Israel and the Law of Sieges

Maimonides and Walzer call for a ‘three sided siege.’ Only Israel is abiding by that demand of just war.

AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg
Israeli soldiers are seen during a ground operation at the Gaza Strip, November 8, 2023. AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg

The best thing that President Biden and Secretary Blinken could do to understand the Gaza War would be to read their Maimonides — in particular the part about the three-sided siege. Maimonides, known as the Rambam, was one of the towering sages of Talmud. It turns out that he commented at length on the laws of sieges. His comments could not be more relevant to what is going on at Gaza nor clearer about who is and who is not abiding by the laws of war.

Israel, in passing Maimonides’ test, is setting a new ethical standard in a brutal and unhappy phenomenon of war. Hamas, in failing it, is disclosing its depravity. That, at least, is our takeaway from encountering Maimonides through the work of another sage, Michael Walzer, author of “Just and Unjust Wars.” He is thinking of Maimonides’s injunction that a besieged city can only be surrounded on three sides.

Mr. Walzer, in his opus on war, cites Maimonides for the proposition that “when siege is laid to a city for the purpose of capture, it may not be surrounded on all four sides, but only on three, in order to give an opportunity to escape for those who would flee to save their lives.”* In a brilliant gloss, Mr. Walzer notes that such a sentence could have been written only by a people without a state or an army. It is an insight from a refugee’s eyes.

How remarkable that Israel appears to be clearing the Maimonidean bar that was imagined by the finely tuned ethical minds of the Diaspora. First there was a warning for Gazans to go south so as to avoid the fiercest fighting. Israel has allowed aid in through Rafah. Now there are astounding images of a bona fide corridor, with civilians moving south under cover of white flags. The Israel Defense Forces are ensuring safe passage. 

If there is a fourth “wall” trapping besieged Gazans, it consists of the embedding of terrorists among civilians. Hamas has built that wall and Israel is working to break it down. The terrorists have prevented, allegedly at gunpoint, trapped civilians from fleeing. They have secreted themselves onto evacuee lists, further impeding refuge. Hamas, which hides in Gaza’s population, is manning what amounts to this fourth wall.  

Sieges are horrible. The Roman encirclement of Jerusalem in biblical days — Josephus is a reliable correspondent there — is still recalled with horror by Jews worldwide. Stalingrad is shorthand for slaughter, just as Hamas has made Gaza a charnel house. If, though, as Mr. Walzer writes, “people have a right to be refugees,” then it is Gaza’s rulers, not the Jewish state, who bear the guilt under the centuries old laws of war.

It happens that this week marks the centenary of the publication, by the Zionist prophet Vladimir Jabotinsky, of a famed essay called “The Iron Wall.” It warns the Jews of Palestine that the “only way to reach an agreement in the future” with the Arabs is “to abandon all idea of seeking an agreement at present.” In other words, the sole way to an enduring peace is to reject a premature ceasefire. The message for President Biden et al is that the only way to prevent the next siege is to win this one. 

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* We’re advised on this point that the law limiting sieges to three sides applies only to what Maimonides called “optional” wars, such as wars to conquer, and not to “obligatory” — or, what could be called, existential — wars. The war on Hamas is an existential war. So Israel’s conduct of the fight in Gaza goes beyond what the law requires.

Correction: Josephus chronicled the Roman war in Judea. The historian’s name was misstated in the bulldog.


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