LA Times Op-Ed by Adam Shatz Gets International Law Wrong

Developing his own unique standards of international law, ones which he applies only to Israel, Adam Shatz penned an Op-Ed on August 1, 2006 in the Los Angeles Times filled with distortions and misrepresentations. Tellingly headlined “‘Oops, Sorry’ Doesn’t Let Israel Off the Hook,”the writer condemns Israel by insisting that whether or not it was the Jewish state’s intention to harm civilians is irrelevant, a claim which has no basis in international law. Shatz, the literary editor of the Nation, would be better off sticking to writing about fiction in that fringe publication.

New Standard for Israeli Actions

Shatz reduces a clear principle in international law — that the proportionate killing of civilians is permissible if necessary to achieve a military objective – to “another argument made by Israel’s defenders”:

Another argument made by Israel’s defenders is that it cannot be held responsible for killing civilians in militant strongholds.

Michael Walzer, the influential Princeton moral philosopher and author of ‘Just and Unjust Wars,’ recently opined in the New Republic that when Arab guerrillas ‘launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible – and no one else is – for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counterfire.’ One expects this rationalization of collective punishment from a defense minister; coming from a ‘just war’ theorist it is most odd. (By this criterion, the French Resistance would have been ‘responsible’ if the Nazis had destroyed a village sheltering anti-Fascist partisans.)

In actuality, the laws of war clearly allow for attacking targets which will contribute to the war effort, even if civilians will be harmed. Article 51 of Protocol 1, Additional to the Geneva Conventions, 1977, entitled “Protection of the Civilian Population,” lays out the rules governing treatment of civilians in wartime. The relevant section states:

4. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:

a. those which are not directed at a specific military objective;

b. those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or

c. those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.

5. Among others, the following types of attacks are to be considered as indiscriminate:

a. an attack by bombardment by any methods or means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects; and

b. an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

Thus, an attack on a military target in which civilians would be killed is permissible so long as the civilian losses would not be excessive “in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

Shatz goes on to quote comments by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, to support his claims. But even Roth, no friend of Israel, has recognized the fact that the killing of civilians located in militant strongholds is backed by international law, so long as the military is not Israel’s. Revealing his double standard — one for Israel and another for the rest of the world — Roth has written:

I recognize that in war some unintentional killing of noncombatants may be unavoidable. Humanitarian law provides the best standard we have for distinguishing unfortunate but unintentional loss of civilian life from the deliberate targeting of civilians for their killing through indiscriminate warfare. Only the latter are human rights violations, which the human rights movement should oppose categorically. The former must be considered in looking at the overall costs and benefits of a proposed intervention, but it is not a reason in itself to reject intervention.

“Israel may be guilty of manslaughter, but not of murder,” Shatz mocks (and distorts) the argument by Israel’s defenders. Yet, according to international law, Israel is not even guilty of manslaughter.

Removing the Intentionality Criteria

Blurring the critical distinction laid out in international law between civilians killed indiscriminately versus civilians killed in an effort to achieve a war aim (so long as the losses are not excessive in relation to that goal), Shatz writes:

If Israeli assertions are true that these killings of scores of civilians were unintentional, does that mean that Israel can claim the high ground in its battle with Hezbollah and Hamas? Is Israel’s “accidental” violence against civilians somehow better, or more morally acceptable, than that of a Hamas suicide bomber who steps into a pizzeria seeking to kill civilians? Or a Hezbollah guerrilla firing a Katyusha in the direction of a Haifa residential neighborhood? In short, do Israel’ s declared intentions make a difference?

According to international law, the answer is a resounding yes.

Shatz Joins Hezbollah in Endangering Civilians

By removing that critical distinction set out in international law between the civilians killed indiscriminately versus those killed inadvertently as collateral damage, Shatz (and those who make similar arguments) are increasing the likelihood that more civilians will be harmed. Why? Were their ideas to grain widespread acceptance, they would make it possible for an unchecked Hezbollah to wage its war against Israeli civilians among Lebanese civilians with impunity.

Hezbollah’s Positions: Embedded Among Civilians

Shatz berates Israel for not “limiting its strikes to key Hezbollah positions.” But what key Hezbollah positions? Unlike a proper army which follows the laws of war, they do not maintain military bases away from the civilian population. Instead, their very strategy is to embed themselves among civilians, so much so that rockets are located under beds, in garages, and the like. Hezbollah’s exploitation of human shields is in direct violation of Article 51.7 of Protocol 1 to the Geneva Convention:

The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilian s shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favor or impede military operations. The Parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations.

Shatz’s ignorance of the law does not let Hezbollah off the hook.

Disputed Deaths Blamed on Israel

Shatz blames Israel for the June 9 killing of eight Palestinians on a Gaza beach. He writes: “[T]ake another recent example, in Gaza, where a family of eight spending an afternoon on the beach was killed by an errant Israeli shell in June.” Yet, serious doubts and questions have been raised about whether Israel is responsible for the deaths of those civilians. These include discrepancies in the type of shrapnel extracted from survivors versus the shells that Israel used that day and the several inconsistencies and apparent falsification of the widely publicized video clip. (It should be noted that the Los Angeles Times ran an Op-Ed on July 27 by Timothy Garton Ash, which also unfairly blamed Israel for these deaths.)

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