An Israeli Defense Force (IDF) investigation into the April 1st air strike that killed seven workers from the World Central Kitchen (WCK) while they transferred humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip has concluded with the IDF admitting “significant errors” and “protocol violations.” While asserting that “those who approved the strike were convinced they were targeting armed Hamas operatives and not WCK employees,” the IDF also affirmed:

The attack on the aid vehicles is a serious mistake, which stemmed from a serious failure, as a result of wrong identification, a mistake in decision-making and an attack contrary to the orders and open-fire regulations

The language, perhaps, could have helpfully been stronger. By Israel’s own admission, what happened to the WCK workers ought never to have happened if the protocol had been followed. If so, to call this merely an accident appears insufficient. There’s a difference between mistakes that occur because of simple ignorance, misjudgment, or mischance and those that occur through a lack of discipline. But Israel’s subsequent actions seem to show they know this.

With the admission of culpability, the IDF fired a pair of senior officers and formally reprimanded a number of others. Additional punishments may follow. Indemnity payments may be made. The IDF investigation, admissions of error, and punishments have not, of course, satisfied Israel’s detractors. “Their apologies for the outrageous killing of our colleagues represent cold comfort,” said Erin Gore, the CEO of WCK. “It’s cold comfort for the victims’ families and WCK’s global family.” Of course, this isn’t untrue. Following any such catastrophe, an apology or admission of guilt is only ever going to do so much. It certainly can’t bring the wrongly killed back. But it’s also true that following tragedy, there is only so much anyone can do. We should also recognize that by holding itself accountable, the IDF is doing something its enemies never will.

In any case, such continued outrage against Israel, despite their admission of wrongdoing, is not surprising. Nor was the predictable rush to vilify Israel that immediately followed the botched air strike in the first place. Global condemnation of Israel is nothing new. In (every) previous conflict with Hamas, Hezbollah, or any of the other militias that mean to drive Israel into the sea, the IDF and its military and civilian leaders are beset by repeated accusations that they are guilty of war crimes or, at a minimum, grossly disproportionate use of force.

On the surface, sometimes such charges appear at least plausible. This present fight has been horrific. While casualty estimates in Gaza are always something of a politically charged numbers game, there might be—according to estimates from within Gaza—upwards of 30,000 dead. Some estimates say that almost 80% of buildings in the northern part of the Strip have been damaged or destroyed. More than 85% of the 2.2 million people in Gaza have been displaced. The scale of death and destruction is vast. Of course, among those dead are Hamas fighters—both formally recruited and their more informal sympathizers-in-arms. And while the number of fighters that have been killed is also well-disputed, even taking a low estimate of fighters killed versus a high estimate of civilians killed will, by most counts, result in a civilian casualty ratio—a macabre measure used to describe the number of combatants versus noncombatants that have been killed—that is low, even shockingly low, for modern combat, especially modern combat played out in a dense urban area.

This low civilian casualty ratio is attributable to two things. First, the well-developed system the IDF has employed for deploying force in light of the laws of armed conflict (LOAC) and the just war tradition. This system is—generally—well disciplined and extremely innovative. The cynic can say that this is only because Israel is afraid of bad press. That may be, but attributing their deference to the laws of war to the degree to which they rely on materiel from external sources and permissions doesn’t change the fact that Israel has gone to greater lengths than arguably any other force in the world to avoid noncombatant deaths. For the IDF, civilian casualties are to be avoided, for Hamas they are part of the point.

This reminds us that the other factor behind the death and destruction is far simpler: fighting among civilians kills civilians. Hamas has intentionally shielded itself with women and children. They have not simply sewn their warfighting into the fabric of the community around them, they have dug themselves beneath it and they fight and hide and stockpile their weapons within it—in schools, hospitals, family homes, mosques, churches, refugee camps, and aid stations. What happened to the WCK workers shouldn’t have happened. But there are reasons why Israel might have thought aid vehicles had been compromised by the enemy.

One last point. While apparently lauding Israeli accountability, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken reportedly also cautioned the IDF that “civilian lives need to take priority over military operations in Gaza, not the other way around.” I don’t mean to quibble over rhetoric, and Blinken’s comment might be understandable in light of the WCK tragedy. But it’s too factually wrong and potentially dangerous to simply give it a pass.

Some background. There is, of course, widespread state practice that recognizes states have a right to act in self-defense. Here just war moral framing arguably differs from LOAC, in which self-defense is rather narrowly defined as response against attack under way or clearly imminent. In just war moral reasoning, the defense of the common good—in the first place the common good of the political community responding to an unjustified attack—which is characterized by protecting just order and, thereby, peace, is the central moral rationale for just war as a whole. Baked into the just war moral vision is something more than merely a return to the status quo ante bellum. The just war ambition is the establishment of a durable peace—characterized by order and justice, which necessitates the sufficient punishment of evil.

