Re-examining the laws of war

The terror war that has been imposed upon Israel has resulted in terror organizations enjoying significant victories. Terror against Israel has not only create an atmosphere of a lack of personal security, fear, and emergency, but has damaged Israel’s international image, its tourist industry, and its economy. Terrorism also creates internal pressures, divides society, and creates increased radicalism and lack of tolerance on both sides of the political divide in Israel. According to these parameters, the latest wave of terror has seen great success.

In Israel, terrorism has caused Israel’s political leaders to castigate and slander one another. Each side of Israel’s political spectrum attempts to advance its approach towards terrorism, according to the will of its voting public. In this web of mutual castigation, terrorism itself becomes marginalized, and the various decision-makers are given the lion’s share of attention, in a Sisyphus-like battle which has no victors.
Therefore, we must put an end to the atmosphere of criticism, hatred, and slander, and deal with the heart of the matter, rather than the marginal issues. Israel is losing the war on terror because it is not dealing with terror itself, but only with sporadic terror events, each event separately. The Israeli leadership has not engaged in a serious discussion regarding the meaning of terrorism, its intentions, the desired outcome of those who commit acts of terror, and the individual, national, and international the side effects and implications of terror.

Following the rise of terrorism, there has yet to be a single serious discussion regarding the need to change the laws of war. The current weapons given to soldiers and armies are not always relevant to the war on terror. In the past, weapons were personal – sword versus sword, axe versus axe – while various tribes agreed upon the rules of engagement. As war became more sophisticated and the distance between combatants grew, so did the number of victims. The world was shocked by the horrific results of the First World War, with its millions of fallen combatants; thus, the awareness for the need for humanitarian laws of war grew. The international community established a set of laws of engagement, which included laws regarding injured and POWs, which were agreed upon in international conventions.

The laws of war responded to new, more technologically advanced weaponry, but little attention was given to the approach of the person who uses the weapons. The laws of war which were written as a response to the great wars of the 20th century are no longer relevant to the methods and goals of the new terror war. Terrorism puts forth a new challenge to legal minds, as it mobilizes the support of a new type of suicidal fighter, whose worldview is based on a desire to create as much bloodshed as possible among the enemy, with no distinction made between soldiers and civilians. In the past, armies faced off with armies, resulting in symmetry of the laws of war which applied equally to both sides of the battlefield. The new terror war must clarify that the two sides are completely asymmetric in terms of goals, interests and morals. When terror organizations kidnap soldiers and civilians, they do not treat them as POWs, and do not give any creed to the laws of the Geneva Conventions regarding this issue. Conversely, captured terrorists are given all of the rights allotted to POWs according to the Geneva Conventions.

The approach that one must kill before being killed was based on a lack of laws of war, which attempted to replace this approach. However, when we find that the laws of war do not provide solutions to the current situation of terror, people return to this approach, as there are no laws of war for dealing with a situation of constant terrorism. We must establish new norms of behavior to meet this challenge.

There is a need to define and understand our obligations in the current terror war. We must understand where terrorism is trying to lead us and the values that terrorism is trying to compromise. We must understand our obligations with respect to the ideological disagreements that terrorism brings upon us.

Any approach which requires that the individual soldier be responsible for solving specific terror events is unfair to the soldier, and also serves to endanger internal security of our society. Murderous terrorism can easily result in murderous anti-terrorism, which can be just as merciless. This situation increases divisions in society. Thus, there is an acute need for a new intelligent approach for dealing with terrorism.

For this issue, there can be no right or left wing, no liberals or conservatives – there is instead a need to take responsibility. Those who celebrate following bloodshed due to political gain will only bring greater future bloodshed.

The world is currently shutting its eyes to the changes taking place. Our lives are not what they were. Our streets are no longer safe, our airplanes are no longer secure, our restaurants, shopping centers, schools, and event halls have all become the battlefields of the future. Weapons of mass-destruction that are produced by a range of states are not produced for deterrence but to be used against civilian populations without inhibitions, as part of the ongoing terror war.

The State of Israel, which raised global awareness to a large extent regarding international strategic threats, has a grave responsibility to deal with the essence of terror, and to establish a systematic, responsible, and intelligent system for facing the evil that threatens all of us.

About the Author
Dr David Altman is senior vice-president at the Netanya Academic College and vice-chair of the college's Strategic Dialogue Center
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