On October 7, 2019, exactly four years before Hamas’s massacre of 1,200 Israelis, now known as “Black Sabbath” and the outbreak of the Swords of Iron War in Gaza, I spoke with Meir Ettinger about the “Gaza problem.” This discussion was part of our ongoing exploration of various issues, as learning companions that we conducted for two and a half years.

Publishing parts of our shared learning was not trivial. It was only in May of that year that Meir first revealed our common project on the website HaKol HaYehudi—a news site owned by “Happy Jews” from the settlement Yitzhar, established by followers of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, aiming to disseminate his teachings.

Meir wrote:

For the past year and a half, I have been studying weekly with Idan . . . We began our studies with topics I chose, believing they are central to the debate between the religious right and the secular left. The first topic was ‘the ethics of war,’ a subject Idan extensively dealt with, partly in his role as a military psychologist, and one that naturally interests me as well. Over time, our study became in-depth and challenging. This is why, despite my initial objection, I agreed not only to learn but also to document our discussions in writing . . . Our collaboration also led to a joint trip to Uman in Rosh Hashanah, and the shared prayer at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav . . . I believe that the more we truly understand what fellow Jews think—even those who are distant or whom we consider mistaken—the better we can articulate our opinions and explain ourselves . . . I pray and hope that our joint learning will yield an original and interesting work—one that can serve as a bridge of understanding between different segments of our people, a bridge that can be crossed without compromising or surrendering our own dogmas.


The topic of the “Gaza problem”—shaped and defined by the ethics of war—seems more relevant today than ever, prompting my interest in sharing the essence of this conversation with you.


The Conversationalists


Dr. Idan Yaron

A sociologist, social anthropologist, and cultural researcher specializing in the far right—both radical and extreme—in Israel. One of the books he authored was devoted to Military Law and Ethics (Carmel Publishers, 2018).


Meir Ettinger

The grandson of Rabbi Meir Kahana and a resident of Yitzhar. Previously identified as “the number one target of the Jewish division of the Shin Bet,” he spent ten months in administrative detention. He is the prominent ideologue of the “Hilltop Youth”—a unique national religious phenomenon involving teenage girls, and especially boys, who live fully or partially in the hills of Judea and Samaria—and a follower of the radical rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh.


The Conversation


Support for Terrorism and Its MeaningThe “Majority Principle”

Idan (I.): Let’s try to understand the situation in Gaza and discuss potential solutions. I’ll start by mentioning a pamphlet you wrote for the Derech Haim movement (aimed to present the Israeli public with new, Torah-based answers to pressing national problems), under the presidency of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, titled Gaza: Recalculating Our Route. It begins with an introduction noting that “we have been grappling with the ‘Gaza problem’ for many years. This small strip, now a hotbed of terrorism, constantly troubles the State of Israel.” So, my first question is to what extent do you associate the residents of Gaza with the Hamas regime? Are they one and the same, or are these two distinct entities?

Meir (M.): Halacha and Hebrew law—which use the concept of “majority” to make decisions in uncertain situations—assist us in considering the status of the population in Gaza. It directs us to view it as a “collective,” especially since we are in a state of war with it. In Halacha, there’s a rule concluding “whoever retires, retires from the majority.” The same applies to how we view the population in Gaza. The vast majority of Palestinians elected Hamas to represent them in the Palestinian Legislative Council, despite its stated goal of destroying the State of Israel. They continue to support this organization even today. We must therefore consider the population in total as one conglomerate.

I.: I reckon that many Israelis object to the principles of international law. What is your opinion on this matter?

M.: Such principles, like “distinction,” are based on consensus, not morality. Nevertheless, we propose to infuse our own content to this mold: Those who do not identify with the Hamas regime can leave the Gaza Strip and start anew; those remaining are essentially aligning themselves with the regime or showing support for it. We believe this distinction will be more effective than the international one in achieving our wartime goals.

I.: I understand that, in practice, after creating such a distinction, there will be no resident left in the Gaza Strip. They will be divided between those who will leave voluntarily or with our gracious blessing, and those who will fight to the last drop of their blood.

M.: This is indeed the final objective of our proposed plan for the Gaza Strip. However, it must be remembered that this is a distant objective. Achieving it will follow several preliminary steps.

I.: One may assume that, after the initial steps, the population in the Gaza Strip will already be extremely depleted. What comes next?

M.: Residents interested in a better quality of life and escaping the cycle of hardship will receive an immigration package from the State of Israel and will move to live outside the Gaza Strip. Then, after taking it over, we will proceed to occupy the population concentrations systematically, area by area. I should emphasize that our proposed approach aims to prevent harm to those you call “innocent” or “uninvolved” (terms that I personally reject). If any such individuals exist, they are invited to leave the Gaza Strip. As a condition for leaving, residents will be required to relinquish their national and individual rights to the land. Thus, the war can focus solely on the enemy seeking to harm us, allowing it to be conducted as a war of attrition and ensuring the “elimination of terrorism once and for all.”

