Steven Erlanger wrote a revealing article in the New York Times about the methods of urban warfare used by the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas in Gaza. He shows that Hamas is committing war crimes against both Israelis and Palestinians, and that Hamas knows better than most that Israelis take great care to avoid harming civilians despite propaganda saying otherwise.
“Unwilling to take Israel’s bait and come into the open,” he wrote, “Hamas militants are fighting in civilian clothes; even the police have been ordered to take off their uniforms.”
Hamas is in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions here, but that’s nothing new. Hamas never agreed to uphold the Conventions in the first place. Its raison d’être is the destruction of an entire country, after all. The laws and ethics of civilized warfare are anathema to groups like Hamas.
Nevertheless, everyone should be familiar with what the Geneva Conventions actually say. The Society of Professional Journalists provides a good summary explanation that most of my colleagues should know well by now:
The Geneva Conventions and supplementary protocols make a distinction between combatants and civilians. The two groups must be treated differently by the warring sides and, therefore, combatants must be clearly distinguishable from civilians… In order for the distinction between combatants and civilians to be clear, combatants must wear uniforms and carry their weapons openly during military operations and during preparation for them… Combatants who deliberately violate the rules about maintaining a clear separation between combatant and noncombatant groups and thus endanger the civilian population are no longer protected by the Geneva Convention.
These protocols have been carefully crafted by leaders of civilized nations and are not to be lightly dismissed. It may be convenient to blame the Israelis when civilians are killed by their air strikes in Gaza, but the Geneva Conventions clearly state that Hamas fighters endangered those civilians by disguising themselves.
Not only do Israelis have a harder time figuring out who is a target and who needs protection, we all have a harder time identifying those who have already been wounded and killed. Hamas says mostly civilians have been wounded and killed in the fighting in Gaza, but its fighters look just like everyone else. They can trot out the bodies of two dead terrorists in front of the cameras and say they’re civilians, thus easily fooling just about anyone. The number of civilian casualties, therefore, appears much higher than it really is. But even if that weren’t the case, far more civilians are being killed in this war because Hamas is fighting dirty.
Israelis, in the meantime, go far out of their way to avoid harming the civilians of Gaza. They have even developed weapons for precisely this purpose.
“A new Israeli weapon,” Erlanger writes, “is tailored to the Hamas tactic of asking civilians to stand on the roofs of buildings so Israeli pilots will not bomb. The Israelis are countering with a missile designed, paradoxically, not to explode. They aim the missiles at empty areas of the roofs to frighten residents into leaving the buildings, a tactic called ‘a knock on the roof’.”
If Israelis were targeting civilians, as Hamas and hysterical critics like to claim, it ought to go without saying that they would never have developed a “weapon” that scatters civilians away for their own protection.
Activists, professors, journalists, bloggers, and other uninformed individuals may believe Israelis kill civilians either negligently or on purpose, but even Hamas knows that’s a lie. Otherwise, Hamas would not ask “civilians to stand on the roofs of buildings so Israeli pilots will not bomb,” as Erlanger reports.
Hamas knows the truth but uses its lie as a weapon. And it works. Millions all over the world believe Israel massacres civilians in Gaza and that claims to the contrary from the military are disinformation and smokescreen.
Israelis, by contrast, don’t use human shields to deter Palestinian rocket attacks. The very idea is absurd. Hamas aims at civilians on purpose, as much as it can aim its crude rockets. A congregation of Israeli human shields would only make a bulls-eye at which Hamas could aim.
In any case, the use of human shields is strictly prohibited. The Law of Armed Conflict is absolutely clear on this point. It “requires defenders to separate military objects from civilian objects to the maximum extent feasible. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to locate a hospital or POW camp next to an ammunition factory.”
It is likewise inappropriate to place civilians atop buildings that are known to be targets. Israeli pilots should not have to warn these people with “knocks on the roof.”
Hamas routinely turns civilian buildings into military assets and targets. “Weapons are hidden in mosques,” Erlanger reports, “schoolyards and civilian houses, and the leadership’s war room is a bunker beneath Gaza’s largest hospital, Israeli intelligence officials say.” Ynet also reports that Israeli soldiers found a school and even a zoo rigged to explode. You can see a video of that booby-trapped school here on YouTube.
Hamas leaders couldn’t endanger more Palestinians if they tried.
“Israeli press officers call the tactics of Hamas cynical, illegal and inhumane,” Erlanger writes. “[E]ven Israel’s critics agree that Hamas’s regular use of rockets to fire at civilians in Israel, and its use of civilians as shields in Gaza, are also violations of the rules of war.”
He’s right that Israel’s fair-minded critics acknowledge Hamas is an army of war criminals. But few seem bothered by the fact that Hamas violates the laws and ethics of war as a matter of course. Perhaps that’s because few expect any better from a violent fascist regime that aspires to genocide. But the record should show, even so, that Hamas is morally, ethically, and legally responsible for civilian deaths in Gaza as well as in Israel.