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.