Israel Killed Hundreds of Civilians to Save Four of Its Own

Last Saturday, Israel massacred hundreds of Palestinian civilians in an operation to rescue four Israeli hostages. American commentators rushed to justify the brutal operation.

Palestinians walk on the rubble of destroyed buildings following an operation by the Israeli Special Forces in the Nuseirat camp in the central Gaza Strip on June 8, 2024. (Eyad Baba / AFP via Getty Images)

Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs was sitting on a beach in Tel Aviv last Saturday when a lifeguard announced that four hostages had been rescued by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). She described the scene in an article for Bari Weiss’s Free Press:

The cheers were immediate and ecstatic. People threw their children into the air. Strangers hugged strangers. Many openly wept. The clapping and singing and dancing spread all the way down the beach.

It’s not hard to comprehend the reaction. The seizing of random civilians as hostages is a disturbing war crime, and it’s understandable that people who identified with the victims would joyously celebrate their return home.

But what this snapshot elides is that the Israeli authorities do plenty of hostage-taking of their own, even if they try to give it a veneer of legitimacy by calling it “administrative detention.” And the Israeli government could have brought home not just four of the Israeli hostages taken by Hamas but all of them at any time in the last eight months as part of a long-term cease-fire deal, but has elected not to. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly that, while he’s willing to pause his systematic destruction of the Gaza Strip for brief periods, any agreement that would require him to end the war without “finishing the job” of “destroying” Hamas is out of the question.

The idea that Hamas will be “destroyed” by carpet-bombing is specious, especially after parallel efforts to “destroy” insurgent organizations have failed so spectacularly elsewhere. In Afghanistan, for example, the United States spent two decades “destroying the Taliban” to no avail. If anything, common sense would suggest that the horrors the IDF has been inflicting on Gaza for the last eight months are more likely have the opposite effect, supercharging recruitment to Hamas or successor organizations. Additionally, if Hamas were actually “destroyed” (or came close to being destroyed) most of the hostages Hamas is holding would almost certainly be destroyed in the process.

In other words, while Netanyahu is happy to bask in the approval of the Israeli public for bringing home four of the hostages, he’s willing to let most of the rest languish and possibly die for the sake of finishing the “job” that’s already displaced millions of innocent Palestinians from their homes and created the largest population of child amputees on the planet. Israeli families’ hopes of reunification with their captured loved ones are being systematically sacrificed for the sake of completing a massive project of ethnic cleansing that has destroyed the lives of countless Palestinian families.

Unsurprisingly, many of the hostages’ families quite openly oppose Netanyahu’s calculus, on the basis of its disregard for their loved one’s lives. But what about the lives of Palestinians’ loved ones? Those, too, are being sacrificed, and in far larger number.

In Saturday’s operation, the IDF killed 274 Gazans. A large percentage seems to have been civilians, and many of them were children. The raid happened during the daytime, and the cover to enable the soldiers to escape with the four rescued hostages included bombing a crowded market.

Israel’s apologists in the West have used last weekend’s rescue operation to try to shore up support for the atrocities and deny the value of Palestinian lives. MSBNC’s Donny Deutsch, for example, took to the air to say that it was time to have an “honest conversation” about the “definition of ‘civilian’ casualties.” He pointed out that rescued hostages had been kept in the homes of a Palestinian doctor and a Palestinian journalist. Well, he asked, are those “civilians”?

Reality check: the total number of hostages taken by Hamas on October 7 was 250. Even if all 250 were kept in the homes of 250 separate doctors or journalists, and those 250 doctors or journalists had therefore forfeited their civilian status, that still leaves 2.3 million Gazan civilians. Perhaps realizing that his argument didn’t go very far, Deutsch added that “thousands” of Gazans had cheered for Hamas’s crimes on October 7, and speculated — he has no way of knowing, of course — that many of the civilians slaughtered by the IDF as part of the hostage rescue operation were “deep, deep Hamas sympathizers.”

What Deutsch didn’t explain is how any of these speculations, even if they were proven true, justify the indiscriminate mass killing of civilians. Do innocent people lose their right to live by “cheering” for terrible things they themselves didn’t do, or by being “deep, deep sympathizers” of unsavory factions? If many of the Israelis murdered on October 7 were “deep, deep sympathizers” for the government of Benjamin Netanyahu — a war criminal who may soon be prevented from visiting most countries in the world by an arrest warrant issued on behalf of the International Criminal Court — does that retroactively justify their deaths? If many Israelis (and indeed many Americans) are prepared to cheer for the IDF’s war in Gaza, despite the displacement of millions and the ever-growing mountain of civilian corpses, do those Israelis and Americans therefore forfeit their right to life?

This kind of twisted logic should be rejected in every instance. But if anything, it makes even less sense in a Palestinian context than an Israeli or American one. Hamas has never won an outright majority in any Palestinian election. It won a plurality exactly once, in 2006, and no elections have been held since then. In 2006, about half of the Palestinians in Gaza weren’t even alive yet, and the vast majority of Gaza’s current population wasn’t old enough to vote. By contrast, Israel holds elections regularly, and Netanyahu has been in power off and (mostly) on for a very long time. And an outright majority of Americans voted for Joe Biden, who’s provided the two-thousand-pound bombs Netanyahu has dropped on refugee camps full of innocent children. Nearly all of the rest of the electorate went for Donald Trump, who’s even more rabidly pro-Israel than Biden.

If mass murdering Israeli or American civilians would be wrong despite all of this, no amount of “cheering” or “sympathizing” by some Gazans could justify what’s been done to civilians there. But once you acknowledge that, you lose all hope of justifying what happened last Saturday. Logically, there’s just no way to square the circle of (a) justifying killing hundreds of civilians to rescue four hostages without (b) admitting that you don’t quite think of Palestinians as full human beings whose lives matter as much as Israeli or American lives.

You can say, as those who are most bound and determined to stick to Israeli talking points always do, that “every” death in Gaza is exclusively the fault of Hamas because “they started the war.” In real life, October 7 was one link in a very long chain of attacks and counterattacks, atrocities and counteratrocities that flows from Israel’s violent system of domination over its noncitizen Palestinian population. But even if we start the clock with October 7, 2023, the idea that the atrocities of that day absolve the people currently massacring Gazan civilians of any responsibility is morally depraved.

The usual rationalizations about “human shields” are similarly unconvincing. Imagine that a terrorist group kidnapped four people in Los Angeles. In this hypothetical, it’s cleanly and unambiguously true that they started it. Now imagine that they kept these hostages underneath a crowded daycare center.

If the Los Angeles Police Department blew up the daycare center, killing a hundred children, in order to get to the four hostages and rescue them, would we shrug and say, “Well, that’s very sad, but I don’t blame the police even a little bit for all the children they killed because the terrorist group started it and those kids were being used as human shields”?

Of course not. No one, anywhere, would say that. The standard should be no different for the murder of civilians, many of them children, in Gaza.