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Monday, July 14, 2014

Getting the law right on the Israel-Hamas conflict

...reports have described Israel's comprehensive system of warnings to civilians before launching strikes in Gaza as "contentious" and suggest that it is motivated solely by the desire to evade potential war crimes charges. Under the law of war, warnings are designed to protect civilians by giving them the opportunity to leave an area of hostilities and seek safety. Examples of such warnings include radio announcements, leaflets, or other generalized communications. Israel's use of individualized, specific warnings by phone and text goes far beyond what the law requires — it is hard to imagine how they could possibly be described as "contentious," instead of unprecedented or protective.
At the same time, the law of war does not require warnings before targeting enemy personnel — indeed, the law authorizes the use of lethal force as a first resort against enemy fighters and military objects. Imagine the absurdity of a system that required soldiers to give the enemy a chance to hide or plan an ambush by giving a warning before attacking: The United States did not warn German or Japanese soldiers before attacking them in World War II, nor should it have. Hamas militants are fighters, not civilians, and therefore are not entitled to protection from attack, just as Israeli soldiers are not protected from attack during conflict. It is the civilians of Gaza and Israel and every other conflict zone that the law seeks to protect, through a comprehensive web of protections and obligations.
Second, Hamas has announced that it is launching rockets at Haifa, at Tel Aviv, at Jerusalem and other Israeli cities. Not at military bases, army units, communication networks or any other military target, but at cities populated by hundreds of thousands, even millions of civilians. The law of war requires that parties distinguish between military and civilian targets and only attack military personnel and targets. Deliberate attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks — attacks that are incapable of distinguishing between legitimate targets and civilians — are prohibited and are war crimes...

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