Israel is currently
laying siege on the
Gaza strip in order to
prevent terrorists from
leaving, particularly
with Israeli hostages.

Is a full siege on Gaza
halachically permissible?

In the summer of 1982,
the Israeli army placed a siege on Beirut in
a successful attempt to force the PLO out of
Lebanon. On August 6th, then-Chief Rabbi
of Israel Rav Shlomo Goren published an
article in the newspaper Hatzofeh in which
he argued that, according to Jewish law,
the siege must allow terrorists to escape
the city.

Understandably, this caused a bit
of a furor and Rav Shaul Yisraeli wrote a
letter in response. (The letter was intended
to be private but due to a confusion at the
newspaper was printed without Rav Yisraeli’s
permission. This led to an exchange over
whether one may publish Torah insights
without permission from the author.)

Rav Goren responded in turn and the exchange
was published in Hatzofeh on Sep. 17th. The
next year, Rav Yisraeli published an article on
the subject in the journal Techumin (vol. 4).

Rav Goren’s argument is as follows (as
published in Toras Ha-Medinah, ch. 28):

1. The Sifrei (on Numbers 31:7) extrapolates

from the war on Midian that when laying
siege, a Jewish army may only block off three
sides but must leave a fourth side open for
those under siege to escape. This is quoted as
law by the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos
Melachim 6:7), Ramban (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos,
addenda to positive commandments no. 5)
and Sefer Ha-Chinuch (527). Therefore, the
siege on Beirut must allow those under siege
to escape. Presumably, this would also apply
to Gaza.

2. The Ramban and the Chinuch state that
this mitzvah only applies to an optional war
(milchemes reshus), such as a war to conquer
new land. But a mandatory war (milchemes
mitzvah), such as war against Amalek, the
7 nations or to defend Jews, does not have
such a requirement and a full siege may be
placed. The Lebanon War was a defensive
war and thus obligatory. If so, then according
to the Ramban and the Chinuch the siege
on Beirut could be complete. However,
Rav Goren argues that the Ramban and
the Chinuch were only referring to the first
two types of mandatory wars – wars against
Amalek and the 7 nations – when we are
obligated to kill every single person. That
is why we may not allow people to escape
a siege. But a defensive war is similar to
a milchemes reshus and the siege must allow
people to escape. The siege on Gaza is also part of a defensive war.

3. The Minchas Chinuch asks how anyone
can say that this rule does not apply to a
mandatory war when its entire source is from
the war against Midian, a mandatory war!
Rav Goren suggests that wars outside the
land of Israel automatically gain the status of
an optional war. Therefore, the war against
Midian was technically an optional war. If
so, the war in Lebanon is also an optional
war and the rule regarding sieges should still
apply. Gaza, too, lies outside the halachic
boundaries of the land of Israel.

4. Rav Goren compared this rule to that
requiring that before we attack anyone we
attempt to establish peace first. That is clearly
a humanitarian commandment, attempting
to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. Similarly,
the obligation to allow an escape route in a
siege is also a humanitarian commandment
to avoid war, i.e. let them escape and
allow us to win. This comparison between
the two commandments is evident in the
Rambam’s including both in the same chapter
of Mishneh Torah and the Chinuch including
them in the same commandment. This might
not apply to Gaza, where we are attempting
to save hostages.

Rav Shaul Yisraeli responded:

1. The Rambam, in formulating this rule
in Mishneh Torah, writes that it applies
when one sieges a city in order to conquer
it. This implies that it only applies to an
optional war, when the war is to conquer
new land, and not a defensive/mandatory
war. Thus, all three rishonim only apply
this rule to an optional war, which the war
in Lebanon was not. It is not clear whether
Israel currently intends to conquer Gaza
but, regardless, this is a defensive war.

2. This rule was extrapolated from the
war against Midian – a mandatory war –
because that war was historically unique
and comparable to a contemporary
optional war in that there was no command
to directly kill the enemy. Thus, an escape
route was required.

3. The Meshech Chochmah (Numbers
31:7) points out that the Rambam does

not list this commandment in Sefer Ha-
Mitzvos while Ramban does. He explains

that according to the Rambam this rule
is a military tactic, i.e. the best way to
create a siege is to leave a side open so
the fighters have an escape route and do
not need to fight to the end. Therefore, it
is part of the laws of making war and not
a mitzvah unto itself. According to the
Ramban, though, this is a humanitarian
law. Therefore, according to the Rambam
this rule only applies when the tactic is
appropriate but according to the Ramban
it always applies (albeit, only to a
permitted war). While Rav Goren adduces
problems for this explanation (e.g. the

Rambam still includes the commandment
in Mishneh Torah and we do not dismiss a
commandment simply because its rationale
does not apply), Rav Yisraeli defends it.
However, Rav Yisraeli also suggests that
according to the Rambam this rule is part of
the law prohibiting killing an idolator who
does not want to fight us, which is why the
Rambam did not list it in Sefer Ha-Mitzvos.

4. Rav Yisraeli vigorously objects to Rav
Goren’s connecting the commandments
to request peace (before launching a war)
and leaving an escape route in a siege as
similar humanitarian laws. They are entirely
unconnected. The former is to afford the
enemy the chance to surrender and live
under Jewish rule while only the latter is a
humanitarian law.

Note that everyone agrees that civilians must
be allowed to leave a siege and the enemies
may be prevented from entering a siege or
bringing in supplies. The only discussion
is regarding soldiers that are under siege.
According to Rav Goren, a case can be made
that a complete siege is appropriate in Gaza
in order to save the hostages and a case can
be made that a complete siege is against
halachah. According to Rav Yisraeli, the
complete siege seems entirely permissible
and necessary.