An Open Letter of Reply by Six Israeli Moral Philosophers to
Their Oxford Colleagues, On Israeli Military Actions in Gaza
Following the heinous Hamas attack on the South of Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7 th 2023, and the war between Israel and Hamas that ensued, forty four Oxford academics wrote a letter to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition of the UK, strongly condemning Israeli military actions and requesting an immediate cease-fire. Six Israeli moral philosophers responded.
The original Oxford letter is here.
A Reply to the "Open Letter on the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza"
We write, as Israeli moral philosophers, in reply to the Open Letter to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the UK of 20th October 2023, by a group of Oxford academics with relevant expertise, following the Israeli response to the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th 2023. With many other readers, we were shocked and disappointed to read this letter, both because of its simplistic one-sidedness, and because of grave factual inaccuracies and faults of argumentation. We were also personally pained to read it, not only as Israelis and Jews (that is, people who could only expect to be tortured and murdered along with their families if falling into Hamas hands), but as academic colleagues, and in some case friends, of signatories to this open letter.
The letter strongly condemns the Hamas attack in one sentence, but without acknowledging the radical nature of what Hamas did, the unbelievable cruelty and the radical violation of any minimally moral norm even in the time of war; and its deep significance. Moreover, it ignores the fact that the mass slaying of civilians, viewed in the context of the Hamas charter and its stated aims, should probably be deemed an act of genocide. After this one single sentence, the rest of the letter is engaged with condemning Israeli actions and motives. The Open Letter does not raise concerns, or question some Israeli measures, or call for an increase in humanitarian aid during the war but, rather, speaks the language of undoubting and severe condemnation. It states that "According to international law, Israel has the right to take defensive measures against Hamas. But this right does not extend to or justify Israel’s current onslaught on the civilian population of Gaza" (our emphasis). The letter also implies that supporters of Israeli actions are supporters of terrorism, stating that "to think that the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas justify the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in Gaza is to indulge a central tenet of terrorism". The letter further speaks about "Gaza’s death toll" (our emphasis), and it goes on to quote uncritically that "UNRWA, the UN’s agency supporting Palestinian refugees, has declared the situation an ‘unprecedented human catastrophe’" (our emphasis).
We contest almost every aspect of the Open Letter, and propose therefore to carefully evaluate its claims. The main problem with this letter is that the passing remark about the Israeli right to self-defense is near meaningless given the absence of any recognition of the particular circumstances of the war in Gaza, of what they necessitate as well as of what is at stake for Israel, hence resulting in unreasonable moral standards which the letter goes on to stipulate; this will be taken up below.
But first, no evidence is given that Israel is engaged in an "onslaught on the civilian population of Gaza". Israel is mostly engaged in targeted and systematic attacks on specific Hamas combatant units, missile batteries, and the extensive underground tunnel-system. This tunnel system, fortified with concrete, replete with electricity and fuel-powered ventilation, was constructed by Hamas to shield over 30,000 operatives. It is estimated that most of the financial foreign support to Gaza over the years has been used for this purpose. Despite irresponsible statements by a few Israeli officials, Israeli actions directly harming the civilian population seem to have focused on military needs, such as to try to make the tunnels non-operational through a fuel blockade. No instance of deliberate attack on concentrations of civilians is known to us. Suggesting that the current Israeli aerial bombardment is indiscriminate, or constitutes a deliberate attack on civilians, is patently false. Had Israel wanted, it could have killed tens of thousands of Gazans within hours. If one wants to see what a “direct onslaught on the civilian population” looks like, we direct your attention to other deadly conflicts in recent years such as Syria, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, Afghanistan or Yemen.
Even the single event which looked like a direct attack on a civilian target, the “bombing” of the Al-Ahli hospital, was proven to be the result of a misfiring of a Palestinian rocket. The Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health claimed that some 500 civilians died in an alleged Israeli bombing of Al-Ahli hospital. The claim was soundly refuted by Israel, as confirmed by the US State Department and the British Prime Minister. The death toll was far lower than claimed by Hamas and in any case all deaths were caused by the misfiring of missiles within Gaza, in this case by the Islamic Jihad. Hamas and Al Jazeera knew this, and had even broadcasted this news that morning, but by the evening had retracted these reports, presumably after witnessing the ease with which much of the press (including the British press) blamed Israel.
The death toll in Gaza (even according to Hamas figures which are unverified and often false) thus includes the deaths at the hospital and probably other casualties caused by the Hamas and its allies themselves. More importantly, it does not distinguish between civilians and combatants; a morally crucial factor. And one should remember two further factors that the Open Letter fails to mention: first, Gaza is one of the most crowded territories in the world, making it extraordinarily difficult to fight in it without considerable collateral casualties. Secondly, Hamas notoriously and intentionally positions its headquarters, missiles, and tunnels in and below hospitals, schools, mosques, and other civilian facilities, thus deliberately using their own civilians as human shields, both to discourage attack and to implicate Israel as responsible for civilian casualties. The most prominent example is the construction of the main Hamas headquarters underneath the central Shifa hospital.
This makes the present war different from almost any other armed conflict, and this is crucial: nearly all legitimate Hamas targets are deliberately located within civilian areas. There are some open fields in the Gaza strip, yet Hamas remains within the heavily populated areas, ensuring that military installations and missiles launchers are placed amongst the Gazan population. It is thus impossible for Israel to defend itself without aiming at Hamas targets that are deliberately interwoven with the civilian population. The Open Letter sets an impossible standard for combat, with which no other country has been expected to comply (compare for example Western forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, where the constraints of Gaza with regard to the civilian population existed to a much lesser degree). The Open Letter completely ignores the Hamas-caused constraints that make it impossible to avoid considerable collateral harm to civilians. The letter's silence about the dilemmas Israel faces under such conditions undermines the seriousness of the claim that Israel is permitted to defend itself and its citizens, as all other nations presumably are.
