Verdict: Every Israeli Missile Strike is a War Crime
Jonathan Cook – Nazareth
01, 2014 "ICH"
Guardian includes an article that appears to be
excusing Israel of responsibility for the massive
death tolll it has inflicted on Palestinian
civilians. But, more significantly, it includes a
lot of useful – and damning – information about just
“indiscriminate” Israel’s weapons really are.
me a great deal because I have been warning about
problems with the interpretation of international
law used by leading human rights groups on this very
point since the 2006 Lebanon War.
At that time I
got into a dispute with Human Rights Watch’s Middle
East policy director, Sarah Leah Whitson. Her
organisation argued that Hizbullah was committing
war crimes by definition whenever it fired rockets
at Israel, even if it hit military targets, because
those rockets were primitive and inherently
HRW claimed, Israel’s missiles were precise and
therefore their use was not inherently inadmissible.
Its view was that Israel did not commit war crimes
by firing its missiles; the obligation was on
observers to show that they had not been used within
the rules of war – which is a much harder standard
of proof. For more on this debate, see my articles
HRW’s argument was nonsense, as was clear even in
2006. During that war, Israel dropped millions of
cluster munitions – little bomblets that serve
effectively as land mines – all over southern
Lebanon, endangering the whole civilian population
of the area.
Finkelstein recently pointed out the more general
problem with HRW’s argument:
standard, only rich countries, or countries rich
enough to purchase high-tech weapons, have a right
to defend themselves against high-tech aerial
assaults. It is a curious law that would negate the
raison d’être of law: the substitution of might by
It may not be
entirely surprising that HRW and others interpret
international law in a way that serves rich and
powerful western states, however many civilians they
kill, and criminalises developing states, however
few civilians they kill.
fighting in Gaza illustrates this point in dramatic
fashion. Some 95% of the 64 Israelis who have been
killed during the current fighting are soldiers;
some 75% of the nearly 1,500 Palestinians who have
been killed are civilian.
from experts in the Guardian article add another
layer of insight into HRW’s dubious distinctions.
ignore the irritating framing used in the article,
which seems to suggest that the high Palestinian
death toll may be down to human or systems errors.
Experts discount this theory in the article and also
point out that Israel is often not checking whether
its shooting is accurate. In other words, it gives
every indication of not taking any precautions to
ensure it is hitting only military targets (or
rather targets it claims are military in
nature). That recklessness makes it fully culpable.
But we also
have experts cited here who make the point that much
of Israel’s precise weaponry is not accurate at all.
Andrew Exum, a
former US army officer and defence department
special adviser on the Middle East, who has studied
Israel’s military operations, says this:
good strategic reasons to avoid using air power and
artillery in these conflicts: they tend to be pretty
indiscriminate in their effects and make it
difficult for the population under fire to figure
out what they’re supposed to do to be safe.”
indiscriminate”! So doesn’t that mean Israel was
committing war crimes by definition every time it
made one of those thousands of air strikes that
marked the start of Operation Protective Edge, and
that continue to this day?
But it is not
just strikes from the air that are the problem.
There is more:
military analysts and human rights observers say the
IDF is still using unguided, indirect fire with
high-explosive shells, which they argue is
inappropriate for a densely populated area like Gaza
155m howitzer] shells have a lethal radius of 50 to
150 metres and causes injury up to 300 metres from
its point of impact. Furthermore, such indirect-fire
artillery (meaning it is fired out of direct sight
of the target) has a margin of error of 200 to 300
again: a margin of error of up to 300 metres, plus a
lethal radius of up to 150 metres and an injury
radius of 300 metres. So that’s a killing and injury
zone of close to half a kilometre from the intended
“precise” site of impact – in a territory that is
only a few kilometres wide and long. In short, one
of the main shells Israel is using in Gaza is
Set aside what
Israel is trying to do in Gaza. Let us assume it is
actually trying to hit military targets rather than
being either reckless about hitting civilian targets
or deliberately trying to hit civilians, as much of
the evidence might suggest.
Even if we
assume total good faith on Israel’s part that it is
trying to hit only Hamas and other military sites,
it is clear it cannot do so even with the advanced
weaponry it has. The inherent imprecision of its
arsenal is compounded many fold by the fact that it
is using these weapons in densely built-up areas.
So when are
going to hear HRW or the United Nation’s Navi Pillay
stop talking about proportionality or Israel’s
potential war crimes, and admit Israel is
committing war crimes by definition – right now, as
you read this.
Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for
Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the
Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to
Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and
“Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in
Human Despair” (Zed Books). He contributed this
article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit his website