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Israeli President Suggests That Civilians In Gaza Are Legitimate Targets

As Israel engages in a massive air campaign ahead of an anticipated full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said on Friday that all citizens of Gaza are responsible for the attack Hamas perpetrated in Israel last weekend that left over 1,200 people dead.

“It is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” Herzog said at a press conference on Friday. “It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat.”

When a reporter asked Herzog to clarify whether he meant to say that since Gazans did not remove Hamas from power “that makes them, by implication, legitimate targets,” the Israeli president claimed, “No, I didn’t say that.”

But he then stated: “When you have a missile in your goddamn kitchen and you want to shoot it at me, am I allowed to defend myself?”

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At another point in the press conference, Herzog presented a different perspective, saying, “Of course there are many, many innocent Palestinians who don’t agree to this — but unfortunately in their homes, there are missiles shooting at us, at my children.”

Herzog’s comments follow Israel’s announcement that it had directed the 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to evacuate, likely ahead of a ground invasion. Israel dropped thousands of flyers over northern Gaza and left voice messages on Friday directing people to leave their homes and flee south.

Human rights groups and the United Nations denounced the evacuation order.

“The United Nations considers it impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary-general, said in a statement. “The United Nations strongly appeals for any such order, if confirmed, to be rescinded avoiding what could transform what is already a tragedy into a calamitous situation.”

“Ordering a million people in Gaza to evacuate, when there’s no safe place to go, is not an effective warning,” Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor to Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “World leaders should speak up now before it is too late,” he added.

Fabrizio Carboni, the Near and Middle East regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a statement that both the collective punishment of civilians by Israel and taking of hostages by Hamas are violations of international humanitarian law.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog (right) said
Israeli President Isaac Herzog (right) said

Israeli President Isaac Herzog (right) said "an entire nation out there that is responsible" for Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken  (left)met with Herzog on Oct. 12.

“We are now in contact with Hamas and Israeli officials as part of efforts on this issue,” Carboni said in a statement. “As a neutral intermediary we stand ready to conduct humanitarian visits; facilitate communication between hostages and family members; and to facilitate any eventual release.”

In addition, a small handful of Democratic Party politicians denounced both Israel’s order to evacuate northern Gaza and Herzog’s statement of support for collective punishment. 

“The mass expulsion of over 1 million people in a day is ethnic cleansing,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said on social media.

“I get [Herzog] wanting to go after Hamas,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said on social media. “But international standards must apply, protection of innocents must be respected, and unrealistic demands like moving 1.1 million people in 24 hours is ridiculous. Israel will lose public support & hurt innocent people.”

The Biden administration has refused any effort to criticize Israeli military actions. Which House officials denounced calls for de-escalation, calling some lawmakers’ comments “repugnant.”

The Israeli Defense Forces said on Thursday that it has already dropped more than 6,000 bombs on Gaza, an area twice the size of Washington, D.C., with a population of 2.2 million, half of whom are children. The bombing campaign has killed more than 1,500 people, including 500 children, and wounded more than 6,000 people so far, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Israel also cut off all access to electricity and water in Gaza. The sole power plant in Gaza ran out of fuel on Oct. 11, leaving hospitals to run on backup generators.

So far, more than 400,000 Palestinians have been displaced inside Gaza, according to the UN. But there is nowhere to go. The only border crossing to Egypt is closed. Israel has bombed it repeatedly since the beginning of the war and Egypt refuses to admit refugees.

Herzog’s comments in support of collective punishment follow a string of dehumanizing statements from Israeli leaders following the massacre of civilians by Hamas.

“We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Oct. 9, two days after the attack.

“Human animals must be treated as such,” IDF Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian said on Oct. 10. “There will be no electricity and no water [in Gaza], there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.”

This story and headline have been updated to reflect an additional quote from Herzog.