From its inception, Operation Protective Edge has raised a number of moral dilemmas for Israel’s leaders.
The theory of just war dictates that launching an extended military operation, in the air, on the land or by sea, must be a last resort.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu adhered to this principle when he demonstrated restraint in the days after Hamas terrorists kidnapped and murdered students Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah. Netanyahu did this despite heavy criticism from members of the security cabinet such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett.
If it had been possible for all citizens – not only those living in, say, the Tel Aviv area – to carry on a reasonable level of normalcy without the constant threat of mortar shells and rockets killing them, or if it were possible through more peaceful means to stop the Palestinian fire, the government would have had a moral obligation to exhaust these options before ordering a military operation.
Because Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist and has kept its vow to do everything in its power to destroy the Jewish state, direct negotiations with the terrorist movement was not an option. The government issued numerous warnings.
But Hamas, in control of the Gaza Strip, did nothing to stop Islamic Jihad and other Islamic terrorist organizations from firing hundreds of rockets and mortar shells at Israeli communities, and then joined in the fire, ostensibly as retaliation for Israel’s efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the murders of the three teenagers.
Eventually, Netanyahu had no choice but to take military action to defend Israel’s citizens from Hamas’s aggression.
Not only were the lives of millions of Israeli civilians in danger, Hamas – by declaring that all parts of the State of Israel were legitimate targets for its rockets – was, and continues to be, violating international law. Every time Hamas and other terrorist organizations indiscriminately fire a mortar shell or a rocket at civilians it is a war crime.
For Hamas, there are no moral dilemmas. The ends justify the means in the jihad against the Jewish state. Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas’s chief spokesman in the Strip, called on Gazans, in a televised statement, to serve as human shields to block IDF strikes against Hamas leaders and weapon caches. As a result, in cases where the army warned Gazans to evacuate a building before a planned air strike, civilians remained, climbing on the roof to increase their visibility.
The IDF called off several attacks to save the lives of Palestinian civilians acting as human shields. But Hamas’s despicable tactic, which further blurs the already unclear distinction between combatants and civilians in Gaza, raises questions. Obviously, Hamas’s cynical use of civilians as human shields cannot be allowed to prevent Israel from defending itself.
Is the IDF to refrain from issuing warnings? Are there targets that justify carrying out an attack with the knowledge that noncombatants will be killed as well? Can we refrain from carrying out such an attack if by doing so we endanger Israeli lives or significantly erode our deterrence? These are not easy questions and there are no easy answers to them. With Operation Protective Edge seemingly winding down, as Egyptian efforts to declare a ceasefire go into effect, we can delay facing some of these dilemmas.
But it is a matter of time before we face them again.
Nor are these dilemmas unique to combat in the Gaza Strip. House demolitions, targeted killings of terrorists, the construction of the West Bank security barrier and many other policies involve grappling with difficult moral questions.
Concepts such as “proportionality,” just war theory and rules of engagement are helpful only to a certain point.
Since the primary objective is to protect Israeli lives, our considerations should be the relative effectiveness of a given tactic or the deterrence it can create. Seasoned military leaders, combat officers and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) operatives know what works and what does not.
Ultimately, though, the fact that Israeli society is preoccupied with the ethical dilemmas it faces in fighting terrorism is proof of its moral integrity. The fact that Israel chose to resume its assault on Gaza on Tuesday afternoon following repeated Hamas violations of the Egyptian-declared cease-fire only underlines just how inescapable the ethical dilemmas of war are, no matter how much we desire peace.