On December 7, Human Rights Watch issued a highly critical report on the Israeli bombing of a private home during its most recent attack on Gaza. The attack, which killed ten members of the Dalu family as well as two other civilians in other nearby homes, “was a clear violation of the laws of war,” the report concluded. Moreover, “anyone responsible for deliberately or recklessly committing a serious violation of the laws of war should be prosecuted for war crimes.”
In response to an HRW request that they explain the attack, Israeli military officials first said it was “an accident that it was investigating,” then that the target was “a senior member of Hamas’s armed wing,” and finally that the target was a “terror operative” who was “in charge of rocket launching.” The HRW report noted that Israel had provided no information that supported any of these “explanations” and failed to respond to subsequent HRW requests that it do so.
The HRW investigation found that the probable target was Mohamed al-Dalu, one of the ten family members killed in the attack, a “low-ranking police officer” who (according to Gazan officials, whose account is not challenged by HRW) was in charge of a unit that provided security to Gazan officials and visiting dignitaries. “Police are presumed to be civilian, and thus immune from attack, unless they are formally incorporated into the armed forces of a party to the conflict or are directly participating in the hostilities,” the HRW report observed, but “even if al-Dalu was a legitimate military target under the laws of war, the likelihood that the attack on a civilian home would have killed large numbers of civilians made it unlawfully disproportionate.” Disproportionate attacks, defined in the report as “attacks in which the expected civilian loss exceeds the anticipated military gain,” are “serious violations of the laws of war.”
To my knowledge, so far no other human rights organization of international body, like the UN, has issued similar critical reports, though it is possible more may be forthcoming. So we should be grateful to HRW. Even so, and despite its strong language on war crimes and the need to prosecute them, in two respects the HRW report is misleading.
First, the report quotes Fred Abrahams, an HRW official who conducted the research in Gaza: “The Israeli claim that the attack on the Dalu home was justified is unsupported by the facts….The onus is on Israel to explain why it bombed a home full of civilians killing 12 people.” The problem is that Abrahams’ comment could be read (whether or not that was his intention) as implying that Israel might have had a legitimate reason to attack the home, it’s just that it hasn’t provided one yet.
Put differently, because the HRW report does not challenge the Israeli claim that its attack was necessitated by its right to defend itself against Gazan rocket attacks, by implication the report appears to be conceding that Israel might have had “legitimate military targets” in Gaza, even though the Dalu home wasn’t one of them.
However, Israel had no just cause to attack Gaza in the first place, because the attack--like the much larger “Operation Cast Lead” four years earlier--was not one of “self-defense” but was designed to suppress all resistance to the continuing Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinian people. Consequently, not only was the Dalu home an illegitimate target, but in the present circumstances Israel has no right to attack any targets in Gaza.
Second, the report’s emphasis on “proportionality” is misleading. The principle of proportionality means that even legitimate targets in a legitimate war may be attacked only if the foreseeable civilian casualties (“collateral damage”) are both unintended and in some sense not disproportionate to the military gain. Thus, the proportionality principle does not apply to the attack on the Dalu home, both because Israel lacked a just cause even for “proportional” attacks on Gaza as well as because policemen engaged in essentially civilian activities are not legitimate military targets.
The operative moral and legal principle, then, is that of noncombatant immunity, perhaps the most important principle that governs and restrains the conduct of war. Throughout its entire history, Israel has attacked private homes and even apartment houses known to contain many civilians. For example in 1982 Israel bombed several apartment houses in Beirut in order to kill Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders believed to be in them, killing hundreds of civilians (but none of the intended targets); as well, during in its attack on Gaza in 2008-09 Israel deliberately destroyed a home containing a large extended family, killing some twenty-five of them. (For the full evidence on these and similar attacks, see my current article in International Security, “Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008-09 Israeli Campaign in Gaza” http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/22373/just_war_moral_philosophy_and_the_200809_israeli_campaign_in_gaza.html)
In short, so long as the occupation and repression of the Palestinians continues, Israel doesn't have any "legitimate military targets" in Gaza--even if its attacks on such "targets" were not so obviously indiscriminate and heedless of the noncombatant immunity laws. Attacks on civilian targets are the Israeli way of war, usually failing the legal and moral principle of just cause and always failing the principle of just methods. Thus, the HRW report could have been even stronger, for no Israeli “explanation” of its attack on the Dalu home can change the fact that it was criminal in both law and morality—and not merely in just war moral philosophy, but in the common moral sense of nearly every human culture.