How the ‘Law’ of War Lets Islamic State Slavery Thrive
Israel is learning that even war conducted with the best intentions does not go unpunished. On Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a report on the conduct of Operation Protective Edge, the seven-week conflict in Gaza that took place last summer.
Israel used the same kind of precision aerial bombing that has been the mainstay of the U.S. effort against the Islamic State. However, the U.N. alleges that “regardless how precise the bomb is,” civilians might still be inadvertently killed. Therefore, “attacks, which used this type of weapon in densely populated, built up areas of Gaza, are likely to constitute a violation of the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks.” The only way for a pilot to avoid accidentally committing a war crime under this extremely high standard is to call off any attack in which civilians are even suspected of being in the blast area. According to Yoav Kisch, an Israeli Air Force pilot and member of the Knesset, this is exactly what they did.
In other cases Israel attempted to prevent civilian casualties by “roof knocking,” dropping non-lethal munitions on residential buildings being used by Hamas to warn civilians and terrorists alike that a counter-strike was coming. But the U.N. slammed even this level of concern for the lives of non-combatants because it was not 100% effective. Some people did not understand the knock, some on lower floors of tall buildings may not have heard it, others thought they heard knocks where there were none, and so forth. Yet the U.N. did not criticize Hamas for turning private residences into military targets in the first place. And when has a suicide bus bomber ever prompted passengers to get off at the stop before their attack?
A study of the 2014 Gaza war by senior retired U.S. military officers and academics commissioned by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs noted that Hamas intentionally placed civilians in jeopardy as a tactical enabler, knowing that either Israel would call off attacks or bear the blame for any innocents caught in the crossfire. The report concluded that Hamas “weaponized” the law of armed conflict, exploiting Israel’s concern for non-combatants to its advantage, knowing they would never be held to account. Hamas was right. The U.N. report noted that “little information was available to the commission” regarding Hamas’ “alleged serious violations of international humanitarian and gross violations of international human rights law.” Little information was available because Hamas chose not to provide it.
The Islamic State, by contrast, proudly loads evidence of its barbarities onto YouTube. In March, the UNHRC released a report charging ISIL with genocide, torture and other systematic violations of human rights, including “enslavement, selling of women and girls, rape, forced transfer, and other inhuman and degrading treatment.” These crimes will continue so long as there are innocents available to victimize.
It raises the question whether the coalition’s kid-gloves approach to airstrikes is simply another enabler for ISIL atrocities. The theoretical standard of zero civilian casualties in an airstrike is unrealistic and unattainable. The real balancing test should be between the remote possibility of non-combatants being killed by the United States by accident, or innocents being beheaded by the Islamic State on purpose.
Originally appeared in USA Today on June 28, 2015.