The Slaughter of the Innocents

Considering the morality of the conflict between Israel and Gaza – preached on the morning when a ceasefire was agreed after three weeks of intense fighting in Gaza.

The Gaza Strip is a piece of land on the Mediterranean Coast about 25 miles long and between 4 and 8 miles wide which is the home of around 1.4 million Palestinian Arabs. It borders on Israel to the South and East and Egypt to the North. For many years there has been conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over Gaza. Israel took control there after the six days war of 1967 but handed control over to the Palestinian Authority in 1994. In elections in January 2006 HAMAS (the Islamic Resistance Movement) won political control from FATAH (Palestine Liberation Movement). Since then HAMAS has intensified its attacks on Israel by suicide bombings and by rocket and mortar attacks across the border. Christian Friends of Israel reported recently that over the last 3 years HAMAS have fired around 5,800 rockets into Israel. On December 19th HAMAS refused to renew a six month ceasefire. On Christmas Eve they fired more than 50 rockets and on Christmas Day more than 80 rockets into Israel.

On December 27th Israel responded with air strikes into Gaza, followed by a land offensive with tanks and troops. In the last three weeks around 1,200 Palestinians have been killed and more than five thousand have been injured. In that time 10 Israeli soldiers have died in combat and 3 Israeli civilians have died from Palestinian rockets. This morning under enormous international pressure Israel have declared a unilateral ceasefire, but they have stated they will not withdrawn their land forces from Gaza yet. HAMAS is refusing to accept the ceasefire as long as Israeli troops are still in Gaza.

The situation in Gaza is tragic. It is also immoral. There are precious few rights and many atrocious wrongs on both sides. I want us to consider those rights and wrongs this morning.

Many Christians including our Baptist forefathers the Anabaptists have adopted a position of pacifism. Jesus taught “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God. … Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. For a pacifist using force is the direct opposite to loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Love and war are never compatible.

On the other hand, while through history some Christians have been pacifists, the majority have not. In this sin-spoiled world, the majority of Christians have believed that there could be some situations when violence, though undesirable, becomes necessary. In self defence, a “Kill or be killed” situation, violence might be justifiable. And where evil men are harming innocent and powerless people? What might our loving God require us to do in situations like that? Our Christian obligation to love our neighbour may not allow us just to stand back and watch innocent suffering. Instead perhaps we should get involved to prevent that suffering. In extreme circumstances it might even be justifiable to break the Sixth Commandment, “Do not kill,” if taking the life of an evil man is the absolutely the only way of saving innocent lives. Just occasionally the command to love our neighbours must take priority over loving our enemy when we must intervene to stop that enemy from murdering those neighbours.

In particular, the Bible gives to the government and to the state and to the legal system the task of protecting ordinary people from evil. Even if individuals are obliged to follow a code of pacifism, nations may be permitted to use violence to defend their people. For the purpose of protecting the individuals, the state has the right to use reasonable force to resist evil. Police should have the right to force to restrain the evil of murder and violent robbery. Armies should be authorised to use force to resist invasion from outside the state or community. The Bible teaches that human sin is so serious that sometimes a violent response, even a lethal response is necessary and appropriate. If there were no enforcers of justice, chaos would prevail. Restraining evil is the duty of political authorities. So war is always a tragedy. But in this fallen world, where all it needs for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, we need to recognise that ON RARE OCCASIONS, THE ALTERNATIVES TO WAR CAN BE WORSE THAN WAR.

So over the centuries Christians and other philosophers have been led to the concept of a “Just War.” These are a set of criteria, which help to decide whether war is justifiable or not. Whether it is right to go to war and which methods are legitimate to use in warfare and which are not. The “just war” tradition seeks to provide moral guidance to political leaders as they consider the resort to force, and to provide guidance to military planners as they plan the conduct of the war and prosecute it. These ideas started many centuries ago with Augustine and Aquinas and are now recognised by most Christians. They draw on Christian principles of loving your neighbour, protecting the innocent and defenceless, and the duty of the state to defend its people from evil. But they also appeal to a generally held human sense of honour. Some acts in war have always been deemed dishonourable, whilst others have been deemed honourable. These “just war” traditions are now expressed in International Law in the Geneva and Hague conventions.

This morning I want us to consider the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and see what the principles of Just War theory have to say about the morality of the actions of Israel and of the Palestinians.

So what are the criteria for a “just war”? There are six things to think about when a nation is contemplating war.

Justice in going to war

1. War must be waged by a legitimate authority

that is, by the rightful ruler or government against an external enemy. So a sovereign state has a right to wage ware to protect its people.
Terrorism is never “just war.” The heart of the evil of terrorism is that only legitimate sovereign authorities have the right to wage war. Any use of force by local rulers, mercenaries or criminals is illegitimate. The use of force to restrain evil is the monopoly of the state. That is a necessary condition for a peaceful and civilized society. Freelance terrorism is a return to the barbarism of private wars. It is a direct attack on the justice, order and peace which political authority seeks to provide.
The nation state of Israel probably has the right to wage war to defend its people. Whether Palestinian terrorists have the equivalent right is more debatable.

