Playing by the rules of war

Millions of people are horrified by the Israeli war on Gaza. Protests have hit the streets in countries around the world, to the point where armed police battled students on university campuses across the US for occupying in protest against the war and America’s role in backing it.

Many protestors shout that the war is ‘illegal’ and that Israel is committing genocide, pinning hopes on international authority putting an end to malefaction. It should be noted that genocide is a crime of intent, and is not synonymous with mass homicide. That narrow legal definition, though, does trigger international and domestic legal requirements to act against it: hence why America and allied governments are determined to deny that it is genocide, and will continue to do so until the International Court of Justice makes a determinative ruling, which could be years away.

People should not put their faith in the split hairs of legality, but instead on sound analysis of the causes of conflict and action built on that analysis. The faith in the power of legality is misplaced against the tremendous value of the interests at stake in being able to secure and control the supply of oil. It is worth noting, as Tony Blair pointed out in his speech at the George Bush library in 2002, that it is not about monopolising oil, but ensuring that no one state can monopolise and thus threaten the supply of oil:

‘The western world is import dependent. We base our policy on diversity of supply. You in the US import from 50 different countries, no one of which supplies more than 15 per cent of total imports. The EU pursues roughly the same policy.’

Beyond that, it is important to note that international law is not set up to prevent war, but in fact to structure and enable wars to take place. It seeks to limit war and codify its conduct, but the powers that drafted those wars would simply not allow themselves to put aside the tool of war. As Michael Walzer, the theorist of just war writes, alongside Jo-Ann Mort: ‘It is a maxim of just war theory that the rules of war cannot make it impossible to fight a just war. There has to be a way to fight’. Walzer has also said in a recent interview ‘I think the IDF has been trying to adhere to the rules in an environment that probably requires some loosening of the rules.’

As we reported in our May issue part of this ‘loosening’ has been to deploy the Lavender AI targeting system to co-ordinate targeting of Hamas operatives and officials based on mass intelligence gathering. The military doctrine that civilian casualties are permissible in pursuit of a legitimate military objective has been broadly applied (more broadly than in the past). Israel undoubtedly has enough military lawyers to build a broad permissive case for its actions (or to construct one retrospectively where necessary).

It is abundantly clear that Israel is not acting out of absolute necessity: Hamas will never have the capacity to destroy Israel. If the intelligence failures that meant that Israel knew that Hamas was drilling for a 7 October-style operation were fixed Hamas could be securely locked back up. For a fraction of the cost spent on the war, Israel could have bought a bucket load of informants to finger high-level Hamas commanders for reprisal.

Everyone agrees with the concept of the right to self-defence to protect your own and your loved ones’ lives, but most would agree that going after the friends and family of someone who attacked you would be taking it too far; and every human society has mechanisms to stop violent disputes escalating in a spiral of tit for tat. And, of course, it is possible to engineer a situation where a claim of self-defence allows an actor to pursue the use of violence to achieve other ends.

As Arthur Ransome once wrote:

‘It has been said that when two armies face each other across a battle front and engage in mutual slaughter, they may be considered as a single army engaged in suicide. Now it seems to me that when countries, each one severally doing its best to arrest its private economic ruin, do their utmost to accelerate the economic ruin of each other, we are witnessing something very like the suicide of civilization itself.’

Israel is not unique in this. Indeed, their propagandists have been pointing out that there are mass refugee and humanitarian crises being created by savage wars in Sudan, Congo and Ukraine, but that Israel and its actions are being singled out. Possibly this is so, at least in part because of the focus of the western media (spurred on in part by the interest of their states and their capitalists in the Middle East region).

Indeed, in terms of Israel’s tactics, they seem to be following exactly the same military doctrines as were used by the Sri Lankan government when they crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009:

‘The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) advanced its military campaign in the Vanni, using large-scale and widespread shelling, at times with heavy weapons, such as Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) and other large artillery, causing large numbers of civilian casualties. It shelled in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, and after it had indicated that it would stop using heavy weapons.’

Likewise, the Tamil Tigers violated human rights by using human shields and forced labour. Sri Lanka was protected from human rights allegations at the UN by allied states.

War is not some inherent feature of humanity. Billions of us live lives without waging war upon one another. War emerges from a social and technological architecture that enables it, and if the marchers who rightly hate war want to put a stop to it, they need to look to action that will make war impossible, not illegal.


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