Just War and the Gaza Strip

3 December 2023

Just War and the Gaza Strip

By Gwynne Dyer

“If you (Americans) were OK with us killing 5,000 children, you are OK with killing 10,000 children,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli diplomat who helped negotiate the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s. That’s what Israeli diplomats really think of US policy, he says.

This implies that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) both dismiss US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s strenuous warnings about the need to avoid high Palestinian casualties in the renewed bombing as just so much hot air.

Whether Blinken was bluffing or not, Israel’s civil and military leadership, desperate for a victory to compensate for their extreme negligence in letting the attacks of 7 October happen, will act as if no external forces can limit the violence of their response.

They are probably wrong in their contempt for the discomfort Americans and other foreigners feel about the Israeli response. International pressure to call a halt will mount, and it would be very surprising if the IDF is still pounding the Gaza Strip in January, as it allegedly intends.

The discomfort and the resultant pressure on Israel mostly come from a sense of moral outrage. It will increase as Israel’s massive response grows more distant in time from the horrors of 7 October, but it remains remarkably inarticulate. What we need here is a combination of ‘Just War’ theory and a little realism.

I’m not a believer, but the ‘Just War’ rules I’m referring to are Christian in origin, mainly because neither Judaism nor Islam has expended much effort in codifying rules that would apply equally regardless of the religion or nationality of the combatants. They therefore offer a kind of impartiality when applied to a conflict between Muslims and Jews.

The first serious attempt to define the difference between a just and an unjust war was made by Augustine of Hippo, a Christian bishop in late Roman times in what is now Algeria. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century Italian priest, elaborated them into the six criteria most people of any religion or none would acknowledge today.

Some rules are obvious: there must be a just cause (self-defence, for example), the war must be declared by a proper authority (usually a state), and so on. But the final two are highly relevant to the current situation in Gaza: the means used must be proportional to the end, and there must be a reasonable chance of success.

Proportionality is tricky. Is Israel approaching the limits of a legitimate proportional response when Israel has 1,400 dead, the great majority of them civilian, and 15,000 Palestinians have died? Up to a third of the Palestinian dead are Hamas fighters, but the civilian kill ratio is at least seven or eight-to-one in Israel’s favour.

But actuarial logic doesn’t work well in wars at the best of times, so on to the final criterion: does the current Israeli strategy offer ‘a reasonable chance of success’? Perhaps another five thousand Hamas fighters will die, and a few hundred more Israeli soldiers, but will the outcome justify the deaths of another ten thousand innocent civilians?

No. There is zero chance that another month of killing will achieve any of Israel’s announced war aims: “the return of all abductees, the elimination of Hamas, and the promise that Gaza will never be a threat to Israel again.” (Netanyahu, 2 December)

Hamas, Hezbollah and other Arab ‘terrorists’ belong to the broader category of ‘guerillas’, almost all of whom include terrorism in their tactics – and such groups are never eradicated by a one-month campaign, especially one waged mainly from the air.

Killing their commanders doesn’t work; what unites them is some sort of ideology, and the next rank of leaders just steps up and carries on. They scarcely have recognisable headquarters, and certainly not the James Bond-style underground lairs that the IDF seems to be seeking.

Occasionally, a long, patient, low-key military campaign plus lots of hearts-and-minds stuff can persuade a guerilla force to lay down its arms, but that option is clearly not available to Israel in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s battle plan cannot bring success, and it is therefore illegitimate because the lives are being wasted for nothing.

In the year 472 Augustine replied to the local Roman commander Boniface, who had asked him how to safeguard the region’s security: “There is no secure advice to give for purposes that are so insecure.” Three years later Augustine died when pagan Vandal invaders, originally from southern Poland, conquered his city.

A century later the Eastern Roman empire recaptured the area. Another 150 years and

the wheel turned again, bringing Arab conquerors bearing the new religion of Islam who subjugated and largely replaced the Berber-speaking population. There is no permanent security, Augustine believed, but at least one can try to minimise pointless killing.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“I’m not…Jews”; and “Killing…seeking”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.