On October 7th 2023, the state of Israel suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history, and the bloodiest day for Jews since the Holocaust. As a proportion of Israel’s population, civilian deaths on 10/7 surpassed those on 9/11. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of October 7th, while the nation was still counting its dead and grappling with the capture of hostages, condemnations of Israel and calls for Israeli restraint echoed throughout the international community. Even many Christian voices, from Pope Francis to a host of mainline Protestant churches, called for a cease-fire almost as soon as the war started. Hyperbolic accusations of genocide, and even justifications for Hamas terrorism, have become all-too-common across academia, while Israel’s supporters, both Jewish and Christian, have been equally vociferous in her defense.
Amidst this polarized public discourse, it can be tempting for observers to throw up their hands and engage in a kind of detached search for a middle ground. Yet, if we give in to this impulse, we fail to fulfill the duty of Christians to use the resources of our own tradition to search for moral clarity in the face of war and terrorism. Of all these resources, none are as robust and useful as the just war tradition.
This essay analyzes the conflict through the lens of the just war tradition. The first section addresses a fundamental, philosophical incongruity between the just war tradition and the anticolonial ideology that motivates Israel’s most extreme critics. Part two assesses Israel’s stated war aims: the jus ad bellum criteria. Part three looks at Israel’s military operations thus far in terms of proportionality and discrimination, and evaluates the call for a permanent ceasefire, against the just war tradition’s insistence on the necessity of military victory.
I: Ideological Anti-colonialism vs. Just War Prudence
Because most of the criticism of Israel since October 7th stems from ideological anti-colonialism, it is worth assessing whether this ideology, and the criticism that stems from it, is consistent with the just war tradition. Israel’s critics adapt a Marxist-influenced colonial paradigm of oppressor and oppressed to the world of international relations. This separates the world into colonizers—whom they associate with “whiteness”—and the oppressed colonized—whom they see as “black and brown.” Here we see the origin of the foundational charge on which anti-colonial criticism of Israel is based: “white settler colonialism.”
As at least some of Israel’s critics have made explicit, their Manichean division of the world into oppressed and oppressor shapes their views on ethical use of force. In brief, for Israel’s anti-colonial critics, any violence directed against perceived oppressors is justified, and any violence used by perceived oppressors is unethical. It is based on this understanding that so many of Israel’s critics have either downplayed, or outright justified, the terrorism of Hamas.
This anti-colonial view is extremely problematic from the perspective of the just war tradition for at least three reasons. First, the factual applicability of the anti-colonial framework to Israel is problematic. Drawing on the work of Franz Fanon, anti-colonialists treat the expulsion of the French from Algeria as their ideal case, in which white settler colonialists were expelled from an Arab-majority country.
Contrary to this understanding, Israelis are fundamentally different from French Algerians. There is no metropole to which those Israelis of European dissent can return, let alone the substantial portion of the Israeli population descended from the Jews expelled from countries across the Middle East. Indeed, even a cursory examination of Israel’s demographics, and the substantial presence of Middle Eastern and Ethiopian Jewish communities within Israel, demonstrates the country to be as much “black and brown” as it is “white”.
Further, Israelis understand themselves as the indigenous inhabitants of the land, based on shared ancestry and biblical history. The best that can be said is that Israel does not neatly fit into the white settler colonialist paradigm: at worst, it is a complete distortion of both Israeli perception and the facts on the ground.
The second and third problems pertain not to Israel’s specific circumstances, but to anti-colonial ideology itself. In the first place, anti-colonial ideology crudely breaks humanity down into “evil” oppressors and “good” victims. Such a simplistic understanding of humanity is inconsistent with the underlying anthropology of the just war tradition.
This is particularly true of the Augustinian just war tradition, dominant in much of the Christian West and foundational to all magisterial Protestant traditions, with its emphasis on the ineradicable effects of original sin on all human beings, regardless of social status. For Augustine, a poor man is not necessarily less vicious than a rich one, though he may have less scope for exercising his vice. A former Manichean himself, Augustine was well aware of the temptation to divide humanity into good and bad people, and rejected that belief in favor of the notion that all sinners are fallen and incapable of redemption apart from Christ.