2. War must be in a just cause

A just cause means defending the legitimate rights of the state. A just cause means an injustice already committed. That could mean some physical injury (like an invasion or an attack on the population), a trade embargo (an aggression against economic activity), or even an attack on a neighbour. Some people think it is legitimate to wage war as a defence against a possible future attack, some don’t.

Some would say that the Palestinians and the Israelis have just cause to attack each other. Many would say they do not – that they should just learn to live in peace as neighbours.

3. War must be undertaken with the right intention, which ultimately is a just and lasting peace..

A critical principle of just war is “right intentions.” Wars that are fought to take what doesn’t belong to us or expand our borders or for revenge are unjust wars. But war can be fought with good intentions.
“We make war that we may live in peace.” Aristotle (384–322 B.C.)
A just war is fought for the cause of justice and not for self-interest. War is intended to bring peace and the common good. But this can be complicated if the only way of securing peace with a neighbour who is attacking you is to invade and occupy his land and replace his government.

Justice and not self-interest. Many people find it hard to believe that either Israel or palestine are fighting for to bring about peace and the common good. If all the fighting is about is self-interest, that motivation does not justify war.

4. The principal of proportionality must apply –

The damage the war causes must bear relation to the seriousness of the issues over which war is declared. A minor injustice would not be sufficient to legitimise the major suffering a war produces.

Does the seriousness of the issues in Gaza justify the levels of destruction over the last three weeks? From the point of view of Just War theory, I think not.

5. The war should be a last resort,

All peaceful remedies must have been exhausted. If the goal of Palestinian mortar fire is to bring Israel to meaningful negotiations for a lasting peace, that might be permissible. If the goal of the Israeli air strikes and their land offensive is to bring Palestine to the negotiating table, that might be permissible. Sadly I am not convinced that either side believe that violence should only be the LAST resort.

6. There should be a reasonable expectation of a successful outcome, not as military triumph, of course, but in achieving the limitation of evil and a lasting peace.

In the conflict between Israel and Palestine, nobody seriously believes that ongoing military action can achieve the successful outcome of lasting peace.

Justice in going to war. Six things to consider when a nation is contemplating war. Of these most people agree that from a moral point of view the third is the most important. Right intention – motivation “ the eradication of some injustice which has befallen fellow human beings and which can be eliminated in no other way.” (Christian ethicist David Brown) I am not persuaded that the intentions or motives of either Israel or Palestine are noble and pure.

But what about when the war has started? Some people (but none of them Christians) argue that once war has started then all methods should be employed to ensure that victory is achieved at a minimum of expense and time. Others think that possessing a just cause is a sufficient condition for pursuing whatever means are necessary to gain a victory or to punish an enemy. Others suggest that morals are only for peacetime when conflicts can be resolved by peaceful means. They say that when it comes to war, “all things are fair”. such ideas are simply wrong.

Just war tradition is not only concerned with whether it is legitimate to go to war. It has a seventh criterion which is entirely concerned with HOW war is fought. A nation fighting for a just cause must not fight unjustly. And even if the war begins without just cause, nations are obliged to use just methods.

Justice in waging war

7. The MODE of conducting the war should be morally legitimate:

(a) The innocent must not be killed by indiscriminate slaughter.

In one word – discrimination. In war soldiers and other combatants become legitimate targets by being trained and armed, and that itself constitutes a sufficient threat to combatants on the other side. Those who join an army renounce their rights not to be targeted in war; but non-combatants (civilians, or ‘innocents’) remain immune from attack. This distinction between combatants and civilians must always be maintained. Innocent civilians must not be not killed or injured. They must be shielded from harm. They can never, for any reason whatsoever, be the targets of an attack. The history of modern warfare is characterized by “total warfare,” the expansion of targets beyond strictly military ones. But that is absolutely illegitimate in just war theory.
There are certain tactics in war which have always been viewed as dishonourable. Attacking from beneath a flag or truce or surrender. Soldiers masquerading as civilians. The kind of suicide bombing that has taken place in Israel and other places. Deliberately endangering civilians on either side by using them as a “human shield”. These methods of fighting are universally judged to be unacceptable!

This is why most of the world, not least the United Nations, the United States and the British Government have rightly been so critical of the actions of Israel in recent days. The greatest evil in Israel’s bombing campaign and in their ground offensive is that they have not discriminated adequately between combatants and civilians. Although they claim to be aiming at military targets in Gaza, at least two thirds of those who have been killed or injured have been civilians, including women and children, some of them even on the neutral ground of the United Nations compound in Gaza.

