Israel stands on the verge of invading Gaza in response to the terrorist attacks by Hamas that many, including Israel’s leaders, have compared to Sept. 11 not just because of the scale and savagery but also because the terrorists sought to destroy the tranquillity of daily life. They killed the very young and the very old, the strong and the weak, civilians and soldiers; they took some 150 hostages, including children, and survivors said the attackers raped women — all to send a message that no Israeli was safe.
Israel has a responsibility to its citizens to hold accountable the perpetrators of this violence, but as Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week, “How Israel does this matters.”
Israel cannot win this war just by killing all the terrorists. It is determined to break the power of Hamas, and in that effort it deserves the support of the United States and the rest of the world. But it can succeed only by upholding the rules and norms of behavior that Hamas so wantonly ignores. What Israel is fighting to defend is a society that values human life and the rule of law. To do that, the means and the ends of its military response must be consistent.
Israel’s goal is to destroy Hamas; in doing that, it should not lose sight of its commitment to safeguard those who have not taken up arms.
The Israeli Army acknowledges and espouses an obligation not to target civilians for military purposes, and to avoid actions that inflict disproportionate harm on civilians, such as destroying an entire city block to kill fighters in a specific building that could be targeted more precisely. But this war is unfolding in an atmosphere of intense emotion, notably in the recent remarks by Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who said that Israel was fighting “human animals.”
Israel is preparing to send its young men and women into battle, where they will face an enemy that does not respect the same rules of warfare that they have committed to.
Hamas is known to hide its fighters among civilians, and an indifference to their suffering is central to its brand of terrorism. Hamas is using the people of Gaza as human shields against Israel’s bombing campaign, and as Gazans try to escape, Hamas still holds the hostages who were kidnapped last Saturday. The group has threatened to kill them one by one with every airstrike that hits Gazans in their homes.
Israeli soldiers will look to their leaders to guide their actions and decisions on the battlefield to make sure that they, unlike Hamas, make distinctions between civilians and combatants.
Protecting civilians is also the most sensible way forward. Ending Hamas’s control over Gaza is an essential step, but a military victory will not mean much if young Gazans regroup under another extremist banner. Israel and its allies — and the Palestinians and their allies — have a shared interest in setting Gaza on a path to a different future. To do that, Palestinians first need to see that their lives and their safety are taken into account by Israel in its conduct of this war.
On Thursday, Israel announced that more than one million Palestinians had 24 hours to exit northern Gaza, prompting panic, confusion and immediate objections from the United Nations, which pleaded with Israeli officials to rescind the order. As Secretary General António Guterres noted, the order “applies to a territory that is already besieged, under aerial bombardment and without fuel, electricity, water and food.”
Directing civilians to move out of targeted areas is a valuable way to minimize casualties, but it works only if those who are ordered to evacuate have somewhere to go, a safe route and means to get there and sufficient time to make the journey. The Israeli military widened that 24-hour window and clarified that Gazans would have time on Saturday to move south “without any harm.” Mr. Blinken said Friday that the United States is working with the International Committee of the Red Cross to create safe zones, which could help to limit civilian casualties.
Hamas has a long history of exploiting the rules of war for its own purposes, and it is likely to take advantage of any arrangements such as these intended to protect civilians. But that does not absolve Israel of the responsibility to try.
Israel should also take steps to ensure the safety of journalists and humanitarian workers in the conflict zone. They perform a critical role in wartime by documenting what is happening. That documentation makes it possible for all participants in a conflict to be held accountable for their conduct, by the citizens of their own nations and by the rest of the world, as in Ukraine, where journalists have documented evidence of war crimes in Bucha. At least 11 United Nations workers and 11 journalists have already been killed in this war. Where journalists and aid organizations are not able to bear witness, there is no accountability.
The United States has offered firm support for Israel in its hour of agony. But friendship also requires speaking hard truths. Mr. Blinken and President Biden have spoken in general terms about the importance of minimizing civilian casualties; they should make clear to Israel that the relationship between the two nations is rooted in a commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
In counseling restraint, the United States can point to the lessons of its own recent history. For two decades, America waged a global campaign against terrorism, all too often ignoring international law when those rules seemed inconvenient. In doing so, America weakened the world’s commitment to those rules and helped embolden a new generation of extremists.
Israel finds itself at war because of the depravity of Hamas. Further bloodshed now appears unavoidable, but the way Israel fights will begin to determine what happens next: Defeating Hamas will make Israel safer; showing disregard for the killing of civilians will not.
Source photograph by Said Khatib/AFP, via Getty Images.
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