Photo by Emad El Byed on Unsplash

On October 7th, Hamas terrorists launched more than 3000 rockets into southern Israel from Gaza and coordinated multiple cross border attacks, brutally murdering 1200 innocent people and taking 240 hostages. It was a criminal act of war that shocked the world. There is no way to justify the violent attack morally, ethically, or legally. 

Israel wasted no time in responding with devastating air attacks. Implementing a complete siege of the Gaza Strip, supplies of food, electricity, fuel, and water were cut off. Days later, a ground attack was launched, with tanks and soldiers entering cities and towns to continue the military response. With the exception of a short ceasefire to exchange hostages, the air and ground assault have been relentless. The Israeli War Council’s stated goal has been to “eradicate Hamas.”

After just over two months, more than 20,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed, and more than 50,000 injured. Most of those killed have been women and children. Homes, hospitals, and entire towns have been destroyed. Two million of the 2.3 million residents of Gaza, nearly 90 percent, have been displaced. People are told to evacuate from one location, only to find themselves under attack after they flee to a designated ‘safe’ place. Few have been allowed to leave Gaza. There is insufficient food and clean water, little shelter, and no functioning hospitals. The sick and the injured are dying because care is impossible to provide and humanitarian supplies are practically nonexistent. Very little international aid has been allowed into Gaza.

The October 7th attack on innocent civilians in Israel was horrifying and devastating to the victims and their families. The devastation of the Palestinian people suffering from the response is no less heartbreaking.

There is a philosophy in war called proportional response, meaning the response to a military assault should be proportionate to the violence of the attack, and limited to that necessary for self-defense or to eliminate a threat. Legal pundits have weighed in on the war in Gaza, debating the finer points of international law and the rules of war. I’ve read a number of articles making the case that Israel’s actions in Gaza are legal under international law. Perhaps they are legal, but are they justified?

A few weeks after the Hamas attack, Lucian K Truscott wrote an essay called “What is a War Crime?” Truscott went through a lengthy explanation to say that what Hamas did was a war crime, but that Israel’s response was within the international rules of war, even though thousands of civilians were being killed in the process. 

I commented that, “Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is either moral or ethical.” 

“But a line has to be drawn somewhere, don't you think?” Truscott replied directly to me.

I said, “There are no easy solutions and no clear lines. But there are always choices. Some choices result in innocent deaths, some choices spare those suffering people.”

Proportional response and the rules of war don’t tell us where to draw that line. Who decides what is proportional? When does a defensive military response cross the line of proportionality and become revenge? Or when does that response take on a broader goal beyond self-defense? Whose lives are expendable for the sake of security? 

Lost in all this legal debate are those who really pay the price for this war. It isn’t Hamas, or the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), or the American taxpayer funding the Israeli war machine who pay the consequences. The price for this war is being paid with the deaths of thousands — and the disrupted lives of millions — of innocents who didn’t start the violence, and who only want to live their lives in peace, just like you and me.

But do we think about Palestinians being like you and me, or do we consider them all terrorists by association? Do we really think every human life has equal worth? In war, do all civilian lives matter equally? How many civilian deaths are justified as the necessary cost of battle?

Half of the Gaza Strip’s population of 2.3 million is under 18 [Abdelkarim Hana/Al Jazeera]

In an interview with the Washington Post in early December, an IDF official explained how, in spite of the number of civilian casualties, they were complying with the law. He said that of the 15,000 people that had been killed, an estimated 5000 of those were Hamas militants. By that count, the cost was two civilians for every militant. 

“That proportion is more than acceptable compared to other armies facing similar challenges in urban battlefields,” the official said. “It’s not that we are okay with any loss of civilians. But in the end, we have no choice. We didn’t start this war.”

Ah, but there is a choice in how to respond. There is always a choice when it comes to violence.

As I was researching how to frame my thoughts on this, I found an article by Jessica Wolfendale of Case Western Reserve University that put into perspective what I have been trying to articulate. In her essay Why all civilian lives matter equally, according to a military ethicist, she provides a way to think about whether an action considers all civilian lives as equal. She used the November 15th Israeli attack on the Shifa hospital as an example. Israel justified the Shifa hospital attack as acceptable in spite of civilian losses because, they claimed, Hamas had a command center and weapons hidden under the hospital.

At the time of the attack, the hospital was low on supplies and was housing civilians seeking refuge along with patients, including premature babies. In asking whether the attack was proportionate to the military need, and whether civilian lives were being considered equally, Wolfendale phrased the question this way: “If Hamas was hiding a control base under an Israeli hospital and it was Israeli civilians at risk, would Israel think that attacking the hospital would be justified? If the answer is no, then the attack against Shifa hospital is also not justified.”

War is a choice. Violence is a choice. And if we truly value all human life, we will choose an alternative to violence rather than accept civilian casualties as just an unfortunate price to pay.

If those Palestinian civilians were your family, perhaps you wouldn’t be so willing to accept the cost.

Ted Miller grew up around the world but now lives in Richland with his wife. He’s a runner, actor, singer, nuclear engineer, and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Ted believes that if more people worked toward love and understanding instead of giving in to fear and divisiveness, the world would be a better place.