The blame game is in full bloom. Hamas launched its war against Israel last Saturday, and there is a wide range of views as to who is at fault. Some of the finger-pointing approaches the absolutely ridiculous, such as a posting on X (the former Twitter) that blames President Biden for saying that “[these] are good people who deserve every consideration,” something Biden never said about Hamas and probably never would say. (That posting, I must note, distresses me greatly because of the person who made it.)
Virtually all the Republican presidential candidates, from Donald Trump on up, also blamed Biden, saying, as Trump did, that “American taxpayer dollars helped fund these attacks.” This refers to the recent transfer of $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five U.S. citizens who were being held in that country.
The GOP presidential wannabes know better, however. Not one dime of that $6 billion has been spent as yet, and none of it is either in Iran or under Iranian control. The money came from funds South Korea owed Iran, not from U.S.-held Iranian assets, and it went directly into a restricted account in Doha, Qatar. It is being administered by vetted non-Iranians who may use it only for such humanitarian purposes as supplying Iranians with food and medicine.
Some people, it turns out, also are blaming Trump. In an Oval Office meeting in 2017, Trump admittedly passed highly classified information that the United States had obtained from Israel to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. It is being suggested that Trump also gave them information about how an attacker can get around the Iron Dome missile defense system, as Hamas repeatedly has done since the war began. Russia, this thread goes, passed that information to Iran, which shared it with Hamas. At the time, Trump defended what he did, saying that he had an “absolute right” to do so in the interest of national security.
There also are those pundits who put all the blame on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right government, so let me state this as bluntly as possible: Hamas and its benefactors — Iran certainly and Russia very likely — are the ones responsible. They alone are the ones accountable for the war and for the horrendous war crimes Hamas is committing. Almost certainly, as well, Hamas planned its surprise attacks to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the surprise attacks that began the Yom Kippur War on October 6, 1973. Bibi and Company may have given Hamas the cover it needed, but the war would have happened regardless.
The Iranians, of course, are ecstatic. As reported by Reuters, a government adviser told Iranian state media, “We congratulate the Palestinian fighters. We will stand by the Palestinian fighters until the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem.”
Saudi Arabia and Qatar were not ecstatic, but they did blame Israel’s government for the war, for reasons that require some background.
One thing is beyond dispute. Israeli intelligence completely failed the country this time around, because Hamas was able to plan and execute this outrageous attack completely undetected. This is astonishing in so many ways, not the least of which is that the intelligence community expected something of the sort for the last several months and should have been on the alert for any signs.
Just over a week after the Netanyahu government came into power last December 29, it announced its controversial proposals for overhauling the country’s judiciary. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in protest every week from Saturday evening, January 7, until Hamas’ invasion last Saturday.
Thousands of Israeli reservists added their voices by declaring that they would not report for duty if called up. While they surely did not mean they would refuse to join their units in the event of a war, that is how Israel’s enemies interpreted it. The intelligence community warned that the chaos on Israel’s streets and the threats from the reservists were emboldening Israel’s enemies, giving them an incentive to invade the country. One intelligence assessment that Israeli media reported in July warned that Iran and the Lebanese-based Hezbollah terrorist group saw in the protests a “historic opportunity” to attack Israel because its deterrence capabilities were largely being eroded.
In fact, the IDF’s intelligence directorate alone reportedly warned Netanyahu of this possibility no fewer than four times before the first overhaul bill passed the Knesset in July. Netanyahu ignored the warnings. Sadly, apparently, so did the intelligence community. As to why they did, that will have to await the convening of an investigative commission after the war has ended.
Another factor that led to this fear was the repeated effort on the part of Netanyahu’s radical government ministers to provoke Palestinian violence by repeated incursions on the Temple Mount, Islam’s third holiest site — Muslims call it Haram al-Sharif (The Holy Sanctuary). Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, a known supporter of the effort to offer sacrifices on the site, even made a highly provocative trip up to the Mount on May 21 of this year, during which he declared, “We are in charge here.”
