Article 48 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 is very clear about this prohibited behavior of combatants, stating that “[i]n order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”
Since the rockets Hamas aims at southern Israeli towns are launched randomly into civilian enclaves, and lack the technical sophistication to reliably be aimed at military targets even if that were Hamas’s actual intention, each of the 12,000 or so rockets that have come into Israel from Gaza since 2005 represents both a casis belli and a war crime.
Dr. Michael Walzer, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, has observed that “It is a central principle of just war theory that the self-defense of a people or a country cannot be made morally impossible.”
Israel faces that precise dilemma every time it is forced to suppress Palestinian aggression and protect its populace from unending rocket assaults, particularly since its actions are widely and almost immediately denounced as excessive, disproportionate, and in violation of international law.
Perceived as having unjustly dispossessed the Palestinians and accused of still occupying both the West Bank but also Gaza (and holding the latter under siege), and collectively punishing the Palestinian Arabs living there, Israel has been stripped of its moral standing in the community of nations and so its attempts at self-defense are at best tolerated.
Rather than serving as a deterrent against terrorist attacks, Israel’s military strength and capabilities are instead looked at as an unfair advantage in the asymmetrical war in which it finds itself.
Few leaders in the West and none in the Arab world ever condemn Hamas for its chronic, unlawful terroristic behavior toward Israel, but the moment Israel undertakes military action it receives strict warnings for restraint, censure for its success in neutralizing Hamas strongholds, and eventual condemnation for the inevitable deaths of civilians – the collateral damage that is the tragic byproduct of conflicts fought in neighborhoods rather than battlefields.
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Israel, which is promiscuously condemned for committing “crimes against humanity” and human rights violations, not only waited years before responding to Palestinian terrorism, it then, in one of the most populous areas on earth, scrupulously followed the rule of distinction by precisely targeting Hamas terrorists and infrastructure, with minimal, though still unfortunate, collateral damage to the Gaza civilian population.
This feat was made all the more difficult by Hamas’s insidious tactic of embedding rocket launchers and armament stores within homes, apartment buildings, schools, and mosques in residential neighborhoods.
Combat in the crowded streets and alleys of Gaza obviously makes warfare more difficult for Israel, especially in its efforts to minimize civilian casualties while maximizing the suppression of enemy fire and attempting to neutralize Hamas’s ability to continue to pose a threat in the future.
Since, as mentioned, Hamas militants do not wear identifying uniforms and embed themselves within civilian environments, Israel’s effort to maintain “distinction” – that is, scrupulously determining who is a legitimate military target and who is a civilian – is both challenging and dangerous.
Knowing the world community is apt to be harsh about any civilian deaths that result from any Israeli action – even though it is Hamas that has created the circumstances under which civilian lives are endangered – Israel has always resorted to extraordinary measures to avoid the death of non-combatants, including “knocking” on roofs to warm of imminent bombardment, distributing flyers, and using other warning techniques, all of which compromise Israel’s strategic advantage while helping to minimize civilian deaths.