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Slaughter of innocents cannot be easy for the perpetrators, but their tears are for themselves

For the commanders and politicians who give the orders, the killing of children is the ultimate expression of power. It shows the absolute loyalty of the foot soldiers

Why do men kill children? Because it’s hard. Men who kill children prove to themselves and their superiors that they are hard men.

Hamas murdered around 30 Jewish children up close on October 7th, in some cases with extreme violence. (It also kidnapped another 30 children, including the eight year-old Irish-Israeli girl Emily Hand). Some children were deliberately terrorised before they died by being forced to watch the killing of their parents.

Israel, as part of its retaliation, has killed around 7,000 children. To put this figure in context, Russia’s horrific war on Ukraine claimed the lives of 560 children from the start of the invasion in February 2022 up to October 7th.

This is the unique bloody fingerprint of this catastrophe: it is more thoroughly a war on children than any other conflict I can think of. More than 40 per cent, and probably close to half, of the dead in Gaza are aged under 18. More children have already died in Israel’s assault on Gaza than were killed in all conflicts in all other parts of the world over the previous four years.


This slaughter of the innocents cannot be easy for the perpetrators. It crosses boundaries, not just of international law, but of human instinct.

We know that, in the early days of the Holocaust, when Jews were being murdered up close by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen, even those mass killers often baulked at shooting children. Later, they said things like: “I couldn’t help but think of my own daughter of the same age. I had tears in my eyes.” Or: “At that moment, I felt like I was being made to kill my own child.” Or: “I especially remember a little blonde girl who took me by the hand. She was also shot afterward. That is what upset me the most.” It was, in part, to spare “good” Germans the trauma of such memories that the Nazis industrialised the process of mass murder in their death camps.

The slaughter of kids in Gaza may not be as methodical or purposeful as that of the children of the kibbutzes, but it is fully conscious

The line that must be crossed is the awareness of innocence. No jihadi can tell himself that a Jewish toddler caused the suffering of the Palestinian people. No Israeli pilot can convince himself that the kids about to be obliterated by a 2,000-pound bomb are personally responsible for the October 7th atrocities.

A man who had himself both been a child solider and done a lot of killing in Israel-Palestine once reflected that “A child is born into an utterly undemocratic world. He cannot choose his father and mother. He cannot pick his sex or colour, his religion, nationality, or homeland. Whether he is born in a manor or a manger, whether he lives under a despotic or democratic regime, it is not his choice. From the moment he comes, close-fisted, into the world, his fate lies in the hands of his nation’s leaders.”

Those were the words of the then Israeli prime minister, and former army commander, Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 – words for which (along with the intention behind them) he was himself murdered. They are the words that have to be erased from the page of conscience before men can kill children.

But kill them they do. The Nazis with tears in their eyes as they thought of their own blond-haired little girls pulled the trigger anyway. When the killers cry, they cry for themselves, for their own pain rather than that of the victims and the bereaved.

In a grim paradox, that pain may even help to sustain the atrocities. It reassures the killers that their inhuman acts have not rendered them less human. They are still normal enough to have feelings. When this is all over, they can go back and be fathers.

For the commanders and politicians who give the orders, the killing of children is the ultimate expression of power. It shows the absolute loyalty of the foot soldiers: they will obey even those orders that make the gorge rise. But it also shows that if you can do this, you can do anything. Your violence has become godlike in its complete unconditionality.

This makes child-killing a particularly effective salve for humiliation. The shame of being a powerless young man in Gaza and the ignominy of an Israeli government and military that left its citizens defenceless can be, momentarily at least, blotted out by the enactment of absolutely unlimited power. The Israeli government would object that there is a world of moral difference between Hamas’s deliberate atrocities against children and the killing of kids as collateral damage. Pressing a button in the cockpit of an F-15 jet high above Gaza probably does indeed feel very different from murdering a child into whose terrified eyes you are looking.

But the difference between “deliberate” and “knowing” is slight. The slaughter of kids in Gaza may not be as methodical or purposeful as that of the children of the kibbutzes, but it is fully conscious. No one is stupid enough not to know that if you drop explosives equivalent to two nuclear bombs on a tiny area packed with children, you will kill and maim them in vast numbers.

In one of the most famous of modern Hebrew poems, Yehuda Amichai wrote: “God has pity on kindergarten children./ He has less pity on schoolchildren/ And on grown-ups he has no pity at all,/ he leaves them alone,/and sometimes they / must crawl on all fours/ in the burning sand/ to reach the first-aid station/ covered with blood.”

Now, it seems, even the first of those lines is too optimistic. The god of vengeance has no pity on the kindergarten children either. They, too, must crawl through the burning sand covered with blood towards hospitals that may no longer be there. Each of those kids came close-fisted into the world to be delivered into the hands of the leaders who determine their fate. By active cruelty, by cowardly indifference, by cynical evasion, those leaders decree that their fate is an early and terrible end.