Disproportionate and Intended Harm to Innocents in Israel’s War in Gaza (guest post)


“Experts on just war disagree on what precisely counts as permissible proportion. But clearly this is grossly disproportionate.”

In the following guest post, Nir Eyal (Rutgers University), argues that Israel’s military actions are clearly immoral, explaining that they involve severely disproportionate harm to Gaza’s innocent civilians and that there is reason to believe much of that harm was not merely foreseen, but intended.

It is part of the ongoing series, “Philosophers On the Israel-Hamas Conflict“.


Disproportionate and Intended Harm
to Innocents in Israel’s War in Gaza
by Nir Eyal

As I write on December 13, 2023, widespread and comparably indiscriminate Israeli bombing in Gaza’s dense northern residential areas is reported to have killed women and children at a faster pace than any military campaign since the Rwanda genocide. But this war is far from ending. In many armed conflicts, disease kills more people than direct fighting does, especially the very young and very old. Unfortunately, extreme numbers of deaths due to disease may well occur, as two million Gazans are cramped into a small area in the south where clean water, food, electricity, gas, means of communication, and medical supplies and services are scarce or nonexistent. With members of Israel’s ruling coalition and some opposition members suggesting truly extreme measures, the number of noncombatant victims may become catastrophic.

Following Hamas’s unspeakable crimes on October 7, several Israeli philosophers wrote, “80 years after the Holocaust, the threats facing Jews are again truly and plainly existential.” Another philosopher described Hamas as an “existential threat to the State of Israel.” Crucially, however, as soon as Israeli soldiers and tanks were in heavy presence near Israel’s border with Gaza, the short-term risk of anything like a recurrence of the October 7 events was eliminated. Hamas had entered Israel on foot, in cars, and on bulldozers. Such forces cannot defeat a significant Israeli army presence. Setting aside the question of whether the border should have been guarded more heavily in advance and who is responsible for this failure, once an army on high alert was present, infiltrations and attempted entries were quickly quashed.

Hamas missile attacks kill only a few Israelis per year, and Israel’s air defense against missile attacks does not require war. In short, Hamas may wish to pose an existential or formidable threat to Israel and Israelis, and many Israelis feel themselves to be under acute immediate threat that requires a war. Objectively, however, with the border well-staffed, Hamas cannot kill a great number of Israelis or replace the government in Jerusalem, even absent a war. Hamas has proven itself both ruthless and creative, but there are caps on the military equipment it may develop or import and those will remain in the foreseeable future and protect Israel from far worse attacks. That means that, once Israel’s border was staffed, failing to launch a full-scale would in the short run cost Israel only a few lives. Hamas would occasionally kill a few soldiers before an attempted incursion would be thwarted, or a few extra civilians from potentially worse missile attacks. Avoiding a war would have allowed Israel to recover its Gazan hostages through the prisoner exchanges to which it is now resorting with no risk of bombing those hostages. Israel could then fight Hamas financially and demand Qatar’s, Turkey’s, or neighboring Egypt’s assistance in clamping down on the import of weapons into Gaza, weakening Hamas. It could use its moral high ground to request the prosecution of Hamas leaders by international courts or, failing that, authorize Mossad to capture leaders for fair trials in Israel, or, failing that, attack their properties and person in highly targeted ways.

Proportionality in defense, unlike proportionality in punishment, weighs harms inflicted against harms to be prevented, not against harms already suffered. The staggering disproportion between the massive numbers of innocent Gazans currently expected to be killed and the relatively few Israelis who would have been killed had Israel not gone to war but held Hamas leaders accountable in one of those targeted ways is staggering. I would not be surprised if the ratio is 10,000 to 1. Experts on just war disagree on what precisely counts as permissible proportion. But clearly this is grossly disproportionate.

Israel’s philosophical apologists offer (or may want to offer) four responses. First, the war is essential to preventing even worse events from occurring in Gaza, the West Bank, inside Israel, in Lebanon, or within global geopolitics. For example, the war, though it involves collaterally killing many Gazan civilians, may be thought unavoidable to teach Lebanon’s stronger Hezbollah that it cannot escape Israel’s ire by hiding amongst Lebanese noncombatants (and Hezbollah cares about its neighbors more than Hamas cares about its neighbors).

These philosophical responses are often over-pessimistic about the highly indirect worse scenarios they envisage absent war, and overoptimistic that war would generate longterm benefits which rely on intricate causal pathways and will not descend into regional military escalation and instability, boost the extreme right in Israel and Hamas in the West Bank, and result in other, particularly unwelcome, outcomes. They also ignore more promising responses to the worse scenarios envisaged, e.g. assertive direct signals to Hezbollah that its greater military power (which exceeds Hamas’s) will not spare it Israel’s ire. Ethically, killing Gazan civilians simply to retaliate against a third party like Hezbollah, for whom civilian deaths matter, instrumentalizes these civilian casualties. Far from defending Israel, such reasoning exposes a non-obvious way in which this war may involve terror bombing.

