It is my understanding that in Israel, most young people are required to serve in the IDF as conscripts for a number of years and are eligible to be called up for reserve duty for a number of years after.

I found this fact difficult to reconcile with the standard narrative that most of the young adult victims on October 7th (e.g., at the music festival) were civilians. To be clear, I am not trying to justify the violence on that day, but words do have meaning, and the distinction between a "civilian" and "soldier" is crucially important with respect to the moral and legal assessment of the events of October 7th.

Let us assume that some of the young adult victims of October 7th were currently serving conscripts or reservists who had a weekend off-duty during which they decided to party (and were also consequently unarmed). I do not believe that this is an unreasonable assumption, given the age of the victims. Under international law, would these folk be legitimate combatants?


2 Answers 2


According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), they are considered non-combatants until mobilized, but this isn't exactly "hardcoded" or explicit in any convention, but rather based on "expert consensus":

While in some countries, entire segments of the population between certain ages may be drafted into the armed forces in the event of armed conflict, only those persons who are actually drafted, i.e., who are actually incorporated into the armed forces, can be considered combatants. Potential mobilization does not render the person concerned a combatant liable to attack.

[footnote:] This conclusion is based on discussions during the second consultation with academic and governmental experts in the framework of this study in May 1999 and the general agreement among the experts to this effect. The experts also considered that it may be necessary to consider the legislation of a State in determining when reservists actually become members of the armed forces.

As I see some have answered my answer with more liberal suggestions as to whom can't be legally targeted, I hate to disappoint on that, but

In 1993, Bosnian-Serb soldiers fired mortar rounds at Bosnian soldiers playing soccer on an improvised neighborhood field, killing and injuring civilian spectators nearby. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia found the Bosnian-Serb commanders guilty of harming civilians, but found no legal violation in the targeting of the sporting soldiers.

[...] Hence, although in the ordinary meaning, “combatant” is a person who fights, in the legal sense, “combatant” is anyone who has a right to fight under international law, and this right is accorded to all members of the armed forces, other than medical personnel and chaplains. Another exceptional category is soldiers assigned exclusively to civil defense tasks. All three—medics, chaplains, and civil defense forces—must wear a distinctive emblem to identify them as such. Other than these categories, all soldiers are targetable unless they become hors de combat, and it is irrelevant if they are conscripted or volunteers, serving on the frontline or in the rear, engaging in combat, combat-support, or noncombat activities.

[...] The rules about hors de combat all share one underlying principle: Once soldiers are incapacitated—through surrender, capture, or injury—they no longer pose a threat.

Playing soccer or similar unarmed/leisurely activities thus don't count as hors de combat.

All soldiers who are not injured or captured are presumed to be “seeking to kill,” and therefore the deliberate targeting of all enemy combatants—regardless of their role on the battlefield, whether they are off duty, asleep in the barracks, bathing in the lake, or retreating— is permissible. There is no duty to warn enemy combatants prior to an attack, to try to capture enemy combatants as POWs instead of killing them (a duty that existed under the medieval codes of knightly conduct in respect to other knights) (Stacey 1994, 30), to injure them instead of killing them, or in any other way minimize combatant casualties.

[...] The striking feature of the mainstream literature is its general acceptance (albeit at times, with some moral discomfort) of the near-absolute license to kill all combatants and of the law’s view of combatants as nothing more than instruments of war.

Granted, some more progressive scholars (like the very author of that paper for that last quote) think those decisions/rules are too permissive in whom can be targeted [and have proposed other rules], but AFAIK no army [or court] has adopted more restrictive rules.

BTW, this is far more tangential, but may also be interesting in the opposite direction, of whom Israel considers they can target in a group like Hamas:

In 2005, the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ), when reviewing the government’s policy of targeted killings of terrorists in Gaza and the West Bank, classified terrorists as civilians taking direct part in hostilities. It ordered that terrorists be targeted only when there was sufficient intelligence to show that the individual targeted was directly, substantially, and continuously involved in terrorism—a standard that would have been unnecessary had members of paramilitary groups been labeled “combatants.” Still, when interpreting the limitation “for such time,” the HCJ rejected the possibility of a “revolving door” allowing a terrorist to act as a terrorist by day and a civilian by night, substantially weakening the temporal constraint. In effect, the Court allowed the government to target terrorists any time, any place, as long as the “guilt” of the terrorist has been established. In other words, the functional test of the nature of the target made the distinction in labeling the individual a “civilian” or a “combatant” less meaningful.

