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Is Israel unethical in the death of Palestinian civilians?4 min read

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Regarding the Palestinian/Gaza problem, whether or not Israel is guilty of war crimes in killing civilians, is an important topic.

One ethical model that covers this situation (well, IMO) is the theory of Just War, specifically the doctrine of double effect – that is, is it ethical or allowable to kill civilians in war secondary to killing combatants, and under what circumstances?

1. The four principles of double effect

  1. The PRIMARY INTENDED GOAL must be noble, i.e. killing aggressors in a defensive war.
  2. The SECONDARY, NEGATIVE EFFECT (killing civilians) must not be a direct goal, and must be generally avoided if. It is being allowed, not willed. This is sometimes called “indirectly voluntary.” Note that celebrating the death of civilians, much less raping and torturing them, does not meet this criterion.
  3. The GOOD EFFECT must be directly caused by the action of the aggressor, not as a consequence of the BAD EFFECT (e.g. terrorism that leads to your enemy surrender is illegitimate). The ends do not justify the means.
  4. There must be a PROPORTIONALLY GRAVE REASON for permitting the evil effect. 1

This last reason is where we often disagree. What is “proportional”?

2. How do we calculate proportional, secondary effects?

Many critics of Israel propose that we should look at pure numbers killed as the only arbiter of proportionality. But I argue that we must consider other factors when determining proportionality. For example:

  1. Legitimate Numbers? Are the numbers trustworthy, or are we getting them from biased sources like Hamas itself?
  2. Intent v. Actual: If the intent of Hamas is to kill as many civilians as possible by continuing to shoot rockets indiscriminately into Israel, but Israel is better at defending themselves, perhaps we should compare the INTENDED NUMBER KILLED, not the ACTUAL.
  3. Human Shields: What if Palestinian civilian deaths are higher because Hamas embeds its artillery in schools and hospitals, shielding its warriors with women, children, and civilians? Doesn’t this lessen the ethical burden on Israel and put it on the unethical means used by Hamas? I argue absolutely.
  4. Prior Warnings: Is Israel often warning civilians to escape planned infrastructure targets? If Hamas refuses to allow civilians to leave those areas, isn’t that on them, not Israel?
  5. Larger Future Considerations: Perhaps the greater GRAVE REASON that outweighs Palestinian civilian deaths is that to allow terrorists to continue means ongoing risk to Israel, if not other countries who might also surrender to such thugs as Hamas?
  6. Bad Faith: The history of dealings with the Palestinians seems to indicate that they have no real interest in a two state solution, having refused many compromises or broken agreements. In addition, they have used infrastructure aid from other countries to build munitions against Israel. In all these things, they have not shown good faith, and for those reasons, mercy may cease to be extended.
  7. Refusing Palestinian Refugees: While other Muslim countries refuse to allow Palestinians in to their countries, ostensibly to not allow Israel to “ethnically cleanse” those Muslim held territories, it can be argued that THEY are responsible for trapping the Palestinians who might want to come to their country – i.e. their primary goal (resisting Zionism) is resulting in a SECONDARY EVIL as well, and so they are engaged in a similar action to Israel.


Regarding the lamentable deaths of Palestinian civilians, the intended, continued harm attempted by their leaders, their commitment to unethical means of warfare, i.e. terrorism and using human shields, their history of bad faith, and the pressing need to crush current and future terrorist organizations means that Israel may continue to attack Hamas despite civilian casualties.

  1. Doctrine of Double Effect ([]