Israel fights terror with one arm tied behind its back

Israel fights terror with one arm tied behind its back

Originally published in The Australian


Should Hamas be free to ignore the rules of international humanitarian law while Israelis are constrained in defending themselves by the laws that are meant to protect them?

The outpouring of pro-Hamas and anti-Jewish sentiment in the Middle East is hardly a surprise given the longstanding animosity between Arab nations and Israel over the intertwined issues of a Palestinian state and Israel’s right to exist.

More troubling is an emerging view in the democratic world that Israel should be judged by higher standards of behaviour than Hamas, a view Foreign Minister Penny Wong appears to share.

Let’s remind ourselves that Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation in this country and many others. Hamas has deliberately targeted Israeli civilians in one of this century’s most savage and indiscriminate attacks. And its central purpose is to destroy Israel, the only genuine democracy in the Middle East.

Wong concedes Hamas has “demonstrated that it has no respect for international law”. But, she says, “Australia is a democracy and so, too, is Israel and the standards that we seek and accept are higher.” Furthermore, “International humanitarian law is very clear about the principles that need to be applied by Israel – they are distinction (between combatants and non-combatants) … and proportionality.”

This smacks of double standards. Should Hamas be free to ignore the rules of international humanitarian law while Israelis are constrained in defending themselves by the laws that are meant to protect them? What legitimacy does international law have if only one side abides by it in a world inhabited by terrorists, militias and mercenaries acting as proxies for malevolent nation-states?

International law works only if it is applied universally. Hamas should be held to the same standards as Israel and not be falsely lionised as champions of the Palestinians. The terrorist group has shown as much disregard for the lives of Palestinians as it does for Israelis. Hamas knew full well the incursion into Israel would bring more suffering and misery to the people of Gaza. It has tried to prevent the besieged inhabitants of Gaza City from moving to safer areas. And there is mounting evidence that Hamas’s main military command and control complex has been deliberately located beneath the al-Shifa hospital and adjacent medical enclave.

When Hamas seized power in 2007, it ruthlessly executed or expelled rival Fatah officials who had run Gaza after the Israeli handover to the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority in 2005. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights estimates that 161 Palestinians were killed and 700 wounded in the subsequent fighting.

Wong’s point about proportionality is fine in principle but contentious in practice. It needs to be deconstructed because it is central to the argument that Israel’s actions in Gaza are disproportionate to the Hamas attack and that Israel can no longer claim to be acting in self-defence.

How does Wong assess proportionality? Judged by the criticisms levelled at Israel it seems civilian casualties are the main criterion. The problem is that casualty figures are easily manipulated and difficult to verify. Around 1200 Israeli civilians have been killed by Hamas in the current conflict. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry estimates that more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli strikes. This figure includes Hamas fighters, a crucial distinction. These are not like-for-like figures, underlining the imprecision of casualty counts.

As The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, contemporary estimates of casualties are often wrong and cannot be easily compared. Each conflict is different. It often takes years and even decades before forensic investigations yield more accurate figures that can be verified.

Even allowing for casualty inflation there is no doubt that many thousands of innocent Palestinians have been killed. Unfortun­ately, wars kill innocents, which is why every effort must be made to prevent them. To put Palestinian deaths into perspective, 432,093 civilians are thought to have died violent deaths in wars throughout the first 20 years of this century according to Brown University’s Watson Institute.

But formulaic calculations take no account of the reality that Hamas is invested in increasing Palestinian civilian casualties to paint Israel as the aggressor and to create international sympathy for its cause. That’s why it locates military positions and command centres in hospitals, mosques and schools and prevents civilians from leaving combat zones.

Hostage taking, information warfare and the use of mosques and civil infrastructure to shield military command posts are central to Hamas’s strategy. This aims to counter Israel’s superior military strengths by winning the crucial battle for hearts and minds – not only those of the Arab street but also the citizens of Israel’s supporter states.


Areas of expertise: Political and strategic developments in East Asia; transnational security issues; intelligence; Australian national security and defence