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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    Name one single war in which civilians were not killed. The IDF does everything in its power, including risking the lives of its own soldiers, to protect civilians. – dotancohen Nov 25 '14 at 6:50

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.

An excerpt:

It is clear to me that the vast majority of contemporary poseqim agree with R. Shaul Yisraeli, and for that reason, even as there are numerous sefarim that deal with religious life in the army, not a single one of them discusses battlefield ethics halakhah le-ma`’aseh. Why? Because the Israeli army obeys international law, and that is all halakhah requires in war.

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?"

  • does international law apply to those who do not obey it? It has become exploited by terrorist armies and really needs to be re-evaluated due to the grave danger it poses to world security. perhaps to waive it when terrorists fire regularly from civilian areas for example. – ray May 7 '14 at 10:15
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    Better article is R. Chaim Jachter's "Halachic Perspectives on Civilian Casualties" available (in 3 parts) koltorah.org/ravj/… – wfb Feb 15 '15 at 18:05
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    koltorah.org/ravj/… and koltorah.org/ravj/… – wfb Feb 15 '15 at 18:05

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.

Sifri (page קפז) says וְצַרְתָּ עָלֶיהָ - אף להרעיבה, אף להצמיאה, אף להמיתה במיתת תחלואים. This includes all inhabitants of the city alike. (Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (see footnote 6))

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)

  • Maimonides is, of course, always a great source to bring to a discussion. But do we actually hold this way? Furthermore, how can one determine, in a guerilla war, and which the combatants are otherwise civilians and fight from their homes and from civilian locations, whether or not the women and children are involved? – Seth J Nov 27 '12 at 13:51
  • On the other side of the question, is the fact that, perhaps, according to him, no war in Israel is legitimate today, since we have no legitimate king from the line of David. – Seth J Nov 27 '12 at 13:53
  • @SethJ see edits. I'd like to see the source for your second comment. – JNF Nov 28 '12 at 7:33

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):

All civilians living in Gaza are collectively guilty for Kassam attacks on Sderot, 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 aimed at stopping the rocket launchings. The letter, published in Olam Katan [Small World], a weekly pamphlet to be distributed in synagogues nationwide this Friday, cited the biblical story of the Shechem massacre (Genesis 34) and Maimonides' commentary (Laws of Kings 9, 14) on the story as proof texts for his legal decision. According to Jewish war ethics, wrote Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets. The former chief rabbi also said it was forbidden to risk the lives of Jews in Sderot or the lives of IDF soldiers for fear of injuring or killing Palestinian noncombatants living in Gaza. Eliyahu could not be reached for an interview. However, Eliyahu's son, Shmuel Eliyahu, who is chief rabbi of Safed, said his father opposed a ground troop incursion into Gaza that would endanger IDF soldiers. Rather, he advocated carpet bombing the general area from which the Kassams were launched, regardless of the price in Palestinian life. "If they don't stop after we kill 100, then we must kill a thousand," said Shmuel Eliyahu. "And if they do not stop after 1,000 then we must kill 10,000. If they still don't stop we must kill 100,000, even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop." In the letter, Eliyahu quoted from Psalms. "I will pursue my enemies and apprehend them and I will not desist until I have eradicated them." Eliyahu wrote that "This is a message to all leaders of the Jewish people not to be compassionate with those who shoot [rockets] at civilians in their houses."


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    Good grief that's disgusting. – TRiG Oct 28 '14 at 15:07
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    @TRiG war is disgusting, yes. but sometimes it is a kill or be killed situation. – ray Oct 28 '14 at 18:33
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    He is wrong, because the civilians of Gaza are ruled by a brutal terrorist organization who would kill them if they speak against them. Furthermore, the Rambam is not the only opinion on this matter; see Ramban for instance. Also, the Arabs are monotheists and not pagans of the past. Lastly, Israel has to live by international standards or else many more Jews around the world and within Israel may get killed to avenge all the innocent civilians. – Emet v'Shalom Dec 13 '15 at 1:37
  • @Emetv'Shalom i'm sure the Rav has taken these things into consideration and many more things you havent thought of – ray Dec 13 '15 at 19:07
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    @ray: Well the Rav is wrong, period. – Emet v'Shalom Dec 13 '15 at 23:34

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