I have described how Hamas is violating at least 19 principles of international law in the current fighting.
Now, is Israel?
The criticism most often given of Israel’s actions is that it is violating the “principle of distinction.” The Geneva Conventions Additional Protocol 1, article 52, states it this way:
1. Civilian objects shall not be the object of attack or of reprisals. Civilian objects are all objects which are not military objectives as defined in paragraph 2.
- Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.
- In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.
Many countries, when they ratified this article, clarified it to ensure that collateral damage is not covered by the first sentence of paragraph 2. So, for example, Canada wrote:
It is the understanding of the Government of Canada in relation to Article 52 that …the first sentence of paragraph 2 of the Article is not intended to, nor does it,deal with the question of incidental or collateral damage resulting from an attack directed against a military objective.
Italy, Australia, the UK, France and New Zealand added similar language (CIHL II para. 83-91
Logic dictates that it cannot be otherwise. If these caveats aren’t in place, then anyone can make any military target immune from attack placing a civilian there, or placing the target in a house or church or hospital that is still used as such. So, for example, Australia’s Defence Force Manual states:
The presence of noncombatants in or around a military objective does not change its nature as a military objective. Noncombatants in the vicinity of a military objective must share the danger to which the military objective is exposed.
Note that we are not saying that the existence of civilians at a military target can be ignored; that is part of the Proportionality discussion that will be forthcoming. But clearly international law allows the attack on military targets even if there are some civilians there.
Who determines whether something is a military target or not?
It is not reporters, or eyewitnesses, or residents of nearby houses, or human rights organizations. That decision is given to the military commander, based on the best available information at the time.
So, for example, The Military Manual of the Netherlands says that “the definition of ‘military objectives’ implies that it depends on the circumstances of the moment whether an object is a military objective. The definition leaves the necessary freedom of judgement to the commander on the spot.”
Sweden’s …read more