Israeli, US intellectuals chart new rules of war for insurgencies

Guerilla fighters have broken the rules of the game, and have forced standing militaries, to bend their own rules.

Hizbullah march 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah march 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Last summer, at the height of the Second Lebanon War, two intellectuals specializing in security affairs met for a conversation. For the Israeli of the pair, the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya's Boaz Ganor, it was an opportunity to vent his frustration. "We talked about the frustration we had over how the world was relating to the war, mainly the claim that Israel wasn't responding with 'proportionality,'" Ganor told The Jerusalem Post this week. "I was saying that, in fact, the whole concept of asymmetrical warfare was reversed," he continued. "In Lebanon you had an organization with very great military power, thousands of Katyusha missiles, anti-tank and anti-aircraft capabilities, the direct assistance of at least two states, and able to fight without any norms, and using Israel's limitations in harming civilians as a multiplier of their capabilities." How did the West misunderstand what Hizbullah represented in terms of the rules of war? For Ganor, the problem is that the rules of war - whether the Hague Convention of 1907 that regulates the conduct of battle or the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 that protects civilians caught in a war situation - were not crafted to deal with present-day insurgents who endanger civilians as a pillar of their strategy. Faced with the overwhelming power of the modern military machine, inferior forces seeking to secure political gains through force have resorted to a strategy that, far from protecting civilians, uses them as force multipliers. In the process, these guerilla fighters have broken the rules of the game, and have forced standing militaries, usually belonging to democratic states and therefore subject to the vicissitudes of public opinion back home, to bend their own rules to deal with the threat. Ganor's partner in that July 2006 conversation, Mitchel Wallerstein, dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Together, Ganor and Wallerstein have brought their two institutions together to develop a document that they hope will set out new parameters for dealing with insurgents. "We decided we had to establish an international team" - experts have been consulted from Canada, Australia and elsewhere - "that will relate to Hague and Geneva, which are very good, but will try to fine tune them for the new situation," Ganor said. With monthly video-conference calls between Israel and Syracuse, New York, the team has begun to lay the groundwork for the document they hope to present in Washington D.C. in October - the 100th anniversary of the Hague Convention. "It's great timing," Ganor says with a smile, "since Hague is the normative basis of international law." The team has already discussed legislative lacunae regarding fighting insurgents; it has heard testimony from Israeli IDC students who have had battlefield experience facing Palestinian groups or Hizbullah; and it has started setting the goals for the final product. The climax of the process will be an intensive July workshop that will bring all the experts together in Israel for the actual writing of the document. "The primary goal is to protect civilians," Ganor said emphatically. "That's the sacred principle behind this. Its implications are far from simple. As Ganor explains: "Take the mista'arvim [the IDF infiltration units that dress as Arabs and enter Arab towns to conduct operations] for example. On the face of it, it's a clear breach of the Geneva Conventions, which demand clear separation between fighting forces and civilians, with 'a badge and a flag.' On the other hand, it's by far the most selective and safe means of arresting or even assassinating someone. It puts more soldiers in more danger, and is much harder to implement, than a missile strike, and its sole rationale is protecting the lives of civilians." At the same time, without rules that let armies deal with insurgents, the appeal of bringing the battle to a civilian population will remain strong. "Insurgents are rational actors," Ganor believes. "The insurgent says, 'What do you want from me? I'm the weak side. You really expect me to do a frontal charge against a powerful army, to wear symbols and uniforms?'" Finally, a clear definition of right and wrong in insurgent and counter-insurgent fighting will strengthen the hand of states in dealing with guerilla groups. "This isn't a two-sided game," Ganor says, "but a three-sided one. There are us, the enemy and international norms. Right now, states are weaker in fighting insurgents because they are limited by international norms. If we can change these norms even slightly to recognize what insurgents are doing [to civilians] and to give guidelines for dealing with it," then international norms will hinder insurgents as well. "The world is moving in the direction of more and more guerilla and insurgent fighting," he noted, bringing more of the world's countries to understand something must be done. The world is losing patience with "those hypocrites who have a double policy of double meanings." Even if new moral rules are unlikely to stop genuine terror organizations from carrying out their operations, it will serve to limit the ability of states and international players from supporting them.