Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A war without laws

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The United Nations has accused Israel of war crimes for what it says were deliberate attacks on schools, hospitals, homes and UN facilities. While Hamas was also accused of war crimes for firing thousands of rockets at civilians, the most stinging criticism is being levelled at Israel.

There was even a bizarre suggestion the United States should share the Iron Dome technology, which Israel uses to knock out terrorist rockets, with Hamas, presumably so it could fire them at civilians with impunity.

If Israel is to be hauled before an international court, however, the dock should probably be shared with a long list of other suspects, including the United States, Britain and possibly even Canada, to name a few.

Some human rights groups accused NATO of war crimes for a bombing campaign that killed hundreds of civilians in Kosovo in 1999. Canadian pilots actually received legal advice before launching their attacks, the first time lawyers were used in approving targets, but that didn't spare them from criticism.

Of course many nations, including the above-mentioned defendants, have also been accused of war crimes for their conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan, where thousands of civilians were killed in their homes, schools and hospitals.

The UN was never as aggressive then in its condemnation as it has been with Israel.

Any discussion of the laws of war as they apply in the Mideast can quickly lead down a rabbit hole of confusion and ambiguity.

Many cities have been devastated by war in history, but the usual test of legality was the force used was militarily necessary and civilians were not deliberately targeted.

It's always easy, however, to second-guess the generals after the fact. Indeed, a debate still rages about whether the Allied bombing offensive against Nazi Germany was a war crime.

For those stuck in the rabbit hole, Hamas's targeting of Israel is interpreted as an act of self-defence, even as the combatants seek cover among women and children. How else will the people of Gaza lift the Israeli blockade so they can develop a mature, functioning society?

These apologists ignore the fact Hamas was firing rockets before the blockade was imposed by both Israel and Egypt, and the terrorist group wants to terminate Israel's existence.

Israel's claim it never deliberately targets civilians is dubious in a situation where a few thousand combatants live and fight in the same neighbourhoods as more than one million innocents. It may not target civilians, but it knows more of them will be killed than actual terrorists whenever or wherever it drops a bomb or fires an artillery shell.

The Israeli military, however, has taken unprecedented steps to avoid civilian casualties by phoning into the region, sending text messages and dropping leaflets urging the people to flee. If they weren't trying to avoid killing innocent people, the death toll would be much higher. In fact, it's hard to imagine another country showing as much restraint.

Israel could have decided to do nothing in response to the rocket attacks, or it could have waged a less intense war. Neither option, however, would have ended the immediate threat, particularly when the enemy is on a path to Armageddon.

Proportionality is a valid concern, but try telling that to the people of Israel who have had to live with the threat for years.

The laws of war can't adequately account for the lopsided circumstances of the conflict that pit a nuclear power against a band of bloodthirsty killers.

If peace is truly a goal, then the Arab world, particularly the Palestinian Authority, must work together to marginalize and eliminate Hamas, which has no interest in compromise.

Israel, itself, has become too comfortable with a policy of simply managing the conflict, rather than pursuing an enduring settlement. It has created the impression it doesn't want to abandon its control of the West Bank, where Jewish settlements have expanded.

Until intransigence gives way to compromise, there will be more atrocities, and more accusations of war crimes.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 A12

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