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The EditorsNovember 03, 2023
Injured people are assisted after what Gaza Health Ministry said was an Israeli airstrike on the CNEWA-supported al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City Oct. 17, 2023. Israeli Defense Forces said it was a failed rocket launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. (OSV News photo/Mohammed Al-Masri, Reuters)

On Oct. 7, Hamas militants committed a horrific war crime against the Israeli people. Terrorists indiscriminately slaughtered over 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians. It was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. As Catholics, we must stand in solidarity with the dead and grieving against the antisemitic, sectarian ideology that fueled this terrorist attack.

Hamas also took 240 hostages, including many women and children, only five of whom have since been freed. We must hold in our hearts and prayers the mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, grandparents and grandchildren, siblings, cousins and friends who sit in dread and hope, waiting to learn the fate of their treasured ones. Nothing can justify their continued captivity.

Standing in solidarity against Hamas and against antisemitism does not require unlimited support for every military decision Israel makes in response to the attack.

At the same time, some protests against the Israeli military response to the Hamas attacks have crossed the line from humanitarian concern for civilians in Gaza into outright antisemitism and violent anti-Israel rhetoric. This has included claims that Israel bears responsibility for the Oct. 7 attacks and other language that echoes Hamas’s language calling for the destruction of Israel “from the river to the sea.” Some American college campuses have seen antisemitic threats directed toward Jewish students. Nothing can justify such hate.

Standing in solidarity against Hamas and against antisemitism, however, does not require unlimited support for every military decision Israel makes in response to the attack. The principles of just war, especially regarding the avoidance of harm to noncombatants, still apply. Israel began with a “full siege” of Gaza that cannot meet the standards of just war, with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant saying on Oct. 9: “No power, no food, no gas, everything is closed…. We are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly.”

The use of dehumanizing language like “human animals” to justify the denial of basic necessities such as food and water cannot be accepted—particularly given the way this language has been used in the past to justify genocide. Like any sovereign state, Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorist violence. But 2.2 million people live in Gaza, which has about the same land area as the city of Las Vegas but more than three times the population; nearly 40 percent are under the age of 15. The overwhelming majority are innocent civilians, and their suffering is profound and unjust.

On Oct. 21, aid began to enter Gaza. This speaks to the power of international attention and pressure in achieving humanitarian ends—but the administration of that aid must be accelerated. Only yesterday, Nov. 2, did the number of trucks allowed into Gaza cross the 100-per-day mark that aid agencies say is the bare minimum necessary to avoid humanitarian catastrophe; even that is only one-fifth of the aid Gaza was receiving under normal conditions.

2.2 million people live in Gaza; nearly 40 percent are under the age of 15. The overwhelming majority are innocent civilians.

The primary limits on the flow of aid into Gaza are the intensive inspections Israel conducts in order to guarantee no contraband reaches Hamas, a justified precaution in light of last month’s atrocities and Hamas’s ongoing bombardment of Israel. Israel also continues to refuse to allow any fuel to enter Gaza, because of concerns that Hamas could intercept it; but fuel is necessary to run power plants and pump stations to provide electricity and drinking water to Gaza’s civilian population.

The situation is dire: More than 9,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza as of Nov. 2, and thousands are estimated to be trapped beneath rubble. Since the beginning of the hostilities, Israeli airstrikes have damaged or destroyed at least 45 percent of Gaza’s housing units, according to a Nov. 2 U.N. report. The health care system teeters on the brink of collapse. For weeks, Gazan hospitals have been sounding the alarm about waning fuel supplies as they struggle to treat the nearly 23,000 injured.

The chief of Israel’s armed forces, Lieutenant-General Herzi Halevi, told reporters that Israel may resupply fuel to those hospitals, but only with monitoring “to ensure that it will not reach Hamas infrastructures.”

But for those suffering in Gaza, time is running out. It is not only the hospitals that are in need—the lack of fuel has led to a severe water shortage across Gaza. As of Oct. 29, Israel said it was supplying about half the water via pipeline to Gaza that it ordinarily would. Other water infrastructure, including pumps to extract groundwater, desalination plants and sewage treatment facilities, have been out of order for weeks. The taps have run dry, and trucks that usually refill household water tanks have been unable to make their deliveries without fuel. As a result, many Gazans have resorted to drinking polluted, salty water.

U.N. relief officials in Gaza report that the lack of food, fuel, ongoing bombardment, and destruction of infrastructure in Gaza have made it extremely difficult to distribute much-needed aid. World Health Organization spokesperson Christian Lindmeier warned that the humanitarian conditions risk further civilian death unrelated to Israeli bombardment. “It’s an imminent public health catastrophe that looms with the mass displacement, the overcrowding, the damage to water and sanitation infrastructure,” Mr. Lindmeier explained.

Just war theory stresses that there is never a justification to deliberately attack civilians and always a duty to avoid harming them as much as possible.

On Nov. 2, the White House announced that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would urge the Israeli government to agree to a series of “humanitarian pauses” to allow for aid to be distributed and for hostages to be released safely. That pressure must be maintained and intensified, as highlighted by reports on Nov. 3 that Israel was ruling out any pause until hostages are freed. The standard by which the flow of aid must be measured is not what Israel assesses as militarily allowable, but what is necessary for the preservation of the basic dignity of the noncombatants suffering in Gaza. A “specter of death is hanging over Gaza,” said Martin Griffiths, the U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, “With no water, no power, no food and no medicine, thousands will die.”

Just war theory is clear in its mandate to distinguish between citizens and combatants while waging war and stresses that there is never a justification to deliberately attack civilians and always a duty to avoid harming them as much as possible in any justified military action. It is true that Hamas uses Gazans as human shields and possesses stockpiles of fuel that could be put to humanitarian uses—but the injustice of an enemy in war underlines, rather than erases, the requirements of justice in action taken against them.

A policy of near-total siege cannot be made compatible with such obligations. And the Israeli-imposed restrictions on food, water and fuel are not an inevitable component of the larger conflict, but a deliberate military decision. The fact that these restrictions have already been relaxed in response to diplomatic pressure demonstrates that they are a strategic choice. The international community, and especially the Biden administration, should continue to press the demand for civilian humanitarian assistance to take priority over military goals.

Countries that have suffered terrorist attacks—including the United States—are right to feel solidarity with the people of Israel. But such sympathy does not require, and cannot justify, ignoring the needs of the people of Gaza. The rule of international law, and even more, a basic commitment to human dignity, both demand something more than the meeting of terror with terror. As the Society of Jesus said in a statement on the conflict, “The only possible victory is the fruit of a struggle for justice and peace, equality and reconciliation.”

Editor’s note (added Nov. 4, 2023): America has a long history of editorials focusing on the conflict in Israel and Palestine and the conditions necessary for a just peace. An overview of that history was published on Oct. 24, 2023.

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