Another minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has yet to set foot on the site, most likely because so many religious authorities in Israel have ruled that to do so violates Jewish law. Nevertheless, he has long advocated building a synagogue on the Temple Mount.
These repeated incursions have raised tensions and even led to violent confrontations at various times in the past few months. Two police raids at the al-Aqsa Mosque on successive nights in April during the observance of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan stand out in this regard.
Yet another factor is the intensified response by the Israeli military and police to provocations in the West Bank, again directly attributable to Ben-Gvir. In August, he defended the harsh Israeli responses there by saying that the right of Jews “to move around Judea and Samaria [the Israeli name for the West Bank] is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs.” His statement has been used repeatedly by Israel’s detractors as proof that the Jewish state practices apartheid.
This brings me back to the condemnations coming from Saudia Arabia and Qatar.
The Qatari Foreign Affairs Ministry cited “the repeated raids on the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque under the protection of Israeli police,” in its statement after Hamas launched its attack. In their statement last weekend, the Saudis cited “the repetition of systematic provocations against [the Palestinian people’s] sanctities” as one reason for the “high level of violence” that has occurred in Palestinian enclaves.
To repeat: Hamas, its allies, its benefactors, and no one else are to blame for this war. Because of its timing, coming one day after the Yom Kippur War’s 50th anniversary, the war likely would have happened even if there had been no provocations coming from Israel’s government. At worst, Bibi and his radically right ministers poured kerosene on an open flame, but it was an open flame nonetheless, and it already was burning brightly.
This too is a virtual certainty. When the war is over — perhaps even as it is being fought — Israel will be accused of war crimes and atrocities committed against the citizens of Gaza. The phrase “disproportionate response” will be heard over and again because physical infrastructure will be destroyed and innocent lives will be lost. These accusations will be leveled at Israel despite the beastly brutalities Hamas displayed in starting the war. Consider this description posted last Saturday on X:
“They killed an Israeli woman, took off her clothes, smashed her, and marched around in victory…, but victory for what…? Do these cowards only attack women and defenseless innocents.”
(That, by the way, was posted by an independent journalist, Jasem Aljuraid, who has more than 61,000 followers on X. He began his tweet — can we still call it that? — with the words: “I am a Kuwaiti and I stand by Israel.”)
Under Jewish law, a terrorist is a “rodef,” someone who pursues another person for the purpose of killing that person. Exodus 22:1 teaches us that a homeowner may not be held liable for killing a thief who breaks in under the dark of night. Deuteronomy 22:26 applies this right to preventing someone from committing a rape, even in daylight. Our Sages of Blessed Memory restated this law in more general terms. “The Torah said: If he comes to kill you, arise and kill him.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Berachot 58a.)
Not just an intended victim, but a third party is allowed to kill the rodef if there is no way to stop this evil pursuer. The Talmud encourages a third party to do so by absolving the would-be rescuer from responsibility for any inadvertent property damage resulting from the attempt. (See BT Bava Kamma 117b.) Without such absolution, the Talmud states, “no one would be willing to rescue another from the pursuer.”
Clearly, this has application in the case of a missile attack against a terrorist target. Inadvertently, the property of innocent parties would be damaged, as well. Thus, the “rescuer” is free from liability.
Regrettably, innocent lives would also be lost. They too often are “collateral damage” when missiles rain down on terrorist lairs. It is absurd, however, to argue that halachah would tie someone’s hands from pursuing terrorists who use innocent civilians as shields (as Hamas routinely does) because some of those innocent civilians might be killed, although halachah does insist that some serious effort must be made to minimize such “collateral damage.”
Then again, is it fair to say that the people in Gaza are entirely innocent? After all, they have repeatedly voted in Hamas as their leaders. The world would do well to consider this before blaming Israel for any “disproportionate response.”
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed — a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.