Playing war games with innocents is cowardly

There is clear, uncontested evidence of war crimes in the latest Israeli incursion into Gaza. I expect arrest warrants for the Hamas leadership any day now. Oh, dear. Did I interrupt your chants of “Down with Israel”? But you must have seen news stories about the Israeli Defence Force besieging a group of “militants” hiding in a mosque in Beit Hanoun to lure the infidels into desecrating a religious building. These “militants” were under attack because they’d been firing rockets at Israeli civilians. And Article 51, Clause 2, of the 1977 Protocol I to the Geneva Convention says: “The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.” It is difficult to detect significant ambiguity in that language. (The 18 Beit Hanoun civilians just tragically killed by errant Israeli shells are also the legal and moral responsibility of those who fire rockets at civilians from civilian areas.) But wait. There’s more.

News accounts clearly state that in response to an appeal by a Hamas legislator, a group of veiled women deliberately put themselves between the combatants in the mosque siege, some carrying extra garments so the brave strong “militants” could, disguised as women, run away from the weak and cowardly Jews. But under international law it is illegal to use civilians as human shields for combat operations (and under Geneva Convention I, Article 2 if these rules are not binding on the Palestinian Authority they are not binding on Israel either). So the people responsible for this outrage ought to be arrested.

These terrorists should also be held in contempt. To dress in women’s clothing to sneak off because you don’t dare stand and fight like a man, in a bloody battle you’ve spent months calling for, ought to inspire scorn not only in their adversaries but among their supporters. I also suspect these cowards should be sent to hell: I cannot believe God loves a man who will drag a woman between himself and enemy gunfire so he can scurry off to kill other women and their children. But in the here and now, the “international community” I keep hearing about should surely set about enforcing this “international law” I keep hearing about and arrest the perpetrators of what is, beyond rational debate, a war crime.

When I say beyond rational debate, an important caveat is in order. Back in 2003, a number of people and some governments declared the invasion of Iraq illegal. I wasn’t sure what they meant at the time, and it hasn’t become clearer since. Liberals seem very keen on international law understood as “we are truly superior human beings,” but less enthusiastic about it as “something actually written on a relevant piece of paper.”

No one ever tried to arrest George Bush or any American lawmakers such as Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts who voted to authorize the war. And it wasn’t even clear to me which law wasn’t being enforced, unless it was the conveniently foggy Everything Liberals Dislike Is Illegal Act of 2003. You know, the one under which you can’t intern unsavoury persons caught fighting in civilian clothes in Guantanamo Bay, although Geneva Convention III, Article 4.2, specifies that irregular fighters get prisoner of war status only if they “fulfil the following conditions: (a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; (b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance; (c) that of carrying arms openly; (d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.” The Guantanamo internees are 0-for-4 on that score.

If we’re going to have “international law” in the abstract, we must have actual international laws and care about what they say. For instance, Geneva Convention IV, Article 28: “The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.” And Article 51, Clause 7, of the 1977 Protocol I adds: “The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favour or impede military operations. The Parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations.”

What part of that is unclear? Trying to get civilian women killed to save your sorry hide and score a propaganda coup is not merely damnable cowardice. It is also illegal. And we have eyewitness testimony.

Somebody call the cops.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson