Who exactly are the military targets, and who the civilians? The very first day of the Israeli campaign, the air force bombed a police academy at a mid-day graduation ceremony, killing dozens. What makes policemen a legitimate target? Here, I want to focus not just on the law of war, but on Israel's own interpretation of it, in the Israeli Supreme Court's 2006 decision on targeted killings (Public Committee Against Torture v. Israeli Gov't). The Israeli Supreme Court approved some targeted killings, but outlawed others, on precisely the ground that civilians can't be targeted unless they participate in hostilities. Specifically, the Court focused on Article 51(3) of AP I: "Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this Section, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities."
As a preliminary matter, the Court held that even though Israel isn't a party to AP I, it accepts Article 51--the JIB rules--as binding law. As a second preliminary, the Court found that Israel's armed conflict with Palestinian militants is an international armed conflict that AP I applies to. Then it turned to the main question: when do civilians lose their protection? The Court answered the question by interpreting Article 51(3) a phrase at a time.
It first asks when a civilian participates in hostilities, and answers: "when using weapons in an armed conflict, while gathering intelligence, or while preparing himself for hostilities."
Plainly, the Hamas policement were not using weapons or gathering intelligence. They were getting their diplomas. Were they preparing for hostilities? Not unless they were preparing to launch rockets at Israel--and there is no reason to think they were. For better or for worse, like it or not, Hamas is administering Gaza, and the police are the police. Matters would be different if Israel can show that Hamas police are really militants who fire off rockets at Israel--but as far as I can determine, Israel hasn't suggested that they are. These policemen were civilians who under Israeli law of war were not taking part in hostilities.
We also know that they are killing Palestinians all out of proportion to the number of Israelis killed in rocket attacks by Hamas over the course of the campaign and the last six months. Of course, a just response to armed aggression doesn't require that you kill only as many of the enemy as of your own people were killed; but in this particular instance it seems clear that Israel is responding with violence all out of proportion to even the threat of future rocket attacks, with attacks aimed at apparently any target that can be justified as having a connection to Hamas and with little consideration for the "collateral damage" being caused to civilians.
Luban links to two articles, one in the Washington Post and one in the NY Times, which highlight the nature of the war as the Israeli leadership and Defense Forces understand it. It seems clear that the true goal of the Israeli leadership is to destroy Hamas, and this quote from the NY Times article is illustrative of how they are going about it on the battlefield:
Civilians are warned by leaflets, loudspeakers and telephone calls to evacuate battle areas. But troops are instructed to protect themselves first and civilians second.
Officers say that means Israeli infantry units are going in “heavy.” If they draw fire, they return it with heavy firepower. If they are told to reach an objective, they first call in artillery or airpower and use tank fire. Then they move, but only behind tanks and armored bulldozers, riding in armored personnel carriers, spending as little time in the open as possible.
As the commander of the army’s elite combat engineering unit, Yahalom, told the Israeli press on Wednesday: “We are very violent. We do not balk at any means to protect the lives of our soldiers.” His name cannot be published under censorship rules.
The vast majority of Gaza is a dense urban area, a place in which combat is difficult at best. Civilian casualties are virtually inevitable, even in a carefully conducted ground operation. But Israel is not conducting a careful ground operation, if these soldiers are to be taken at face value. Heavy firepower, coupled with an aggressive response involving mortars, tank shells, artillery and airstrikes, is going to kill a lot of civilians in this kind of environment, especially when those civilians have nowhere to run to.
Now what these soldiers won't dare to say to a western reporter is that they are not concerned about excess Palestinian casualties because they do not see that great of a distinction between Hamas fighters and Palestinian civilians. But of course they are thinking such, as are many Israelis, as evidenced by the willingness of their apologists over here to argue that the Palestinians are somehow deserving of this treatment because they elected Hamas and are thus collectively responsible for the rocket attacks aimed at Israel. That Israel considers Gazans collectively responsible, is also evidenced by the collective punishment they have meted out during the course of the blockade that preceded the end of the cease-fire.
Unfortunately, given the weakness of the international system in dealing with aggression on the part of non-pariah nations, arguing about the legality of a conflict is useful for political purposes at best (and serves as a mere intellectual exercise at worst.) Clearly Israel would like us to think that their attack is completely justified or they wouldn't bother to say all the right things, but they appear determined to continue this campaign to whatever end they feel is necessary, regardless of what we over here in the states or anywhere else think of it. The opinion of the Obama administration is an altogether different matter of course, given that it is our money and our weaponry that is being used in this war to a great extent.
If you're a regular reader of this blog you probably know that I think Native American activist Russell Means is a showboating and egotistical nuisance. But he has some choice words that are worth quoting here:
“Every policy the Palestinians are now enduring was practiced on the American Indian,” Means said on the Blog Talk Radio show, hosted by Brenda Golden, Muskoke Creek. “What the American Indian Movement says is that the American Indians are the Palestinians of the United States, and the Palestinians are the American Indians of the Middle East,” Means said. Further, he points out that the Zionists who control Israel now control the United States. “The power of the US in world politics diminishes every day.”
Means also takes a ridiculous swipe at Obama (probably knowing that doing so would get somebody to run his quote in the paper.) But for this above, there's truth to what he says. If there is anyone in the world who knows what it's like to be a Palestinian, it is the Native American. Like the Palestinians, our ancestors fought a technologically superior enemy who felt completely justified in removing Natives from their land, and like the Palestinians in Gaza, there was simply nowhere to run in the end. The sordid history of American-Native relations would not have proved justification for Russell Means and other members of AIM to commit terrorist attacks against American civilians in the 1970's, but neither would their attacks have changed the fact that a great injustice must be rectified before their can truly be peace.