As the number of people killed in Gaza has exceeded 14,000, according to Gaza health authorities, Israel is facing global condemnation for its offensive, which was paused last week. Israel insists it is doing everything in its power to protect civilians given the complex urban environment in which it is fighting, Hamas’s embeddedness in civilians and ongoing rocket attacks.
But Israel must do more now and after the war to ease the suffering of the Palestinians.
In the short term, Israel should pay compensation to the families of the dead in Gaza and treat the injured. Going forward, it must also play a role in the enormous international effort that will be required to rebuild the territory under its new government, whatever that may be.
While the hurdles to more immediate aid are large – including the willingness of Palestinians to accept help from the people they bombed and Israelis to provide it during a war against the perpetrators of an atrocity against Israeli civilians – the idea is one Worth considering.
Cash payments to victims of collateral damage are rare but not unprecedented. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces paid some families “condolence payments,” typically between $2,500 and $5,000 for each person killed by U.S. troops in combat operations. These payments were an expression of compassion rather than compensation for damages, with the United States escaping liability. Israel can do the same.
To provide medical care, Israel maintains mobile field hospitals to respond to natural disasters around the world. Deploy these in Gaza. Collaborate with other nations willing to provide medical support. In 2014, Israel set up a field hospital at the northern gate between Gaza and Israel to treat Palestinians injured in that year’s fighting. Few went, likely due to pressure from Hamas to stay away. Try again, this time in the middle of Gaza. Hamas is losing its stranglehold.
For Israelis, the tricky question is not how, but why. Under international law, collateral damage is not inherently illegal if combatants take care to minimize casualties and not target civilians. The families of those killed and wounded have no legal recourse.
So why offer anything to the civilians in Gaza?
Military expediency and improving Israel’s moral standing in an increasingly skeptical world are one answer. To wage a successful war in Gaza, Israel must separate combatants from civilians. Beyond killing and capturing combatants, separation means taking special care of civilians to prevent further radicalization, strengthening support for a post-war Palestinian government, and creating space for reconciliation and cooperation. If we take seriously Israel’s claim that its target is Hamas and not Palestinian civilians, there are compelling reasons to care about the dead and injured.
But there are deeper moral reasons to offer financial support and care to the collateral victims of war. The underlying moral obligation is not too difficult to understand. Although collateral damage may be unintentional and unavoidable, it remains a catastrophic side effect of war. Armed conflict is, by its very nature, a humanitarian catastrophe.
Nevertheless, his victims are innocent, threaten no one and have nothing to do with war. And while the rules of war recognize that civilians can suffer harm, they have done nothing to justify their fate. Therefore, those who harm them owe them something. The lion’s share of responsibility lies with the attacker – in this case with Hamas. But nations that defend themselves also bear more than insignificant liability. Condolence payments and medical care can pay this moral debt.
Compensating and caring for collateral victims of war is not without its pitfalls, but there is much to be learned from the mix of goodwill and self-interest shown by U.S. and international coalition forces in Afghanistan. While some civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan received U.S. money and medicine, condolence payments were often paltry, unfair, and unregulated. As much as money and medicine inspire gratitude and cooperation among some civilians, they can also provoke resentment and hostility among the many others who have received little or nothing. Avoiding these pitfalls would require adequate budgeting, strict eligibility criteria, and disbursement controls to ensure that only civilians receive financial assistance and that funds do not reach combatants.
Medical care in Iraq and Afghanistan was subject to special admission rules that governed the treatment of local residents in U.S. and coalition field hospitals. Normally, civilians were not entitled to treatment in military hospitals unless their injuries were collateral damage, that is, the direct result of coalition military actions, although there were exceptions. Here too, gratitude was mixed with resentment. When injured civilians competed with wounded coalition soldiers for sleeping space, the civilians lost. All other sick or injured civilians had to seek treatment in understaffed and poorly equipped local health systems.
In Gaza, however, the front is close to the home front, where wounded Israeli soldiers are being treated. This leaves field hospitals available for Palestinian victims. Field hospitals are designed primarily for emergency care and emphasize saving lives, limbs and eyesight. Patients could then be transferred to the local health system, to aid organization hospitals or, in complex cases, to hospitals in Israel or abroad.
Still, medicines and money for civilians in Gaza would most likely provoke outrage on both sides.
Some Israelis would be outraged. Israel has repeatedly punished the Palestinian Authority for its payouts to families of terrorists killed by Israeli troops. The idea of compensating or treating civilians that Hamas has intentionally put in harm’s way seems unreasonable to some. Overcoming their resistance wouldn’t be easy.
And yet. When angry settlers overran the Palestinian village of Huwara in February, thousands of Israelis donated money for reconstruction. These well-meaning Israelis and many others recognize the moral obligation to help innocent civilians. Others would be influenced by military and peace dividends, especially when courageous officials take the lead. Some will always remain against it. But at least these suggestions should be discussed.
Israel’s critics would be equally appalled. Killing those you could and healing those you couldn’t sounds relentless and callous – little more than a self-serving propaganda ploy. At least for critics, the argument is backwards. Anyone serious about mitigating harm to civilians should stop shooting and negotiate.
Moral obligations do not disappear when fighting stops. While it is still too early to assess Gaza’s needs or the type of government that will ultimately prevail, successful postwar reconstruction will require significant funding from Israel, the United States and other nations for infrastructure, resources and trained personnel required to ensure safety. Health care, education, social welfare and criminal justice. Good governance in Gaza is also crucial if Israel is to provide support.
Israel’s obligation to provide assistance even during the war will continue afterward, so that both sides will find common ground for safe, peaceful and dignified coexistence in the reconstruction of Gaza under a new government. This must be Israel’s ultimate goal, and its leaders must be prepared to use money and medicine to achieve it.
Michael L. Gross is Professor of Political Science at the University of Haifa. He is the author of “Military Medical Ethics in Contemporary Armed Conflict” and “The Ethics of Insurgency.”
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