In the recent Operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza, many Palestinian civillians were killed by Israeli air-strikes (the Palestines claim the number is as high as 158, while according to the IDF the correct number is 57 [source]). Israel has stated that they do everything in their control to minimize casualties (utilizing precision strikes, issuing preemptive warnings to Palestinian residents and aborting strikes because of civilian presence) and in any war it is inevitable that there will be civilian loss. What does halacha say about this topic; it seems clear that we can and may defend ourselves but does halacha specifically address the issue of civilians getting killed in a military operation?
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See Rabbi Michael Broyde's excellent essay (entitled, in various versions, either "Only the Good Die Young" or "Judaism is Not a Suicide Pact!") here.
Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik zt"l (quoted by his son Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik in an mp3 about the halachas of drafting yeshiva students) similarly points to a Tanchuma -- "be aggressive to the Midianites and strike them, for they are aggressive to you -- from here the Sages deduced: one who is approaching to kill you, kill him first." Rabbi Soloveichik commented that the concept of self-defense for the individual civilian is found more plainly in Exodus, absolving someone for killing a thief who broke into their house (as we assume the thief may have been willing to lethally silence the homeowner). He said the Tanchuma is referring to actions on a national scale -- a country's army can go to war in self-defense, and does not have to perform a calculus regarding every single person on the battlefield, "am I certain that this person is a lethal threat to me right now?"
here's what Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu zt'l, the former chief rabbi of Israel, ruled on this (he was also known as a great kabalist and a miracle man):
Rambam addresses this (Melachim 6:4): "And do not kill women or children".
This is talking about a case where the women and children are not part of the war - as opposed to cases where children and women are part of the war effort, for instance, by being soldiers themselves, or the nations which we are commanded to annihilate.
This is the practice in our wars today, also regarding "innocent" poeple who are in close proximity to soldiers so that killing the soldiers will result in their death as well (Rabbi Shmuel Elyahu, Rabbi Neria Guttel (see summary and footnotes), Rabbi S. Yisraeli - Amud Hyemini 16, Rabbi D. Lior - here and other various places)
protected by Double AA♦ Nov 27 '12 at 6:06
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