Second, Israeli apologists assert that any disproportion is purely Hamas’s fault, owing to its embedding soldiers among dense populations of civilians. Had Hamas instead camped in Gaza’s agricultural lands, away from crowded residential areas, Israel could achieve its objectives while sparing noncombatants, but Hamas’s strategy forces Israel to use tactics that threaten large numbers of Gazan civilians. Yet, whether Hamas’s culpability would leave Israel fully blameworthy or only substantial blameworthy for Israel’s killings of noncombatants, surely some substantial blame remains on Israel. By analogy, consider a police officer chasing an armed suspect who runs into a thick crowd for cover; we’d think the officer would be acting wrongly were they to start shooting into the crowd, and would be at least substantially blameworthy for any injuries or death they cause to bystanders, even though it was the suspect who chose to hide in the crowd. Or consider that if Israel took military actions against Hamas fighters fully expecting to kill scores of Israeli hostages who, it knew, were locked in with them, instead of choosing an alternative action that, while being equally effective against Hamas, would spare the hostages’ lives, the Israeli military would bear substantial responsibility for the hostages’ deaths. The underlying morality of such cases does not change when we replace “a crowd” or “Israeli hostages” with “innocent Gazans”. Hamas’s hand in the tragedy does not eliminate Israel’s responsibility for its own lethal choices.

A third response by Israel’s apologists is to emphasize the difference between Hamas’s intentional (and taboo-trampling) violence against noncombatants and Israel’s merely foreseeable (and conventional) violence against noncombatants. But the principle of proportionality assesses an act of war that does not target noncombatants only by comparing its likely harm to noncombatants with the harm to noncombatants that it is likely to prevent. Whether the harm to noncombatants that it would prevent would be inflicted on them intentionally is irrelevant to the proportionality of the defensive act. Certainly the intentions behind and cruelty of past acts that sparked the war are not directly relevant. A’s especially evil motives and actions in attacking B hardly increase the collateral damage that B may inflict on A’s innocent neighbor C.

There is also a further non-obvious way in which Israel’s harm to noncombatants may be intended. Even when an action is not immediately driven by an intention to kill noncombatants, such a drive may ultimately lie behind that action. This can be the case when an agent had earlier intentionally forced a consequent situation in which even if she intends to minimize innocent killing, the deaths of many would result from her legitimate self-defense at the time.

In the early days of the war, Israel’s leaders still openly defined their aims in terms that might dissuade international observers, such as to turn Gaza City “into rubble” and to “roll out the Gaza Nakba.” Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israelis are fighting “Amalek” (here is what that means) and his Minister of Defense said that Israel is shutting Gaza’s electricity, food and fuel because this is how you fight “human beasts”. Israeli leaders and media personalities have regularly used genocidal language. Israel’s President explained that there is no room for separating Gazan civilians from Hamas fighters. A ubiquitous TV presence concluded that a great many of these civilians should be intentionally killed. It was then that the Israeli Defence Forces clarified that in Israel’s plans for bombing in dense residential areas, “the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.”

Later, while using those bombs, Israel took measures to minimize noncombatant deaths. Perhaps its operations lacked the simultaneous intent to kill civilians. But highly destructive 150-, 1,000-, and even 2,000-pound bombs in Gaza’s densely-populated north ensured unprecedented collateral death and destruction. Recall the earlier rhetoric seeking harm to all Gazans, and the desire to mobilize a large collateral toll for the purposes of retaliation. That early cap set by Israel on the success of its later attempts to minimize civilian harm, namely, that these attempts would have to “target” Hamas fighters with inaccurate bombs, may well have been intended. If that is so, Israel can be judged as one would judge intentional killers.

A fourth response by Israel’s apologists may be that legitimate partiality permits Israel to prioritize its own soldiers’ and civilians’ lives overwhelmingly above Gazan civilians’. But prioritizing Israelis by a factor of 10,000 is egregious. Mossad should not (and would not) blow up a Gazan Club Med with 9,000 English tourists if someone planning to kill one Israeli hid there.

Besides, not all severe harms that Israel visits on Gazan civilians have any tendency to save Israelis from severe harm. When Israel goaded noncombatants in Gaza’s north to move to the south while it handled the combatants in the north, minimizing civilian suffering and risk within the constraints of their evacuation would have cost Israel money and the restraint of machismo pride, but not necessarily Israeli lives. Yet Israel did not commit to permitting these civilians to return to the north later. It did not apologize in advance for the inevitable burden and risk. It did not give them time to complete their affairs, fill medical prescriptions, or obtain cash. Safety, basic medical care, and aid en route to the south were not offered. Instead, Israel continues to obstruct aid to these starving civilians in more ways than one. That systematic failure to minimize civilian suffering and risk can be understood as a violation of the necessity requirement of just war theory. It can also be understood as intentional harm to civilians, say, for revenge, dominion, collective punishment, or third-party deterrence, or to turn Gazan civilians either against Hamas or to international destinations. I am not sure which understanding is more damning.


