I am looking at the picture on the front page of the ‘World’ section of this week’s Weekend Herald. It shows the vapour trails of missiles departing in the direction of Israel. Around the picture and on the following page, there is extensive reporting of the human consequences. You fire on your adversary from amongst the buildings of your own down-town (Gaza City, in this case) and then you protest when your adversary fires back. What sort of nonsense is this? And the media dutifully reports on it: “Innocents pay cruel price in conflict!”
If the people of Gaza are really concerned about this loss of innocent life, they should be protesting that their militia is firing from the cover of a civilian area, and thus exposing their civilian population to harm, when the inevitable retaliation occurs. As a matter of fact, using civilian cover for military operations in this way, is explicitly forbidden by humanitarian law. Both Geneva Convention No IV and the Statute of the International Criminal Court refer to utilising ‘the presence of protected persons (civilians), to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations’.Hamas could dispatch their missiles from open ground, away from human habitation. Of course, that would render them much more vulnerable, both before and after launch, which is why they don’t do it. That is also why humanitarian law prohibits the use of civilian ‘shields’ (‘rendering military forces immune from military operation’, as above).
So why aren’t international authorities (UN, ICRC, ICC) and media commentators noting this and condemning it? Are they afraid that they will be criticised (or worse) by supporters of the Palestinian cause? Or, depending on who we might be talking about, is it that they are actually supporters of the ‘cause’ and wish to advance it. But this latter is to conflate the justice of the cause, with the moral status of the means used to promote it, which, as I noted on a previous occasion (‘More on Justice and War’,16 October) is entirely contrary to the spirit of humanitarian law. It may be understandable at the level of emotion (or cynical advantage) but it is not morally defensible.
Once we allow the principle that the ‘better cause’, or the weaker party (or both) have a lesser obligation to humanitarian law (or no obligation at all), we will have totally lost any possibility of limiting the harm of war (and, particularly protecting the innocent), through institutional humanitarian restraint. Belligerents do tend to believe that they are in the right and they frequently have supporters that share that belief. Not only that, but a strong Leninist interpretation of the old aphorism that ‘ends justify the means’, is a great temptation to belligerent parties, in that it disposes of all doubts. We should have some doubts. We should be insisting that the parties conform to international law.
There is another way of addressing the present case and others like it, and that is to say that it is not a war at all, since wars, proper only occur between states. What insurgents, militants, revolutionaries and terrorists do, is thus not a matter for humanitarian law. It is simply a matter of crime. In the specific case, it could be argued that ‘Gaza’ is not formally a ‘state’, even if the Palestinian administration, of which it is technically a part, aspires to such recognition. It is thus not bound by humanitarian law. This would be to introduce the serious complication of judging belligerents, on either side in a conflict, by completely different standards. Again, this is not a desirable endpoint. To deliberately ignore the legitimacy of the tactics of one side in a conflict, is to invite derision for the whole project of bringing an expectation of humanitarian restraint to violent conflict.
Of course, it is understood that contriving innocent casualties serves the Palestinian cause very well. It mobilises attention and it demands sympathy. It is, in fact, a kind of terrorism: ‘The propaganda of the deed’, as the early nineteenth century Russian theorist described it. It also fits the United Nations formulation of the concept, which entails violence against civilians for the purpose of compelling governments to do something. In the classic case (IRA or PLO) the terrorists target arbitrary citizens of certain states, with the intention that a general alarm causes the population to demand that their government do something. In practice that did not work well, since the flow of sympathy was manifestly in the wrong direction. The ‘new terrorism’ corrects this.
This explains why the authorities in Gaza are so accommodating to journalists. It also explains the otherwise inexplicable U-tube footage of a few days ago, in which an apparent victim of an Israeli attack was carried away, only to be filmed a while later walking away, seemingly unharmed. As the report hinted, it does remind us of the infamous ‘al Dura martyrdom’ of 2000, in which the bogus shooting of a twelve-year-old Palestinian boy was staged for the cameras.
None of this is to say that we should not be concerned about the continuing loss of life in Gaza. But it is to say that we need to understand the tactics of the parties and what their objectives are. And if we are to make moral judgements, or even imply them, we need to attempt to apply the underlying principles in an even-handed way.