HomeAsiaMiddle EastAnalyzing the War in Gaza through Just War Theory

Analyzing the War in Gaza through Just War Theory


Natasha Matloob

Israel-Palestine conflict: In response to a surprise attack launched by Hamas on October 7, Israel’s military initiated a major counter-offensive in which more than 10,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza have been slaughtered. What makes the incident more reprehensible is the continuous diplomatic, military, and economic support by the Western world to Israel and the neutral diplomatic stance of international organizations, media, and some Islamic states.

Israel’s officials have regarded their military operation against Palestinians as a matter of self-defense and survival. While the arguments seem convincing when approached with a pure realist lens, they go against the standards of a liberalist, philosophical, or ethical lens.

The question that constantly plunges a rational, if not moral, mind is whether it is morally acceptable to kill thousands of civilians in the process of catching a group of rebels.

This article is going to test the validity of Israel’s brutal campaign against Palestinian civilians in light of the just war tradition and the Janus-like approach of the Western world towards this onslaught.

Just War Theory-An Overview

Israel-Palestine conflict: Just war theory is a doctrine that sheds light on the conditions under which it is justified to wage war and the principles and rules of its conduct.

It also examines the thoughts of various philosophers and lawyers about the ethical limits of war and their impact on the development of different conventions that have evolved to guide war and warfare.

IEP has divided the principles of just war theory into three categories:

  1. The rules that govern the justice of war (jus ad bellum)
  2. The rules that govern just and fair conduct in war (jus in bello)
  3. The rules that govern the responsibility and accountability of warring parties after the war (jus post bellum)

As the war in Gaza has not concluded yet, we are only discussing the first two categories of Just War, which are Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello.

Jus ad Bellum

Israel-Palestine conflict: Jus ad Bellum refers to the criteria that must be met for a war to be morally justifiable. This includes having a just cause, being declared by a legitimate authority, having the right intention, ensuring a reasonable chance of success, considering war as a last resort, and the end being proportional to the means used.

First, in response to a terrorist attack by a non-state actor, the declaration of war by a state actor is itself an irrational and disproportionate idea.  Israel has cited self-defense as its primary justification for military actions in Palestine.

While the need to protect its citizens is a valid concern, the proportionality of the response goes against the standards of just war. The scope of its recent military operations has gone beyond what is necessary to ensure the security of its citizens.

Second, the just war theory demands that only a legitimate authority can declare or initiate a war over the other. Israel’s recognition as a legitimate status, especially its legitimacy over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is a matter of dispute.

Another condition that renders a war “just” involves having a reasonable probability of success. The ongoing invasion of Palestine is only wreaking havoc on a civilian population already tortured by war, siege, and sanctions, clearly violating the noncombatant immunity stipulation.

Many experts and analysts have expressed skepticism about the positive outcomes of this ongoing war. Statements from Israeli officials have hinted at a potential escalation of destruction and loss of life, with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowing to wipe out Hamas and “defeat them to death.”

The discourse promoted by the majority of Western leaders is that “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people.”

The very statement reflects the eagled-eyed hypocrisy of the West. If Hamas is not representative of Palestinians, then why the Israeli forces are killing thousands of Palestinian civilians in the counter-offensive?

The response by Israeli officials is that they do not have any other options as Hamas fighters are hiding within the civilian Gaza population.  

Michael Walzer, in Just and Unjust Wars (1977), claims that the lack of identification does not give a government the right to kill indiscriminately—the onus is on the government to identify the combatants, and so, the implication goes, if there is any uncertainty involved then an attack must not be made.

Having the 4th strongest military power in the world with highly sophisticated weapons and powerful intelligence networks, Israel can make much more dedicated and directed efforts in search of the true perpetrators instead of killing civilians.

This shows that either the “military invincibility” of Israel is a myth or it is undertaking a deliberate genocide of Palestinians to fulfill its deeper interests.

Jus in Bello

Jus in bello, also known as the justice in the conduct of war, deals with the ethical principles governing how a war should be fought once it has begun. It broadly includes the principles of discrimination, proportionality, and responsibility. In other words, it concerns the legitimate targets in war, how much force is morally appropriate, and an examination of where responsibility lies in war.

The law of armed conflict says the incidental killing of and harm to civilians and damage to objects must not exceed the direct military advantage to be gained. The Geneva Conventions, the widely accepted basis for international humanitarian law and codes of warfare, were adopted in 1949 to prevent governments from inflicting mass casualties at the level of World War II.

