The Israeli hostage rescue and Christian just war theory

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

On Saturday the Israeli police and military staged a raid into the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza and succeeded in rescuing four Israeli hostages Noa Argamani, Almog Meir Jan, Andrei Kozlov and Shlomi Ziv, who had been held captive by Hamas since being abducted from the Nova music festival on 7 October last year.

There have been contrasting reactions to this raid.

In Israel was public rejoicing, and their rescue was also welcomed by US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the Russian ambassador to Israel Anatoly Viktorov.

However, Josep Borell, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, wrote on X 'reports from Gaza of another massacre of civilians are appalling. We condemn this in the strongest terms,' and the deputy Foreign Minister of Norway, Andreas Motzfeldt Kravik, wrote on X that he was 'appalled by reports of another massacre of civilians in Gaza.' The Turkish ministry of foreign affairs released a statement declaring that the country deplored the Israeli attack, which it called 'barbaric' and another in a long list of 'crimes' committed by Israel in Gaza, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemned what it called 'the horrific massacre carried out by the Israeli occupation army, which resulted in the murder and injury of hundreds of Palestinians, most of them women and children.'

If we ask the reason for these contrasting reactions, the answer is that the focus of the responses has been different. Those who have welcomed the raid have done so because it resulted in the release of the four Israeli hostages. Those who have condemned it have done so because of the resulting Palestinian casualties, which Israel has suggested were under 100 and the Hamas run Gaza Health Ministry says were 274.

In the light of these differing reactions the question I want to explore in this article is what we are to make of the Nuseirat raid in terms of traditional Christian just war theory.

Christians just war theory considers war under two headings ius ad bellum (the right to go to war) and ius in bello (the right conduct of war)

Under the right to go to war it has generally been held that five criteria have to be satisfied for a decision to engage in military action to be morally justified in Christian terms.

  • The first is 'proper authority'. This means that war must be declared and waged by the properly constituted political authorities in a particular state as part of their exercise of the God given 'power of the sword' (Romans 13:4).
  • The second is 'right intention.' The use of deadly force must be intended, like all actions by governments, to advance the good or prevent or correct evil.
  • The third (which follows on from the second) is 'just cause.' This means those against whom war is waged must deserve to be attacked on account of some wrong that they have done. This criterion follows from the truth that the use of the sword by political authorities is only justified as a response to wrongdoing. For military action to be justified there must be an identifiable wrong that needs either to be punished or to be rectified.
  • The fourth is that war is 'the only way to right the wrong.' As Martin Luther argued, this criterion means that because warfare inevitably involves death and other forms of human suffering, governments should try to right wrongs by means other than warfare if at all possible, just as good doctors resort to surgery only when it is the only way to heal the patient.
  • The fifth and final criterion is that there should be a 'reasonable hope of success.' Since the point of engaging in warfare is to try to correct a wrong and bring about a just peace, there is no point in the exercise if there is no hope that this end can be obtained. The death and suffering involved would be unjustified because they would be pointless.

Under 'right conduct in war' two criteria have been identified for actions undertaken in the course of a war to be legitimate in Christan terms.

  • The first is 'discrimination, or non-combatant immunity.' This means that those engaged in war should never intentionally kill civilians. The point of this criterion is that only enemy combatants should be attacked, which in turn means that civilians should never be killed intentionally and that everything possible should be done to prevent them from being killed unintentionally. It should also be noted that under this criterion enemy soldiers who have surrendered, or who no longer pose a military threat because, for example, they are wounded, have the same status as civilians.
  • The second is 'proportion.' This criterion follows on from the previous one because while it is always wrong to deliberately target civilians it may sometimes be the case that it is impossible to act against enemy combatants without causing civilian casualties. The criterion of proportionality says that in order to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties the amount of force used should be only that which is necessary to undertake a legitimate military operation.

If we scrutinise what we know about the Israeli raid on the Nuseirat refugee camp against these criteria what do, we find?