It is Augustine’s deep understanding of the effect of the Fall which leads him to call just war a lesser good, since the restraint of wickedness is the only good of which the earthly city is capable. Modern just war theorists have sometimes argued, implicitly or explicitly, that states can pursue somewhat nobler ends than the mere restraint of wickedness envisioned by Augustine, but only somewhat. If Augustinian pessimism is at the root of the just war tradition, then it stands in stark contrast to the utopianism of Israel’s critics.
Finally, anti-colonial ideology is incompatible with the just war tradition because of the blanket permission it extends to the violence of the oppressed. Anti-colonialists tend to celebrate, for example, mass-killings of civilians by FMLN terrorists in Algeria, despite the fact that the killing of civilians was a deliberate strategy, not an accident in the pursuit of military targets.
The just war tradition rejects the deliberate targeting of civilians as a strategy of war. Indeed, virtually all the jus in bello criteria traditionally accepted by just warriors are designed precisely to mitigate civilian casualties to the greatest extent possible. This ought to lead those operating from a just war framework to view extreme criticisms of Israel not only with a grain of salt, but with a hermeneutic of suspicion. A factually inaccurate, utopian ideology that justifies the deliberate targeting of civilians so long as those civilians are of a certain ethnic or national origin stands utterly against the ethical principles on which the just war tradition is established. Rather, the just war tradition demands that both sides—Israel and Hamas in this case—be held accountable for any unjustified civilian casualties, using criteria discussed below. Such analysis shows that, as is often the case in war, Israel’s conduct has been imperfect, with some actions and comments by Israeli officials deserving censure. Yet, on the whole, Israel has tried to minimize civilian casualties, while Hamas has deliberately maximized them as part of its military strategy. Notwithstanding the post-colonial categorization of Hamas as “oppressed”, the just war tradition has harsh things to say toward any attempt to maximize civilian deaths.
II. Evaluating Israel’s War Aims
In one sense, the jus ad bellum analysis of Israel’s war in Gaza is straightforward: Israel suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history and is responding militarily to prevent future attacks. While this certainly justifies some sort of military response, it is worth examining Israel’s specific war aims to determine the extent to which they are justifiable.
The Israeli government has set out two aims for their war in Gaza: to return the hostages abducted on October 7th and to remove Hamas from Gaza as an effective military and political force. The restoration of hostages has deep precedents in Jewish thought and law and is a worthy goal in statecraft. Israel has sought to free the hostages through the use of military action, which may be controversial for some. That said, it is undeniable that Israel has seen more hostages released, at a lower cost in terms of Palestinian security prisoners released, than in any previous hostage deal. The most famous deal, in which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was freed in exchange for the release of 1,100 prisoners, directly led to the freeing of one of the masterminds of October 7th.
Israel’s second war aim, the destruction of Hamas’ military and political capacity in Gaza, is equally justifiable from a jus ad bellum perspective. Hamas has made it clear by its conduct and rhetoric that it has no intention of living in peace with its neighbors, and favors the religiously-motivated cleansing of Jews, Christians and Muslims who do not support its vision for an Islamist caliphate. In recent years, Israel has operated as though a de facto peace with Hamas was possible; October 7th decisively shattered that understanding.
The question, then, is whether Israel has a reasonable chance of success in achieving this goal. However, reasonable chance of success can best be assessed in terms of jus in bello, with a particular focus on the importance of victory, and so will be discussed below.
III. Jus in Bello Considerations of Israel at War
Finally, it is necessary to assess Israel’s actual conduct of military operations in terms of three traditional just war criteria: proportionality, discrimination, and reasonable chance of success. Proportionality is perhaps one of the most commonly misunderstood just war criteria, as it is often associated with a kind of tit-for-tat exchange of civilian deaths. Proportionality, however, evaluates civilian casualties through the lens of military necessity. Since civilian death, in and of itself, is not a legitimate war aim, attacking civilians simply for the purpose of attacking civilians is disproportionate, even if only a handful of civilians are killed. When militarily significant targets are attacked, civilian deaths, while regrettable, may or may not be disproportionate, depending on the importance of the military target.
