Hamas clearly fails the St Alphonsus test. Civilian deaths are not just collateral damage – they are its chief weapon

Today is the feast of St Alphonsus de Liguori, who among other things is the father of Catholic moral theology. His contribution to the method of doing moral theology is still with us, for he it was who first established a path between laxists (who essentially allowed you to do more or less anything, as long as you could find an excuse) and rigorists (who more or less forbade anything that might even contain a slightest indication of sin.)

St Alphonsus’ middle path is often associated with the doctrine of “tutiorism”, tutior being the Latin for “more safe”. In other words, in cases where human life is at risk, it is always right to take the more safe path. So, imagine you had been in charge of blowing up Didcot power station the other day. Having checked it to make sure no one was in the building and that the area had been cleared, you are told that there was an indication, even a slight one, that someone had subsequently entered the building; then, just to be safe, you are obliged to postpone the explosion, and check that no one is in harm’s way, and only proceed when you are sure it is safe to do so. So tutiorism is about taking more than just reasonable precautions; it means taking the surest and safest path if there is a risk to human life.

Many of the moral problems to which this principle was applied dealt with situations of war. Was it right to attack a city wall, when there were civilians sheltering in the ditch in front of it who would be killed by any bombardment? (This was long before anyone coined the phrase “collateral damage”). The answer was always in keeping with the firm principle that it was never right to target civilians directly: thus it would be wrong to attack a wall if it meant wading through civilian blood first. But it might be allowed to attack a wall, manned by soldiers, behind which civilians were sheltering. This is not mere casuistry (which many non-Catholics dismiss as legalistic wordplay); in each case civilians are killed, and whether they are killed directly or indirectly, they are dead all the same; but it does make a moral difference for the attackers, the difference between a legitimate attack and a war crime.

All this has some application today to the conflict in Gaza. The key questions to ask are these: is the IDF deliberately targeting civilians? Is the IDF taking every effort to minimise civilian casualties? And we might also ask: is Hamas deliberately targeting civilians? Are they trying their hardest to minimise civilian casualties?

In fact we do not need to ask those questions of Hamas, for we have a clear answer. Their charter seems to indicate that the more Jews that are killed the better. Moreover, the way their rockets are fired into Israel indicates that they are not aimed at any particular military target in Israel, just Israel itself. This indiscriminate nature of their rockets would have horrified St Alphonsus. And not just St Alphonsus.

What is happening in Gaza, is, of course, a type of war of which St Alphonsus never dreamed in his worst nightmares, a war where the human shield is an important weapon. The idea of a human shield goes back to the Second World War when the Germans forbade their citizens to leave cities like Berlin and Dresden for the safety of the countryside, even though they knew this meant a huge risk to their lives and well-being. But, as we know, Hitler wanted the ordinary Germans to be terrorised by Allied bombardment. So did Mussolini in the case of the Italians, hoping this would toughen their resolve to resist. Hamas is using the civilian population of Gaza as a pawn in its war with Israel: if they are killed, then Israel is demonised as a child-killing, women-slaying monster, and Hamas wins a propaganda coup.

The Palestinians refugees have long been used was a pawn by their leaders. This is why over 60 years after al Nakba the Palestinian refugee problem has still not been solved. Apart from those Palestinians who have been given Jordanian passports, the majority continue to be stateless people. When will we have a solution? Why can’t the European Union and the United States, along with other countries, especially Arab and Muslim ones, offer passports and the right of abode to any one of the 1.8 million people living in Gaza, who might want to leave? But if any such joint offer were to be made, Hamas would be the first to condemn it. It needs those 1.8 million people: they are Hamas’s chief weapon. And until the refugee problem is settled, the misery will continue.