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The Laws of War in Gaza: Hamas Targets Civilians, Israel Spares Them

Refuting the propaganda about “massacres” of “defenseless” Palestinians in Gaza, William Saletan at Slate documents how by “the standards of war, Israel’s efforts to spare civilians have been exemplary.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the death count ranged from 30 to 50 or more, depending on where you mark the onset of the conflict. . . . Still, given that Israel has launched more than 500 airstrikes, you’d have to conclude that either Israel is failing miserably to kill people or, more plausibly, it’s largely trying not to kill them.

What leaps out of the article is that “Israel has gone to great lengths to minimize civilian deaths. The same can’t be said of Hamas.” Saletan’s takedown is well worth reading.

But I’d argue that there’s something deeply wrong with the underlying norms applied to war.

The standards of war that Saletan (along with everyone else) applies here stem from the so-called international laws of war, which enjoin both sides, for instance, to avoid civilian casualties and use “proportional” force. A couple of chapters in my book,
Winning the Unwinnable War, deal directly with these norms and challenge their propriety.

Simplifying the issue quite a bit, here’s the point in a nutshell: Every time Israel’s military pre-announces a strike, that’s a tactical gift to Hamas fighters. Later, it’s a moral win for Hamas when its human shields are found dead, tagged as “civilians.” Since Hamas scoffs at the laws of war while Israel scrupulously adheres to them, these norms favor the terrorist aggressors while impeding and vilifying the free state fighting them. If that’s what follows from complying with the “standards of war,” we should ask whether these norms are themselves a problem.