This morning's events in Qana underscore the basic asymmetry of fighting an utterly immoral organization and the major advantage Hezbollah has in this war.
As I mentioned before, the fact that international law does not fully address a situation such as this gives the terrorists a gift. Human Rights Watch pretty much says so, in an article about Afghanistan that mixes international law and their restrictive interpretations of that law:
Q: What are the legal constraints on methods of attack?We see from here a some pertinent facts:
A corollary to the principle of civilian immunity is the basic prohibition of indiscriminate attacks. An attack is "indiscriminate" when its effect is not or cannot be limited to military targets and so it harms military targets and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. Typical examples would be the carpet-bombing of populous areas where military targets are interspersed, or the laying of anti-personnel landmines, which cannot distinguish between civilian or military feet. Indiscriminate attacks also include those which, as noted above, may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, or damage to civilian objects which would be excessive in relation to the "concrete and direct military advantage" anticipated from the attack. Human Rights Watch considers that the evaluation of whether an attack may cause excessive harm to civilians must be conducted for each attack and potential target, and not with regard to the conflict as a whole.
The law requires precautions and choices where civilians are at risk from attacks. The duty to take all feasible steps to minimize injury to civilians and civilian objects requires commanders to choose the means of attack that will minimize incidental harm to civilians. Where a party to the conflict has precision weapons at its disposal, it is under a duty to use "smart" rather than "dumb" bombs in or near populated areas. Likewise, where various military targets offer a similar military advantage, commanders must choose the target that threatens the least danger to civilian lives and civilian objects. Each party to the conflict also has the duty to provide "effective advance warning" of attacks that may affect the civilian population, "unless circumstances do not permit," such as where the element of surprise is critical to the success of the attack. So, for example, if a bridge or major highway is useful to the military as well as civilians, the opposing military is obliged to determine whether there are alternative targets whose destruction offers a similar advantage but less risk to civilians, or whether warnings are feasible before bombing, or whether there is a time of day for attack that would minimize potential harm to civilians. Finally, where an attack would be indiscriminate, or the target questionable, the attack must be cancelled or suspended.
Q: What about the use of civilians as "shields" for military targets?
Parties to the conflict are required to take precautions against the effect of attacks on civilians to the maximum extent feasible. Among these precautions are removing the civilian population from the vicinity of military objectives and avoiding locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.
Should one party violate this rule by using the presence of civilians to shield military targets, the opposing force is not excused, in calculating the legality of an attack, from taking the risk to civilians into account. That is, it is still necessary to weigh the concrete and direct military advantage of any attack against the prospective harm to civilians.
- International law, at least HRW's interpretation thereof, confers a great advantage on a party that cynically and maliciously places civilians into harm's way.
- Israel's actions are still within international law, in the sense that they have warned residents for weeks to leave the area and did everything humanly possible to avoid civilian casualties while still attempting to stop Hezbollah from firing rockets directly at Israeli civilians.
Hezbollah has learned a very important lesson from the Palestinian Arabs in the territories - the military and propaganda advantage of dead civilians on the Arab side is enormous. The one side that gains the most from Arab deaths is the Arab side. Israel has no incentive to kill civilians - it has great disincentive to do so - but Hezbollah and Hamas want to show dead Arab kids on TV and the Internet.
The visceral disgust in the West at seeing dead civilians makes Qana a perfect storm for Hezbollah. While no one in the Arab world mourns Western civilian deaths (in fact, they often celebrate them), well-meaning dupes in the West will naturally react with compassion and anger at seeing dead innocents - and the kneejerk reaction is not to blame those that put them in harm's way deliberately, but the ones who killed them accientally.
Another related factor that works in Hezbollah's favor is the famous double standard by the West towards Israel. While Israel is expected to do everything possible to wage an oxymoron of a humanitarian war, there are no such parallel expectations from Arabs. The enlightened, Western world assumes that Arabs are crazy anyway and therefore the world doesn't hold the Arab world accountable for its immorality. The word "responsibility" only applies to one side. Arabs bombing children are just a "dog bites man" story, and the overwhelming pressure is always, inevitably towards the side of the conflict that actually exhibits morality.
So there we have it. A combination of Arab cynicism and Western compassion combine to place the one side of the conflict that has moral and even legal justification for what it is doing at a great disadvantage compared to the cold-blooded murderers and terrorists.
According to the international community, the Israel has no defense against a Hezbollah that fires rockets at Israeli civilians and runs into apartment buildings immediately afterwards. Israel is expected to accept the losses indefinitely rather than risk the lives of the civlians that Hezbollah is using.
Ultimately, such misplaced compassion will end up resulting in more 9/11s, more Madrids, more Balis as the perceived Hezbollah victory emboldens terrorists worldwide to accelerate their war against the West.