OpinionIsrael at War

It’s time to review international law

Israel is expected to observe the rules of war while fighting an enemy that deliberately violates them.

An illustrative image of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. Source: DeepAI.
An illustrative image of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. Source: DeepAI.
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. The author of three books, he teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.

The International Committee of the Red Cross explains the purpose of the rules of war by stating, “The rules of war or international humanitarian law are a set of international rules that set out what can and cannot be done during an armed conflict. The main purpose of international humanitarian law is to maintain some humanity in armed conflicts, saving lives and reducing suffering. To do that, international humanitarian law regulates how wars are fought.”

“The rules of war are universal,” it claims. “The Geneva Conventions (which are the core element of international humanitarian law) have been ratified by all 196 states.”

In his 1927 Nobel lecture, the German pacifist politician Ludwig Quidde wrote, “The security of which we seek is to be attained by the development of international law through an international organization based on the principles of law and justice.”

As early as the mid-19th century, the international community realized that without a set of standards in international warfare, millions of people would die unnecessarily. Thus, international laws were adopted to protect civilians in war and prevent war itself.

The rules of war were based on the assumption that both sides would observe them. Sadly, only democracies and other free societies tend to obey these rules. Indeed, for the most part, they do not go to war with each other at all. Tyrannical or authoritarian regimes, however, are another story. As a result, one side in almost every modern war has purposely ignored international humanitarian law.

In Israel’s Declaration of Independence, it reached out in peace to its Arab neighbors but found itself at war with almost all of them at various times. Palestinian terrorism, however, has been a greater challenge. This is because of the asymmetry and double standard involved: Israel is expected to observe the rules of war while its opponents are not.

The reason for this is that international humanitarian law itself is flawed. It was designed to apply to states that both observe it. It does not address the situation of a democratic nation at war with a non-state enemy that does not accept such laws.

In its current war with Hamas, Israel faces an enemy that not only does not observe international humanitarian law but deliberately violates it. Hamas uses its own people as human shields, targets Israeli civilians and engages in such abhorrent atrocities as weaponizing rape.

Yet António Guterres, U.N. secretary-general, has absurdly said “clearly, the response to terrorism and violent extremism must respect human rights and comply with international law. That is not just a question of justice but of effectiveness.” International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan, who is currently engaged in the persecution of Israel’s leaders, has said: “This is the time to comply with the law. If Israel doesn’t comply now, they shouldn’t complain later.”

Guterres and Khan both ignore the fact that observing international humanitarian law while fighting an enemy that rejects that law is all but impossible. French diplomat Stephane Hessel understood this when he said, “As long as Palestinian violence exists but not a Palestinian state, Israel is in danger because it cannot obtain assistance from the international community against an entity that is not subordinate to international law.”

Thus, Israel is held to a standard that is not just unfair but essentially impossible to meet. Then, it is attacked for allegedly failing to meet the impossible standard.

The world must make a choice: It can either reform international humanitarian law in order to address the problem of terrorist entities that reject it or the world must recognize that Israel fights its wars as morally as it realistically can.

Either one will ensure that the risible double standard by which the world judges Israel is finally rejected.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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