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Civilian deaths from Israel's air strikes in Gaza raise questions about proportional response, say experts

SINGAPORE: Mass civilian deaths from Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip raise questions about the proportionality of Israel’s response, even as Israel says those strikes target Hamas’ underground infrastructure, military and security experts told CNA.

More than 9,000 people, mainly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory bombings in Gaza, according to the territory’s Hamas-controlled health ministry.

Israel bombarded Gaza and tightened its blockade of the territory after a surprise attack by the militant group Hamas on Oct 7. Israel has said at least 1,400 Israelis were killed and more than 200 hostages taken in that attack.

“It’s not targeting civilians by definition … but it’s indiscriminate in that the Israelis don’t care if civilians get killed or not. And they’re very clear about that,” Dr James M Dorsey, senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said of the air strikes. 

“What they are presumably doing is levelling buildings, irrespective of what those buildings may house, that they believe are on top of tunnels. And they’re doing so with no regard whatsoever of who may or may not get killed in the process.”

Dr Dorsey, who focuses on politics and social change in the Middle East and North Africa, was previously a foreign correspondent covering ethnic and religious conflict, including in the Middle East.

Israel’s military says that the air strikes are aimed at underground Hamas targets. Hamas is believed to have an extensive network of underground tunnels hiding fighters, weapons and hostages of the Oct 7 attack.

Residential areas, schools, hospitals, mosques and churches in Gaza have been hit in the air strikes, according to Ms Francesca Albanese, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.

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LOSS OF CIVILIAN LIVES

The laws of armed conflict prohibit the targeting of schools, hospitals, places of worship and other protected areas, said Dr Ong Weichong, head of the National Security Studies Programme at RSIS.

“However, protected areas would lose their protection if they are deliberately used by Hamas militants for their military operations. Nevertheless, armed forces are obliged to distinguish between civilians and combatants and ensure that proportional military force is used when targeting such areas,” he said.

He added that it is “extremely challenging” to conduct precision air strikes on Hamas militant infrastructure in the densely packed urban environment of the Gaza Strip.

“The use of deep penetrator bunker-busting bombs to destroy Hamas’ tunnel network is extremely devastating in highly built-up Gaza where such bombs not only destroy the tunnels beneath, but also the buildings above the tunnel network.”

There is no evidence that Israel is intentionally targeting civilians in the air strikes, said Dr Pascal Vennesson, senior fellow and head of research at RSIS. 

Dr Vennesson, who is also a professor of political science at the University Pantheon-Assas, Paris II, studies international security, including strategic thought and judgment and decision-making in war.

As Hamas’ capabilities are “purposefully embedded in civilian infrastructures and very close to where civilian populations live”, the air strikes generate collateral damage, he said.

He also pointed out the significantly more ambitious objective of Israel’s current military operation, which is to destroy Hamas’ governing and military capabilities. This is one reason why the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is not using force in a “more limited and measured way”.

“Such an objective implies a much wider set of targets which automatically increases the probability and magnitude of collateral damage,” said Dr Vennesson.

Commenting on Israel’s ability to precisely locate military targets, Dr Jean-Loup Samaan, senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute, said the IDF has sensors to detect Hamas’ underground infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.

But they are “unlikely to have a full picture on those tunnels”, which are 20m to 80m below the surface, he said.

“Because Hamas operates among the Gazan population, any strike against the group will eventually lead to civilian casualties. The question then becomes – does Israel intentionally target civilians or are those victims caught in the line of fire?” he said.

“So far the Israeli government argues that it is the latter case, but we do not have evidence of that and given the number of casualties, it also begs the question of proportionality: Knowing the number of civilians likely to get killed in one strike, what is the threshold for Israel to tolerate or not collateral damage?”

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INTENTIONS OF ISRAEL AND HAMAS

Israel’s bombing campaign has been decried as “collective punishment” of Gazan civilians by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and foreign envoys, including China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Collective punishment is forbidden in international law, with the Geneva Conventions stating that protected persons cannot be punished for offences they have not personally committed.

While Dr Dorsey said collective punishment has been “a principle of Israeli policy throughout” its occupation of the West Bank and that the current situation is “collective punishment on a far greater scale”, other experts did not attribute war crimes to Israel at this stage.

“If there is evidence that Israel’s government has the intention of bombing Gaza merely to punish the Palestinians, this is prohibited by international law and constitutes a war crime. But usually, it is very difficult, legally, to confirm that intention,” said Dr Samaan.

