The great lesson from Israel-Hamas wars

The third major conflict between Hamas and Israel reveals the heightened moral concern for protecting innocent civilians in war.

AP Photo
Palestinians flee their homes in Gaza City July 16 after Israel aircraft dropped leaflets warning people to leave the area.

The ideal of protecting civilians in war is rooted in ancient religious texts, but it was put into international law only 65 years ago. Since then, each new conflict has been judged ever more closely on whether civilians are put in harm’s way. The latest Israel-Hamas war, the third since 2008-09, is a good example.

Both Hamas and Israel are under a harsher spotlight this time over civilian casualties compared with their first two conflicts. The tougher scrutiny mostly reflects a growing moral sensibility in the world toward applying the rules of war protecting the innocent, in large part because of a greater reverence for life.

For one, more countries have wised up to Hamas’s practice of hiding its armaments and fighters near – or even under – the homes of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. In the past, this cynical tactic has relied on world outrage over civilians killed by Israeli bombs to help extract the greatest concessions from Israel during the inevitable negotiations over a truce.

Hamas, in other words, has exploited a rising global interest in civilian protection by encouraging innocent Palestinians to remain in the line of fire. And it does this even as it fires rockets into Israeli civilian areas.

Fortunately, fewer world leaders or journalists are falling for this gambit. Hamas cannot both invoke this ideal and violate it. The rest of the world has come to embrace this rule of warfare too much to tolerate this contradiction.

At the same time, Israel faces harder questions about its military’s ability and willingness to prevent civilian deaths in the targeting of Hamas leaders and their rockets.

After the two previous conflicts, critical assessments of Israeli methods forced it to be more careful in adhering to international law and to be more precise in its operations – even at the risk of leaving some Hamas rockets in place.

Israel’s heightened precaution means its fighter pilots and commanders must make an instant assessment on the potential for civilian casualties and weigh that against the value of a military target. It is not enough to simply warn civilians to flee an area before it is bombed. A strike must be “proportional” to the potential for civilians being killed.

Modern warfare is still in infancy in knowing how to balance military necessity against the humanitarian ideal of protecting civilians. Israel’s inaccuracy in its bombing of military targets in Gaza needs to end.. Doing so will only help put greater pressure on Hamas to end its use of civilians as human shields to protect its fighters and rockets.

Many wars of the past were started after the killing of civilians. These days, more wars end after too many civilians are killed. Modern wars are being contained by moral concerns. This may be the greatest lesson from this string of Israel-Hamas wars.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.