E: And finally?

M.: After the occupation, the Gaza Strip will be annexed, and Israel will declare sovereignty over it all, taking responsibility for its remaining residents, and encouraging their immigration. New Israeli settlements will flourish there.

Book Cover

Proportionality and Risk

M.: At this point, I’d like to hear your own view about another principle of international law, that of “proportionality.” What do you believe is a reasonable ratio between direct harm to terrorists and indirect or incidental harm to civilians?

I.: Although controversial, proportionality is indeed widely accepted as a key principle in the law of war. Essentially, this principle limits the use of lethal force in combat by establishing a general standard: The benefits of using lethal force to achieve military objectives should outweigh the costs. These costs are primarily measured in terms of civilian harm—both in casualties and damage to civilian property and the environment. It’s important to note that this doesn’t include combatants or military objectives.

M.: Beyond the general standard you’ve mentioned, what are the concrete measures to determine the costs, benefits, and the necessary balance between them? I am not satisfied with the vague notion of the principle as it is often used as a smokescreen to avoid examining the real value and practical implications of these concepts.

I.: It’s impossible to provide concrete and unequivocal standards. However, it should be clear to any reasonable person that saving one of our soldiers does not justify killing a thousand enemy civilians.

M.: Is it justified at all to harm civilians?

I.: The law of war is realistic and acknowledges that wars cannot be fought without civilian casualties or property damage. When facing an immediate and real threat, and doing only what is necessary to neutralize it, there might be unintentional harm to civilians. But one rule must always be followed: Never point your weapon at them.

M.: What about harming civilian property?

I.: I acknowledge that, in every instance of combat in a densely populated area, some indirect “collateral damage” is expected. Conventional wisdom holds that this damage shouldn’t be “excessive” relative to the concrete military need; hence, we are obliged to weigh the costs and benefits and establish clear boundaries. In any case, we should not damage civilian property and the environment without a real military necessity.

M.: In a conventional war, we have no interest in harming enemy civilians or civilian property, only in protecting our citizens and soldiers to achieve our military objectives. The war on terror, however, compels us to adopt different approaches.

I.: The war on terror indeed presents new and complex challenges. However, this doesn’t mean we should abandon established ethical principles of warfare. We must maintain a balance between military necessity and humanitarian duty.

M.: But how do we measure this balance?

I.: The rule is if the balance is significantly tipped, force should be avoided.

M.: Regarding infrastructure damage, it’s clear that fuel, food, and water—humanitarian supplies—support the Hamas regime. Thus, I believe there’s no justification for us to provide these resources to Gaza while they attack us with missiles, dig tunnels, and incite against us. What’s your stance on this?

I.: Separating damage to the Hamas regime or terrorists from damage to civilians is challenging. Basic infrastructure damage has a real impact on the civilian population. In any case, the expected damage must be carefully considered, not treated as an afterthought. The basic needs of the civilian population—food, potable water, and at least some measure of electric power—should be mandatorily provided. Measures should be taken that these essentials will actually reach the civilian population.

M.: If we adhere to these principles, the IDF’s ability to achieve its military and national goals will be constrained.

I.: Upholding these principles is the cost of being a democratic state committed to moral values, both Jewish and universal. Israel is significantly stronger than the terrorist organizations disrupting our peace and harming our soldiers and citizens. The IDF can undoubtedly painfully defeat Hamas or Hezbollah, if directed to do so by the political leadership. However, we must consider what this means for the war’s outcome and its broader consequences—for ourselves, as well as for our enemy. Eventually, we aspire for peace and prosperity for all.

M.: You would certainly agree that there are certain individuals who are destined to be harmed.

I.: Harming combatants, whether legal or illegal, is legitimate during war. This applies to individuals formally affiliated with the military wing of terrorist organizations. In wartime, we are permitted to harm them under any conditions; we don’t need to wait for them to commit a hostile act. The situation is more complex for the civilian arm of a semi-state ruled by a terrorist organization like Hamas (e.g., garbage collectors). The definition of someone “directly participating in hostilities” is contentious. Nevertheless, civilians who can directly intend to harm us lose their immunity, and we may use lethal force against them.

M.: How should we deal with civilians who remain in combat zones?

I.: The first step is to ensure that civilians are not present when striking military targets. Precautions, such as warnings before using lethal force, are obligatory.

M.: And if civilians remain close to the targets for whatever reason?

