

      Fact: Beginning on Sept 21, 2012 Hamas did not fire a single rocket for 19 months.

      Fact: Beginning on Sept 22, 2012 Israel began violating every provision of the ceasefire. Specifically Israel violated the provision against armed hostilities nearly every other day, and refused to abide by the other provisions. Despite this, Hamas did not fire any rockets, and successfully suppressed rocket fire from fringe jihadi groups from multiple rockets per day to an average of five rockets per month.

      Fact: In June, 2014 Hamas held its fire for more than two weeks in the face of brutal attacks by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. It was only after Israel killed a Hamas official, who was reportedly also a member of the rocket enforcement squads that had been suppressing the Jihadi rocket fire that Hamas finally retaliated.

      So, Israel’s objective cannot be to stop Hamas from firing rockets because Hamas had not fired any rockets for going on two years when Israel launched this assault.

      the Israeli public led by the right will never agree to a two state deal.. in fear of the West Bank ending up as gaza has…

      Sorry, it is not clear what the way Gaza has “ended up” as to do with a two-state deal. Gaza is still de facto and de jure occupied territory, and has been living under a brual siege for years.

      In any case, perhaps you missed it, but Netanyahu has already announced that he has no intention of allowing the Palestinians to have a sovereign state, ever.

  3. ethompson2014

    When what looks like small aggressive acts are not recognized and challenged by the international community, the door is opened to more vicious attacks. I directly experienced the consequences of Israel’s response to the disappearance and subsequent killings of 3 Israeli settler youths. You can read it here:

    The United States government was quick to respond to Putin’s aggressive acts in Ukraine. Yet, the United States government and the United States media failed to even recognize the aggressive acts of Israel that I blogged about.

    Where is the investigative reporting that exposes the outright lies of the Israeli government? There were at least two big ones: 1) Hamas was responsible for the killing of the 3 Israeli settler youths; 2) that the 3 Israeli settler youths might still be alive and thus justified the invasions and violations of Oslo even when that government was fully aware that the 3 Israeli settler youths were already dead. How can the mainline Jewish and Christian evangelical communities continue to overlook this kind of manipulation of public opinion by the Israeli government? How can mainline protestant denomination leaders continue to value Jewish dialogue so much that they refuse to criticize behaviors that can only be described as strategically self-destructive? Meanwhile hundreds of women and children are slaughtered, almost all of whom are Palestinian.

  4. Pingback: It is time for serious introspection - Riyadhvision

  5. 2skipper

    so glad you have wrote abut the ethics of war, seems to me ethics and war and Israel are failing miserably, As far as the attempt to let the Palestinians know prior to the assaults it seems futile since the borders are closed with no where to flee.

  6. Dan webber

    Will somebody please explain why Hamas insisted on attacking Israel with rockets when they had to know full well that they could do little harm…but would result in a retribution that would do horrific damage to their own citizens….this makes zero logical sense……

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      If you read my article carefully, I think you would understand the real question here is “why would Israel break the ceasefire with Hamas when they had to know full that they would retaliate by sending rockets into Israel?”

      1. AD

        Hamas is dedicated to killing every single Israeli and then all Jews world wide. I do not understand why you wish to be collaborate with a criminal gang such as Hamas. You and other supporters of Hamas are absolutely complicit in the tragic deaths of Palestinian civilians. It is Hamas which is unwilling to accept Israel and has continuously conducted terrorism against those of the Jewish faith. Israel is taking every measure to preserve human life. You and others at JVP, Mondoweiss and other hate organizations are using innocents as human shields to pursue your vision of hate, violence, homophobia, subjugation of women and racism.

      2. Dan webber

        Rabbi…I did go back and read it carefully, while one might argue with your take on what happened,lets assume you are right…still Hamas knowing full well that Israel is looking for the fight..Hamas in full knowledge of the brutal retribution to come made the decision to send over the barrage of rockets…that is what I meant

      3. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


        I don’t purport to speak for Hamas, I can say that when a people is occupied and oppressed indefinitely, they will inevitably resist – sometimes violently. The answer to ending the violence, I believe, is addressing the root cause, pnamely, the oppression.

    2. umrayya

      Hamas did NOT attack Israel. Israel attacked Hamas using the false pretext that Hamas was responsible for the kidnap/murders of three Israeli youth. After more than two weeks of brutal attacks by Israel Hamas finally retaliated by firing sixteen rockets – the first rockets they had fired in more than 19 months.

      Last week Israel finally admitted that Hamas was not involved in the kidnap/murders.

  7. Benjy Ben-Baruch

    Shalom AD,

    I hope you are able to hear the hate in your post because (I am sure) most of the people reading these posts hear that hate very loudly. I hope that when the passions of the moment subside you will be able to open your heart and be able to react and act on the basis of your values and your vision of the ideal future rather than on the basis of your hatreds and fears.

