“This is what heroes look like,” one person wrote on social media in the aftermath of Saturday’s dramatic rescue of four hostages held in Gaza since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

The post was accompanied by helmet camera footage released by the Israel Defense Forces that showed soldiers searching a darkened apartment amid explosions and gunfire in the operation that freed Noa Argamani, Shlomi Ziv, Andrey Kozlov and Almog Meir. The four, who were all abducted from the Nova musical festival where more than 360 people were killed, have since been reunited with their families.

But the mission is being questioned, and cannot be seen as an unqualified success — perhaps even by the former hostages and their families. That’s because their safe return came at a staggering cost — the lives of an Israeli commander and possibly hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including children. An IDF spokesman said fewer than 100 civilians had died; other reports put the number at more than 270, although, per The Associated Press, the mortality reports of the Gaza Health Ministry do not distinguish between civilians and combatants.

By all accounts, however, as the BBC reported, “the raid clearly involved massive force,” and an official with the United Nations’ human rights office has suggested that Israel may have committed war crimes during the operation, by violating “rules of proportionality, distinction and precaution” during the raid at the Nuseirat refugee camp.

Those rules are part of globally accepted standards that seek to bring at least a modicum of ethical standards to the violence of warfare.

For ordinary people, the questions raised by the rescue are simpler, though no less morally complex: Do celebrations of the return of four Israeli hostages denigrate the value of Palestinian lives, as some have said? And, while the “worth” of hostages is often talked of in terms of dollars, how many lives lost justify the rescue of a single hostage?

And then there’s this: Hostages were taken, but did not have to be, and once taken, they could have been released by Hamas at any point since October with zero casualties. So who really is to blame?

What are the Laws of Armed Conflict?

The Law of Armed Conflict, also known as International Humanitarian Law, lays out international standards for combatants in conflict. Rules of engagement are derived from four principles of the law, Col. Patrick Sullivan, director of the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said in an interview.

The four are:

  • Distinction — Parties in a conflict must distinguish between combatants and civilians.
  • Proportionality — Harm to civilians or civilian property must not be excessive, compared to the military goals.
  • Necessity — The military action taken must be necessary for the goals of an operation to be achieved.
  • Humanity — Military action must not cause unnecessary suffering or loss of life.

The issues surrounding the hostage rescue in Gaza encompass multiple issues, but proportionality and distinction were two cited by the United Nations’ human rights office in its response to the hostage rescue.

Martin L. Cook, the emeritus Admiral James Bond Stockdale professor of professional military ethics at the U.S. Naval War College, said that, like the U.S., Israel likely has units specifically trained for hostage recovery, and they would have rehearsed the raid and elaborately planned it in order to have minimal loss of life. While this sort of operation is usually conducted at night, it appears that the IDF acted during the day in order to gain the advantage of surprise. But with the hostages being kept in an apartment building in a densely populated area, and Hamas fighters attacking as the Israelis left, it turned into “something of a disaster,” he said in an interview with Deseret News.

“The basic ethical principle here is proportionality — you achieve your goal at a reasonable cost to the adversary and to non-combatants — and I think you could well make the case that this is dubiously proportional,” Cook told me. “The question is, whether they anticipated that, or it was just an operation that went very badly.

“Certainly, as it turned out, it doesn’t look good. A common saying in the military is, ‘No plan survives first contact with the adversary.’ Who knows what actually happened as this evolved? I’m sure they had gamed it out and thought they could do it much more safely than it turned out.”

The current debates, of course, hang on what represents a “reasonable cost,” and Cook, the author of “The Moral Warrior” among other books, said there’s no algorithm that can define that.

In the U.S. military, military lawyers would review a plan and make suggestions to minimize loss of life, and the IDF plan likely had the same scrutiny before the raid was launched, he said. “Having done all that still doesn’t guarantee that you’re not going to have a disaster on your hands. It’s an incredibly difficult environment to be operating in, with the hostages being held in a civilian apartment building.”

Even prior this past week, Israel has been under fire for its tactics, with the International Criminal Court seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a leader of Hamas, over alleged war crimes. Israel is also under pressure from its own citizens, and Jews around the world, to bring the hostages home. Families have been holding weekly rallies at a museum courtyard that has been dubbed “Hostages Square,” demanding that the government act.

Netanyahu surely feels their plight intensely, as his older brother died leading a raid that freed 102 hostages in Uganda in 1976. It was that military operation, known as the Entebbi raid, that led to the widespread belief that “Israel will get hostages back, no matter the cost.”

The cost of a hostage

With a cease-fire agreement still unreached, and more than a hundred other hostages believed to be held in Gaza, Israel faces extraordinarily difficult choices.

“The really hard calculation is, if there’s no way you can (rescue hostages) without excessive loss of civilian life, are you prepared to sacrifice hostages or not?” Cook said. That’s always a tough call for any political leader, even without the heightened emotion in Israel.

It’s believed that five Americans are among the hostages still held in Gaza, and NBC News reported this week that the Biden administration has considered a unilateral deal with Hamas to secure their release in the absence of a cease-fire agreement.

The administration last year struck a deal with Iran that secured the release of five wrongfully detained Americans in exchange for releasing $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets, which New York Times columnist Bret Stephens noted works out to $1.5 billion per hostage, which Iran may now see as a baseline for future negotiations.

But Stephens also noted, “The redemption of captives is more than just a moral imperative: Americans deserve to know their government will never forsake them in foreign dungeons. And it is not a sign of weakness when democratic governments pay what seems like exorbitant amounts to free hostages. In Israel, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu each released hundreds of Arab prisoners to obtain the release of a single living Israeli hostage.”

The cost of a single hostage, whatever it is, may include a president or prime minister’s peace of mind.

“War is a messy business,” Sullivan, director of the Modern War Institute at West Point and an academy professor, told me. “You’re going to have civilian casualties, even though through our rules of engagement and laws of foreign conflict, the U.S. military makes every effort with our allies and partners to minimize collateral damage, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”


He added, “These are complex operations in complex environments, and once there are interactions occurring, they are very dynamic, and you have the human condition on top of that.”

For those of us making judgments from our living rooms about what happened Saturday in Gaza, Sullivan offered a word of advice:

“There’s always a danger in recency bias that begets a certain amount of inaccuracy in reporting, and I’m not saying anyone who is reporting is acting in bad faith. Sometimes you need the benefit of time and distance to establish something that resembles an objective accounting of what might have happened. And what is truth kind of comes from where you sit,” he said.

Combatants on one side might have an accurate account of what occurred, and aggrieved parties on the other side might have an assessment that is accurate from their point of view, as well. “When these things occur, I’m sure the operators think they were in the ethical and moral right, doing things consistent with the laws of armed conflict; those making the accusations surely think otherwise,” he said. “The objective truth is somewhere in the middle.”

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.