Israel is probably justified in attacking Hamas military targets in order to defend its own people from rocket attacks. Unfortunately HAMAS often locate their military operations in the middle of civilian populations, and that is immoral. But Israel’s indiscriminate attacks in the middle of civilian populations are completely indefensible in Just War theory.

You may hear military strategists try to justify attacks on such targets using a philosophical manoeuvre called “the doctrine of double effect.” That says that as long as there is a legitimate military target, the deaths of nearby civilians are not intended but accidental. Civilian casualties are a foreseeable but accidental side-effect of a legitimate attack. Many philosophers argue that the doctrine of double effect is acceptable as long as the direct effect is good and the only intended aim, the indirect affect is foreseen but unwanted, and the good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.

But even the doctrine of double effect offers no justification for all the rockets which HAMAS has been firing into Israeli civilian population centres over the last three years. Nor is there any possible justification for the Palestinian terrorists who set off suicide bombs in the middle of crowds of Israeli civilians. Rockets and suicide bombs are by their very nature indiscriminate in who they kill. That said, Israel’s response since Christmas has been even more indiscriminate. The Israeli military have the capability to be much more selective than they have been in the targets they choose to attack.

There is even more disturbing evidence that Israel may not even be trying to show discrimination. They may not even be trying to minimise attacks on civilians.

Two quotes passed on to me by a Baptist Minister in Essex whose reliability I trust are very worrying.
A religious edict released in 2006 by the influencial Yesha Rabbinical Council of Israel, states
“…according to Jewish law, during a time of battle and war, there is no such term as ‘innocents’ of the enemy. All of the discussions on Christian morality are weakening the spirit of the army and the nation ” …
Even more worrying, the Jerusalem Post of May 30th 2007 reports,
“former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has written in a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Eliyahu ruled that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza… he advocated carpet bombing the general area… regardless of the price in Palestinian life…. If they still don’t stop we must kill 100,000, even a million. ”

Both Palestinians and Israelis have shown complete contempt for the most important rule in Just War theory about how war should be conducted – both have shown no respect for the rights of innocent civilians. Dead women and children are not just “collateral damage.” Killing innocent civilians is murder!

(b) The war must not result in disproportionate evils

to the enemy population, to the home populations or to the international community.
In one word – proportionality. Just war theory requires that the extent and violence of warfare are limited to minimise destruction and casualties. “Take no prisoners” violates that principle. A battle must end before it becomes a massacre. The principles of proportionality and discrimination place limits on the violence of war.

Most people agree that Israel is justified in taking some kind and level of military action to prevent or reduce HAMAS attacks into Israel. But the whole world is agreed that Israel’s current response is disproportionate and indiscriminate.

Justice in going to war. Justice in waging war. The events of the past weeks in the Gaza Strip are deeply tragic. The political and military issues involved are much more complex than the media can present. Some of the moral questions are also very difficult, especially for us as Christians. This morning I have been trying to help each one of us to understand the issues a little better. As you watch the news reports, keep these principles of “just war” in mind and form your own judgments.

After Jesus was born Herod arranged for the slaughter of all the innocent infants who could be his rivals as King. And the indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians continues in Gaza and Israel even today, Our God is a God of justice. He hears the cries of the innocent and trampled, the poor and the outcasts. And God cares for them all.

PSALM 10:14-18
But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand.
The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless.
Break the arm of the wicked and evil man;
call him to account for his wickedness that would not be found out.
The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land.
You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.


This sermon generated probably more discussion than any other I have preached. In particular, some have suggested that since HAMAS terrorists disregard the “rules of war” by targeting innocent civilians, Israel is entitled to use the same tactics in return. Comparisons have been made with the carpet bombing of Dresden, or the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which some seek to justify as “last resort” tactics without which the Second World War would have ended very differently.

Just War theory rebukes the notion that “all is fair in love and war.” Killing innocent civilians is not “collateral damage” even if the enemy have killed your innocent civilians – it is still murder. If reports are correct that around two thirds of the Palestinians killed are non-combatants, women and children, then Israel has not shown the discrimination of which its technology would be capable.

You may have read of the tragic deaths of three daughters and one niece of Palestinian obstetrician Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish under Israeli shell fire. Dr Abuelaish was known and loved by Israelis.
The BBC website quotes the doctor’s reaction.
“I had just left the room, carrying my youngest son on my shoulders. Then a shell came through the wall.
“I rushed back to find their dead bodies – or rather parts of their bodies – strewn all over the room. One was still sitting in a chair but she had no legs.”
“Tell me why did they have to die? Who gave the order to fire on my house?”
In a voice cracked with emotion, he added: “You know me, Lucy. You have been to my house, my hospital; you have seen my Israeli patients.
“I have tried so hard to bring people on both sides together and just look what I get in return.”

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