We too are deeply concerned about the harm to civilians in Gaza, and we cannot emphasize enough that we profoundly regret the death of innocent civilians. The situation is tragic. Nor do we claim to know all that is being done, or automatically support all Israeli actions. It is likely that in some instances, more can be done to reduce even further unintended harm to civilians. But under the conditions of Gaza, and given the deliberate Hamas policy to use its civilian population and seek its sacrifice, both cynically/pragmatically, and as part of a religious culture of holy war and martyrdom, many Palestinian civilians are bound to be harmed.
Contrary to the letter’s claim, then, there is no "onslaught on the civilian population". Nor is it correct to imply in any way that Israel’s acts are “terrorism”, thus suggesting symmetry between Israel’s actions and those of Hamas. And finally, the claim endorsed by the Open Letter, that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza at this time is "unprecedented" cannot, of course, be taken seriously.
What Israel does is a decisive pursuit of legitimate military targets in order to defend itself from Hamas attacks, destroy Hamas capabilities, and prepare for a legitimate land invasion. There are unfortunately civilian casualties, reported in numbers that are most probably exaggerated, but these numbers indicate, in our view, quite the opposite of what the letter implies about Israel's efforts to limit civilian casualties.
The Open Letter further irresponsibly misrepresents the Israeli request of the civilian population to move to the south of the Gaza strip as a "war crime". Surely one could expect the signatories to note two things here. First, one could expect them to at least mention that this request is made by Israel in order to help secure the civilian population and limit casualties among them. For if, as the signatories admit, Israel has a right to engage Hamas targets and presumably also operate by land in order to tackle Hamas, but the north of Gaza (bordering southern Israel) is very crowded, and Hamas intentionally locate their military among (often even underneath) the civilian population, then without temporary civilian evacuation, the expected number of civilian casualties would be immense. Indeed, this is precisely the reason why Hamas has forcefully prevented many civilians to go south, with the aim, again, of using them as human shields and in order to maximize Palestinian civilian casualties collaterally harmed – and thereby implicate Israel. The letter hence entirely misrepresents the situation, implying that Israel just wants to permanently transfer the Palestinian population, while Israel’s clearly stated aim is to try to limit, under the conditions of war, the harm done to them. This is entirely legitimate and indeed seems morally requisite, provided that the displacement is in fact temporary, with a commitment to allow the population to return soon, once the fighting is over.
Moreover, the letter suggests no other way in which Israel can engage in legitimate military action in the north of the Gaza strip, without causing a very large number of civilian casualties, except by suggesting to them that they temporarily evacuate the killing zones. This is just the sort of thing which causes the talk of academics not to be taken seriously. For, not only does the letter fail to mention the compelling declared Israeli rationale for its actions, it also does not suggest any other or better way in which Israel can defend itself.
But the "sins of omission" of the letter are much greater. In fact, not one but two "elephants in the room" are totally ignored in the letter, and they are of grave importance, providing a crucial context. The first omission is the Hezbollah, which poses an even greater threat to Israel and its civilian population than Hamas, and has 150,000 missiles at its disposal. The second omission is the threat to Israel from Iran, which supports both (Suni) Hamas and (Shi’ite) Hezbollah. Israeli engagement with Hamas is therefore part of a larger reality where any failure in eliminating threats and achieving deterrence will have grave repercussions far beyond Gaza; with the allies of Hamas. It is now clear that when Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran talk about wiping out Israel, this is no metaphor. The stakes are very high, and this context is surely morally relevant to the evaluation of the justification of decisive action in Gaza at the present time, and to what is deemed morally acceptable and proportional. Proportionality means that you can use force in proportion to the defensive objective, preventing current and further attacks. The magnitude of the threat can be seen by the fact that a few days ago the United States publicly began to plan the possible evacuation of all Israelis who are US citizens, some 500,000 people, in case Hezbollah and Iran are not deterred and the conflict widens. 80 years after the Holocaust, the threats facing Jews are again truly and plainly existential. All people ought to support Israel’s desperate attempts to defend itself after the barbaric acts of the October 7th attack, and stand with Israel against her enemies, who seem to have no moral constraints.
The Open Letter concludes by telling the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition that they "must call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza". The humanitarian situation in Gaza, attributed in the letter to Israeli culpability, oddly seems to be the only relevant moral consideration as to what should and may be done now. We emphatically disagree. A cease-fire is Hamas’s aim and would amount to victory for it and its allies, leading almost inevitably to further, and in all likelihood even more murderous attacks on Israel. Demanding that Israel stop now is simply incompatible with the right to self-defense, when understood realistically in light of the gravity of the initial attack and the overall risks to Israel. The horrors of the October 7th attack have shown that the overwhelming moral aim of the international community should be the decisive and urgent military defeat of Hamas, and the pacification and demilitarization of Gaza. At the same time, all people of good will should work towards reaching a political agreement, with a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel, for the benefit of all in the Middle East and beyond.
Yitzhak Benbaji, Professor, Law Faculty, Tel-Aviv University
Michael Gross, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Haifa
David Heyd, Professor, Department of Philosophy, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Saul Smilansky, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Haifa
Daniel Statman, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Haifa
Noam Zohar, Professor, Department of Philosophy, Bar-Ilan University