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Deli Dan
Deli Dan
5 months ago

This is a great post and exactly right. I wonder if we’ll hear from the philosophers who criticized the call for a cease fire

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Deli Dan
5 months ago

Thank you! Nir

Alec Walen
Alec Walen
5 months ago

I really like this post Nir! You didn’t mention my earlier post which argued that psychic harm could count as well as lives. But let me say here: that’s fine. My argument said that Israel could appeal to the psychic harm of its population only if it took the psychic harm to Palestinians (Gazans in particular) seriously. It’s pretty clear that it has not and will not. So my argument was at best an academic exercise. Your argument is well-grounded in the facts on the ground (and in the air). I commend you for it. And meanwhile, what a tragedy this scene is, for all sides… for the Gazans whose lives are lost or destroyed, and for the Israelis who are turning their country into a pariah state and whose future as a decent democracy is being buried.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Alec Walen
5 months ago

Thanks a lot, Alec, also for our exchange before we both published our pieces.

This war and the particular form it takes are causing tremendous amounts of innocent psychic harm to individuals and societies.

Platypus
5 months ago

Thank you for this, Nir. Powerfully argued and morally urgent.

Someday, I expect most of the world will look back on Israel’s invasion as an unmitigated tragedy — a dark cloud with a dark lining. Not unlike the Bush Doctrine.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Platypus
5 months ago

Agree that in some variants the case for Israel’s war in Gaza recalls GWB’s disastrous “preemptive war” doctrine, only even more dubious: more like, “Sadaam lacks WMD. Just in case one day he develops some, let me kill many Iraqis now, lots of civilians included, because that would preempt Sadaam’s ever developing WMD.”

Adil Haque
Adil Haque
5 months ago

Excellent post, Nir. Thanks very much for writing it.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Adil Haque
5 months ago

Thank you, Adil. Great to have colleagues like yourself!

Nir

Your colleague
Your colleague
5 months ago

I applaud your mental strength to argue with these people. They don’t want to see it. Thousands and thousands of civilians and children dead, gone forever, whole families wiped out, and all their attention is on the insensitive language of a few college kids in the US.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Your colleague
5 months ago

No need to paint all apologists for Israel’s Gaza war with a single brush. But certainly some of them wrongfully attempt to suppress opinions on US (and Israeli) campuses.

Kapto
Reply to  Your colleague
5 months ago

Talk of “these people” — some unified tribe that is, to a man, oversensitive to academic criticism of Israel and under-sensitive to the horrifying deaths of Gaza civilians — is odious and ridiculous. Your response, Nir, like your post, is exactly appropriate.

Matthew Noah Smith
Matthew Noah Smith
5 months ago

This is well done. Thank you for writing it and for posting it.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Matthew Noah Smith
5 months ago

Thank you, Matthew!

JDRox
JDRox
5 months ago

Nice post. I would have liked to hear a little more about why the first response isn’t compelling though: by my lights that’s the most plausible one. Are you basically suggesting in reply that Israel could have just told Hezbollah that that there would be dire consequences if they attack Israel, even if there aren’t dire consequences for Hamas? That doesn’t seem super plausible to me. But maybe I’m misunderstanding your reply.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  JDRox
5 months ago

Certainly telling Hezbollah as much would not be enough to deter it. The US moved warships and aircrafts to the area, probably to retaliate against Hezbollah. Israel’s own responses to Hezbollah’s provocations also create relevant deterrence. A nonviolent way to increase deterrence is to show Hezbollah eg that its leaders’ locations are known. See 1 Samuel 24 for another nonviolent way to show an enemy that you could have destroyed them.

I also gave epistemic and ethical reasons not to kill many as colateral in Gaza on the thought that that would achieve desired outcomes in Lebanon.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Nir Eyal
5 months ago

I agree that there are other forms of deterrence, but the worry is that “letting Hamas get away with it” is a very strong form of whatever the opposite of deterrence is. As to Samuel, radical non-violence is a beautiful ideal, but it seems supererogatory from a secular perspective. And in this case its practical effectiveness seems questionable, although I guess we disagree on that vaguely empirical matter. Just to be clear, I’m not defending the claim that it’s permissible to target civilians in Gaza as a form of deterrence, just the claim that deterrence plausibly justifies a devastating military response that will foreseeably but unintentionally result in high civilian casualties given Hamas’s tactics.

Jordan Bridges
Jordan Bridges
Reply to  JDRox
5 months ago

Given Hamas’ tactics, or given Israel’s decision to “shoot into the crowd”? Come on now, there’s no way a minimum of 20,000 civilians is anywhere near what would be permissible…

Your colleague who dare not speak his name
Your colleague who dare not speak his name
5 months ago

In the cacophony of IDF house-philosophers, yours is a sole voice of reason and decency. Well done. If it weren’t for the outright McCarthyism, many of us would have joined you.

Nir Eyal

Dear colleague who dare not speak his name, I know others in your position in Israel, not only in our field but in multiple academic departments and various walks of life. Who knows if I would write this if I still lived there.

E d
E d
5 months ago

No responses from the Davids?

