15 January 2009
THE weeping of Ahmad Samouni was heart-rending. From a hospital bed in Gaza, the 16-year-old broke into tears as he told a television interviewer how several members of his family had been killed in an Israeli strike. (...)
The plight of the Samouni clan stands out even amid the profligate bloodshed of Israels war in the Gaza Strip. According to survivors, about 100 members of the clan had been gathered by Israeli soldiers in a building in the Zeitun district on January 4th. The next day, it was struck by Israeli shells or missiles, killing about 30. Worse, Israeli forces are accused of preventing Palestinian paramedics from helping the survivors for two days.
his is a shocking incident. The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded, said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), not usually given to emotive language or public complaints about violations of humanitarian law. Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, went further. The killings show lements of what would constitute war crimes, she said. (...)
Another contentious incident in this war was the killing of more than 40 bystanders on January 6th near a UN school that was temporarily housing refugees. Here the Israeli army says that its soldiers were attacked by mortars fired rom within the school and responded with mortar fire. But the UN strenuously denies that Hamas fighters were in the school. There is also the alleged use of white phosphorous shells: permitted as a smokescreen, but not over civilian areas. (...)
Short of arguing that Israel is deliberately massacring Palestinians (if so, many more would probably have been killed and Israels warning leaflets would be superfluous), judging war crimes depends on the facts of specific incidents and subjective legal concepts. Is Israel discriminating between civilians and combatants? Are its actions proportionate to the military gain? And is it taking proper care to spare civilians in the crowded Strip?
A British government manual on the laws of war admits that, for example, the principle of proportionality s not always straightforward, not least because attempting to reduce the danger to civilians may increase the risk to ones own forces. Moreover, if the enemy puts civilians at risk by deliberately placing military targets near them, his is a factor to be taken into account in favour of the attackers.
Israel makes precisely such arguments. Its aggressive tactics, it says, are justified by the need to protect Israeli forces, and Hamas is to blame for civilian deaths by hiding rockets and other weapons in mosques. According to Israeli officials, Hamass top leaders are hiding in a bunker under the overstretched Shifa hospital (which, however, has not been attacked). (...)
In other ways, military technology has raised the bar for what is considered acceptable. The skies above Gaza are buzzing with surveillance drones. Israeli command-and-control systems are doubtless as sophisticated as American ones, which give commanders vast digital maps in which structures are individually numbered and clearly identified if they are not to be attacked; they even have plat graphics to estimate the area that will be affected by a blast. Mishaps do happen; on January 5th three Israeli soldiers were killed by one of their own tanks. But without more facts, it is hard to believe the Israelis did not know about the presence of civilians at Zeitun and at the UN school.