I.: Even then, efforts should be made to avoid harming them.

M.: In my view, when there’s an opportunity to target a high-value terrorist or any active terrorist, it should be seized, at all costs, especially in environments that largely support terrorism. Such targeted killings are a necessary part of preventing further terrorism. What’s your grasp on this issue?

I.: To preserve our moral integrity, we are bound by principles of distinction and proportionality. Sometimes, it may be deemed legitimate to incidentally harm a certain number of civilians in the face of a crucial military need. Steps should be especially taken not to harm children.

M.: Safeguarding the life of our soldiers is also an uncompromising obligation.

I.: I do not disagree with the statement that the lives of our soldiers must be protected—and certainly, the lives of our citizens. We are all committed to this. The challenge arises when stating, as you did in the pamphlet, “The lives of our soldiers come before the lives of the enemy’s citizens. The responsibility for harming the enemy’s citizens rests solely on the enemy.” This statement suggests utilizing any means to achieve military objectives, such as indiscriminate (“carpet”) aerial bombardment to avoid risking any of our ground forces. Ultimately, the use of force should align with legitimate goals, and indiscriminate, excessive lethal force is inappropriate. The moral responsibility is always incumbent upon us, without exception, and it is impossible to shirk it. It is necessary to consider the cost of our actions and not only their benefit. Beyond that, soldiers are required to take risks. We cannot avoid taking any additional risk to our soldiers without considering the degree of injustice that may be caused by this practice.

M.: Clearly, our enemies do not consider such moral dilemmas . . .

I.: Indeed, but the fact that our enemies disregard the law of war does not mean that Israel, as a sovereign state, should act likewise. Our moral level does not depend on that of our enemies, or even our allies. Our standards do not depend on those of other nations.

M.: I must clarify that, in the final analysis, I do not distinguish between harming civilians and soldiers on either side. I don’t think it is possible to assume in advance that a soldier is more guilty than a citizen. I believe, for instance, that a settler should be regarded as a soldier in all respects. Therefore, harming him is no different from harming a soldier. The same goes for the other side where everyone religiously, politically, or ideologically identifies with the common goal of destroying the State of Israel and replacing it with an extremist Islamic state.

I.: The distinction is not about “guilt” but about “risk.” A soldier who performs his duty in accordance with the rules of morality and the precepts of law is not “guilty” of his actions. Since civilians—women, children, and the elderly—do not normally endanger us, we must ensure as much as possible their immunity from harm.

M.: Is it permissible to kill a terrorist who comes to harm us?

I.: Of course. But please note the following reservation: as long as he poses an immediate and real threat and has not, in our terms, “exited the circle of combat” (e.g., has surrendered, has been captured, or has been mortally wounded).

M.: Why should we show special sensitivity toward women and children?

I.: This is because, fundamentally, they are seen as less dangerous to us and are usually more innocent or helpless. Beyond that, children up to a certain age are seen as not fully responsible for their actions. This is similar to the situation of a mentally ill or intellectually disabled person. We should take care of these populations, even when their behavior seems threatening or even dangerous.

Dr. Idan Yaron
Dr. Idan Yaron

The Aims of the War

I.: What should be our main aims at waging war in Gaza Strip?

M.: Beyond the security significance that necessitates the reoccupation of Gaza, and the complete overthrow of Hamas’s reign of terror, there is, of course, the additional significance of liberating the lands that belong to us by virtue of the promise (“To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river of Euphrates” [Genesis 15:18]) and the resumption of Jewish settlement in all parts of the homeland. It must be remembered that, in the not-so-distant past, this view was accepted by almost all factions of the Zionist movement, who believed in the justice of the war in everything related to the realization of the vision of the Return of the People of Israel to their Land and their liberation from the yoke of the gentiles.

I.: What is your overall ambition?

M.: Every Messianic Torah concept is summed up in peace and tranquility and not in war: “And He shall judge among the nations and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” [Isaiah 2:4]. Decisively and swiftly concluding the war will make it easier for all parties and will also meet the demand for de-escalation. Gaza will turn from the “gates of hell” into a “breeding ground for all of humanity.”



I.: Finally, I only wish to cite, for the benefit of our readers, the final words of your pamphlet Gaza: Recalculating Our Route: “There is no choice—we must conquer Gaza, as only sovereignty will ensure security. Controlling the situation from afar is impossible. The solution lies in encouraging immigration and creating a clear differentiation between enemy combatants and the civilian population that surrenders. This approach will instill hope in the civilian population, while simultaneously weakening the enemy’s fighting spirit. The war on terror should be conducted decisively and concluded swiftly. Success depends on completing the operation and achieving its final goals.”

M.: Indeed, this is the essence of my position.