Published on May 16, 2023 in JNS.
Photo from tweet made by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs Twitter account @francediplo_EN.
I knew something was up when I overheard two flight attendants talking an hour before I landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. In hushed tones, I heard them say they were told to go directly to their hotels and stay in place when they arrived.
After we landed, I saw portable signs for shelters scattered throughout the airport. It didn’t take much time to realize that just two hours before my plane landed, missiles fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) were already heading towards Tel Aviv, indiscriminately targeting anything Jewish, especially civilians.
Based on my firsthand knowledge covering previous Israeli-Palestinian wars, I was confident this asymmetric conflict would follow the same rules of engagement. One side would target civilians, using their own civilians as human shields, while the other side, the Israelis, would fight, avoiding inflicting civilian casualties as much as possible. Palestinian terrorist organizations deliberately place their innocents in harm’s way, hoping to use their deaths as propaganda to delegitimize Israel’s right to self-defense.
So, when I read the French Foreign Ministry statement accusing Israelis of targeting Palestinian civilians, I knew this crossed a line beyond the routine moral equivalence practiced by Israeli critics.
According to Haaretz, France’s Foreign Ministry said: “We remind Israel of its obligation to protect civilians and abide by international humanitarian law. France condemns all attacks that target civilians, and specifically, those that occurred in the past few hours, in which several Palestinian civilians were killed.”
Not to be outdone, the U.N. Secretary-General chastised Israel without offering any evidence of wrongdoing. He asserted that “Israel must abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law, including the proportional use of force.”
Let’s be clear: Israel, like the United States, does not target civilians. It targets terrorists. Proportionality is not measured by the number of casualties but by weighing military objectives against the potential loss of civilian life.
As Asa Kasher, author of the first Israeli military code of ethics, wrote, “We can’t separate the terrorist from his neighbors. The terrorists have erased the difference between combatants and non-combatants. They operate from within residential areas. They attack civilians. The world doesn’t have a clue what proportionality is.”
Targeting terrorist leaders and their bombmakers is legal according to international law.
The only way to avoid civilian casualties when fighting terrorists embedded in civilian neighborhoods is never to attack the terrorists. That would reward the terrorists by granting them immunity as they plot and execute attacks and hide rockets in civilian homes.
Perhaps the French and the U.N. missed the story that PIJ leader Abu al-Ata was hiding inside a Gazan hospital to make himself immune to attack. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies said using “civilians to shield its weapons or fighters from lawful attack, the terror group committed a war crime in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
I have seen firsthand how Israel tries to avoid civilians in responding to missiles launched from civilian areas in Gaza. Israel often releases videos of aborted drone and missile strikes because civilians were in the line of fire. One example was on May 11, when an IDF pilot said: “There is a child here outside. Forty meters. Two. Hold fire. Hold fire.”
Yet when a missile aimed at Israeli civilians misfired in Gaza and killed four Palestinian civilians, including a 10-year-old child, the French made their best impression of famed mime Marcel Marceau, remaining mute.
The Obama administration defended targeting terrorists during our wars with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Jeh Johnson, Obama’s general counsel at the Department of Defense, said, “Under well-settled legal principles, lethal force against a valid military objective in an armed conflict is consistent with the law of war.”
Harold Koh, Obama’s State Department legal advisor, said, “A state engaged in an armed conflict or legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force. … The principles of distinction and proportionality … are implemented rigorously … in accordance with all applicable laws.”
In war, bad things happen to innocent people. Conflating civilian deaths associated with the legitimate targeting of terrorists with the accusation that Israel specifically targets civilians is a new low in Israel-bashing. Knowing that hostilities with asymmetric actors will plague the West for decades, it would behoove our government to articulate the rules of engagement with an enemy that places civilians in harm’s way for military and political gain.
Paris, let’s end the hypocrisy of pretending you don’t know that the IDF is unsurpassed in avoiding civilian casualties, while Iran’s proxy Palestinian terrorist organizations have deliberately aimed for civilian casualties for decades, targeting Israelis and drawing fire on their own involuntarily martyred “human shields.”