West Bank foes discuss the moral haze in smoke of battle

Under the catchphrase "even wars have limits," International Committee of the Red Cross researchers and analysts from President Clinton's polling team have been touring war zones for the past nine months to find out just where those limits lie in the minds of people who have lived through violence.

"Do the principles of international humanitarian law belong to some kind of common heritage? If 90 percent of people believe you should distinguish between combatants and civilians, how come there are so many civilian casualties in modern wars?" asks Lise Boudreault, an ICRC legal adviser to the "People on War" project.

These are among the questions the ICRC hopes to answer with the project, the results of which will be released in November. Focus groups made up of people involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Mideast (one of the 12 regions visited) drew out comments that illustrate ground-level attitudes to the conventions.

Who were the fighters in your conflict?

"Anybody could turn into a fighter at any moment. It is not possible to define who a Palestinian fighter was." - Wife of

Palestinian detainee.

"When you've been in the occupied territories for three or four days, the women, the children, all of them blur into one thing. Every eye that looks at you, every person you come into contact with becomes the enemy." - Former

Israeli army conscript.

Is it ever permitted to attack civilians?

"We had to attack civilians because we could not always reach their army. We wanted to attack the Israeli leadership, and this was the way to frighten them."

- Wife of Palestinian detainee.

"The Islamic religion forbids it. Since the motive for our defense of our land and of Jerusalem is our religion, we must obey its teachings." - Wife of Palestinian detainee.

"If the Arabs hurt our civilians, why should we not be allowed to do the same to them?" - Israeli woman from Kiryat Shmona, oft-attacked town near the Lebanese border.

"If a soldier's life is in danger, he can shoot a civilian." - Bereaved Israeli woman.

"You can make up nice, pretty rules, but when you are there, if someone curses me I'll hit him. You are not allowed to [attack civilians] but I can tell you from experience, it is very hard to stop yourself."

- Former Israeli army conscript

Is it ever permissible to kill a prisoner?

"The Israelis killed 500 of our prisoners, so my response is that we should do the same, to inflict the same suffering." - Palestinian youth in Gaza.

"If your unit is on a mission and you come across a [Palestinian] shepherd who you are afraid will give you away, you can kill him."

- Former Israeli conscript.

"It is never, ever allowed. If you have to carry him on your back, you carry him on your back, but you do not kill a prisoner."

- Former Israeli conscript.

Is anything forbidden in war?

"Of course. The Ten Commandments were made because it is so easy to do the opposite. 'Thou shalt not kill' is a Commandment because it is so easy to kill."

- Bereaved Israeli woman.

"We've signed the Geneva Conventions, not to harm prisoners, not to use poison gas, not to harm civilians, but in modern war this is lip service. Everyone says you are not allowed to hurt civilians but no one really means it." - Former senior Israeli army officer.

"Nothing should not be allowed. We should do anything that allows us to prevail over our enemy. I respond to my enemy using his methods, and nothing should be forbidden." - Palestinian youth in Gaza.

"You shouldn't hurt civilians, you shouldn't use chemical weapons, you shouldn't touch innocent people or a soldier who has surrendered. But war is war, and stuff happens." - Former Israeli army conscript.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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