Sometimes you must state the obvious, particularly when the obvious must serve as a moral compass. So here is the obvious: Most of the people who live in the Gaza Strip are civilians. Civilians who are not involved in hostilities directed at Israel, otherwise referred to as “innocent civilians.”
Duh, you might say. Is that even debatable? Well, it is being debated, and not only by social media keyboard warriors but by elected officials on Capitol Hill. Even by Israel’s president Yitzhak Herzog, an otherwise moderate dove.
It’s important to state this obvious fact because the absurd contention that there are no innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip is being used to justify the large number of civilian deaths in Gaza. Whether the civilian deaths in Gaza are justified or not, the assertion that killing civilians is justifiable because they are collectively guilty for the monstrous terror attack of October 7th is absurd. It’s not just factually absurd, it is also immoral and indecent and is a violation of international law.
Let’s first address the veracity of this assertion. The population of the Gaza Strip numbers slightly more than 2 million people. Half are women. Forty percent are children under the age of 14. The number of Gazans who crossed the border into Israel on October 7th is estimated at 3,000. Many were terrorists belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Many others were civilians who took advantage of the breached fence and joined the killing and the looting. Upon their return to Gaza with hostages and stolen goods, some people on the street cheered. It is believed that around 30,000 Gazans are militarily affiliated with Hamas. Others may be politically affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Clearly, most Gazans are not terrorists, even if some participated in the October 7th attack or aided and abetted it.
But Gazans support Hamas ideologically, the argument goes. Well, not quite. A recent poll, concluded on October 6th, a day before Hamas’ attack on southern Israel, shows that this is not the case. Okay, the argument goes, if Gazans resent Hamas, why don’t they overthrow it? Well, Gazans don’t overthrow Hamas because this organization rules the Strip with an iron fist. Gazans who dared publicly criticize it were ruthlessly punished.
Few Israelis know Gazans as well as Yohanan Tzoref. For seven years, he served as the Arab affairs adviser to the Civil Administration in the Gaza Strip. Today, he is a senior researcher with Israel’s leading think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies. “The infrastructure of yearning for peace or wishing to live in peace is very dominant in the Gaza Strip,” he said this week.
But even if all this is false and all Gazan civilians do hold extremist views that reflect Hamas’ ideology, intentionally harming civilians is illegal. “Even if they were sympathetic to Hamas, even if the mother of a Hamas fighter knew that he was a Hamas fighter, you still cannot go after the mother. They are all civilians. They are not combatants. And in war, there is a pretty sharp distinction between the two,” said the Council on Foreign Relations’ David J. Scheffer, one of America’s leading experts on international law and former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues.
Stating these obvious facts is important not only because the truth matters and so does morality, but also for practical reasons. If Israeli leaders continue to intentionally blur the distinction between combatants – Palestinian militant terrorists – and civilians, they enhance Israel’s post-war challenges. One is the challenge of running daily life in Gaza. Having militarily reoccupied most of the Gaza Strip, Israel will, at least in the short run, have to work together with Gazan technocrats and other community leaders to run it. How could Israeli military and civil administration officials work with representatives of a population that is collectively believed to be terroristic?
Another “day after” reason for safeguarding the distinction between combatants and civilians is international accountability and culpability. When facing international tribunals in the future – not an impossible scenario – evidence that such a distinction was not respected, either in intent or in practice, would severely complicate Israel’s case.
Over the years, as a reporter and later as an activist, I asked numerous Palestinians how they could justify the killing of civilians – Children, women, noncombatants. Often, the response was that there’s no such thing as Israeli civilians. They either served in the military, are reserve soldiers, or will be drafted in the future. Another justification was that Israelis vote for governments that practice occupation policies. I always resented these arguments as disingenuous and dehumanizing.
The resentment goes both ways.