Bombing Civilians During War

[Q&A from Rav Aviner's radio show]

Q: Is it permissible to bomb civilians when terrorists are hiding among them and attacking us?
A: It is clear that it is permissible according to Halachah and is acceptable by international law. It is permissible according to the Halachah based on the law of "rodef" (literally "pursuer" - a case in which one is permitted to kill a pursuer so that the pursued person is saved from harm). Civilians who potentially prevent us from bombing and then the enemy fires on us, those civilians have the law of "rodef." The law of "rodef" applies even when the purser does not want to be a "rodef." This is called a "purser without intention." You grab a person and shoot from behind him - this person is considered a "rodef." The classic example of a "purser without intention" is a fetus in the mother's womb who endangers the mother's life. If it is not possible to save both of them, we save the mother and kill the fetus since it has the status of a "rodef" (Rambam, Hilchot Rotzeach U-Shemirat Ha-Nefesh 1:9 based on the Jerusalem Talmud). This is true even not only during a war, and it applies all the more so when they are waging war against everyone. The Mechilta (halachic midrash) says "The best of the non-Jews should be killed." The Tosafot raised a major difficulty with this statement: how can we say such a thing when according to Halachah it is forbidden to kill a non-Jew (Sanhedrin 53) and all the more so the best of the non-Jews (Tosafot to Avodah Zarah 26b and see Beit Yosef Yoreh Deah 158)? Tosafot explains that this statement refers to a time of war. This non-Jew does not appear to be hostile or, in our case, he killed but then reacquired an innocent demeanor. No, we did not make such calculations in a time of war; even a “pleasant”-seeming non-Jew is killed. A war is between two peoples. This is similar to what King Shaul said to the "Keni" (Shmuel 1 15:6): "Go, depart, go down from among Amalek, lest I destroy you with them." This means, even though you are my friend, if you are there, you could get hurt or killed. Therefore, it is permissible according to the regular Halachah based on the law of "rodef" and the laws of wars, and it is also acceptable among the non-Jews. During the Second World War, the Allied Forces bombed Berlin and destroyed neighborhood after neighborhood, until they reached the bunker of Hitler, may his name be blotted out, and he then committed suicide. The Allied Forces killed two million people during the conquest of Berlin and no one said a word because they understood that there was no choice. This is what Carl von Clausewitz, a military theorist, refers to as "Absolute War," i.e. we prefer not to wage war but if we are forced to go to battle, we are obligated to do so in the most cost effective way in which we save the most lives and equipment. We are all for "Purity of Arms" and for saving citizen lives. But which civilians? Our civilians who are being attacked. The political philosopher, Michael Walser, once wrote that when armed Palestians shoot rockets from civilian populations, they themselves – and no one else – are responsible for civilian deaths which are caused by the Israeli response. They are guilty, we are not (This is also the ruling of Ha-Rav Shaul Yisraeli in the book "Amud Ha-Yemini" at the end of chap. 16 and Ha-Rav Yona Metzger in the book "Sofa Be-Midbar" #35 printed in vol. 3 of Shut Mi-Yam Ha-Halachah).