Israel, Hamas and the Law of War

If the State Department’s criticisms are serious, they imperil the defense of all civilized countries.

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey

May 30, 2024, in the Wall Street Journal

As it defends itself against Hamas in Gaza, Israel has come under sustained political, media and legal attack for supposedly violating international law—and not only from hostile countries and bodies like the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. On May 10 the U.S. State Department sent a report to Congress that concluded U.S.-provided arms have been used by Israel “in instances inconsistent with its IHL”—international humanitarian law—“obligations or with established best practices for mitigating civilian harm.”

These criticisms are based on a distorted view of the law of war and its crucial legal principles—distinction, proportionality, and the obligations owed to enemy civilians. They threaten Israel’s strategic interests and the ability of all law-abiding nations to defend themselves.

The law of armed conflict is a practical set of rules directed at ameliorating the harms of war—originally with respect to those engaged in combat, and over the years expanding to noncombatants associated with the military and ultimately to civilians. Protecting civilians and civilian property is an important goal of the laws of war, but not their paramount goal.

Other equally important goals are regulating the means and methods of warfare, ensuring appropriate treatment for wounded combatants and prisoners of war, and ensuring that the war aims of belligerents—generally understood as “military necessity”—can be pursued within these rules and requirements. But the law of war is in no way intended to level the playing field in favor of the weaker party.

The law of war has many sources, but the Biden administration should have followed the standard U.S. position, as laid out in the Law of War Manual. One of its most important teachings is that “although military necessity cannot justify actions that have been prohibited by the law of war, some law of war rules expressly incorporate military necessity.” That’s especially true of rules meant to protect civilian populations affected by armed conflict, largely embodied in the principles of “distinction” and “proportionality.”

The principle of distinction provides that civilians can’t be deliberately targeted for attack, as Hamas did on Oct. 7 and routinely does. In choosing how and what to attack, military commanders must make good-faith efforts to distinguish between civilian and military targets. “The law of war does not require that commanders and other decision-makers apply a fixed standard of evidence or proof,” the manual says. Rather, they “exercise professional judgment in making any assessment that a person or object is a military objective.”

Equally important is the principle of proportionality, whose meaning is widely misunderstood. Proportionality requires that the expected harms to civilians and civilian property from an attack can’t be “excessive” when compared with “the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained.” The comparison isn’t to the number of soldiers killed or to the number of casualties on each side of the conflict. Nor is there any upper limit on the number of civilian deaths that will trigger “war crimes” if exceeded.

The manual clearly states that “in assessing the military advantage of attacking an object, one may consider the entire war strategy rather than only the potential tactical gains from attacking that object.” There is a significant subjective component in making proportionality determinations. “It could often be the case that reasonable persons might disagree as to whether the expected civilian casualties from an attack would be excessive,” the manual states. “Similarly, reasonable commanders might make different decisions in applying the principle of proportionality.”

Commanders are also enjoined to take “feasible” precautions to protect civilians during an attack. Such measures might include attacking at times when civilians are less likely to be present and giving advance warnings. But the “standard for what precautions must be taken is one of due regard or diligence, not an absolute requirement to do everything possible.” Moreover, “a commander may determine that a precaution would not be feasible because it would result in increased operational risk (i.e., a risk of failing to accomplish the mission) or an increased risk of harm to his or her forces.”

A critical and too often ignored aspect of the laws of war is that each party to a conflict is primarily responsible for protecting its own civilian population by moving them away from military targets and taking other measures to shield them. Hamas not only fails to meet these obligations; it uses civilians as human shields and invites casualties for propaganda purposes. That doesn’t relieve Israel from its proportionality obligations, but the manual makes clear that additional civilian injuries resulting from this illegal tactic are “a factor that may be considered in determining whether such harm is excessive.” Hamas is also looting aid shipments, making it more difficult for assistance to reach Gaza civilians.

Based on these rules and currently available credible evidence, there is no reasonable case that Israel has violated the laws of war. Such claims are grounded at best in speculation, which is unlikely to be entirely accurate. To the extent that Israel hasn’t followed U.S. “best practices,” as the State Department complains, it doesn’t mean there have been violations. Such measures are prudential and not required by law. Hamas, by contrast, indisputably commits war crimes by deliberately attacking civilians, brutalizing Israeli women and children, taking hostages, systematically locating military facilities in or near civilian installations, and using Palestinian civilians as human shields.

Other antagonists of Israel, including at the ICC and the ICJ, have argued in addition that the Jewish state, as an “occupying” power, is obligated to feed, clothe and protect Gaza’s civilian population. But Israel left the strip in 2005. Hamas initiated the current armed conflict, and Israel won’t have the obligations of an occupying power unless it takes control of the territory after hostilities are ended.

If the U.S. and other civilized countries follow the logic of these criticisms of Israel, the consequences will be dire. Most immediately, U.S. condemnations will embolden the Jewish state’s enemies—most of which are also hostile to the U.S.—and could impede Israel’s ability to defeat Hamas. In the future, the administration’s standards of conduct could impair the ability of all law-abiding nations to defend themselves.

Nuclear deterrence, the mainstay of U.S. defense strategy, would be delegitimized if obligations to the civilian population are expanded so that injury to civilians is elevated over all other considerations in determining whether a particular combat operation is lawful. Even in peacetime, this approach would be terrible statecraft. At a time when rogue states and terrorist organizations are waging numerous wars, it’s a formula for global anarchy.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.