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The debate about where the moral culpability lies for the casualties that resulted from the recent conflicts in Gaza is one that has been engaged in repeatedly, and is no doubt one that will be repeated the next time that Israel is compelled to undertake military operations in the Gaza Strip. In the case of the 2014 summer war in Gaza, both the U.N. and Amnesty International released reports slamming Israel for its role in that war. These purportedly impartial reports invoked the authority of human rights experts and international law in an effort to demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt the criminality of Israel’s actions in Gaza.
Now, however, an 80-page report has been released by the international High Level Military Group that sets out a robust and evidenced case for why these other Gaza reports can be in large part discounted. As has been pointed out by Colonel Richard Kemp — one of the report’s authors — an assessment of Israel’s conduct during the Gaza operation ought to be undertaken with reference to the Laws of Armed Conflict, and yet most of the investigations into the Gaza conflict appear to have been conducted by those with woefully little military understanding.
The group, which includes senior military figures from the United States, Britain, France, India, Spain, Germany, Italy, Australia, and Colombia, concluded that Israel’s defense forces had gone far beyond the required level of care that a military is obliged to show when balancing the welfare of civilians against questions of military necessity. But crucially, this is by no means a finding that the Generals are entirely welcoming of. Rather, they point out that if this new rigorous level of humanitarian concern adopted by Israel comes to be accepted as the norm in the international community, then it will become impossible for other militaries to effectively fight future wars.
This is perhaps the most interesting matter raised by the report. Clearly Israel’s experience in Gaza has very profound implications for other democracies seeking to wage war against terrorist non-state actors. Terror groups who not only have no regard for international human rights law but that also have no fear of their international standing being tarnished equally do not need to worry about condemnation at the U.N. having repercussions such as the imposition of sanctions. In fact, these groups are clearly learning from Hamas tactics and seeing that it is possible to gain an advantage over western armies that restrain themselves in accordance with the stipulations of international law.
As has been witnessed during Israel’s conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah, there is now every incentive for other terror groups from ISIS, to the Taliban, to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to employ human shields as a weapon against law-abiding democracies. They know that by hiding behind civilians, they can achieve a wide range of strategic objectives. If a western military aborts an attack on a target for fear of harming any civilians being abused as human shields, then that is an automatic win for the militants. If a western power decides that the military necessity of hitting that target justifies the possible collateral damage, then the loss of life that might occur can subsequently be exploited by terror groups as a means for further inciting local enmity against the West, allowing them to better recruit for their own cause.
Particularly troubling is how all of this now plays out in the West itself. Terror groups with a total disregard for the wellbeing of their own populations know full well how a high civilian casualty rate can be made to play out in the court if public opinion. Journalists, international observers, campaigners, and many in government; all apparently suffer from having an incredibly poor grasp of where international law and, particularly, the laws of armed conflict stand on a whole range of issues. As we’ve seen with Israel’s wars, world opinion now expects Israel to conduct its wars without anyone being harmed. Civilian casualties are automatically taken as proof of wrong doing and malicious intent on the part of Israel. Equally, more casualties on one side than on the other must point to gross and reckless disproportionality.
Of course, the fact that Israel went to very great lengths to avoid civilians while seeking to achieve its military objectives and yet was still hauled over the coals by the international community should concern us greatly. But perhaps of even more concern should be the fact that we appear to be moving toward a scenario in which every western war against terrorists will inevitably be held up as illegitimate. This report should begin by prompting world leaders to reconsider how they view Israel’s military activities. But then it should prompt some much deeper thinking about how they intend to fight and win their own wars while also holding Israel to the impossible standard that they currently do.