To the Editor:
With the rest of the world we watched with shock and horror as, beginning on October 7, Hamas fighters murdered hundreds of Israeli civilians, among them children and the elderly, young people at a music festival, and peace activists on kibbutzim bordering Gaza. Many individuals, families, and communities are, as we write, living with the crushing fear and uncertainty of having had loved ones taken hostage in these attacks. By every standard of international human rights law, Hamas militants have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. We recognize Israel’s right to protect its citizens and to bring the perpetrators of these vicious acts to justice.
We also affirm that the right to live in dignity and safety knows no borders. The memory of Israeli and other victims in this heinous assault is not honored by the IDF’s current bombardment and siege of Gaza. These retaliatory strikes against hospitals, places of worship, high-rise apartment buildings, schools serving as shelters, and crowded marketplaces do not discriminate between combatants and innocent civilians. (“The emphasis is on damage, not on precision,” an IDF spokesman stated plainly.) The same holds for the cutting off of vital fuel, electricity, food, and water to the entire Gaza Strip. Israel has taken steps to assure that humanitarian aid cannot flow into Gaza by bombing the Rafah crossing with Egypt, and has indicated that any aid coming from the Egyptian side will be met with force [This sentence was written before reports of a UN-brokered agreement on aid; as of late afternoon on Thursday, October 19 aid has not materialized in Gaza.]. All of this amounts to the calculated and intentional precipitation of a humanitarian crisis for the more than two million residents of Gaza. The Israeli government’s aims have been made clear by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant: “I have ordered a complete siege on Gaza. No electricity. No food. No fuel. No water. Everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.”
This recourse to the tactics of siege warfare is also in clear violation of international humanitarian law. Article 54 of the Geneva Convention’s Additional Protocol I states that “it is prohibited to attack, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” According to Article 70(2), parties to a conflict are also obliged to “allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of all relief consignments… even if such assistance is destined for the civilian population of the adverse Party.” Israel’s own Manual on the Laws of War declares that “inhabitants must be allowed to leave the city during a siege.” The current bombardment and siege have denied access to the basic necessities of life, prevented humanitarian aid from arriving, and left civilians with no place of refuge in what is widely acknowledged to be one of the most densely populated places on Earth. These are clear war crimes. And any nation offering military support to Israel—as the United States has done in delivering munitions and military equipment—becomes complicit in them.
As educators and members of a liberal arts and university community, we are committed to the protection and cultivation of freedom and flourishing for all people, everywhere. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in a 1944 essay titled “The Meaning of This War”: “Tanks and planes cannot redeem humanity…. The killing of snakes will save us for the moment but not forever. The war will outlast the victory of arms if we fail to conquer the infamy of the soul…. The greatest task of our time is to take the souls of men out of the pit.”
Justice for the lives of slaughtered Israeli civilians will not arrive with the slaughter of Palestinian civilians. Palestinian armed groups and the government of Israel must cease the targeting of civilians and abandon an ethic of collective punishment. We the undersigned join all peace-loving people in calling for an end to the siege and indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza; for the release by Hamas of all Israeli hostages; for all parties to the conflict to respect the lives and basic human rights of civilians; and for life-saving aid to be allowed to flow into any area of the zone of conflict where it is needed.
Peter Cole, Horace W. Goldsmith Senior Lecturer in Judaic Studies, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature
Feisal G. Mohamed, Professor of English
See the list of signatories here.