Jerusalem Post Editorial: Israeli war ethics

Is it possible to win an asymmetric war against the likes of Hamas?

June 14, 2015 21:38
3 minute read.

An Israeli army officer during an army organized tour for journalists in a tunnel said to be used by Palestinian terrorists for cross-border attacks. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Is it possible to win an asymmetric war against the likes of Hamas? When Hamas terrorists – or terrorists from other organizations operating in the Gaza Strip – fire rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians and then hide behind Palestinian civilians, Israel faces a horrible moral dilemma.

If Israel retaliates, and causes the deaths of Palestinian noncombatants, it not only risks losing the “battle for the hearts and minds” of its own citizens, including soldiers who represent a cross section of Israeli society, it exposes itself to charges of war crimes directed at it by the international community.

That is precisely what is expected to happen when the UN Human Rights Council presents the findings from its probe into last summer’s Operation Protection Edge to the International Criminal Court.

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On the other hand, if Israel refrains from retaliating against terrorists out of a desire to prevent deaths on the Palestinian side, it is being negligent in its duty to protect Israeli citizens from Hamas’s aggression.

To strike the right balance, the US and other Western countries that have faced similar dilemmas in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq have developed the doctrine of double effect and the rule of proportionality.

If you are aiming at military targets (rocket launchers, for example) and know that your attack will also cause civilian casualties (euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage”), you must make sure that the number of dead or injured civilians is “not disproportionate” to the value of the military target.

This is, of course, a highly subjective calculation and has rarely been much of a limit on military attacks.

Almost any number of civilian deaths can be justified if the military target is deemed to be important enough.

On the other hand, even a very low number of civilians deaths – some moralists would say, particularly when Israel is being judged – is disproportionate and a war crime.

A group of senior military and diplomatic experts recently provided evidence that the Jewish state has managed to handle a very difficult moral dilemma surprisingly well during last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Members of the mission included former NATO Military Committee Chairman Gen. (ret.) Klaus Naumann of Germany; former Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzi; former US State Department ambassador at large for war crimes issues Pierre-Richard Prosper; and the former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, Col. (ret.) Richard Kemp.

The pro-Israel NGO UN Watch facilitated the report, but don’t dismiss it out of hand for any pro-Israel bias.

Unlike the UN Human Rights Council, which is prejudiced against Israel because it views it as an illegal “occupier” and prime culprit in perpetuating the conflict with the Palestinians, this mission – known as the High Level International Group – compared in a fair and objective manner Israel’s conduct in Gaza with the armies of Western countries in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq and found Israel did outstandingly well.

“A measure of the seriousness with which Israel took its moral duties and its responsibilities under the law of armed conflict is that, in some cases, Israel’s scrupulous adherence to the laws of war cost Israeli soldiers’ and civilians’ lives,” the group said.

This is an astounding sentence. Not only did Israel make every effort to prevent the deaths of Palestinian noncombatants by warning them before military attacks were launched and calling off operations that would have caused a disproportionate amount of civilian casualties, Israel exposed its own soldiers and civilians to risks that ending up costing their lives.

This behavior exceeds the most exacting moral standards.

Indeed, it raises questions regarding Israel’s moral responsibility toward its own soldiers and civilians. Clearly, Israel’s first obligation is to its own civilians before the noncombatants on the enemy side, many of whom support Hamas and its goals.

None of Israel’s moral scrupulousness will impress the prejudiced members of the UN Human Rights Council as they prepare to release their findings. But the High Level International Group’s findings confirm what Israelis already know, that their military is one of

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