Civilian deaths, collective punishment in Gaza

"No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited." -- Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War

On Saturday, only hours before the latest cease-fire between Israel and Hamas took place, the al-Najar family fled their home in the Gaza Strip to Khan Younis to escape to what they thought was safety from the fighting. Shortly after arriving, 18 of them were dead from an Israeli air strike, including many children.

Palestinian deaths, as this third week of conflict concludes, have now exceeded 1,100, most of them innocent civilians. These civilians are trapped in Gaza by an 8-year Israeli blockade. They are the same civilians who have no influence or say whatsoever over Hamas rocket fire. Yet they are the ones paying the price.

Gaza is being reduced to rubble. As reporters accessed Palestinian neighborhoods last weekend, the scope of the devastation became apparent. In a moonscape of destruction reminiscent of Dresden, Germany, in World War II, apartment buildings, schools, mosques were pulverized. Water treatment and electric power plants were demolished.

Even if we accept the Israeli government's argument that Hamas forced this current conflict upon it, the Israeli military response has exceeded norms of discrimination and proportionality. But that has for too long been the Israeli way of war: domination by obliteration.

Discrimination in warfare requires aiming narrowly at targets to honor the immunity of civilian life and reduce "collateral damage," a euphemism for civilian deaths. In the current conflict, Israel did delay a full-scale attack for several days and undertook feckless efforts to warn Gaza residents of impending attacks. But numerous reports suggest that the intervals before attack were too short to permit escape in the narrow confines of Gaza.

Perversely, in its strategy of asymmetrical combat with Israel, Hamas counts on the proximity of its launch sites to private homes and public institutions to make discrimination impossible and thereby win world public opinion to the Palestinian cause over the deaths of civilians. But the U.N. Human Rights Commission also regards this tactic as a crime of war.

Beginning with Plan D (Dalat) in the 1948 War of Independence, Israel has not shared modern Western scruples about civilian deaths in wartime. Dalat was a now well-documented plan for expulsion of noncombatant Palestinians that included direct attack and intimidation, which resulted in the flight of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes.

After this founding fault, the Israeli military and successive governments have rarely shown scrupulous sensitivity when civilian Palestinian lives were at risk. Ironically, Israeli disdain for Palestinian life prompts a reciprocal response by groups like Hamas.

Israel follows an exceptionalist morality of warfare. The country views itself under an "existential threat" -- that is, the risk of annihilation -- and so is averse to indulging in scruples over the lives of the enemy population. With Hamas missiles falling daily, if haplessly, on Israel as far north as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there is no incentive for Israel to relent.

Outsiders see the problem differently. The disproportionate civilian death toll in Gaza is a moral worry that nags at the consciences of many. Repeated attacks on places of refuge, including specifically designated U.N. compounds, are a scandal. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters, "Every area is a civilian area. Every home, every school, every refuge has become a target."

Governments and international organizations have until recently been reluctant to accuse Israel of deliberately targeting civilians for fear of losing all influence. The exasperation of their recent declarations, like Secretary of State John Kerry's "hell of a pinpoint operation," shows that they share a perception that Israel has exhibited profound disregard for Palestinian life.

The lopsided casualties in Gaza illustrate the harsh dilemmas of the West's last colonial war. The assault exacts far more from ordinary Palestinians than from Hamas fighters. The results look more like a political act of collective punishment and less like a purposeful military campaign, which is exactly why such policies are forbidden acts of war. It is an Israeli policy we have seen before: obliteration in pursuit of the subjugation of a despised neighboring people.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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