On Friday, Oct. 13, 2023, in the wake of Hamas’ massacre of over 1,300 Israelis and Israel’s subsequent order to evacuate a million Palestinian civilians out of northern Gaza, a group of 18 lawmakers wrote to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. They expressed concern about the devastating humanitarian consequences to come and urged “those carrying out military operations to follow international humanitarian law and protect innocent civilian lives on both sides.” Amidst other requests, namely to work quickly to restore the delivery of food, water, fuel, electricity, and other necessities to Gaza, the lawmakers’ first request to Biden and Blinken was to “communicate that Israel’s response in Gaza must be carried out according to international law and take all due measures to limit harm to innocent civilians.”
All states are bound by the body of laws known as international humanitarian law or the “laws of armed conflict,” codified in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, its two 1977 Additional Protocols, the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, and certain weapons conventions. Created to protect civilians in armed conflict, international humanitarian law is concerned with jus in bello, or the “how” of the conduct of hostilities. It is independent from questions about the “why” of war: the justification or reasons for war, or jus ad bellum. No matter the justness of cause for any given war, per the law of armed conflict, all belligerents’ hostilities must adhere to principles that protect innocent civilians.
As human rights groups have rightly pointed out, the taking of hostages, murder, and torture of civilians by Hamas last weekend constitute clear-cut, unambiguous, and undeniably grave war crimes. But international humanitarian law applies equally to both sides of a conflict: war crimes committed by one side do not excuse war crimes committed in response. Turning then to the lawmakers’ letter to Biden regarding Israel’s ongoing response, do Israel’s most recent actions in Gaza violate international humanitarian law?
Israel’s Disregard for International Humanitarian Law
The two central principles of the law of armed conflict are the distinction between civilians and combatants and the proportionality of force necessary to achieve objectives while minimizing casualties. International legal experts and human rights organizations have voiced that Israel’s siege of Gaza violates both these principles.
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