Int’l law does not deal with attack tunnels, say Israeli experts

By
November 30, 2016 01:02

It is unclear to what extent an armed force is obliged to check whether civilians are hiding in a tunnel before attacking it as a military target.

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A PALESTINIAN TERRORIST climbs out of a tunnel in the Gaza Strip during a graduation ceremony in Raf

A PALESTINIAN TERRORIST climbs out of a tunnel in the Gaza Strip during a graduation ceremony in Rafah earlier this month.. (photo credit: SUHAIB SALEM / REUTERS)

International law has not yet properly dealt with a range of crucial issues relating to warfare in tunnels, international law expert Prof. Daphne Richemond-Barak told a conference on Monday hosted by the Hebrew University’s Minerva Center.

Richemond-Barak, of Herzliya’s IDC, stated that “there is no legal literature” on the issue and even “very little military theory and strategy.”

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This could be problematic, as tunnel warfare has spread not only to Hezbollah and Hamas, but to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Syrians were quoted by an interviewer as saying the idea of using tunnels came from “advice of our brothers in Gaza.”

In other words, “tunnels are a global threat and not only an Israeli problem,” Richemond-Barak declared.

A number of basic questions which normally have clear answers are open questions, she said. For example, after investing significant amounts of time in writing an upcoming book on the issue, she does not think there is a clear-cut answer on whether digging an underground tunnel into another nation’s territory is sufficient to constitute an “armed attack” under international law. She is in the process of developing a list of criteria to evaluate tunnel situations on a case-by-case basis.

Although Russia has dealt with tunnels, as did the US in Vietnam, and Egypt has been sealing off Hamas tunnels, she implied little could be learned from these experiences.

She explained that some tunnels may alternately be used by combatants or by civilians trying to find refuge from aboveground fighting. She added that sometimes children are used to drill tunnels without being combatants or knowing the significance of their actions.

It is unclear to what extent an armed force is obliged to check whether civilians are hiding in a tunnel before attacking it as a military target, she stated.

Recounting how Egypt basically destroyed an entire Egyptian border village to root out the Hamas tunnels hidden inside the village, she said that because tunnels are not explicitly mentioned in the law books, human rights investigators struggle with describing whether specific provisions were violated.


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