Kaila Draper
5 months ago

I think this is really excellent work. And there is no doubt in my mind that your conclusion is true: Israel’s war effort is horribly disproportionate. But in supporting that conclusion, you fail to address what are perhaps the two strongest (least weak) arguments to the contrary. One of these is the argument that most of the civilians/noncombatants being killed are morally liable to defense in virtue of their support of Hamas. (There are various versions of this argument depending on how “support” is defined.) As you know, if the issue is the ethics of war as opposed to the laws of war, proportionality limitations are generally thought to apply only (or at least mostly) to those who are innocent bystanders in the sense of not being morally liable to defense. The second argument you neglect is the argument that proportionality demands are weaker in the case of shields, especially voluntary shields, but also involuntary shields. The “problem of innocent shields” is not reducible to the question you do address: how to distribute culpability when a defender foreseeably kills an innocent shield. It’s a tricky problem, I think, but it is very relevant to the war in Gaza.

Your colleague who dare not speak his name
Your colleague who dare not speak his name
Reply to  Kaila Draper
5 months ago

How do you make the first argument without it applying also to all those who voted Netanyahu? What does “support” mean anyway in this context?
Also have a look at the poll published just days before October 7th where it was found that Hamas gets less than third of support in Gaza.
Your second argument, about shields, treat the-most-crowded-place-in-the-world Gaza as if it was Wyoming.. Where exactly do you want these human “shields” to go to?

Kaila Draper

I’m not making either argument. As I indicated, I think they are both doomed to fail, but I think they are at least better than the arguments the author does address. And I think addressing them is important because the “apologists” can otherwise dismiss the author’s argument as a straw man.

One version of the first argument appeals to political support and, of course, that sort of argument could also be used to argue for the liability of many Israeli civilians as well. I think that argument fails for a variety of reasons, one of which you mention and oddly tell me to “take a look at”. I suggest you look at the literature on the potential liability of noncombatants in war for more discussion of the kinds of support that might generate liability.

Your response to the second argument is odd because you ask me “where exactly do you want these human shields to go?” as if I were advancing the argument. As you suggest, Gazans cannot be classified as voluntary shields if it is impossible for them to avoid being in harms way.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Kaila Draper
5 months ago

Thanks, Kaila!

On your first point, I like the answer by the philosopher who will not speak his name.

On the second, I have a hunch but am not sure I get it—you may want to elaborate.

Thanks again

N

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Nir Eyal
5 months ago

My impression is that the first sort of argument is the one that Israel’s apologists rely on the most. My worry is that your argument is apt to be dismissed as a straw man if you don’t carefully tear it to pieces (which I am confident that you can do). Citing one poll in Gaza may fall a little short of doing that, however.

Sorry to have been so vague about the second argument. There are multiple possible versions of the argument here. I will just mention one, which is the view that it is so important to discourage aggressors from using innocents as shields that we should remove their incentive for doing so by rejecting the immunity of innocent shields. I don’t buy that sort of rule-utilitarian reasoning, but it is out there.

Michael Kates
Michael Kates
Reply to  Kaila Draper
5 months ago

How about the fact that roughly 50% of the population in Gaza is under the age of 18? That surely undermines the argument based on “support” (in addition to what was already said above).

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Michael Kates
5 months ago

Not really. It depend on the demographics of who has been killed. 17-year-olds can be liable to defense.

Michael Kates
Michael Kates
Reply to  Kaila Draper
5 months ago

It’s mysterious to me how one could hold 17-year-olds morally liable to defensive attack due to their “support” for Hamas (whatever that’s supposed to mean in this context), given that they are typically not held morally (or legally) responsible for a broad range of much less serious things.

Jordan Bridges
Jordan Bridges
Reply to  Kaila Draper
5 months ago

Ya I think this would fall under the category of morally suspect academic exercise in the midst of genocide…

Last edited 5 months ago by Jordan Bridges
Deli Dan
Deli Dan
Reply to  Michael Kates
5 months ago

exactly. and I believe that 50% of the Gaza population wasn’t even alive when Hamas was elected.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Kaila Draper
5 months ago

Kalia,

I think Michael’s (below) is a further excellent response to your FIRST challenge.

On your SECOND challenge, a couple points. First, as Seth Lazar writes on this argument in his Stanford Encyclopedia entry “War”, “this changes the act from one that foreseeably kills civilians as an unavoidable side-effect of countering the military threat to one that kills those civilians as a means to deter future abuses. This instrumentalizes them in a way that makes harming them still harder to justify.” Second, Israeli claims to be driven by this calculation would have been more credible if it applied this reasoning to Israeli hostages in Hamas hands as well, making only very little effort to spare their lives, and not only to Gazan civlians.

Nir

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Nir Eyal
5 months ago

On the second challenge, your second point seems right. The first is mistaken. As I have argued elsewhere, instrumental murder is not harder to justify than foreseen non-instrumental harm.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Kaila Draper
5 months ago

Sorry, that was too dogmatic. The issue is controversial, of course.

Kaila Draper
5 months ago

Ugh. No more discussion from me. It is painfully obvious that Israel’s actions in Gaza add up to despicably horrific mass murder. I don’t want to distract from that point. Nir ably supports the conclusion that Israel’s war effort is grossly disproportionate.

Roxana Banu
Roxana Banu
5 months ago

After more than two months of watching this horror unfold and in which those of us who signed the Oxford open letter were vilified in at least 4 hostile responses and in private correspondence, I am beyond grateful that someone who cannot be as easily labelled “antisemitic” had the courage to bring all these arguments to light. Thank you so very much for writing this, Nir!
I really hope this will help dismantle deep-seated myths about the justice of this war and its compliance with international law. 

