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Israel’s War Crimes

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Let us not use the issue of our own current difficult domestic situation to forget that Israel is committing vast war crimes in Gaza. Kenneth Roth has a devastating essay on this:

The April 1 attack that killed seven World Central Kitchen workers illustrates Israel’s permissive rules of engagement, which allow its military to use lethal force without any certainty that the target is military. The Israeli military denies knowing that it was killing humanitarian workers and explained the attack by saying that a drone operator thought he saw someone with a gun board one of the workers’ three vehicles. That easily could have been a security guard rather than a member of Hamas, but this fleeting glimpse—which proved wrong in any case—was deemed enough to launch discrete attacks on three cars that had just left a known aid warehouse and were separated by a total distance of 1.5 miles.

Even when one or more people or structures are known to be legitimate military targets, international humanitarian law prohibits treating an entire populated area in which they might be located as a target. The Israeli Air Force claims that all of its attacks are “precise” and “focused,” but judging from the widespread destruction they have caused, they seem regularly to have been indiscriminate. Entire neighborhoods have been pulverized. Analysis of satellite imagery shows that up to 57 percent of the buildings across the Gaza Strip are damaged or destroyed.

In December even President Joe Biden referred to Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing.” The White House tried to walk back the comment as if Biden had misspoken, but it seems likelier that he was repeating what aides had described in private. As if to confirm the accuracy of the description, Biden said that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to justify the bombing by noting that America had “carpet-bombed Germany” and “dropped the atom bomb.” Biden rightly responded that the institutions of international humanitarian law had subsequently been established so that such abuses “didn’t happen again.”

International humanitarian law also prohibits firing even on a known military target when the harm caused to civilians “would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” This rule of proportionality obviously leaves room for interpretation, but it is hardly without meaning. Israel regularly violates it, most notably in its extensive use of enormous 2,000-pound bombs to attack Hamas’s tunnels, such as in the densely populated Jabalia refugee camp. These bombs can kill anyone within six hundred feet of impact—a radius of two football fields. Even when delayed fusing ensures that the bomb will explode underground, somewhat limiting the blast radius, these bombs are so devastating that the US military has largely stopped using them in populated areas. But a December analysis by The New York Times found that Israel had used them 208 times since early October.

The US government has provided alternatives: thousands of 250-pound bombs. A military expert whose government employment precludes comment on the record told me that since Israel is usually targeting mere tunnels rather than heavily reinforced military bunkers, these bombs—or at most a 500-pound bomb—should suffice. Israel’s use of 2,000-pound bombs, the expert told me, seems to reflect a “shake and bake” strategy by which the military hopes to damage tunnels, with little regard for the civilian devastation above. Such indifference to civilian lives and structures is prohibited, whether motivated by an effort to reestablish what The New York Times called the Israeli military’s “aura of power” after October 7 or by a policy of collective punishment. Civilians in Gaza have no capacity to change the conduct of a regime as dictatorial as that of Hamas.

Biden rightly suspended delivery of additional 2,000-pound bombs this past May, as the Israeli government prepared to invade Rafah, the southern Gaza city where roughly 1.4 million Palestinians had been sheltering. In a May interview with The Sunday Times, Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), cited Israel’s use of 2,000-pound bombs as an example of something “you can’t do,” suggesting that war crime charges may be forthcoming. One part of the problem appears to be that, according to The New Republic, the Israeli military’s legal office approves attacks that result in ratios of civilian to combatant deaths “of 15-to-1 or 20-to-1—even for the lowest-ranking members of Hamas.” Few would consider such attacks proportionate.

But hey, it’s just Muslims and everyone outraged by Israel’s behavior is objectively pro-Hamas, right?

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