First, we find that it was an act carried out with proper authority. It was an act by the Israeli military duly authorised by the Israeli government.

Secondly, it was an act carried with right intention and in a just cause. The right intention was to restore hostages to their loved ones and the just cause was that there were four hostages in the Nuseirat refugee camp who needed to be thus restored.

Thirdly, there does not seem to have been any alternative way of liberating these particular hostages except by going into the refugee camp and using force against those who were holding them. It might be argued that the hostages should have been left in captivity pending the outcome of successful negotiations for the release of hostages between the Israeli government and Hamas, but (a) there was no guarantee that such negotiations would have a successful outcome and more importantly (b) given the deaths of other hostages there was no guarantee that those in Nuseirat would remain alive long enough to be released through negotiation.

Fourthly, the Israeli military seems to have judged that the operation to release the hostages had a good chance of success and the operation's outcome vindicated this judgement. The hostages were brought home.

This brings us to the two 'right action in war' criteria of non-combat immunity and proportion. In thinking about these criteria we have to ask whether there is evidence that the Israeli army deliberately targeted non-combatants (as the language of the 'massacre' of civilians would suggest).

The evidence that we have so far indicates that the rescue of Argamani took place without much fighting, but that a large gun battle erupted during the rescue of Meir Jan, Kozlov and Ziv (who were held in a separate location) in the course of which Amon Zmora, the head of the second Israeli rescue team, was critically wounded. Following that, the Israeli evacuation of Meir Jan, Kozlov, Ziv and Zmora was conducted in the face of a massive amount of gunfire and RPG fire from Palestinian forces, which in turn led Israeli ground and air forces to carry out major military strikes to provide the evacuation with cover.

As has already been noted, the precise number of Palestinian casualties is disputed, and we do not have a breakdown of civilian versus combatant casualties on the Palestinian side. Furthermore, while it does seem reasonable to think that many of the Palestinian civilian casualties were a result of Israeli fire, it may also have been the case that some of them may have been the result of fire from the Palestinian forces, and no one has yet produced any evidence to suggest Palestinian civilians were deliberately targeted by the Israeli forces. The most we can say with any certainty was that there was heavy fighting in a densely populated urban area and that as always happens in such circumstances there were civilian casualties as a result.

It appears that the only way such casualties could have been prevented would have been if those holding the hostages had given them up without a fight and if the Palestinian side had then allowed them to be peacefully evacuated. Once fighting broke out, those on the Israeli side had to respond to the fire from the Palestinian forces in order to allow the evacuation to proceed and to get the released hostages home safely. It could have been the case that Israeli covering fire was disproportionate in the sense that it was more than was required to cover the evacuation, but once again none of the critics of the Israeli action has yet provided evidence to show that this was the case.

In summary, when assessed in the light of Christian just war criteria, we can say the Israeli action to recue four hostages from the Nuseirat refugee camp was an operation carried out with right authority, with right intention and in a just cause. It can be plausibly argued that it was the only way to rescue the hostages, and that the Israeli side rightly believed that the operation had a reasonable hope of success.

We can also say that no evidence has yet been produced to show that the Israeli side deliberately violated the principle of non-combatant immunity, or that they used disproportionate force to achieve their objectives.

Civilian casualties are always to be deeply regretted, but a just view of what happened in the Nuseirat refugee camp has to conclude that the blame for these casualties lies with those on the Palestinian side who seized the four hostages from the Nova festival in the first place and who subsequently refused to release them except on terms that would have left Hamas and other Palestinian groups free to attack Israel again.

Blaming the Israelis is like blaming the Allied forces rather than the Germans for the 35,000 civilian casualties in the Normandy landings in 1944. There would have been zero civilian casualties if the Germans had not started the war in the first place. Similarly, there would have been zero civilian casualties in Nuseirat had Hamas not attacked Israel on 7 October. It really is Hamas' fault.

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.