Scurrilous Accusations against Israel Encourage Terrorist Groups to Put Civilians in Harm’s Way

July 2, 2019 | Geoffrey Corn and Rachel VanLandingham
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In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (HRW)—an organization known for its obsession with defaming the Jewish state—accused it of committing war crimes when responding to rocket attacks from Gaza in May. Perhaps to provide some semblance of balance, the report leveled the same accusation at Hamas for indiscriminately firing on civilians. Its authors, however, misconstrue the laws of war by looking solely at the outcomes—rather than the causes, motivations, and circumstances—of military operations, as Geoffrey Corn and Rachel VanLandingham write:

[The] tendency by human-rights groups to invoke war crimes based on the effects of hostilities, and to conclude that “too many” civilians were killed in a particular attack, is all too common. This frequently used approach . . . produces the perverse effect of incentivizing terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic State, illegally to shield their military operations with civilians. These groups exploit the resultant deaths caused by lawful strikes by professional armed forces like the U.S. military and the IDF. Indeed, terrorist groups use civilians as legal weapons, a crucial fact HRW fails to recognize. . . .

When Palestinian militants launched missile, rocket, and mortar attacks into Israel with no plausible indication that the attacks were directed at lawful military objectives, their attacks were not merely “indiscriminate,” [as HRW puts it]. . . . Nothing suggests these attacks were directed at military objectives. Nor is there any plausible basis to support a claim of reasonable mistake, as the IDF, unlike its opponents, simply does not utilize civilian communities or buildings in support of its military operations, nor does it exploit the presence of civilians to shield its military assets. . . .

HRW’s effects-based methodology is counterproductive to the organization’s claimed goal—that of enhancing civilian protection during hostilities. It incentivizes the worst practices of armed groups like Hamas by reinforcing their expectation that increasing civilian exposure to the risks of hostilities—for example, by exploiting the presence of civilians to shield their assets—will produce a net gain in their strategic delegitimization campaign. It also penalizes commanders who engage in good-faith efforts to comply with the law by implying that their obligation is not to make reasonable judgments but, rather, that those judgments must always produce the “right” outcome. Ultimately, this flawed methodology for assessing legality is contrary to both the spirit of the law and the interests of the victims of war whom the law is intended to protect.

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