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Roxana Banu
5 months ago

(-:

Thank you, Roxana, for your caring contribution to a debate about a country that is not yours pummeling an area that is not yours either. If only there were many more people like you in the world.

Nir

Roxana Banu
Roxana Banu
Reply to  Nir Eyal
5 months ago

Thank you, Nir! That is very kind. That’s what I would say about you and I know this couldn’t have been easy to write. As for my position, yes, my country is not at war on either side. However, my country of birth (Romania) and my country of domicile (the UK) abstained at the vote for the latest UN resolution calling for a ceasefire. A shame on both! Especially (but not only) because this war depends on international support, we all have a duty to speak up against international law violations and huge complicity in them.

Josh Sheptow
Josh Sheptow
5 months ago

Prof. Eyal argues that Israel’s war against Hamas is causing civilian casualties that are disproportionate to its aim; namely, the destruction of Hamas as a military force. For (among other things), he argues that there are ways to neutralize the threat from Hamas without physically destroying it, and which would therefore entail far fewer, if any, civilian casualties. On this latter point, I respectfully disagree.

First, Prof. Eyal argues that the IDF can assemble a defensive line on the border, and that this would prevent another attack on the scale of Oct. 7th. (“Objectively, however, with the border well-staffed, Hamas cannot kill a great number of Israelis…”). 

But preventing another Oct. 7th does not mean ensuring that the attackers are eventually subdued. It means preventing them from reaching Israeli towns in the first place. And that means, in effect, sealing off the entire Gaza border area, above and below ground, indefinitely.  I’m just not as convinced as Prof. Eyal that this is practical. What if thousands of Hamas attackers rushed out of tunnels throughout the border area all at once – in the dead of night, with no notice, because they mustered underground? Alternatively, what if they tunneled beneath the IDF’s defensive line, came up miles into Israeli territory, and spread out from there? Now, are these specific scenarios realistic? I don’t know – I’m not a military expert.  But post-Oct. 7th, as long as Hamas is intact militarily, I don’t think we can reasonably rule out another mass terrorist rampage, whatever the certainty that the IDF will eventually subdue it.   

Next, Prof. Eyal argues that Israel’s Mossad and Shin Bet could assassinate Hamas’s leaders. 

I agree that Israel should do this. But I am not convinced that it’s as achievable as Prof. Eyal suggests. Notably, one of the two leaders of Hamas in Gaza, Mohammed Deif, has reportedly survived seven Israeli assassination attempts. And Hamas’s leaders will rarely poke their heads above ground once Israel begins to target them. Moreover, even if Israel does manage to assassinate several of Hamas’s leaders, surely there are seconds and thirds in command ready to step in. Thus, I don’t think that a targeted killing policy, which leaves Hamas’s vast infrastructure in place, will neutralize it militarily.

*    *     *

In short, whatever one’s views about the war on Hamas – about its prospects of success, and its proportionality even if successful – I believe the risks that Hamas poses to Israel are far greater, and far more difficult to address, than Prof. Eyal suggests.  

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Josh Sheptow
5 months ago

Interesting points, Josh. Both are primarily predictive, and neither of us is an expert at this, so both the following and yours should be taken with a grain of salt. That said:

I presume that if Hamas could have dug tunnels under fully-staffed Israeli lines without worrying that e.g. the noise from underground would alert the Israelis above, it would have done that already. And even many Hamas foot soldiers springing on Israelis from inside would have been quickly defeated if large numbers of soldiers and armored vehicles were in the area, ready to respond. The many Israeli casualties on October 7 reflect in part how incredibly slow the Israeli leadership was to respond, and how far away troops were.

I agree that targeted assassinations (suggested only as a last resort) would not dismantle Hamas. As you point out, any killed leaders would be replaced by others. But they would hold current Hamas leaders accountable (as I wrote), deter SOME others at Hamas, Hezbollah, and other organizations, and create delay. Delay would give Israel time for multiple activities ranging from the financial warfare I mentioned (see http://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/16/world/europe/israel-hamas-money-finance-turkey-intelligence-attacks.html) through legal measures to enlisting the help of other key countries (as mentioned). It may even open future options that now seem impossible, such as accepting future offers of a long-term, e.g. 70-year, ceasefire (“Hudna”), offers by Hamas that Israel has repeatedly rejected in the past.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Nir Eyal
5 months ago

I know of a 10-year truce offered in 2008 in exchange for withdrawal to the 1967 borders. That doesn’t seem like a very serious offer.* Was there another one that isn’t popping up when I search?

*I’m tempted by the thought that Israel should have taken it, unserious though it was. But that would have been extremely generous: I don’t think Israel is liable to significant criticism for not taking it, partly because the unseriousness of the offer suggests that Hamas wasn’t really serious.

Last edited 5 months ago by JDRox
Nir Eyal
Reply to  JDRox
5 months ago

Yes, there were multiple attempts, over many years. Israel certainly rejected them (in 2004 it actually assassinated its proposers), though that’s no proof of their un-seriousness.

