As the number of people killed in Gaza has exceeded 14,000, according to Gazan health officials, Israel faces worldwide condemnation for its offensive, which was paused last week. Israel insists that it is doing all it can to protect civilians, given the complex urban environment it is fighting in, the embedding of Hamas in the civilian population and persistent missile strikes. But Israel must do more to address the suffering of Palestinians, now and after the war ends. In the short term, Israel should pay compensation to the families of the dead in Gaza and treat the injured. In the future, it must also play a role in the enormous international effort that will be required to reconstruct the territory under its new government, whatever that may be.
While the hurdles are large for more immediate aid — including the willingness of Palestinians to accept help from the people who have bombed them and of Israelis to give it during a war against the perpetrators of an atrocity against Israeli civilians — the idea is worth considering. Cash payments to victims of collateral harm are rare but not unprecedented. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces made “condolence” payments usually in the range of $2,500 to $5,000 to some families for each person killed by U.S. troops during combat operations. These payments were expressions of sympathy, not restitution for damages, with the United States sidestepping liability. Israel can do the same.
To provide medical care, Israel maintains mobile field hospitals to respond to natural disasters around the globe. Press these into service in Gaza. Collaborate with other nations willing to offer medical support. In 2014, Israel set up a field hospital at the northern gateway between Gaza and Israel to treat Palestinians injured in that year’s round of fighting. Few went, likely because of pressure from Hamas to stay away. Try it again, this time in the middle of Gaza. Hamas is losing its stranglehold.
For Israelis, the knotty question is not how but why. According to international law, collateral harm is not inherently unlawful if combatants take care to minimize casualties and do not target civilians. The families of those killed and wounded have no legal recourse. Why, then, offer anything to Gazan civilians? Military expediency and improving Israel’s moral standing in an increasingly skeptical world is one answer. To successfully wage war in Gaza, Israel needs to separate combatants from civilians. Apart from killing and capturing combatants, separation means taking special care of the civilian population to prevent further radicalisation, galvanize support for a postwar Palestinian government and leave room for conciliation and cooperation. If we take Israel’s claim seriously that its target is Hamas, not Palestinian civilians, there are compelling reasons to attend to the dead and injured.
But deeper moral reasons to offer financial support and care to the collateral victims of war exist. The underlying moral obligation is not too difficult to understand. While collateral injuries may be unintentional and unavoidable, they remain a catastrophic side effect of war. Armed conflict, by its very nature, is a humanitarian disaster.
Nevertheless, its victims are innocent, threaten no one and have no truck with war. And while the rules of war acknowledge civilians can suffer harm, they’ve done nothing to warrant their fate. They are, therefore, owed something by those who harm them. True, the lion’s share of responsibility sits with the aggressor — in this case, Hamas. But nations defending themselves also incur something more than negligible liability. Condolence payments and medical care can discharge this moral debt.
Compensation and care for collateral victims of war are not without pitfalls, but there is much to learn from the mix of good will and self-interest adopted by U.S. and international coalition forces in Afghanistan. While some civilians received U.S. money and medicine in Iraq and Afghanistan, condolence payments were often meager, inequitable and unregulated. As much as money and medicine might evoke gratitude and cooperation from some civilians, they can also arouse resentment and enmity from the many others who received little or nothing. Avoiding these pitfalls would require sufficient budgeting, strict eligibility criteria and disbursement controls to ensure that civilians alone would receive financial support and that funds would not reach combatants.
Medical care in Iraq and Afghanistan was subject to special eligibility rules that regulated treatment for local residents in U.S. and coalition field hospitals. Ordinarily, civilians did not qualify for treatment at military hospitals unless their injuries were collateral, the direct result of coalition military actions, although exceptions were made. Here, too, gratitude mixed with resentment. When injured civilians competed with wounded coalition soldiers for bed space, civilians lost out. All other sick or injured civilians had to seek treatment in understaffed and poorly equipped local health care systems.
In Gaza, however, the battlefront is close to the home front, where wounded Israeli soldiers receive treatment. This leaves field hospitals available for Palestinian casualties. Designed primarily for emergency care, field hospitals prioritize saving lives, limbs and eyesight. Afterward, patients could be transferred to the local health care system, aid-agency hospitals or, for complex cases, to hospitals in Israel or abroad.
Nevertheless, medicine and money for Gazan civilians would very likely draw outrage from both sides. Some Israelis would be indignant. Israel has consistently penalized the Palestinian
ity for its payouts to families of terrorists killed by Israeli troops. The idea of compensating or treating civilians that Hamas deliberately placed in harm’s way would seem unconscionable to some. Overcoming their resistance wouldn’t be easy.
And yet. When rampaging settlers overran the Palestinian village of Huwara in February, thousands of Israelis donated money for rebuilding. These well-meaning Israelis and many others recognize the moral obligation to help innocent civilians. Others would be swayed by military and peace dividends, particularly if bold public officials lead the way. Some will always remain opposed. But at least these proposals should be debated.
Israel’s obligation to provide aid amid war remains the same afterward so that as Gaza rebuilds under a new government, the two sides find common ground for secure, peaceful and dignified coexistence. This must be Israel’s ultimate goal and one its leaders must be ready to commit money and medicine to attain.