One of the differences, I think, comes from two somewhat competing conceptions of self-defense. LOAC’s set of permissions for a State to respond in self-defense against attack under way or imminent is really no different than the rights of any individual to respond in self-defense against attack already under way or immediately threatened. But just war does not build its defense permissions on the basis of private rights. Instead, it builds downward—from a conception of a political sovereign’s responsibility for the good of the political community in its care. Because what’s legitimately good for a political community may be something more than merely a return to the pre-war state of affairs, the just war framing arguably offers greater permissions than LOAC for continuing a fight and bringing it to an end decisive enough to result in a durable peace.

How this plays out on the battlefield isn’t simple, especially, again, an urban one in which the enemy doesn’t play by rules. It doesn’t help that it’s often assumed the just war categories of jus ad bellum (jab ) and the jus in bello (jib) are fairly distinct from one another. The first governs when it is right to fight and the second how to rightly fight the fight that’s right to fight. Once engaged, the just warrior’s concerns are governed only by the jib’s requirements of necessity, proportionality, and discrimination. But this is off the mark. Among other reasons, the relationship between the jab and the jib is more closely aligned than described above because the kind of fight one is fighting will (always?) have an effect on how one fights it. For example, the good that was at risk for Britain during its war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands was appreciably different than what was at risk in its war with Nazi Germany. Because of differences in the character of the enemy and the enemy’s ambitions, Britain’s own war aims—and the degree of their importance—were also necessarily different. Because its war aims were different—especially in the degree of their importance—the character of what would be deemed necessary and proportionate to achieve those aims was different. And because what was necessary and proportionate was different, the degree to which it discriminated was sometimes different as well.

I say “sometimes” because it’s not the case that just because one is engaged in a desperate fight against a terrible enemy one always uses a different standard of discrimination. Not so. Discrimination—referred to here as noncombatant protection—is one part of a trio of obligations—along with mission effectiveness and force protection—by which any just force will govern its combat behavior on a given mission. The weight given to these values will shift with circumstance. The criticality of the mission—including questions of timing—most often serves as the pivot. The more immediately critical the mission, the more a commander will be willing to risk harm both to his own forces and to noncombatants. The balance between force protection and noncombatant protection will also shift given varying factors. There may be times when enormous provision is made to protect noncombatants, even to the point of suffering losses or abandoning the mission. But not always.

So, it is not the case, pace Blinken, that civilian lives always take precedent over military operations. Hamas, by itself, does not directly pose an existential threat to Israel. But as a proxy of Iran and with Hezbollah and many others watching, and with the harms that Hamas can exact against the Israeli people, this present fight against Hamas is critical. The IDF might not have moral permission to go to any lengths to defeat Hamas, but October 7th has proved, if nothing before it did, that it certainly must go to great lengths. Peace in Gaza requires the destruction of Hamas.

Hamas has asked for all of this. Meanwhile, Israel will continue to take more care to prevent innocent Palestinian casualties than the Palestinian leaders will. In a macabre symmetry, it seems the more comprehensive, creative, and systematic the effort by the IDF to comply with key principles of the laws of war and just war moral framing, the more systematic, creative, and comprehensive the effort by Hamas to violate these principles and exploit them in order to delegitimize Israel. Israel’s continued fighting discipline is essential in thwarting Hamas’ ambition to do so.

Israel has said that its war aims include the return of the hostages, the destruction of Hamas as a military organization, and the destruction of Hamas as a political entity. As of right now, they have not accomplished any of these. The return of the hostages seems increasingly low on hope. Many will never come home. But Israel might well be on the cusp of accomplishing Hamas’ destruction.

Some observers suggest that Rafah might be all that stands between Israel and this achievement. IDF officials suggest that four Hamas brigades remain. They are in Rafah. If Israel can destroy them, the existence of Hamas as a military organization capable of posing any viable threat to Israel is likely over. Just as critically, if, having broken the fighting ability of Hamas in Rafah, Israel can then take control of the crossings from Egypt into the Gaza strip—ripping this control away from Hamas—then they, and not Hamas, will control the economic lifeline into Gaza. This includes aid distribution and everything else. Hamas will no longer be the dominant political element in Gaza. To be sure, Israel does not want to be the dominant political element, but Hamas must not be. With Hamas out, the flow of aid into Gaza will be unfettered.

Blinken’s sloppy caution against the IDF prioritizing the mission over civilians is dangerous because by failing to understand the criticality of the mission—and by holding Israel to standards America (rightly) does not impose on our own warfighting—Blinken is giving Israel’s critics permission to increase pressure for a premature ceasefire. Western support for Israel’s entry into Rafah might be essential for Israel being able to do it. If Israel does not do it, then Hamas in all likelihood wins this war—in every critically important sense. This is one more reason for Israel to double-down on keeping disciplined in how it prosecutes this fight. For the fight must be fought to the finish.