But my point is not at all that Israel is somehow liable for its civilian killings and torture because it rejected these initiatives. For the record: israel is not. Nor does my point depend on the viability of a Hudnah option. My point is that securing the border without a war with many civilian casualties would have bought time for a variety of possible positive developments. Another such development would be weakening Hamas by strengthening (instead of actively weakening) the organizational alternatives to Hamas. Yet another would be to expose Hamas’s vile ways to courts and to publics, which might lose Hamas its support even as it fails to change its ways. I also mentioned economic ways to fight it and collaboration with Egypt to prevent its arms imports.

Ben Laurence
5 months ago

Thank you for posting this well-reasoned piece.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Ben Laurence
5 months ago

Thank you, Ben!

n

Jordan Bridges
Jordan Bridges
5 months ago

I so appreciate this piece. I’ve become increasingly depressed watching philosophers pervert the tools of our discipline to justify a genocide. People aren’t stupid; we can see how disastrous and obviously genocidal this war had become. If you have to jump through bizarre hoops to make killing 1/100 Gazans, starving half the population, and torturing prisoners make sense, it’s clear the argument has gone horribly wrong. Shame on our universities for their complicity and McCarthyism, and free Palestine.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Jordan Bridges
5 months ago

Thank you, Jordan. I agree with some points (not necessarily all), and am grateful for your support.

Nir

D.S
D.S
5 months ago

At the end of the day this really is about numbers and predictions of a military nature, and it’s hard to imagine getting serious informative ideas on these without being serious about numbers or military predictions. The piece looks nice and all, but, personally, I don’t see how it can add information. Anyone who already has ideas or opinions will finish their reading with what they came in.

Getting into the numbers, the 1 to 10000 has to be wrong. Guessing the number of Israelis who would die had Israel not acted as it did requires an actual statistical model, if we are to be completely genuine in our attempt to answer the counter factual question.

I have two priors that I think are relevant. First: take the first response of Israel’s “apologists”, that the current war deters the next big attack. Taking the simplest model for the variable “number of Israelis killed in a year, given we continue the current policy (before the war)”, then we have something like 1200 Israelis / 15 years ~ 80 Israelis / year. For 1 to 10000 to be right, 80000 Gazan’s will have to be murdered in this war, which I think should be surprising. We can instead use a hierarchical model with a poisson variable for “time to big attack” and a normal variable for “how many Israelis killed in a big attack”, but that would be too much for this comment (and maybe for the readers.)

Second: there were about 200 kidnapped Israelis in Gaza when the war started. In order to seriously contemplate the 1 to 10000 ratio, we need to guess how many of the hostages would be murdered in Gaza, had Israel not acted as it did. Unfortunately, there is a historical prior on the variable “percent of hostages in Gaza that are returned alive”, and it is one in three (to my limited knowledge, please correct me if I’m wrong). Taking this number at face value, meaning using the simplest model of a dirichlet variable and taking the mle, we expect 140 hostages to be murdered in Gaza. For 1 to 10000 to be right, 140,000 Gazans would need to be murdered in this war, which, again, should be surprising. I find this simple model a bit too simplistic, mostly because I think two of the three previous hostages were killed en route to Gaza, so it’s not quite the random variable we’re looking for. On the other hand, the returned hostage was in Gaza for many years, and once multiplied by 200, these should count for something in the opposite direction.

In a third direction, the “apologists” response of counting Israeli lives as more valuable should also be taken into account. Putting it all together, it’s just very surprising that a ratio of 1 to 10000 is not found surprising.

But this gets pretty complicated. Going back to the first prior, consider that Hammas is totally annihilated by next month, a new government forms in Gaza, a new piece process starts within two years, and signed in twenty. But most importantly, no “big attack” happens again – meaning also that the number of Gazans murdered as part of retaliation by Israel also drops. So if we’re interested in the expected number of murdered individuals without reference to state/territory, then there’s a region in the distribution of possible outcomes where these tens of thousands of lives, on both sides together, will save hundreds of thousands of lives. Even if the probability for this region is small, since it’s multiplied by a large population size, it probably contributes non-negligably to the final expectation.

This comment is obviously too long, and maybe these statistical investigations are over the audience’s head, or worse, beneath their dignity. In any case, do note that I personally have not written any specific opinions of the war.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  D.S
5 months ago

Thank you, D.S., for an attempt to keep us all rigorous, and good Bayesians!
 
There are a number of ways in which you misconstruct my claims or make otherwise illegit moves:
 

