Appearing on CNN a few days into the current offensive in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Hamas as “the worst terrorists, genocidal terrorists.” He said they want to “pile up as many civilian dead as they can,” and, he added, to “use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.”
By contrast, Israeli strikes are said to be aimed at the “terrorists,” who are by definition legitimate targets. Any civilian casualties that may result from such uses of force are unintentional, and in fact should be blamed squarely on Hamas. Indeed, Netanyahu explained, not only do they target civilians but they also “hide behind civilians,” thus committing “a double war crime.”
According to this narrative, often embraced in toto by elected officials and political commentators in the United States, “terrorism” is a very clear, non-controversial concept. “Terrorism” is the use of violence against civilians for political purposes.
This discourse on “terrorism” is a deeply moral discourse, one that makes important normative claims about a given conflict and the parties to it.
It draws its power from a simple claim: what separates “us” from “them” is a fundamental conception of the value of innocent life. “We” respect innocent lives, demonstrated by our refusal to target civilians. In stark contrast, not only are “the terrorists” more than willing to hurt our civilians, but they also hope that we will kill theirs too.
The discourse on “terrorism” is thus an essentialist discourse: it claims to say something about the very essence of “the enemy” (cue recurring references to “barbarism”) and, consequently, about us (and our “civilized” values.)
On closer inspection however, this discourse fails precisely where it claims to be strongest. Israel’s actual practices, informed by its combat doctrine, are fundamentally at odds with how international law defines the concept of “civilian.” In actual fact, the discourse on “terrorism” and the practices it informs and justifies drastically erode the distinction between civilian and combatants as commonly understood in International Humanitarian Law.
On July 21, in an Op-Ed published by the Wall Street Journal, Thane Rosenbaum, from New York University’s School of Law, wrote that “on some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen.”
A few days later, at a demonstration in support of Israel attended by numerous elected officials from both political parties, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner made a similar argument, insisting that if you had taken part in the election process of Hamas, a “terrorist organization” that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, “you are complicit and you are not a civilian casualty.”
As several commentators immediately noted, such arguments are extremely dangerous. In fact, the logic that underlies them is precisely the same as was used by Osama Bin Laden in 2002 to rationalize and justify the September 11, 2001 attacks.
However, despite the central role of this concept in Netanyahu’s discourse, the US press has so far paid very little attention to how Israel itself defines who is and, perhaps more importantly, is not, a civilian, and to the consequences of such definitions on the battlefield.
The necessity of such a critique cannot be overstated, as a column just published in Haaretz makes all too clear.
There, Michael Sfard, the legal advisor of the Yesh Din organization, argues forcefully that Israel’s combat doctrine, supported by the IDF’s legal division, rests on interpretations of the laws of war “shockingly different from their accepted interpretation by experts in the field worldwide” and which represent, as stated in the article’s remarkable headline, “A ‘targeted assassination’ of international law.”
In his analysis, Sfard focuses on two aspects of Israel’s combat doctrine. First, the IDF has “redefined what constitutes a legitimate target for attack,” so that its target bank now includes, for example, “symbols of the Hamas government” (offices, policemen, the parliament building).” As the author notes, the consequences of this “innovative definition” have been dire: “Dozens and perhaps hundreds of civilians have been killed in assaults on such structures.”
Second, Israel now considers that, in an urban conflict, it is “entitled to treat the entire area as a legitimate target and bombard it via air strikes or artillery shelling – as long as we first warn all the residents of our intention to do so and give them time to leave.”
As Sfard notes, this method was first implemented in Dahiya, a Beirut neighborhood, in 2006. This is how General Gadi Eisenkot, the Israeli Northern Command chief, describes what is now commonly known as the “Dahiya doctrine”:
What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. […] We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. […] This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.
Major General (Ret.) Giora Eiland is also quoted as arguing that, should Israel find itself once again in a conflict with Hizbullah, its objective should not simply be the defeat of that organization but “the elimination of the Lebanese military, the destruction of the national infrastructure and intense suffering among the population.” As he further explained, “Serious damage to the Republic of Lebanon, the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people, are consequences that can influence Hizbollah’s behaviour more than anything else”.
Remarkably, Eiland wrote an Op-Ed on August 4, 2014 entitled “In Gaza, There Is No Such Thing as ‘Innocent Civilians’” where he called on Israel to “avoid the artificial, wrong and dangerous distinction between the Hamas people, who are “the bad guys,” and Gaza’s residents, which are allegedly “the good guys.”” “We are dealing with an enemy state,” he explained, “not with a terror organization which is seemingly operating from within an innocent civilian population.
Dozens of international law academics and practitioners recently signed a statement condemning many of Israel’s practices as illegal and criminal. Just as starkly, Sfard insists that its combat doctrine represents “a declaration of war against the fundamental principles of the laws of armed combat.”
Despite Israeli elected officials’ repeated claims about the need for “moral clarity” in the face of the so-called terrorist threat, the Israeli discourse is extraordinarily vague about the way in which Israel does define, in the real world and especially in its decisions about the use of armed force, the concept of “civilian.”
One important internal contradiction of the Israeli discourse on “terrorism,” therefore, is that it claims to present a strong defense of civilian life while in fact justifying uses of force based on an extremely narrow understanding of that concept, one that erodes the fundamental distinction between civilians and combatants.
Further, a look at the manner in which Israel has used the word “terrorism” over the years demonstrates that accusations of “terrorism” have been made against Israel’s enemies regardless of the actual nature of their uses of force. Israeli elected officials have, repeatedly, described and condemned as “terrorism” attacks against purely military targets.
In fact, in international institutions such as the United Nations, Israel (alongside the United States) has repeatedly opposed efforts towards defining “terrorism” in a way that would differentiate between attacks against civilian and military targets, a basic historical fact that the US media has consistently failed to report.
It is deeply incompatible with an enlightened understanding of the most basic principles of international law and, despite its claims to the contrary, profoundly weakens the protections the rule law affords to innocent, civilian life.