Here, it is also critically important to highlight what international law says about legal responsibility for civilian deaths in a war zone. Per Geneva Convention 4, articles 28 and 29, if a military force deliberately co-locates military targets with civilians or civilian infrastructure, they are guilty of a war crime, and the attacking force is not. Since Hamas has deliberately built its entire military infrastructure to be co-located with hospitals, schools, and civilian homes, Hamas is morally and legally responsible for civilian deaths that occur while Israel is attacking legitimate military targets.
To say that Israel’s targeting of military facilities co-located with civilians is proportional does not necessarily demonstrate that Israel has been discriminating. Discrimination involves making all reasonable efforts to actually minimize civilian deaths. Two standards have been proposed for discrimination. Traditional just war thinkers, as Keith Pavlischek argues, have relied on a “double intent” framework. That is, combatants must not only not intend to kill civilians, but must actively intend not to kill civilians, and take steps to realize that intent. Secular just war theorist Michael Waltzer argues for a more stringent “double effect” principle, in which combatants must take all steps, up to and including putting their soldiers at potentially greater harm, to avoid civilian casualties. Pavlischek is on solid ground when he rejects Waltzer’s principle, since strict application of the “double effect” principle could prevent ultimate success, and since governments have a paramount responsibility to protect their own soldiers and civilians.
That said, Israel’s Gaza war may meet even some interpretations of “double effect.” Israel has not only issued warnings, but given civilians specific and detailed information about when and where it will conduct operations in civilian-heavy areas, while also providing information about safe evacuation routes. It is certainly possible that this has made its own military operations less effective than they might have been, which seems to meet Waltzer’s standard. Regardless, the Waltzer standard is problematic, and Israel’s operations clearly measure up to the “double intent” standard. In brief: Israel seeks to minimize casualties among Palestinian civilians, while Hamas seeks to provoke mass casualties among those same Palestinians for whom they claim to fight.
The final criteria to be assessed is reasonable hope of success, or in this case, the need for military victory. In Just American Wars, Eric Patterson identifies victory as an important precondition for a just peace, since establishment of a secure order is necessary for any long-term reconciliation. This argument is supported with significant historical examples, from the American Civil War to World War II. For a just and lasting peace, clear military victory will ideally be followed by generous terms to the vanquished population—but that population must recognize that this generosity comes from a place of strength. Israel, in other words, must win, and win decisively. The Israeli population must perceive a clear, unequivocal victory, so that it will be incentivized to offer conciliatory terms to the population of Gaza.
The population of Gaza, by contrast, must perceive a clear, unequivocal, and irrevocable defeat for Hamas, so that they will be inclined to accept those terms and eschew violence. Any proposal to end the conflict short of Israeli victory, no matter how well-intentioned, will ultimately have disastrous consequences, sowing the seeds for future conflict.
History indicates that sufficient military defeats can lead Israel’s enemies to embrace peace. It was after the decisive Egyptian defeat in 1973, after all, that the Camp David Accords were signed. Hamas, and its sympathizers, operate under the assumption that sufficiently terrorizing Israel’s population will lead to a mass exodus of Jews from the Holy Land. Like its defenders in the West, Hamas is drunk on the myth of Algeria. It is only when this myth about Israel dies that any lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians will become possible. Yet, against this back-drop, naive calls for “ceasefire now”, no matter how well-intentioned, can only lead to more suffering, death, and a perpetuation of the cycle of violence.
A.J. Nolte is Associate Professor of Government at Regent University’s Robertson School of Government. His research interests include religion and politics, with a particular focus on the Abrahamic faiths. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and a member of the Virginia Israel Advisory Board.
*Image Credit: “War”, Marc Chagall