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Getting the Law Right on the Israel-Hamas Conflict

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Getting the Law Right on the Israel-Hamas Conflict – Laurie R. Blank (The Hill)
(dailyalert.org, July 14, 2014)

International law has quite a lot to say about the latest violence that has flared up between Israel and Hamas. So do the media. Unfortunately, they rarely match, leading to unfortunate – and sometimes egregious – misrepresentations.

Reports have described Israel’s comprehensive system of warnings to civilians before launching strikes in Gaza as “contentious” and suggest that it is motivated solely by the desire to evade potential war crimes charges. Israel’s use of individualized, specific warnings by phone and text goes far beyond what the law requires – it is hard to imagine how they could possibly be described as “contentious,” instead of unprecedented or protective.

Hamas has announced that it is launching rockets at Israeli cities. Not at military bases, army units, communication networks or any other military target, but at cities populated by hundreds of thousands, even millions of civilians. The law of war requires that parties distinguish between military and civilian targets and only attack military personnel and targets. Deliberate attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks are prohibited and are war crimes.

Hamas’s use of civilians and civilian buildings in Gaza as a shield is well known. Media reports tell of rockets being launched from residential buildings and schoolyards, munitions stored in houses, mosques and hospitals, Hamas leaders using civilian homes as command posts, and civilians being encouraged to go up on their roofs as human shields. These reports unfortunately rarely, if ever, mention that such conduct violates the law and, even more important, puts civilians at ever greater risk of death and injury.

Facilitating that conduct is an unfortunate and deadly consequence of media coverage that feeds misperceptions about how Israel and Hamas are fighting. Legitimizing lawful conduct would be far better, because law has an essential role to play in war; indeed, adherence to the law is a matter of life and death.

The author is clinical professor of law and director of the International Humanitarian Law Clinic at the Emory University School of Law.

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