England’s Jewish Chronicle is running a great Op-Ed by Daniel Reisel about the Jewish legal obligation to avoid civilian casualties at all costs. Here’s a taste:
In his book Laws of Kings and Wars, Maimonides codifies the religious obligations pertaining to the siege of a city. A siege, he writes, should not surround the city on all four sides, but only on three, allowing an escape path for anyone who wishes to save his life (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:7). It is an opinion that the Rambam bases on a Talmudic reading of the Israelite war against Midian.
A law requiring besiegers to leave open the fourth side of a city flies in the face of military logic. After all, a city besieged on three sides is not really besieged. Allowing open passage could aid the escape of civilians, but it could also facilitate the passage of supplies and weapons into the city. Gaza is a case in point. Unsurprisingly, it is an approach that stands in marked contrast to siege warfare as practiced throughout European history.
So why take the risk? Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Book of Commandments (Hasagot Haramban Lâ€™sefer Hamitzvot, positive commandment 5), explains: â€œGod commanded us that when we lay siege to a city, we leave one of the sides without a siege so as to give them a place through which to flee. It is from this commandment that we learn to deal with compassion even with our enemies, even at a time of war.â€?