If you'd rather read another expert's take on this issue:

‘Civilians’ are all persons who are not members of the armed forces. Armed forces include not only the regular armed forces, but also certain militias and armed resistance movements. The definition is rather complicated and not all elements are universally accepted as customary law. In this context, I shall only point at the issues of wearing a distinctive sign and carrying arms openly, which for non-parties to the 1977 Additional Protocol I is a requirement for recognition as a combatant, that is a person who can lawfully participate directly in hostilities.

‘Civilians’ includes also the civilian population. The presence of some individual members of the armed forces within the civilian population does not deprive the civilian population of its civilian character. This could, for instance, be soldiers on leave visiting their families.

Civilians may be attacked if they take direct part in hostilities. The exact meaning of “taking direct part in hostilities” is disputed, but the core of the notion is universally accepted. You may, for instance, attack the person who is shooting at you with a machine gun. You may also attack the person who is carrying ammunition to the machine gunner. But you may not attack the person who participates indirectly, such as the machine gunner’s wife who is cooking food for him.

The role of the cook is, however, one of the disputed issues. Some hold that the cook is a lawful target if he or she is a member of an organized armed group, while others, in particular the ICRC, hold that it is only those members of the group that have a continuous combat function that can lawfully be attacked. Another problem is the so-called “revolving door” controversy. Can you be a protected civilian farmer by day and a targetable fighter by night, or will repeated direct participation in hostilities make you a lawful target until you have clearly abandoned such activities?

The International Committee of the Red Cross issued in 2009 an interpretive guidance to the concept of direct participation in hostilities. This was made after six years of expert consultations; the problem is only that the experts were not able to agree on certain issues like those explained above. The interpretive guidance is, therefore, the position of the ICRC and does not reflect a consensus among experts. That said, one can safely assume that if a person is involved in activity that is direct participation in hostilities according to the ICRC view, it is lawful to attack that person. But it cannot be inferred that an attack of a person that does not fulfil the ICRC criteria for direct participation is unlawful and therefore a war crime. In such cases, the situation has to be studied carefully before any conclusion is drawn.

So, according to one reading of this expert's saying, soldiers on leave might not be legitimate targets either. YMMV. Or he might just be saying that the typical mixture of soldiers on leave with the undisputable civilians keeps the mixture civilian in character.

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    And this consensus is in place for good reason. In theory, any country could pass a draft law at any time, so if killing potential future combatants were considered moral in international law, it would basically give free rein to kill anyone as long as they were part of an enemy country. Even children, after all, could grow up to be soldiers.
    – Obie 2.0
    Dec 28, 2023 at 17:03
  • 3
    Minor nitpick, I had to google that ICRC stands for International Committee of the Red Cross. More importantly, most young people in Israel actually do serve as conscripts in the army. So they are actually drafted not merely in a position where they may be drafted. Which to my non-lawyer eyes means during the time of military service they count the same way as a professional career soldier.
    – quarague
    Dec 28, 2023 at 20:28
  • In the 2008-2009 Gaza war, Israel began the war via a surprise attack by bombing the graduation ceremony of police cadets it claimed were also registered Hamas members. The victims are the time would have likely been unarmed. Thoughts on this in relation to your answer? Jan 20 at 0:50

and the distinction between a "civilian" and "soldier" is crucially important with respect to the moral and legal assessment of the events of October 7th.

The legal texts defining these terms are the Geneva conventions. Protocol Additional, article 43:

  1. Members of the armed forces of a Party to a conflict (other than medical personnel and chaplains covered by Article 33 of the Third Convention) are combatants, that is to say, they have the right to participate directly in hostilities.

article 44:

  1. Any combatant, as defined in Article 43, who falls into the power of an adverse Party shall be a prisoner of war.

  2. ...

