Israel Takes Aim at the Laws of war


Unnamed Israeli officials have recently indicated that a future war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon is inevitable, and that large numbers of civilians will likely die in such a conflict.

Israeli officials argued in a recent New York Times piece that Hezbollah, like Hamas, commits double war crimes by targeting Israeli civilians and militarizing urban population centers, thereby transforming civilians into legitimate military targets.

According to this logic, Israel can’t be held responsible if large numbers of civilians die during future conflicts because its enemies use their civilian populations as human shields.

Civilians as Combatants?

Israel has faced increasing condemnation of its military conduct and numerous United Nations investigations that found Israeli forces committed war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity, since its 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and three subsequent wars in Gaza since 2008.

Despite this growing pressure, Israel has used its logic to turn large swaths of Gaza into rubble, first during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and more recently during Operation Protective Edge last summer, which killed some 2,100 Palestinians, according to UN statistics. The UN also estimated that nearly 70 percent were civilians, including roughly 500 children.

Recent revelations from Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli veterans who testify about their conduct as soldiers, corroborated a widespread disregard for civilians during Israeli engagement in Gaza in 2014.

One soldier testified that orders were “shoot to kill.” “The saying was: ‘There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.’ In that situation, anyone there is involved,” the soldier said.[1]

Many of the soldiers’ testimonies indicate a breach of international humanitarian law, which protects civilians during hostilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and thereby indicates a degree of entrenched Israeli policy when it calculates military necessity versus collateral damage.

However, Israeli logic holds that the traditional international rules governing the protection of civilians during war should no longer apply to its military operations. The argument is presumably made because of the type of unconventional warfare Israel faces from enemies like Hezbollah and Hamas, which includes indiscriminate rocket fire into civilian areas in Israel, acts which also violate the laws of war, and which were also condemned by UN investigations.

Thus Israel says that attempts to hold it accountable according to norms of international law, what it terms “lawfare,” actually rewards terrorism and undermines the right to self-defense among western nations.

Critics of the lawfare approach also say that it is being used to delegitimize Israel, and that Israel is unfairly singled out, while other, much worse human rights abusers are overlooked–a fair assessment. Yet even so, Israel shouldn’t get a free pass. Its attempts to transform civilians into legitimate military targets, if only in the court of world opinion, could set a dangerous precedent (even for holding these other actors accountable)—and therefore deserves closer scrutiny.

The Case for Peace, The Case for War

No one in good conscience could argue that Israel shouldn’t defend itself. But the means in which Israel engages to achieve security do matter—the international norms and standards around the laws of war exist to prevent atrocities.

Using Netanyahu’s logic as a pretext for widespread destruction and loss of civilian life as a necessary preventive security measure is problematic, especially when there are other diplomatic options at Israel’s disposal.  But a pending US-backed nuclear deal with Iran and Palestinian Authority attempts to seek statehood through the UN and its recent membership to the International Criminal Court, indicate that the stakes for Israel have grown higher.

Its efforts to blur the line between civilians and combatants, and exempt itself from international humanitarian law, can be better understood as an attempt to conceal political motives and agendas through military aggression, most notably to avoid negotiations with its neighbors. Israel could, if it so willed itself, engage in diplomatic processes.

In fact, diplomatic approaches may actually prove profitable, as the Rand Corporation, a US-based think-tank, noted in a recent study. A peaceful settlement with the Palestinians could boost economic gains in Israel by $123 billion and $50 billion for Palestinians, the report said. Conversely, continued violence would have negative economic consequences.

Yet Israel likely isn’t interested in diplomatic approaches.

In fact, a war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon could serve Likud’s political aims as an attempt to distract from and undermine the Iranian nuclear deal, as recently suggested in a Huffington Post piece by Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, and Paul Pillar, an academic and CIA veteran.

Alternatively, Netanyahu may feel compelled towards hawkish action to hold together his radical right-wing new Israeli government. Or in the event his coalition collapses (triggering early elections), the Prime Minister may choose to escalate conflict with one of Israel’s neighbors in order to galvanize the public behind his leadership—a tactic he seems to have deployed repeatedly in the past.

The Burden of Proof

In the meantime, the onus is on Israel to demonstrate, with hard evidence and in no uncertain terms, the validity of its assertions about the use of human shields by Hezbollah, the buildup of Hezbollah weapons stockpiles in southern Lebanon villages, and the necessity of widespread destruction as a preventive national security measure.

When unnamed Israeli officials make broad sweeping statements, as they did in the recent New York Times piece, attempting to shield Israel of responsibility for civilian casualties in future conflicts, journalists and analysts must make every effort to verify and rigorously debate, to the best of their ability, the legitimacy and necessity of these claims.

Given the large-scale dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims in the wake of 9/11, the attempt to transform civilians into legitimate military targets is troubling. Prior to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, very few journalists attempted to verify the Bush administration’s intelligence claims, as Bill Moyers carefully documented in the PBS documentary “Buying the War.”

The consequences have been severe, not only for the US economy and the dead and wounded U.S. soldiers, but also for the million plus Iraqis whose lives were lost or destroyed, and for the ways in which U.S. intervention paved the way for the rise of ISIS and the current chaos in Iraq.

Likewise, a failure to properly investigate, challenge and verify Israeli claims that transform civilians into legitimate military targets will have similarly devastating consequences for Israeli and Lebanese civilians, should Israel instigate a war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in the near future.

[1] This is How We Fought In Gaza: Soldiers Testimonies and Photographs from Operation “Protective Edge” (2014). Breaking the Silence. See page 26.

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