How to Differentiate Between Legitimate Combat and Inadmissible Violence in the Israel-Hamas Conflict


The ongoing conflict in Gaza between Israel and Palestinian armed groups, particularly Hamas, has raised significant humanitarian concerns, with the civilian population of nearly two million Palestinians in a state of siege. The conflict has resulted in numerous casualties, aid workers, and attacks on protected facilities, including the Al Shifa hospital. International humanitarian law (IHL), a set of rules established by international cooperation and agreements, aims to protect civilians and limit warfare methods.

IHL regulates armed conflict conduct, distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, with the primary goal of protecting civilians. It requires all belligerents to be aware of these rules to minimize harm and ensure safety. IHL is closely linked to human rights law, requiring prevention of human rights abuses in conflict zones.

Awareness of IHL ensures peacekeepers are accountable for their actions and understand the legal consequences of violating IHL. This knowledge contributes to conflict resolution efforts by promoting respect for humanitarian principles and fostering a culture of dialogue and negotiation. United Nations peacekeepers, often operating under international organizations’ mandates, need to work within this global legal framework. Training and awareness are essential for executing IHL, ensuring preparedness for challenges in conflict zones and making informed decisions in complex situations.

The Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions are international treaties that establish humanitarian rules for armed conflicts, providing protections for wounded and sick soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilians. Additional Protocols I and II further clarify and expand these rules, particularly concerning international armed conflicts (Protocol I) and non-international armed conflicts (Protocol II). Customary International Humanitarian Law (IHL) includes established practices recognized as legally binding, including key principles such as Distinction, Proportionality, Precautions, and Military Necessity. These principles include providing effective warnings and ensuring that attacks are not indiscriminate.

The Gaza crisis has highlighted the challenges in implementing IHL, with high casualties due to the inhumane attacks against Israel, which defied civilized norms. Israel has taken precautions, such as warning civilians to vacate north Gaza and go towards the South of the Strip through designated routes, but the destruction of infrastructure, including hospitals and other protected areas, has made the delivery of humanitarian assistance and access to medical care challenging. The 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 18, emphasizes the protection of civilian hospitals during armed conflicts. It prohibits attacks on hospitals providing care to wounded, sick, infirm, and maternity cases. An intentional attack on a civilian hospital is a grave breach of international humanitarian law.

However, these protections are not absolute, and certain conditions may lead to the loss of their protected status under the Geneva Conventions. Loss of protected status can occur under specific circumstances, typically involving the violation of the rules outlined in the Conventions. Hospitals and medical facilities are often targeted in conflicts, either intentionally or accidentally, causing harm to civilians and healthcare workers. These attacks are violations of international humanitarian law and can have devastating consequences for civilian populations. They are widely condemned by the international community, and efforts are made to protect healthcare facilities and workers during armed conflicts.

Hospitals in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Aleppo, Yemen, Gaza Strip, Ukraine, and South Sudan have been targeted in conflict, with a 2015 U.S. bombing in Kunduz and 2016 attacks on Aleppo hospitals during the Syrian Civil War. In Yemen, hospitals and medical facilities have been repeatedly hit during conflicts between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition. In the Gaza Strip, hospitals have been targeted during conflicts between Israel and Palestinian groups, including in the 2014 Gaza War. In eastern Ukraine, hospitals and medical facilities faced attacks during the conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.

False flag operations and fog of war can lead to diplomatic crises and impact a group’s operations. The IDF used false flags to deter attacks on hospitals and healthcare facilities, concealing terrorist intentions. The presence of civilians or protected objects can deter attacks. Hospitals and healthcare facilities are frequently targeted in conflicts.

Terror groups and militants often use deception and deceptive tactics to carry out attacks on civilian facilities, creating confusion about the identity of the perpetrators. This can lead to propaganda and manipulation, as these groups can exploit the resulting confusion to gain sympathy, support, or international condemnation against their perceived adversaries. False flag operations can also escalate conflict by aiming to provoke a stronger response from the accused state, potentially drawing in international actors.

The advantages of accusations and false flag operations against a state actor like Israel include diplomatic isolation, international condemnation, damage to reputation, humanitarian fallout, legal implications, escalation of conflict, and impact on peace efforts. These tactics are not unique to one side of a conflict, as even state actors have been accused of carrying out such operations to achieve their strategic or political objectives.

Some famous cases include the Mukden Incident in 1931, the Lavon Affair in 1954, the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, and various instances in the Syrian Civil War. These cases highlight the importance of understanding how civilians come into a militarily exposed position and the choices they had. If civilians volunteered to stay back and join the defender or were coerced into staying, the responsibility lies with the defender even though they may not have killed them. On the other hand, if civilians were permitted to evacuate an area impending an attack but willingly stay back, the onus of protecting non-combatants lies with the attacker, as it does when they are prevented from fleeing the intended target by the attacker.

The use of false flag tactics is not unique to one side of a conflict, and even state actors have been accused of carrying out such operations to achieve their strategic or political objectives. It is crucial to understand how civilians came into a militarily exposed position and the choices they had. The moral reality of war and conflict is complex, with the moral reality of war being influenced by the reasons for fighting it and the methods used to win it. The moral reality of war has two parts: the reasons for fighting and the means used for winning the war.

In the history of modern warfare, civilians have been targeted in various conflicts, with estimates ranging from hundreds of thousands to over a million casualties. The Korean War (1950-1953) saw hundreds of thousands killed, while Vietnam War (1955-1975) saw tens of thousands of civilians killed. The Darfur Conflict (2003-present) saw hundreds of thousands to over a million civilian casualties, while Iraq War (2003-2011) saw civilian deaths exceed 100,000. Syrian Civil War (2011-Present) saw estimates of several hundred thousand to over a million civilian deaths.

During times of war, laws fall silent, and it is not the evil powers that defy them. Britain’s terror bombing of Germany resulted in nearly 300,000 civilians killed and 800,000 wounded. These inhuman bombings provided a precedent for US President Harry Truman, who ordered the firebombing of Tokyo and the use of nuclear weapons on two major cities of Japan. The number of civilians killed by allies was around half a million, and there was nothing civilians did that forfeited their right to protection from harm.

In Vietnam, the American “rules of engagement” blurred the distinction between Combatants and Non-Combatants, creating a new distinction between hostile/friendly and loyal/disloyal civilians. This highlights the moral and ethical implications of actions that may have both intended and unintended consequences in the context of Just War Theory and International Humanitarian Law.

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