  1. The 1 to 10,000 is my opening shot. I do not deny that some factors that I discuss later in my blogpost, including impacts on potential future Hamas/Hezbollah/other international forces’ attacks on Israelis or others may make the ratio either smaller (by retaliating against more attacks) or larger (by augmenting short-term or long-term hate, escalation, and attacks).
  2. I argue that when, late on October 7, Israel sealed the border, Hamas was out of technologies to suddenly kill 1200 Israelis, either now or once every 15 years. So long as Israel keeps its border staffed many years to come, therefore, your “first prior” calculation is off. Of course, one day Hamas and Israel’s other enemies may develop weapons or strategies that allow them to kill 1200 Israelis once every 15 years, or more frequently. But you don’t starve 2 million people on the off chance that somebody will one day develop a novel formidable military capability. See my related response to Platypus above, on preemptive war before WMD are developed.
  3. You write that for my calculations to work, “80000 Gazan’s will have to be murdered in this war, which I think should be surprising.” While for the reason above my calculations do not depend on that, I would not be surprised if “80000 Gazans” die as a result of Israel’s current war, and, more relevantly, if 80000 Gazan civilians do. Many are buried under the rubble unidentified, and as I emphasized, it would not at all be surprising if disease, hunger, displacement of old people, skipping treatment for the ill, nonvaccination of infants, and the like killed more people than bombs and bullets. Unfortunately, recent data (https://www.ipcinfo.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ipcinfo/docs/IPC_Gaza_Acute_Food_Insecurity_Nov2023_Feb2024.pdf and https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/01/world/middleeast/gaza-israel-hunger.html) is that half of Gaza’s population of about 2.2 million are at risk of starvation, with 90 percent saying that they regularly go without food for a whole day. Netanyahu just declared that the war will go on for many months. Allowing food to come in at calorically adequate levels is unpopular with Israeli voters. There is no talk in Israel or elsewhere on when displaced Northern Gazans can go back to what is left of their homes. Explicit support for expelling Gazans is growing in Israel’s government over the past few days.
  4. On the hostages, what I suggested was that Israel “recover its Gazan hostages through the prisoner exchanges to which it is now resorting with no risk of bombing those hostages.” It increasingly seems like future rounds of exchanges will have to do precisely that–include prisoners, perhaps all Palestinian prisoners. It also increasingly looks to analysts like an unending war is Netanyahu’s interest, and that that would delay a prisoner exchange. Shortly after I wrote, Israel shot its own three hostages who escaped their captors. It also seems like an Israeli tank very deliberately shot both captors and hostages during October 7. Released hostages mentioned nearby Israeli shelling during their captivity. In Israel, many hostages’ families are vocal now that what would give their loved ones safety is stopping the aggressions not persistent hostilities. This is especially urgent for captive women raped on October 7 who, nearly 3 months later, may need abortions urgently. It is true that the aggressions may also have the effect of forcing Hamas to compromise and accept the release of fewer Palestinian prisoners in return for all Israeli hostages. But the room for negotiation on this matter is limited. And it could easily work the other way around, delaying release. Overall, the hostages issue works slightly better for not having embarked on this war and in favor of a ceasefire now than it does for starting and for maintaining the aggressions. It certainly doesn’t provide a straightforward argument for Netanyahu’s dream of an eternal war that would keep him away from a jail term for corruption forever.
  5. You seem to root for “counting Israeli lives as more valuable”. Of course each side is psychologically partial to its own people, and perhaps has limited moral prerogatives to act accordingly. But that’s one of the many reasons why we should all be subjected to evenhanded ethical and legal norms, including the longstanding expectation of proportionality. Besides, even if Israelis truly counted more, say, because you were somehow able to show that they are objectively a superior race, you would need to show that they are a FAR superior race to justify anything like this war’s gross disproportion. If you will, you would need to prove not only racism but extreme racism.
  6. Your final calculation (“consider that Hammas is totally annihilated by next month, a new government forms in Gaza, a new piece process starts within two years, and signed in twenty”) ignores the possibility that the attack in Gaza would lead to escalation, or delay peace in Gaza and/or elsewhere, either in the short run or in the long run. Yet these are very real possibilities.
  7. The same calculation also seems to justify Israel’s current disproportionate aggression as a way to preempt Israel’s own even-more grossly disproportionate retaliative future actions (“meaning also that the number of Gazans murdered as part of retaliation by Israel also drops”). That’s as fallacious as the following justification for maiming an innocent: “I know myself and unless I chop off one of his arms now, I will chop off both. So there is nothing wrong in my chopping off one of his arms now, and courts should leave me alone: my doing so only minimizes harm to him”. See Ben Bradley’s nice related discussion of the no-harm principle.

 
Thanks again for the challenge,
 

 

Nir

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Nir Eyal
5 months ago

PS on point #3 (your claim that 80k deaths would be “surprising”), see this estimate of >500k deaths, focusing (as I have) on the risk of infectious disease: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/dec/29/health-organisations-disease-gaza-population-outbreaks-conflict.

D.S
D.S
Reply to  Nir Eyal
5 months ago

Thanks for your response.

Regarding rooting for different values on human lives, my point was only that it is reasonable to assign different values in such an analysis, when done from a given side in the conflict, and I think even a ratio of 1-to-2 pushes the numbers quite far. But honestly, I personally wouldn’t have a clue how to even form an opinion on this, let alone to root for something.

I was surprised that you think 80,000 is a possible number here. You’ve explained a bit why and I understood.

We have some predictions on the table, I’ll come back in 3 months to check how it went.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  D.S
5 months ago

Looking forward!

D.S.
D.S.
Reply to  Nir Mordechay Eyal
1 month ago

Looks pretty bad.

Is haaretz known for making good predictions in this area? Also, are you surprised by the current casualty count for the current date? Meaning, had you given a date for the 80000 prediction, would it have been before or later than today?

