Israel Flouts Distinction between Civilians and Combatants
May 24 2021

A mere glance at the civilian casualty figures during the Israeli offensive on Gaza reveals a hugely disproportionate number of Palestinian civilians killed and wounded, compared to the number of combatants.  According to preliminary figures, 248  people have been killed in Gaza, at least 66 of them children (27% of all deaths), with 1,900 people wounded from Israeli air and artillery attacks.  In a single attack on May 16, Israel destroyed four houses killing 42 civilians, crushing the inhabitants underneath the rubble.

The high proportion of civilian casualties is typical of Israeli military onslaughts on both the Palestinian and Lebanese fronts.  In 2014, the Israeli assault on Gaza left a total of 2,189 dead, of whom 1,486 were civilians (68%), including around 360 children under the age of 12 (16% of the total).  In the 2008-2009 attacks, as many as 1,419 Palestinians were killed, including 1,167 civilians (82%), of whom 318 were children (22% of all victims).  In the 2006 war on Lebanon, some 1,200 Lebanese civilians were killed by the Israeli military (around 96% of the total).

Major media outlets have framed Palestinian civilian casualties as mere accidents and regrettable collateral damage in an Israeli campaign aimed squarely at Hamas militants.  But it stretches credulity that Israel, with one of the most technologically advanced military machines that the world has ever seen, could be so incompetent at avoiding causing harm to civilians.  Given the negative publicity associated with meting out death and injury to an unarmed civilian population, what lies behind the large and vastly disproportionate numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties?

At least part of the answer can be found in an extraordinary article published in an academic journal in 2005 by the former head of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, and an Israeli professor, Asa Kasher.  The document laid out the “military ethics” that should guide Israel’s war on “terror.”  In it, the authors explain their rejection of the “principle of distinction” in international law, which requires parties to a conflict to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants and to take all necessary measures to avoid harm to non-combatants. 

As understood by Michael Walzer, one of the preeminent authorities on military ethics (and sometime defender of Israeli military actions), the principle of distinction says that armies should take care to avoid harm to non-combatants on the other side, even at a risk to their own combatants.  As he puts it, “if saving civilian lives means risking soldiers’ lives, the risks must be accepted” (Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p.156).

But Kasher and Yadlin have no use for such a principle.  In their view, the safety of their combatants should trump the safety of civilians on the other side.  They write: “Where the state does not have effective control of the vicinity, it does not have to shoulder responsibility for the fact that persons who are involved in terror operate in the vicinity of persons who are not” (p.18).  But even if one accepts that civilians “operate” in the vicinity of combatants, that does not absolve the military from taking all measures to avoid harming them.  This attempt at justification is morally and legally bankrupt.

Apologists for Israel regularly claim that the civilian casualties are justified by the alleged use of human shields on the part of Hamas.  But the United Nations’ “Goldstone Report” found no evidence of use of human shields by Hamas in Gaza 2009.  Meanwhile, there has been widely documented use of Palestinian human shields by Israel in previous attacks on Gaza, in the Goldstone Report, by Amira Hass in Haaretz, and Clancy Chassay in the Guardian.  In fact, the Israeli supreme court found that the Israeli military used Palestinians as human shields on 1,200 occasions in the five years prior to 2014.  To cite just one incident, during the 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza, two Israeli soldiers ordered a nine-year-old boy, at gunpoint, to open a bag they suspected was booby-trapped.

There is considerable evidence that this perversion of the rules of war on the part of the former head of Israeli military intelligence and his co-author is not just an academic exercise or a theoretical proclamation.  It has undeniably been conveyed to senior military officials, mid-level commanders, and the rank-and-file.  It is now part of Israeli military doctrine, as corroborated by numerous statements and interviews.

When it comes to senior military personnel, the basic gist was clearly articulated by Israeli general Gadi Eisenkot, then head of the Israeli army’s northern command and later chief of staff of the Israeli military, with reference to Lebanon in 2006.  He stated that the Israeli military would apply disproportionate force to civilian areas and that it would consider such areas military bases.  This became known as the “Dahiya Doctrine” (after the southern suburb of Beirut) and Eisenkot indicated that it was an “approved” plan.

Reports by organizations like the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and Breaking the Silence have confirmed over the past decade that there have been widespread instructions by military commanders to give greater value to Israeli soldiers’ lives than Palestinian civilians.  They also report orders not to distinguish between Palestinian civilians and combatants, and not to incur any risk in avoiding harm to civilians.

All this points inexorably to the glaring conclusion that Israel simply rejects the principle of distinction enshrined in international law and refuses to recognize the legal and moral difference between civilians and combatants.  It does so in both theory and practice, yet this obvious fact seems to be ignored by media coverage and the prevailing political discourse about this latest Israeli offensive.  As if to condone this equation of Palestinian civilians with combatants by the western media, CNN has recently directed its staff to refer to the health ministry in Gaza as “Hamas-run.” This directive effectively affirms the Israeli rejection of the distinction between civilian and military targets.

About The Author: 

Muhammad Ali Khalidi is Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and has worked on philosophical aspects of the question of Palestine.

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