by Rafael Medoff
In recent days, President Biden has twice publicly cautioned Israel to observe “the rules of war” when it strikes back at Hamas terrorists. He appeared to be referring to the importance of avoiding civilian casualties in Gaza. But exactly how far does he expect Israel to go in limiting its actions because of the presence of civilians?
The president’s description of Hamas as “pure, unadulterated evil” places the current conflict squarely in the category of a good-versus-evil conflict, like World War II. With regard to civilian casualties, the position of the United States and its allies in World War II was that civilian deaths were an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of their war of self-defense. Israel’s approach to the issue is similar.
Beginning in March 1944, the Americans and British carried out extensive attacks on railways across France, Belgium, and western Germany in advance of the June 6 D-Day landings. The breadth of the air strikes made it inevitable that there would be some civilian casualties; they averaged about 100 per bombing.
On May 7, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told President Franklin D. Roosevelt he was concerned about “the number of Frenchmen killed in the raids on the railway centers in France.” Churchill estimated that the total number of French civilian deaths in the operation would reach 10,000, in addition to tens of thousands of injured. The British leader asked FDR to “consider the matter from the highest political standpoint,” because his war cabinet was unanimously convinced that continuing the bombings would “leave a legacy of hate” toward the Allies among the French populace.
Roosevelt responded: “However regrettable the attendant loss of civilian lives, I am not prepared to impose from this distance any restriction on military action by the responsible commanders that in their opinion might militate against the success of [the upcoming D-Day landings] or cause additional loss of life to our Allied Forces of invasion.”
On October 31, 1944, British planes targeted the Gestapo’s Danish headquarters, on the campus of the University of Aarhus. The target was situated in the dormitory buildings, which were flanked by civilian hospitals on both sides. Nonetheless, the raid proceeded in broad daylight, because it was militarily advantageous to do so. Most of the bombs hit their mark but several stray bombs hit another campus building which was under construction, killing ten workers. Likewise, a British bombing raid on Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen the following year destroyed the building, but some bombs accidentally hit a nearby school, killing an estimated 125 civilians.
The U.S. carried out bombing strikes on German oil factories in and around Auschwitz during daylight hours, when military planners had every reason to believe the factories would be filled with Jewish slave laborers. Civilian casualties were inevitable but the administration felt that harm to the Jewish prisoners was justified in order to achieve America’s war aims. For the same reason, U.S. bombers were sent to strike the V-2 rocket factory in the Buchenwald concentration camp in broad daylight, when it could be assumed that Jewish prisoners would be in the factory. Nearly 400 of them were killed in the bombing.
Not only was the Roosevelt administration willing to risk killing Jewish civilians in order to strike those military targets—it even was willing to endanger the lives of Allied POWs. About 1,400 British servicemen were imprisoned in Auschwitz beginning in the autumn of 1943, and six hundred remained there as of the summer of 1944, working as slave laborers in the oil factories. The U.S. and British governments were well aware that the POWs were there; in fact, the Red Cross regularly brought them food packages. One of the POWs, Charles Coward, smuggled information to the British government about the mass-murder process that was taking place in the Birkenau section of the camp. But the presence of the POWs did not deter the daylight air strikes on factories where British prisoners might be working. As a result, thirty-eight of the British prisoners were killed, and many others injured, in the American bombing on August 20.
In some instances, the U.S. and its allies went further and undertook deliberate attacks on enemy civilians in order to advance the war effort. Beginning in February 1942, the British undertook what was known as “area bombing,” which meant attacking civilian areas in order to undermine the German public’s morale. The United States assented to this approach and participated in many of the most famous strikes on civilian targets. The British-American bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 left 40,000 dead, and the attack on Dresden by U.S. and British bombers in February 1945 killed tens of thousands more.
This approach was sometimes employed on the Pacific front as well. The Roosevelt administration’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 caused over 100,000 civilian fatalities. The Truman administration selected two Japanese civilian centers as the targets of its nuclear bombs, leaving approximately 135,000 dead in Hiroshima and 64,000 in Nagasaki.
Israel does not deliberately kill enemy civilians, but one of the principles of its military actions in built-up areas such as Gaza resembles that of the Allies in World War II—that strikes against the enemy must proceed even if there are civilian casualties.
Will President Biden support Israel taking an approach comparable to what the United States did in World War II? Or will he expect Israel to do as he says, not as the U.S. has done? The answer will become apparent soon.