Darren O Jones
Darren O Jones
5 months ago

Interesting piece, but I think the analogy of the police shooting into a crowd to hit a hiding criminal is incomplete. You’d have to add that the criminal is still shooting at innocents from behind the crowd, that they’ve hidden all their guns and bullets behind the crowd too. You’d have to add that the police have warned and begged the crowd to move. Some move successfully. Some try to move and the criminal threatens them to stay. Some do not try to move at all and say “I agree with this criminal. I (and the family including kids under my care) will stay in the crowd, and I dare you to shoot. If we die, we die heroes.”. I think all these other facts are relevant, and though they do not eliminate the police (Israel’s) responsibility and culpability in innocent deaths, it does shift most of the blame back onto the criminal.

Yazan Freij
Yazan Freij
Reply to  Darren O Jones
5 months ago

Go watch South Africa’s case presentation against Israel to know that there is no safe place in Gaza for Palestinians to go to, you genocide enabler.

Nir Eyal
Reply to  Darren O Jones
5 months ago

Darren,

Good point, but note:

1.    My blogpost started out by arguing that the massive immediate risk from Hamas to Israelis was nearly obliterated once Israel protected its Gaza border—so not quite the same as a violent criminal the main risks from whom remain in place after they enter a crowd of bystanders.

2.    My post warned that the overwhelming numbers of civilian deaths in Gaza may come not from being bombed (in some cases, having ignored warnings to leave home) but from starvation and diseases, as well as other severe harms affecting many who fled the bombs, such as the total destruction of survivors’ urban environments, and the prospect of permanent population expulsion.

3.    My case of the criminal in the crowd did not purport to resemble Israel’s attack in Gaza in every respect. It merely answered the claim by some of Israel’s apologists that when liable parties hide among a civilian population, civilian casualties do not count at all, as they are the terrorists’ not “our” responsibility. See some such views expressed here: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-11-27/ty-article/.premium/war-is-always-hell-moral-philosophers-on-the-ethics-of-israels-battle-with-hamas/0000018c-10b8-d2ae-afcf-35fabe230000. The case shows only that “our” responsibility doesn’t completely or even almost-completely vanish when terrorists hide in dense urban areas. And that’s very damning for Israel. The reason is that that Israel’s remaining significant responsibility is for a huge number of civilians killed or severely harmed. To be significantly responsible for loads of innocent casualties is very bad indeed.

BTW this case was graciously proposed to me by Justin Weinberg when he reviewed my piece for publication. My original case, he pointed out correctly, was unnecessarily sci-fi.

Darren O Jones
Darren O Jones
Reply to  Nir Eyal
4 months ago

thank you for the response, much to think on

Darren O Jones
Darren O Jones
Reply to  Nir Eyal
4 months ago

thank you for the response, much to think on

  1. While the point that another 10-7 attack is unlikely given that Israel is on high alert, I don’t think you can take that plus the success of Israel’s missile defense system as justification for claiming they do not need to go to war. If Israel does not want to put up with Hamas’ missiles and wants to take them out at their source, both reasonable wants, then that may require “war”. This is why the criminal shooting from behind the crowd is relevant to the analogy, that unacceptable risk (i.e. missiles from beyond the border) is a factor.
  2. There’s no doubt the people of Gaza will suffer under these conditions, in a variety of ways. This fact in itself isn’t in dispute, but rather the question of culpability: the leaders of Palestine and Hamas who provoke and invite such horror and/or the leaders of Israel for doing such horrors even under “justified” reasons.
  3. Yes, this is the main question to be answered. Of course nothing is perfect, but I added what I added to the analogy because it shows why/how the calculus of responsibility may shift given additional facts. “Our” (I assume allies of Israel, the “west” in general, etc) and directly Israel’s responsibility does not disappear to zero, but it is not hovering near 100 either (on a scale of 0 to 100). I’d argue it sits somewhere currently around 50% (I was at 36% when this started, but new facts affect the number for me), with the rest claimed by Hamas. It’s bad to be even 1% responsible for an innocent death, but there’s a difference between a tortured embattled nation forced into this impossible choice and unfortunate damage to protect/rescue themselves VS bloodthirsty genocidal maniacs just itching to murder, and working out these details helps us pick.
Nir Mordechay Eyal
Reply to  Darren O Jones
4 months ago

briefly,
There is a reason why my blogpost focused mainly on stopping infiltrations, not on missile attacks. Those missile attacks have been going on for more than a decade, and given their modest scale no one argues that they alone can warrant what is going on now. on your points 2+3: even if Israel bears only 36% of the blame/culpability, it is blame/culpability for a high number of future innocent deaths from hunger and disease, potential large-scale ethnic cleansing, complete destruction of entire cities, and more. So overall the blame is huge. (And the fact that Hamas is also to blame is neither here nor there.)

A Columbia Observer
A Columbia Observer
1 month ago

This post is still more evidence of how divorced from reality academics can be. It’s not just that the post is unserious and that it lacks intellectual rigor. The deeper problem is that it appears to be designed to flatter the sensibilities of those who wish to see themselves as intellectually and morally serious people.