In the wake of World War I (the “war to end all wars”), the League of Nations and its successor, the UN, developed a body of international law to set limits on what warring nations can do to each other in times of conflict. International law is intended to minimize the harm to the ordinary citizens of the respective countries and to injured or surrendered soldiers. When weighing the actions of the Israeli military and the armed groups operating in Gaza, including Hamas, international law must be kept in mind.
One of the key obligations is to avoid harming civilians. This is accomplished by making a distinction between combatants and civilians, by not using disproportionate or unnecessary force, and by taking precautions before, during, and after any necessary action against a legitimate military target. Civilians are to be allowed a reasonable amount of time to flee to safety, and any injured are to be allowed to seek and receive medical attention unimpeded.
These obligations apply to both sides at all times. Not even violations by the other side justify violating international law.
Another principle is that of proportionality. If my neighbour punches my son, that’s wrong, but I’m not allowed to kill my neighbour in retaliation. Similarly, if Country A fires across the border to Country B, and kills two people, under international law that does not justify Country B razing Country A nor killing hundreds of Country B’s citizens.
Another principle is the prohibition on collective punishment. An authority cannot punish an entire community for the crimes of a single individual or small group.
These rules make sense. They are designed to prevent conflicts from escalating out of control, and also from creating so many casualties that it becomes impossible to re-establish peace.
Although in any conflict some civilian deaths are inevitable, the number of civilian fatalities is generally a good indicator of whether international law is being respected.
In the current conflict between Israel and various armed groups in Gaza, as of the morning of July 17, about 220 Palestinians have been killed, and around 1,100 injured. The UN estimates that 90 percent of the victims are civilians. So far, one Israeli has been killed and a handful injured—some soldiers, others civilians. Israel—a world military power and a major exporter of sophisticated weapons—is quite capable of avoiding causing civilian deaths if it wants to. However, as noted by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, and various international human rights organizations, there are credible reports of the Israeli military targeting civilian homes, with unnecessary and unjustified Palestinian civilian deaths. Meanwhile, Hamas and other groups are lobbing unsophisticated rockets that often don’t go off and rarely cause damage in Israel.
This is not the first time that the Israeli government has indulged in such an unlawful over-reaction. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem carefully compiles figures on the number of Israelis killed by Palestinians and the number of Palestinians killed by Israelis. It also investigates the circumstances of the killings, and distinguishes between Palestinians killed during involvement in hostilities and those killed despite no such involvement.
According to B’Tselem figures, a total of 2,041 Palestinian non-combatants were killed between January 1, 2004, and May 31, 2014. In the same period, 186 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinian forces. Do the math.
Israeli torpedoed the recent round of peace talks hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by ratcheting up “settlement” building in the Palestinian territories that it has occupied since 1967—47 years. Such implantation of settlements by an occupying power is a grave violation of international law. Yet Israel has transferred about 600,000 of its own civilians into the occupied Palestinian territories. As a result, over 40 percent of the occupied Palestinian territories is off-limits to most Palestinians. Under the pre-1967 borders, Israel already has 78 percent of historical Palestine. So, its land grab for large chunks of the remaining 22 percent is not only illegal; it’s a genuine peace-killer.
In Gaza, seven years of a sweeping blockade have left the Palestinians desperate and without hope. Although militant groups commit political suicide by launching rockets at Israel, Gaza society accepts them as a symbol of resistance, albeit a futile one.
From all appearances, the current Israeli government expects Palestinians to roll over and die while Israel picks over the dismembered remains of the Palestinian state.
From what we know of human nature and history, a people’s quest for freedom and independence is inexorable. Thus, likely no amount of military might alone will ever guarantee Israelis’ peace of mind and safety. Rather, making an equitable peace with the Palestinians—allowing them to have an independent state of their own—is the only way Israelis will ever enjoy genuine security.
It’s time Canadian MPs of all stripes get that, and push hard for an end to the occupation and to Israel’s land grab in the West Bank.