He added that a major challenge for Israel’s military relates to Hamas’ mobile targets such as rocket launchers and commanders that can move locations.

While the IDF could have chosen to carry out surgical strikes and targeted killings on Hamas, these may pose more danger to Israeli soldiers than aerial bombing, the military and security experts told CNA.

A surgical strike would still inflict “massive casualties” in an urban environment, “so the question is not really if Israel could reduce the intensity of its air strikes but if it could rely on other means such as ground forces”, said Dr Samaan, adding that this would involve many casualties among Israeli soldiers.

However, Dr Vennesson said that Hamas’ leadership is “fully aware of the contradictions and challenges that this situation – perceived necessity to use force in a major way and risk of major collateral damage that could increase political pressures on Israel – creates for the Israeli government”.

“By using Palestinian civilian casualties to cast Israelis as war criminals, the Hamas leadership is hoping to achieve its aim through a military stalemate on the ground and by generating international pressures on the Israeli government. Shaping the media narrative is a big part of Hamas strategy,” he said.

He added that from Israel’s perspective, high civilian casualties and destruction do not serve any strategic purpose and can be counterproductive, and that the IDF is “trying to minimise these collateral damages as much as possible while accomplishing the mission defined by the political leadership”.

What the Geneva Conventions say about the rules of war

Both sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict have been accused of committing war crimes.

Internationally accepted rules of armed conflict emerged from the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which have been ratified by all UN member states and supplemented by rulings at international war crimes tribunals.

The Conventions govern the treatment of civilians, soldiers and prisoners of war. They apply to government forces and organised, non-state armed groups, which would include Hamas militants.

Their overarching goal is to protect civilians in wartime.

Under the laws of armed conflict, combatants include members of state armed forces, military and volunteer forces and non-state armed groups.

Directly targeting civilians or civilian objects is strictly forbidden. Intentionally attacking personnel and material involved in humanitarian assistance is a separate war crime as long as those providing the humanitarian aid are civilians.

A siege can be considered a war crime if it targets civilians, rather than a legitimate means to undermine the military capabilities of a force like Hamas, or if found to be disproportionate.

Collective punishment is addressed under Article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention, which states that no protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.

Article 34 of the fourth Geneva Convention also states that the taking of hostages is prohibited.

The Geneva Conventions and subsequent rulings by international tribunals show that proportionality is not a numbers game where the toll of civilian casualties on one side can be compared to the other.

Rather, such casualties should be proportionate to the direct and concrete military advantage expected from that specific attack.

Source: Reuters/CNA

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ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO SINGAPORE RESPONDS

Responding to queries from CNA, Israel’s ambassador to Singapore Eli Vered Hazan rejected the allegations that Israel has violated international law in its offensive on the Gaza Strip.

“Let’s not forget: Hamas is ISIS,” Mr Hazan said in an email response, referring to the Islamic State terrorist organisation.

He asserted that Hamas wants to “sacrifice the population of Gaza in order to save themselves” and that it “uses an innocent civilian population – including children – in order to protect military targets”. 

“Israel is doing everything – I repeat, everything – in order to not harm that population,” he said, citing Israel’s warnings to Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza.

Israeli warplanes reportedly continued to hit sites in southern Gaza after the evacuation warning.

“The one who prevented thousands of Gazans from evacuating was Hamas, who shot the people who asked to do so, and blockaded roads with Hamas-owned vehicles,” Mr Hazan said.

“Moreover, Israel allows humanitarian aid including food and water to be brought in every day. Hamas takes part of the aid to its fighters.

“One should pay attention to the fuel: Hamas has a huge supply of fuel that it uses to ventilate the tunnels in which it hides and from which it commits violence. Instead of the fuel being diverted to humanitarian needs, Hamas takes it for their own needs to fulfil terror.”

Reiterating that “Israel does everything in order not to harm civilian targets”, Mr Hazan said it should be taken into account that “Hamas has placed its headquarters under hospitals, schools and other civilian targets”.

“They utilise the residents of Gaza as human shields knowing that they will be sacrificed in the war. Unlike Hamas, which brutally murdered people, Israel, on the other hand, uses smart bombs designed to prevent innocents from being killed,” he said.

Mr Hazan also added that “it is correct to say that Israel protects civilians – especially children – while Hamas sacrifices them and it does so knowingly”.

“As history has proven, Hamas is lying. Do not believe them. If the world does not eliminate Hamas – Hamas will eliminate the world,” said the ambassador.

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