Is Israel's harsh military response to the Hamas attacks justified?

An Israeli soldier on a tank near the Israel-Gaza border in Sderot, Israel, last week.
An Israeli soldier on a tank near the Israel-Gaza border in Sderot, Israel, last week. (Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

After Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip invaded Israel earlier this month and killed 1,400 Israelis, while taking more than 150 hostages, Israel launched a powerful military response and a strict blockade.

“There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Oct. 9. “We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.”

Israeli officials have directed Palestinian civilians to evacuate from northern Gaza ahead of a ground invasion but have also launched airstrikes in the territory. As of Thursday, more than 3,300 Palestinian casualties have been reported.

Protests against Israel’s military response have erupted across the Middle East, especially after hundreds of Palestinians were reported killed in an explosion at a hospital in Gaza City. Hamas says Israel bombed the hospital, whereas Israel says the incident was the result of an exploding rocket fired by a Hamas-aligned militant group. (The U.S. National Security Council’s intelligence analysis suggests that the hospital was hit by a rocket launched by the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.)

Experts warn that the worsening conflict could expand into a larger regional war between Israel and its rivals, such as Syria and Iran.

President Biden traveled to Israel this week to express steadfast support for the U.S. ally while also urging restraint. He returned home with an agreement from Israel to allow aid to flow to Gaza through its border with Egypt, but a planned meeting with leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority was called off by those parties amid growing anger over the explosion at the hospital in Gaza.

Why there’s debate

According to the Geneva Conventions, attacks on civilians, like Hamas’s initial attack and Israel’s bombings of targets such as apartment buildings, are war crimes. Cutting off nonmilitary necessities such as food and water to a civilian population is also a violation of the laws of war.

Amnesty International has labeled both Hamas’s attack on civilians and Israel’s reprisal as war crimes.

“As Israeli forces’ retaliatory attacks pummel Gaza, Amnesty International insists that neither security nor justice will be achieved by a civilian bloodbath in Gaza and collective punishment,” said Agnès Callamard, the group’s secretary-general.

But others note that Hamas fighters are enmeshed in the civilian population in Gaza, complicating the options for an Israeli military response.

“It is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog said at a press conference last Friday. “They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza.”

What’s next

Israel is expected to launch a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza, which experts believe will entail massive casualties. Israel hopes to dismantle Hamas and disable its ability to conduct future attacks, while many observers fear that the reaction among Palestinians and their allies to such an operation will only increase support for anti-Israel extremists and worsen the conflict in the long term.


Israel has no clear path to peace and security

"Israelis and Palestinians all living in peace with guaranteed rights and security sounds wonderful, but no one knows how to get there. No matter how desirable a long-term vision, it doesn’t offer recommendations for short-term action—besides, perhaps, stop all military action and leave Hamas in charge of Gaza, free to try again." — Nicholas Grossman, Daily Beast

Israel is walking into Hamas’s trap

“Hamas’s assault on southern Israel was designed to provoke an emotional and equally or even more outrageous response by the targeted society… Hamas and its Iranian patrons want to block the diplomatic-normalization agreement that the United States has been brokering between Israel and Saudi Arabia.” — Hussein Ibish, Atlantic

Israel is punishing everyone in Gaza for the actions of a small minority

"Though Hamas’ exact strength isn’t known, Israel has estimated the group has around 30,000 fighters — a tiny fraction of the 2.3 million Palestinians crammed into Gaza. This siege will mark a collective punishment of civilians." — Zeeshan Aleem, MSNBC

Israel’s goal is not to punish Hamas but to defeat it

"If removing Hamas from power is the goal, then that almost certainly means soldiers and tanks fighting in Gazan cities, block by block, house to house." — David French, New York Times

The siege is a violation of international law

“The targeting of civilians is a war crime, no matter who does it. Israel’s blanket denial of food, water, and other necessities to Gaza is a serious violation of international law and will do nothing but harm innocent civilians.” — Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, in a statement

Israel's siege of Gaza is legal under international law

“In Israel’s case, civilians were never the primary target of its current siege (if they were, why order an evacuation)? Moreover, the ends of Israel’s siege have been clearly communicated to Hamas and are just on their own terms. … All Hamas must do to end its people’s suffering is return the Israeli hostages it kidnapped.” — Thomas Wheatley, USA Today

Israel's anger is understandable, but it risks harmful overreaction

"Things could spiral out of control. ... A ceasefire is needed. ... The hurt that Israelis must feel cannot be underestimated or minimized. But military overreaction will only deepen the hatred between two peoples." — Guardian editorial

The siege is two war crimes in one

“Not only is [cutting off water and food] a war crime, but it is under two different aspects: First aspect is that it’s collective punishment. … Then the second way to see it, is that it is a siege that consists of starving an entire population as a means of warfare. That is also a war crime. So it’s two war crimes in one.” — Ahmed Benchemsi of Human Rights Watch, to Yahoo News

The siege in Gaza is not a war crime because it’s necessary to root out Hamas

“Hamas has violated international law by hiding among civilians. But international law doesn’t reward the use of human shields. Instead, it makes clear that ‘the presence of civilians within or near military objectives does not render such objectives immune from attack.’” — Wall Street Journal editorial