By Juan Cole / Informed Comment
Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – In one of the biggest massacres it has so far committed, the Israeli Air Force on Tuesday bombed the Jabaliyaa refugee camp in Gaza, killing or wounding at least 400 persons and destroying the Block Six residential complex, felling 20 buildings. More victims are believed to be under the rubble.
An Israeli military spokesman said that the strike was directed at Hamas leader Ibrahim Biari, a mastermind of the October 7 attack on Israel. Although Israeli authorities proclaimed that they had succeeded in killing Biari, Hamas announced that he was still very much alive.
Killing and wounding 400 noncombatants and destroying 20 residential buildings to get at one target, even if the target is a wanted terrorist, is strictly forbidden under the post-World War II laws of war and International Humanitarian law. These laws are codified in the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute that underpins the International Criminal Court.
For instance, Rome Statute:
Art. 8 (2) (b) (iv) Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated. (4th Geneva Convention Art. 85 (3) (b) of AP I.)
Art. 8 (2) (a) (iv) Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly (mirrored from Geneva Conventions Art. 50/51/147 of GC I, II and IV).
Art. 8 (2) (b) (i) Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities (4th Geneva Convention Art. 85 (3) (a), plus Art. 51(2) AP I).
Art. 8 (2) (b) (v) Attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives. (4th Geneva Convention, Art. 85 (3) (d) of AP I).
The presence of one senior Hamas commander, or even a platoon of them, among hundreds of noncombatants clearly would not justify recklessly endangering innocent civilians on the scale of Jabaliyaa. This is a war crime pure and simple.
In a CNN interview by Wolf Blitzer of an Israeli military spokesman, Blitzer is clearly astonished that he straightforwardly admitted that the Israelis knew that the strike would kill the refugees in the camp, but did it anyway.
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The complete disregard of Israeli authorities for the laws of war and International Humanitarian Law enacted after World War II — intended to prevent atrocities of the sort committed during that war — was manifest in remarks to the New York Times, reported Monday:
“It became evident to US officials that Israeli leaders believed mass civilian casualties were an acceptable price in the military campaign. In private conversations with American counterparts, Israeli officials referred to how the United States and other allied powers resorted to devastating bombings in Germany and Japan during World War II – including the dropping of the two atomic warheads in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to try to defeat those countries.”
Although the Israeli planners of war crimes conveniently said they were emulating the Americans and British, intensive aerial bombardment of civilians was also a tactic of the Axis. Thus, The Britannica tells us that in May 1942 in the Philippines “after an intensive aerial and artillery bombardment of Corregidor, the Japanese landed on that island in the night of May 5–6.”
It is important to consider Japanese war crimes in the Philippines because their punishment became precedents in international law. Britannica again: “After the war, the atrocities committed during the Japanese conquest of the Philippines were judged to be war crimes, and Japanese commander Homma Masaharu was executed for his role in perpetuating them.”
Or consider Nazi Germany’s bombing of London, which took 30,000 lives.
Matthew Lippman reminds us that on September 17, 1939, the German air force (Luftwaffe) reduced Warsaw to rubble, a precursor to the German invasion and occupation of Poland, during which they attempted to ethnically cleanse the Poles and replace them with German settlers.
The Germans also bombarded Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Of course, the Germans also committed war crimes on land, as Lippman writes: “The Einsatzgruppen, or killing squads, shadowed Nazi troops as the German army swept through Russia. These units were responsible for as many as two million murders. Those detained in the dock were not safely sequestered behind desks during the war; they were in the field, actively supervising, controlling and directing this ‘bloody harvest.’
The defendants [in later war crimes trials] contended that their actions were motivated by self-defense, a claim which the [Nuremberg] Tribunal noted would permit a State to abrogate the legal protections afforded noncombatants under the humanitarian law of war based on the unilateral claim that the civilians were deemed dangerous. Men, women and children were summarily executed; it was feared that adolescents who were permitted to survive would seek revenge in adulthood for the killing of their parents.”
But this claim, of killing noncombatants in self-defense, which the German officers resorted to, is precisely the claim some Israeli officials are making today, that all Palestinians in Gaza are terrorists, all are dangerous to the survival of Israel, and therefore slaughtering them en masse is permissible. These arguments were rejected by the war crimes tribunal after WW II, and they should be rejected today. Of course, extremist Israelis really mind being compared to Nazis. But there is an easy way to avoid that: don’t act like Nazis.
The flaw in the Israeli government stance is that we are not living in 1943. After World War II, the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions and other international instruments were enacted by the nations of the world to prevent the atrocities of WW II from being repeated. It was to this “rules-based international order” that the Biden administration appealed when it tried to rally the world to oppose Russian war crimes in Ukraine. In a gob-smacking act of supreme hypocrisy, the Biden administration has decided to throw the same rules-based international order on the garbage heap of special pleading when it comes to Israel.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration is letting the fascist government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu get away with mass murder. As a result, no one in the global South will ever listen to Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken say the words “rules-based international order” again without falling down laughing. The US attempt to cut Russia off from the world economy will now completely fail.
Juan Cole, a TomDispatch regular, is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian and Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His latest book is Peace Movements in Islam. His award-winning blog is Informed Comment. He is also a non-resident Fellow of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha and of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).