    1. Larry Plotkin

      As one who has actually lived under the threat of thousands of rockets sent by the Hamas terrorists(there, I said the “t” word), I realize that is so easy for you “Liberals” to cry for the poor Hamasnikim who instead of investing the billions they received in aid to build a decent, open and prosperous society have enriched their leaders, built hundreds of underground tunnels and tried every possible way to murder JEWS. Aren’t you embarrassed? Enough of this over-introspection and Jewish self-hatred.

      1. Ben

        “We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think, and feel.” — Marshall B. Rosenberg, Non Violent Communication

        “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”
        ― Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

  8. Dan webber

    AD….while JVP on their zeal for the palestinians ,does appear to support Hamas , I seriously doubt that they support the aims of the radical Islamists . They are looking to somehow,someway,maybe through world opinion force Israel to open themselves to treating the Palestinians as they were Presbyterians ,in the hope that their enemy’s would indeed accept Israel and live peaceably for ever after…maybe just a dream..but they are earnest and believe that they are doing the right thing…

  9. Pingback: Gaza: A Lament « Rabbibrian's Blog

  10. seth weisberg

    I think that when you attack a country with terroristic means (suicide bombings, un-uniformed combatants etc) the army of that country will inevitably fight for their survival. The answer to ending the violence is addressing the root cause: the Arab rejection of the State of Israel.

  11. Shirin

    There appears to be some confusion about the order of events that led to the current situation in Gaza. Many people are under the impression that Israel has been forced to defend itself against a constant barrage of rockets from Hamas. The facts do not support that contention at all.

    There is a verifiable timeline with actual dates of events that shows clearly who did what and when. There are some things we do not know, but there are plenty of things we DO know beyond any question. Here are a few facts that are very important in understanding the sequence of events, and who was responding to whom. I have included a few links as well.

    Fact: Hamas did not fire a single rocket during the 19 month period between the start of a formal ceasefire November 21, 2012 and June 30, 2014. In addition, Hamas had significant success in suppressing rocket fire by smaller unaffiliated jihadi groups that do not take Hamas’ direction, including but not limited to Islamic Jihad. Israel, on the other hand, violated every term of that ceasefire agreement on a regular basis beginning the day after the ceasefire went into effect. That is all verifiable fact.

    Fact: Netanyahu cynically used the murders of the three young Israeli yeshiva students as a pretext to attack Hamas. There is to this day no evidence that Hamas was responsible for those crimes, despite the vehement insistence by Netanyahu that they were.

    Fact: The three yeshiva students were murdered very soon after the kidnap, and Netanyahu knew this, yet for eighteen days he cruelly and cynically kept this information from the families and the world, making a pretense of an all-out search while he built public rage, and support inside and outside of Israel for any action he cared to take. (see the links in the paragraph above)

    Fact: In June, 2014 Hamas held its fire for more than two weeks while Israel brutally attacked Hamas-related and other targets in the West Bank and Gaza, and inflicted collective punishment on the populations there. During this period Hamas’ rocket enforcement squads were unable to effectively control the jihadi groups due to Israeli bombardment and there was an increase in rocket fire from those groups. It was only after Israel killed a Hamas leader in a June 29 aerial attack that Hamas finally struck back with rocket fire of its own.

    In this case it is very clear that over the course of more than a year and half Israel and not Hamas regularly violated a formal ceasefire, that Hamas did not retaliate for any of Israel’s ceasefire violations, and in June, 2014 held off on retaliating for more than two weeks of brutal Israeli attacks. It is also very clear based on multiple studies that this is a very typical behavior pattern for Israel.

  12. Pingback: Return to Mar Elias June 21 to September 17, 2014 | Mar Elias Volunteers

  13. Jim Newman

    “When one thinks that this is what is necessary for Israel to survive, that the Zionist dream is based on the repeated slaughter of innocents on a scale that we’re watching these days on television, that is really a profound, profound crisis — and should be a profound crisis in the thinking of all of us who were committed to the establishment of the state and to its success,” Siegman says. Responding to Israel’s U.S.-backed claim that its assault on Gaza is necessary because no country would tolerate the rocket fire from militants in Gaza, Siegman says: “What undermines this principle is that no country and no people would live the way that Gazans have been made to live. … The question of the morality of Israel’s action depends, in the first instance, on the question, couldn’t Israel be doing something [to prevent] this disaster that is playing out now, in terms of the destruction of human life? Couldn’t they have done something that did not require that cost? And the answer is, sure, they could have ended the occupation.”

    Henry Siegman, Leading Voice of U.S. Jewry, on Gaza: “A Slaught…

    U.S. Jewish Leader Henry Siegman to Israel: Stop Killing Palestinians and End the Occupation

  14. ragheadthefiendlyterrorist

    You are absolutely correct; it was a war of choice and had gained Israel nothing. HAMAS on the other hand has regained all the ground it had lost in Palestinian public opinion in the last year, ever since it stupidly dumped Assad and lost its entire outside support. All Israel has done is strengthen its (alleged) enemy and lost support all over the world. Is that what Netanyahu wants?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s