The horrible “unintentional” murder of seven aid workers in Gaza carries many lessons. One is the importance of signaling the moral principles that are expected to be followed. One week after the barbaric attack against Israeli civilians, I wrote:

The basic individualist ethic nurtured by Western civilization rejects group identities and tribal intuitions that justify collective punishments. In times of war, individualist ethics may be difficult to uphold by those waging a just defensive war, but its recognition is essential as a standard to distinguish collectivist barbarians and civilized individualists. Just as it makes no sense to hold the Israelis responsible for the barbaric attack of which they were victims, it is nonsensical to think of ordinary Gazans, under the yoke of Hamas thuggery, as collectively guilty and artisans of their own misfortune.

Two months later, after three Israeli hostages were killed by the army supposed to liberate them, I wrote, more explicitly (my apologies for quoting myself again):

A man has got to do what a man has got to do, within certain moral constraints. After October 7, the Israeli government should have proclaimed the principle as loud as the calls for revenge were heard, and should have endeavored to lead by example.

It would not have been too late for the Israeli government to state clearly, and to start repeating, that they were not after a collective punishment irrespective of guilt, and that they intended to respect the laws of war, Western individualist ethics, and simple human decency towards civilians. It was probably still time for the Israeli government to keep the moral support of decent people in the international community and to transmit to its armed forces a strong message of moral restraint. Thousands of civilian lives in Gaza would have been saved. The probability of “unintentionally” killing aid workers would have been reduced. The Israelis would not have wasted so much of their capital of sympathy. Moral principles are a good strategy.

There is also a lesson regarding the circulation of information if the Financial Times is correct:

The fatal strikes followed a series of mistaken assumptions that could have been prevented had the military properly passed along the details of the humanitarian convoy to the commanders who ultimately ordered the strikes. World Central Kitchen had shared those details with the proper military authorities, but they were lost somewhere in the chain of communication, the investigation found.

Students of bureaucracy know that there is much noise in the internal communications of any large organization. The military is a large bureaucracy, a point on which Gordon Tullock insisted. Anthony Downs, one of the early public choice economists, noted in his 1967 book Inside Bureaucracy:

When information must be passed through many officials, each of whom condenses it somewhat before passing it on to the next, the final output will be very different in quality from the original input; that is, significant distortion will occur.

In a bureau hierarchy, information passed upward to the topmost officials tends to be distorted so as to most reflect what he would like to hear, or his preconceived views, than reality warrants.

Soldiers and officers on the ground don’t receive the exact same orders as were issued at the top of the pyramid. Signaling moral principles could have clarified communications about the required moral restraint.

The Israeli military apologized to the World Central Kitchen, to which the killed aid workers belonged, and said it had “dismissed two officers and reprimanded three,” according to the Financial Times. This does not seem sufficient to compensate for the multiple faults committed by the Israeli government during this war. Of course, we are still waiting for the remaining leaders of Hamas to condemn those who have participated in or organized the butchery of October 7. Their refusal to do so as well as their use of their population as innocent shields should not make us forget that, as the American Secretary of State correctly said, the state of Israel should follow “higher standards.”

All this assumes that the Israeli government does want to abide by higher standards. The Economist writes (“What Israel’s Killing of Aid Workers Means for Gaza,” April 3, 2024):

Isaac Herzog, the Israeli president, called Mr Andrés [the founder of the World Central Kitchen] and expressed “deep sorrow”. The army chief pledged a thorough investigation (though Israel has a poor track record of those). Israel’s prime minister was less contrite: in a bizarre videotaped statement, a smiling Mr Netanyahu said that he was recovering well from hernia surgery and then acknowledged the “tragic event” in Gaza. “This happens in war,” he said. …

For months Mr Netanyahu has refused to order the Israeli army to distribute aid in Gaza itself.


The featured image of my post is a courtesy of DALL-E, laboring under my instructions. As ze said zirself, “the images depict Ker, the goddess of death in Greek mythology, walking through the remnants of a city devastated by aerial bombing…”

Ker, goddess of death, at work in Gaza

Ker, the Greek goddess of death, at work in Gaza