Thursday, August 10, 2006

Jus in bello: Discriminating between civilians and soldiers

By Richard Norman

The last two posts on this blog have discussed crimes of aggression and the ethics of war in an abstract, international context. These abstractions provide, I believe, a vital counterpoint to the visceral emotions currently overheating debate about the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Applying these criteria to this rapidly expanding conflict can help weed out the prejudicial and emotional rhetoric that characterizes what, to my mind, is a "just" exercise by the Israeli Defence Forces.

In this post I will examine only one of the most salient points of traditional jus in bello with regards to the Israel-Hezbollah conflict: the necessary discrimination between civilians and soldiers. (These criteria are based on Walzer's work and can be found in detail at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In a later post I will discuss the issue of proportionality.

Discrimination between civilians and soldiers.

Israeli Defence Forces doctrine states that "IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property." On occasions when Lebanese civilians have been killed or injured, IDF commanders and members of the Israeli government have apologized and stated that their goal is to do everything possible to avoid civilian deaths. Following the deaths of 28 civilians at Qana on 30 July, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert released a statement, saying, "I express deep regret, along with all of Israel and the IDF, for the civilian deaths in Qana. Nothing could be further from our intentions and our interests than harming civilians - everyone understands that. When we do harm civilians, the whole world recognizes that it is an exceptional case that does not characterize us."

Hezbollah, on the other hand, makes no distinction between civilian and military deaths, neither in its engagement with Israel, nor with regards to the Lebanese population at large. The organization's website is currently down, but this manifesto from one of its founders contains the central tenets of its philosophy:

Our primary assumption in our fight against Israel states that the Zionist entity is aggressive from its inception, and built on lands wrested from their owners, at the expense of the rights of the Muslim people. Therefore our struggle will end only when this entity is obliterated. We recognize no treaty with it, no cease fire, and no peace agreements, whether separate or consolidated.
The obliteration of the entity of Israel would necessarily involve the deaths of every one of Israel's citizens, with no distinction being paid to civilians or soldiers. This is in keeping with Hezbollah policy of suicide bombings against civilian targets, kidnapping and killing civilians, and, as we see presently, rocket fire into Israeli cities intended to cause maximum civilian casualties.

Traditional (or external) jus in bello, relates to the ethics of engaging with an enemy. Internal jus in bello, relates to how a government or authority behaves towards its own people during a time of war. Once again the distinction between Israel and Hezbollah is clear. While Israel makes every effort to protect its own civilians (and has in fact entered a war with the express purpose of degrading Hezbollah's capabilities to attack its civilians), Hezbollah continues to use its own civilians as human shields, storing weapons in civilian homes and firing missiles from densely populated areas. (Here the Australian Herald Sun features photographs of Hezbollah blurring the boundaries between civilian and soldier.)

Israel is in the difficult position of fighting an enemy who is demanding "total war" from it (and who is fighting a "total war" against it). It has not yielded to the temptation to match the immoral and illegal tactics of its enemy.