Israel, being a state actor, is bound by international law and human rights conventions that strictly prohibit the total siege, cutting off food, water and electricity supplies. Israel is violating international law and norms by cutting off water, electricity, fuel, and food supplies to 2.3 million impoverished inhabitants of Gaza.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, “Israel’s total siege of the Gaza Strip, depriving civilians of goods essential for survival, is banned under international law.” However, Israeli officials say it is impossible to defeat Hamas without killing innocents. They have even gone as far as to call the situation their war “against human animals.” The comments from Israeli officials, as rightly pointed out by the leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro, are much like what the Nazis said about the Jews.

Also, the proportionality principle is being ignored as Hamas killed 1,400 civilians on Oct. 7 in southern Israel, while the death toll of civilian Palestinians has exceeded 10,000.

And even before 7 October, 6423 Palestinians had been killed – compared to 308 Israelis – since 2008, according to the UN. These figures demonstrate the stark contrast in the death toll between Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

Selective Sympathy Shown by the Western Media and Politicians

Western leaders who openly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Feb 2022 are silent in the wake of Israel’s invasion of Palestine. Ukrainians using violence and armed resistance against the aggressors are labeled heroes, while the Palestinians doing the same are labeled terrorists. As the Palestinian Ambassador to the UN in New York, Riyad Mansour, put it, “History for some media and politicians starts when Israelis are killed.”

The US, the beacon of justice and democracy, has expressed complete solidarity with Israel. President Biden has remarked that USA “will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, and respond to this attack.”

Biden has also assured Netanyahu over a telephonic conversation that “a forceful and continued battle will be required, in which Israel will triumph.” Ironically, the Biden administration is continuously supplying military arms and weapons to Israel and deliberately avoiding making any assessment of the legality of Israel’s actions.

Western media, with its state-of-the-art technology, infrastructure, and expertise in covering the top stories worldwide, is also very selective in the coverage of the ongoing war. Conceivably, the Western states, institutions, and media are still influenced by colonialism, white supremacy, and Islamophobia.

Lessons to be Learned

As widely acknowledged, the resolution to this enduring conflict hinges on an immediate ceasefire and pursuing a two-state solution. This situation also compels us to engage in profound introspection and gain valuable insights to prevent the recurrence of such conflicts.

At the heart of this ongoing strife lies the apathy of international organizations, civil society, media, and powerful nations towards a problem that has persisted for over seven decades. Prioritizing conflict prevention would obviate the need to expend precious resources, time, and effort on de-escalation.

The medical adage “prevention is better than cure” finds a fitting counterpart in “justice is better than de-escalation.”  The death of civilians on both sides is indeed a tragic and disheartening aspect of the war. Such catastrophes in human history show the failure of humanity as thinking and rational beings.

The choice of labeling one side as the “aggressor” and the other as a “victim”; one side being “killed” and the other “died” always has serious consequences.

Nevertheless, instructive lessons can be derived from this war, emphasizing the pursuit of “peace” during times of tranquility, rather than solely reacting to bloodshed. Averting such calamities requires directing collective efforts to prevent numerous potential flashpoints of conflict worldwide from following the same path as Gaza.

Ultimately, it is alarming that in the “globalized” and “civilized” world, many civilians are suffering severe casualties within their proclaimed “rules-based world order.” Instead of condemning or taking punitive actions against the perpetrators, there is ongoing support for their actions.

The war highlights that those advocating for “peace and democracy” and claiming to champion “human rights” are, in reality, influenced by realpolitik. Western powers, in particular, have once again demonstrated double standards and hypocrisy precisely when impartial, equitable, and morally grounded support is crucial for the global community.


*The author is pursuing a Bachelor’s in International Relations from the National Defense University Islamabad. She can be reached at natashamatloob737@gmail.com 

**The opinions in this article are the author’s own and may not represent the views of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization does not endorse or assume responsibility for the content.

The Diplomatic Insight, Pakistan's premier Public Diplomacy Magazine, has been at the forefront of promoting Peace Through Informed Dialogue since its inception in 2009. With both print and electronic versions, this decade-old media house is offering research, analysis, and public diplomacy outreach to clients in Pakistan and across the globe. TDI is now offering Amazon Kindle Self Publishing Services to diplomats, ambassadors, political leaders, academicians, and other civil society leaders to be the next best-seller authors. With access to 11 global markets and the option to translate your work into 11 languages, you can reach up to 300 million readers worldwide and unlock your personal and country branding.

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