Should Israel Abandon the Rules of War?

“Mr, Winston Churchill was sentenced to death today at the International Military Tribunal in Cambridge today for ‘War Crimes’ and ‘Crimes against Humanity’. The judges (from the Reich, Italy, Russia, and Sweden) made special reference to his responsibility for the fire bombings of Dresden and Hamburg where 100,000 innocent civilians were killed, the majority women and children. His defense, of the necessity to defend the so-called values of democracy, was rejected in scathing terms.”

From ‘The British Peoples Observer’ dated 30 September 1946 in an alternative universe.

It is a difficult war. Tunnels under Israeli homes. Hamas in IDF uniforms. Using UN ambulances to move fighters around. Missiles fired from playgrounds and next to hospitals. Rockets stored in a school. No evacuation of Gazan civilians into the bunkers enjoyed by Hamas leaders. All these are war crimes, and evidence that Israel is fighting an enemy that is evil at all levels.

How Britain felt when fighting Nazi-lead Germany is very similar to how Israel sees its conflict with Hamas-lead Gaza.  Fighting a vicious racial ideology, an economy subordinated to war, an affront to civilized values.

As a result, Britain started a massive aerial bombing of German cities. Partly revenge for the Blitz. Partly reprisals. Partly to reduce Germany’s will and capability to pursue the war.

The rules of war were not codified as they are now, but the principle of protecting non-combatants was then also true. The Allies took a big step over the moral line – but pleaded necessity. Arguably, the Allied leaders were saved from punishment by winning the war.

In February 1982 Hafez Assad’s father –  just as evil but much smarter than his son Basher – wiped out Hama, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold and killed about 25,000 of its inhabitants.  “When I drove into Hama at the end of May,” Thomas Friedman wrote, “I found three areas of the city that had been totally flattened–each the size of four football fields and covered with the yellowish tint of crushed concrete.” Friedman called this ‘Hama Rules’, a label for how the Middle East works.

There is an analytic technique called ‘double effect’. It is a form of moral calculus that says (I am simplifying dramatically) that many actions have two effects: a good and a bad. To be moral your action has to be with good intent, and the good effect greatly outweigh the bad. Using this, let’s run a hypothetical.

Start of hypothetical.

Hamas political and military leadership, its control systems, many key fighters, and much munitions, are under the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Bunker bombs (which Israel has) could wipe this out and end the conflict quickly.

The costs. Huge civilian death, to patients and doctors. And a moral stain for ever on Israel.

The benefits. End to Hamas in Gaza. Saves future Gazan deaths. Gaza can be opened up and become a prosperous part of the civilized world. (The post WW2 Japan and Germany model.) Israeli and military lives are saved. Children can grow up in the communities around Gaza untraumatized. A message is sent to other barbarous regimes and ideologies around the world that they are not protected by humanitarian law.

End of hypothetical.

I can’t imagine Israel ever doing this. I could never support this scenario. And, unlike the Allies in WW2, Israel does not control the international humanitarian legal system. But one day a Western power (US, UK, France, Russia?) is going to work through this calculus and take action against the kind of evil that Hamas represents.

To conclude:

‘War at the outset is like a beautiful maid

With whom everyone wishes to flirt

At the end it is like a despised hag

Bringing tears and sadness to whomever she meets’

Shmuel Ha-Nagid 993 – 1055/6


About the Author
Born in UK. Migrated to Australia. Now retired and living in Jerusalem.