Ask the Rov: How does Halacha require treating civilian noncombatants during war?
By Rabbi Chaim Hillel Raskin – Rov of Anash in Petach Tikvah
The halacha is that it is forbidden to cause death to a gentile, even indirectly. Yet, during wartime, different halachos apply, and an enemy nation may be killed,1 especially those who pose a threat.2
Maharal explains that the Torah allows killing an entire nation who comes to fight. Shimon and Levi were allowed to fight and kill the entire population of Shechem. Since they attacked and defiled Dina, it was permitted to punish the whole community collaterally. Likewise, when fighting against Midyan, the Jews were allowed to kill even those who didn’t pose a threat, being part of the nation that initiated the war.3
What is the reason for this permissibility? Some explain that civilians generally participate in the war efforts in some way or another by providing the enemy soldiers with food, electricity, and so on. Many civilians who aren’t actively involved would likely join when the opportunity presents itself (like the G-d-fearing Egyptians who provided horses for the army to chase the Jews).4 In Dovid Hamelech’s wars, he killed many noncombatants who may have been innocent, but his sole intention was to protect and save the Jewish people.5
When the enemy is using innocent people as human shields, there is a further issue: can a Jewish soldier’s life be endangered to save the civilian human shields?
The halacha is clear that we must take any steps necessary to protect a Yid’s life, even at the cost of more collateral damage.6 Moreover, if gentile soldiers join forces with the Jewish army, their lives also take precedence over civilians on the other side. Some add that the civilians being used as human shields have the halachic status of rodef (even if against their will), and they may be killed for one’s protection.7
In a regular war that Jews wage against another nation, they would always leave one side open for people to escape. However, when waging a milchemes mitzva — to save Bnei Yisroel from an enemy who attacked them — they may set a complete siege and close the city from all sides.8
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From The Weekly Farbrengen by Merkaz Anash