Legal Issues:
Has Israel committed war crimes?



According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, civilians are not legitimate targets in the course of war. This includes direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks against areas in which civilians are present. In addition, public and private property cannot be destroyed unless justified by military necessity. If civilian areas are deemed to be or contain legitimate military targets, and civilians are killed and property destroyed as a result, the strategic gain must be proportionate to the death and destruction caused.

Terrorism -- the act of targeting civilians and their property in order to pressure people and governments into making certain political choices -- is clearly illegal under the Geneva Conventions and immoral according to the mores of the modern civilized world.

Hezbollah did not commit terrorism in its attack that sparked the conflict. Hezbollah engaged in a limited attack on a military position for a limited aim (to acquire leverage in order to effect the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, for whose fate Israel has refused to negotiate).

Israel responded with attacks on widespread areas where civilians were present, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties with very little or no military gain or damage to Hezbollah. Israel also deliberately caused widespread destruction of Lebanonís civilian infrastructure with no regard for proportionality, and often with no clear military objective (such as the bombing of Christian civilian areas far from the battle front, the bombing of Lebanese military positions when the military was not engaged in hostilities, the bombing of religious leaders and their families as they slept, the bombing of irrigation networks, the bombing of a UN base, etc.). These actions are illegal under Israeli law, as codified in the Geneva Conventions. It is highly unlikely that the hundreds of separate incidents that fall under suspicion of being criminal acts were the result of gross and systematic errors or intelligence failures.

If Israel's aim in attacking Lebanese civilians, civilian areas, and infrastructure is to collectively and indiscriminately punish Lebanese civilians in order to pressure Lebanese citizens to oppose Hezbollah, this fits the definition of terrorism outlined above.

Only after Israel attacked Lebanese civilian areas did Hezbollah respond with rocket attacks aimed toward Israeli civilian areas. This retaliation was also illegal under the Geneva Conventions.

Israel's attacks on civilians

Under international law, Israel (or any state) is required to minimize harm to civilians in the pursuit of military objectives, and such harm must be proportionate to the importance of the objective and the effectiveness of the action. Leveling entire urban neighborhoods far from the battle front (high harm) in a futile attempt (low effect) to cripple Hezbollah (?) is disproportionate. Targeting convoys of civilian vehicles as they flee Israel's bombardments in terror, when Israel knows that most or all of them are families with small children who have nowhere else to go and no other way to escape, even if the intention was to try to kill whatever combatants might have been among them (and shouldn't Israel have been glad if combatants were fleeing the front?), was grossly disproportionate.

A specific civilian who willingly assists in military operations is a legitimate military target. Their wives and children are not. Others living in their building are not. Their neighbors are not. Those forced to cooperate are not. All these are civilians who must be considered in the test of proportionality.

This is a best-case scenario for Israel. If, as is much more likely, Israel's intent was to harm the civilian population in order to increase political pressure on the government and/or Hezbollah in order to extract political gains or better terms for an eventual ceasefire, this is collective punishment and a war crime.

Israel's attacks on civilian infrastructure

If Israel had attacked the logistical and combatant centers of Hezbollah as well as the roads and bridges surrounding the battle front (after allowing enough time for civilians to flee) in order to slow the replenishment of supplies to Hezbollah, they might have a case for legitimate military necessity.

Instead, in addition to all this, Israel bombed nearly every main road, bridge, port, airport, and border crossing in the entire country of Lebanon, killing scores in the process, often without a clear military objective. Israel also destroyed civilian suburbs in Beirut, euphemistically calling them "Hezbollah strongholds", as if collectively punishing and/or killing people and destroying their neighborhoods for the crime of being a Shia Muslim with likely loyalty to the major Shia political force in Lebanon were a legitimate military action.

Israel's bombing of Christian areas in the north, where there is almost no support for Hezbollah, defies any attempt at rationalization. Israel's targeting of a civilian power plant in the south, causing an oil spill the size of the Exxon Valdez spill into the Mediterranean that Israel has not allowed anyone in to clean, and which has contaminated the entire Lebanese coast and threatens wildlife, habitats, fisheries, and formerly pristine beaches, and which now threatens Syria, Turkey, and Cyprus, is far beyond any pretense of proportionality or rationalization.

If Israel is destroying Lebanon's infrastructure and economy in order to punish the Lebanese government and people for not stopping Hezbollah (which they have never had the power to do), or to pressure them to stop Hezbollah (which they still don't have the power to do), this is collective punishment and a war crime.

Unfortunately, war crimes are difficult to prove and even more difficult to prosecute. But there are precedents. Many Israeli generals and politicians are already afraid to travel to Europe, because individual countries have filed war crimes complaints against them for past violations of both Palestinian and Lebanese human rights. One top Israeli General was almost nabbed in London last year but was tipped off and escaped. His crimes include dropping a one-ton bomb on an apartment building in Gaza to assassinate a Hamas commander in 2003, and in the process killing 14 sleeping bystanders, more than half of them children, and injuring 150 more.


People sometimes ask me why I am more concerned about Israel's war crimes than Hezbollah's. I give three reasons:

  1. Israel was the first to target civilians in this war, and therefore they are responsible for that aspect of the escalation. In addition, Israel has committed far more powerful and widespread attacks against completely defenseless Lebanese communities far from the battle front and done immeasurably more damage to the Lebanese economy and infrastructure and killed 20 times more civilians than Hezbollah has done. Israel has killed an appalling ratio of civilians to combatants of 9:1. Hezbollah has killed civilians to combatants in the ratio of 1:3. Israel's crimes outstrip any possible damage Hezbollah has done or can do to Israel by such an enormous margin that there is no hope or pretense of proportionality.

  2. Israel is a modern democratic nation-state. Hezbollah is an extra-state guerrilla organization. Forgive me if I hold Israel to a higher standard than Hezbollah, and for being gravely disappointed when Israel fails to live up even to that.

  3. I am not responsible for the actions of Hezbollah, but I am responsible for the actions of Israel, because my country provides her so much military, financial, and political support. The Arab world is perfectly reasonable to equate Israel with America, much like we associate Hezbollah with Iran. When Israel, an ally of my nation, behaves in a way that destroys its security, undermines international law, commits as well as provokes a civilian turkey shoot, and smears the name of my country through the mud (although this last part is the fault of dithering idiots like Bush, Condi, and "Silent Bob" Cheney), it is my democratic right and my moral duty to oppose this for the sake of the security, dignity, and global reputation of Israel and America as well as for the innocent Lebanese victims.

    America and Israel can and should defeat violent extremists. But the way to do this is not to create an entire new generation of them by committing horrific crimes and making a mockery of international law. We have to negotiate, we have to play by our own rules, and we have to treat our neighbors with respect. The alternative is the farcically ineffective Likud/neo-con strategy and mentality of pinning all our hopes for security on military might and violence that has gotten us into all these messes and has no hope of getting us out of them. There is no military solution to global security. It has to be political.


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