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Israel may have the least ‘moral army’ in the world

The rate of civilian death during Israel’s assault on Gaza has few precedents this century

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

IDF soldiers in Gaza, February 12, 2024. Photo courtesy IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most astonishing response Israel has offered to South Africa’s genocide case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that Israel has the “most moral army in the world” and that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) make every effort to avoid harming non-combatants. Two weeks before Netanyahu made this statement, the Switzerland-based Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor reported that Israel had killed 29,124 people in Gaza. Of these, 26,706, a shocking 92 percent, were civilians. This suggests that it is not just a matter of Israel failing to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants; it is that it increasingly appears as though Israel is deliberately trying to kill as many civilians as possible, with an added bonus if Hamas fighters are eliminated along the way. According to a US doctor in Gaza, Israeli snipers are routinely executing Palestinian children with single shots to their heads. Medical workers, patients, and displaced civilians have endured similar fates.

Netanyahu is not the only one to have tragicomically invoked the ‘moral superiority’ of the IDF since Israel launched its devastating retaliatory assault on October 7. Journalist Avi Garfinkel made the same argument in Haaretz, as did University of Chicago professor emeritus Charles Lipson in the UK’s Telegraph. Both say Israel “still” has the “most moral” army but do not address how the IDF’s repeated failure to comply with the laws of war totally undermine its claim to morality.

Bizarrely, Lipson rests his case on Israel’s treatment of Palestinian hospitals—specifically the Indonesian hospital, Al-Shifa, and Al-Rantisi—and puts forth the fanciful claim that “Israel has serious moral reservations about attacking civilian facilities and risking harm to innocents.” He goes on to assert that, “It is Israel, not Hamas, which has tried to minimize the loss of innocent lives. Intention matters here.” Of course, there is a mountain of evidence proving exactly the opposite. Israel in fact deliberately targeted the Indonesian hospital in northern Gaza. The assault killed 12 people, including patients and their companions. Video verified by the New York Times shows “devastation in a ward of the hospital… with bodies and wreckage sprawled across the floor.”

Similarly, Ann Taylor, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Head of Mission in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, described the situation in Al-Shifa as “truly catastrophic” and said that MSF “call[ed] on the Israeli government to cease [its] unrelenting assault on Gaza’s health system.” The group “denounce[d] the death warrant for civilians currently trapped in Al-Shifa hospital signed by the Israeli military.” Israel also reportedly struck Al-Rantisi Children’s Hospital, home to Gaza’s only pediatric oncology department, killing eight. As Annie Sparrow and Kenneth Roth write in Foreign Policy:

Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s health care system is not only an important part of the genocide charges—it is also a blatant war crime that should be prosecuted outright by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has an active investigation underway of war crimes in Palestine. While the ICJ resolves disputes between states, the ICC adjudicates criminal prosecutions of individuals.
Targeting health care achieves little militarily while amplifying the death toll and suffering caused by indiscriminate bombardment. Such attacks flout the core purpose of international humanitarian law—to relieve civilian suffering—and are thus often an omen of broader atrocities to come.

Ironically, Lipson’s own examples show that Israel has no “serious moral reservations about attacking civilian facilities and risking harm to innocents” and has not “tried to minimize the loss of innocent lives.” Lipson is either lying or extremely naïve.

For his part, Garfinkel’s attempt to prove the Israeli military’s alleged “morality” involves the erroneous statement that the IDF “enable[s] fuel, food and medicine to be supplied to [its] enemies at the height of the fighting.” Just last week, Human Rights Watch noted that Israel is deliberately starving Palestinian civilians as a weapon of war, stating: “Israeli forces are deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food, and fuel, while willfully impeding humanitarian assistance, apparently razing agricultural areas, and depriving the civilian population of objects indispensable to their survival.” The repeated blocking of crucial fuel, food, and humanitarian aid is a form of collective punishment, which is a war crime and prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Recent developments and assessments bolster the view that Israel has one of the least “moral arm[ies]” in the contemporary world. Oxfam calculated that the 250 Palestinians Israel has been killing on average each day is significantly higher than the death rate in any recent war, including those in “Syria (96.5 deaths per day), Sudan (51.6), Iraq (50.8), Ukraine (43.9) Afghanistan (23.8) and Yemen (15.8).” Moreover, the Times reported that “scholars of famine say it has been generations since the world has seen this degree of food deprivation in warfare.” The article quoted Alex de Waal, an expert on humanitarian crises and international law at Tufts University, who said, “The rigor, scale and speed of the destruction of the structures necessary for survival, and enforcement of the siege, surpasses any other case of man-made famine in the last 75 years.”

It is a sign of desperation that Israel and its supporters go on making the outlandish claim that the IDF is a beacon of morality. This is an indication of how isolated from world opinion, particularly in the Global South, Zionism has become. That the project is that detached from reality is a sign of its vulnerability.

Greg Shupak writes fiction and political analysis and teaches Media Studies and English at the University of Guelph-Humber. He’s the author of The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media. He writes a monthly column with Canadian Dimension and his work frequently appears in outlets like Electronic Intifada, F.A.I.R, The Guardian, In These Times, Jacobin, and The Nation.


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