  3. In order to promote the protection of the civilian population from the effects of hostilities, combatants are obliged to distinguish themselves from the civilian population while they are engaged in an attack or in a military operation preparatory to an attack. Recognizing, however, that there are situations in armed conflicts where, owing to the nature of the hostilities an armed combatant cannot so distinguish himself, he shall retain his status as a combatant, provided that, in such situations, he carries his arms openly:

    a) during each military engagement, and

    b) during such time as he is visible to the adversary while he is engaged in a military deployment preceding the launching of an attack in which he is to participate.

    Acts which comply with the requirements of this paragraph shall not be considered as perfidious within the meaning of Article 37, paragraph 1 c).

That is, combatants are members of the armed forces as evidenced by their insignia or the weapons they carry. Combatants who fall within the power of another Party without resisting are prisoners of war, and entitled the protections of the Third Geneva Convention.

Civilians are defined in article 50:

  1. A civilian is any person who does not belong to one of the categories of persons referred to in Article 4 A 1), 2), 3) and 6) of the Third Convention and in Article 43 of this Protocol. In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.
  2. The civilian population comprises all persons who are civilians.
  3. The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.

That is, unless a person has been identified as a combatant (for instance, by their uniform, their insignia, their weapons, or taking part in combat), they must be considered a civilian. It is not enough to merely suspect somebody to be a combatant, it must be beyond doubt that they are.

And even if a group of civilians so happens to contain members of the armed forces, that doesn't change the character of the group, and therefore doesn't make that group a legal target.

Let us assume that some of the young adult victims of October 7th were currently serving conscripts or reservists who had a weekend off-duty during which they decided to party (and were also consequently unarmed). I do not believe that this is an unreasonable assumption, given the age of the victims. Under international law, would these folk be legitimate combatants?

If they could be reliably identified as members of the armed forces (for instance, through their military ID, their dog tags, or similar), they would be considered Prisoners of War, and Hamas would have been permitted to intern them for the duration of the conflict, or as the Third Geneva Convention puts it in article 3:

  1. Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

    To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

    • violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
    • taking of hostages;
    • outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;
    • the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
  2. The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.

That is, the Geneva Conventions do not permit slaughtering the attendees of a music festival, even if some might be suspected to be off-duty military personnel. The most Hamas would have been allowed to do under the rules of war is take custody of these people, try to identify members of the armed forces, take these prisoner, and let everyone else go.

PS: According to Wikipedia, age is not a reliable indicator for conscription in Israel, since 35% of the women and 28% of the men are exempt.

  • 2
    Ehh. Russia fired a ballistic missile at a funeral. Ukraine fired some HIMARS at a theater. Any civilians were considered collateral damage. Israel likewise bombed buildings suspecting they have Hamas leaders. Filtering out the civilians is not something most militaries do when they can bomb the place. Dec 30, 2023 at 2:22
  • 5
    I am a bit unsure why you bring up long range missile fire in a question about Hamas infantry attacking a music festival? Hamas did not "bomb the place"; their infantry was close enough to tell civilians and combatants apart. Besides, that some militaries engage in such attacks does not imply that such attacks are legal. After all, you wouldn't argue that murder must be legal since it still happens in every country, would you?
    – meriton
    Dec 30, 2023 at 3:33
  • 3
    I'm sorry, but bombing a funeral simply because soldiers may be present is a clear war crime, and I don't think most militaries are as cavalier about this as you suggest. Most military manuals I have seen do contain some language about proportionality and distinction. Admittedly, I haven't done a thorough survey of all world's militaries, but given that the Protocol Additional of the Geneva Conventions were ratified by 174 nations, I would assume that most have a least some rules in place against indiscriminate bombing.
    – meriton
    Dec 30, 2023 at 4:28
  • 2
    That is your opinion. Proportionality wise, it depends how many soldiers there are. But no court ever came out with a clear standard, AFAIK. See also politics.stackexchange.com/questions/82368/… Dec 30, 2023 at 5:47
  • 2
    @haxor789: I'm not confused at all. Killing soldiers who were playing soccer was deemed A-OK by the ICTY. See my answer to your other comments... under my answer. Dec 30, 2023 at 22:10

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