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The experts’ verdict: Every Israeli missile strike is a war crime

on 22 Comments

A video published by Al Arabiya shows the destruction of Beit Hanoun over the course of one hour.

Yesterday’s Guardian includes an article that appears to be excusing Israel of responsibility for the massive death toll it has inflicted on Palestinian civilians. But, more significantly, it includes a lot of useful – and damning – information about just how “indiscriminate” Israel’s weapons really are.

This interests me a great deal because I have been warning about problems with the interpretation of international law used by leading human rights groups on this very point since the 2006 Lebanon War.

At that time I got into a dispute with Human Rights Watch’s Middle East policy director, Sarah Leah Whitson. Her organisation argued that Hizbullah was committing war crimes by definition whenever it fired rockets at Israel, even if it hit military targets, because those rockets were primitive and inherently inaccurate.

By contrast, HRW claimed, Israel’s missiles were precise and therefore their use was not inherently inadmissible. Its view was that Israel did not commit war crimes by firing its missiles; the obligation was on observers to show that they had not been used within the rules of war – which is a much harder standard of proof. For more on this debate, see my articles here and here.

In practice, HRW’s argument was nonsense, as was clear even in 2006. During that war, Israel dropped millions of cluster munitions – little bomblets that serve effectively as land mines – all over southern Lebanon, endangering the whole civilian population of the area.

But Norman Finkelstein recently pointed out the more general problem with HRW’s argument:

“By this standard, only rich countries, or countries rich enough to purchase high-tech weapons, have a right to defend themselves against high-tech aerial assaults. It is a curious law that would negate the raison d’être of law: the substitution of might by right.”

It may not be entirely surprising that HRW and others interpret international law in a way that serves rich and powerful western states, however many civilians they kill, and criminalises developing states, however few civilians they kill.

The current fighting in Gaza illustrates this point in dramatic fashion. Some 95% of the 64 Israelis who have been killed during the current fighting are soldiers; some 75% of the nearly 1,500 Palestinians who have been killed are civilian.

But comments from experts in the Guardian article add another layer of insight into HRW’s dubious distinctions.

One should ignore the irritating framing used in the article, which seems to suggest that the high Palestinian death toll may be down to human or systems errors. Experts discount this theory in the article and also point out that Israel is often not checking whether its shooting is accurate. In other words, it gives every indication of not taking any precautions to ensure it is hitting only military targets (or rather targets it claims are military in nature). That recklessness makes it fully culpable.

But we also have experts cited here who make the point that much of Israel’s precise weaponry is not accurate at all.

Andrew Exum, a former US army officer and defence department special adviser on the Middle East, who has studied Israel’s military operations, says this:

“There are good strategic reasons to avoid using air power and artillery in these conflicts: they tend to be pretty indiscriminate in their effects and make it difficult for the population under fire to figure out what they’re supposed to do to be safe.”

“Pretty indiscriminate”! So doesn’t that mean Israel was committing war crimes by definition every time it made one of those thousands of air strikes that marked the start of Operation Protective Edge, and that continue to this day?

But it is not just strikes from the air that are the problem. There is more:

“However, military analysts and human rights observers say the IDF is still using unguided, indirect fire with high-explosive shells, which they argue is inappropriate for a densely populated area like Gaza …

“[Israel’s 155m howitzer] shells have a lethal radius of 50 to 150 metres and causes injury up to 300 metres from its point of impact. Furthermore, such indirect-fire artillery (meaning it is fired out of direct sight of the target) has a margin of error of 200 to 300 metres.”

Read that again: a margin of error of up to 300 metres, plus a lethal radius of up to 150 metres and an injury radius of 300 metres. So that’s a killing and injury zone of close to half a kilometre from the intended “precise” site of impact – in a territory that is only a few kilometres wide and long. In short, one of the main shells Israel is using in Gaza is completely imprecise.

Set aside what Israel is trying to do in Gaza. Let us assume it is actually trying to hit military targets rather than being either reckless about hitting civilian targets or deliberately trying to hit civilians, as much of the evidence might suggest.

Even if we assume total good faith on Israel’s part that it is trying to hit only Hamas and other military sites, it is clear it cannot do so even with the advanced weaponry it has. The inherent imprecision of its arsenal is compounded many fold by the fact that it is using these weapons in densely built-up areas.

So when are going to hear HRW or the United Nation’s Navi Pillay stop talking about proportionality or Israel’s potential war crimes, and admit Israel is committing war crimes by definition – right now, as you read this.

Jonathan Cook
About Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

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22 Responses

  1. gracie fr
    gracie fr
    August 1, 2014, 9:56 am

    Ten human rights organizations urgently contacted Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein today following the release of reports on the nature of attacks within the Gaza Strip and the high rate of civilian casualties. This information raises concerns about grave violations of international humanitarian law.
    The organizations demanded that the Attorney General instruct the government to refrain from violating the laws of war and re-evaluate its aggressive policy and rules of engagement. The organizations seek to clarify whether the Attorney General critically evaluated the legal advice supplied to the Military Advocate General that underpins ‘Operation Protective Edge’, and calls on him to establish an external, independent and effective investigatory mechanism to examine the decision making of the political and operational establishment as required by international law and supported by the rulings of the High Court of Justice.
    The joint letter notes that more than 400 people have been killed and thousands injured since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, the vast majority of which are Palestinians. More than 80 of the dead Palestinians are children. According to estimates provided by the United Nations, civilian casualties constitute 70% of the deaths.


  2. ivri
    August 1, 2014, 10:00 am

    You can theoretically augment the definition of war crimes to include what Israel does; you can also describe Israel as un-democratic because of its control of the West-Bank; you can also do that to present the situation vs. Palestinians as Apartheid; or, define what Israel does in Gaza as genocide; or, accept Hamas self-definition as “Resistance” freedom-fighters – but then given what really takes place here you run the risk that this propaganda ploy will end up voiding important notions that may still be crucially needed in future REAL relevant contexts.

  3. Kay24
    August 1, 2014, 10:10 am

    Norm Finkelstein is right. Only wealthy or well armed nations seems to have the right to defend themselves, certainly not unarmed helpless people.

    What is the difference between a suicide bomber and a nation sending sophisticated missiles into heavily populated civilian areas? Is one better than the other?

    The difference is one claims legitimacy but massacres MUCH more civilians, again and again.

  4. just
    August 1, 2014, 10:13 am

    Thank you, Jonathan.

    “So when are going to hear HRW or the United Nation’s Navi Pillay stop talking about proportionality or Israel’s potential war crimes, and admit Israel is committing war crimes by definition – right now, as you read this.”

    More to the point, when will the US do this? After all, we armed them and are re- supplying them. We are committing war crimes on the Palestinian people by proxy– the stench of our own war crimes becomes ever more virulent.

    • Hostage
      August 1, 2014, 12:09 pm

      “So when are going to hear HRW or the United Nation’s Navi Pillay stop talking about proportionality or Israel’s potential war crimes, and admit Israel is committing war crimes by definition – right now, as you read this.”

      Navi Pillay is probably not a good example, since she has cited the use of flechette and phosphorus shells during the Gaza offensives and incitement against Palestinians by Israeli officials in the social media and said “Every one of these incidents must be properly and independently investigated”

    • Marnie
      August 1, 2014, 1:27 pm

      More to the point, when will the US do this?


    • gracie fr
      gracie fr
      August 1, 2014, 3:33 pm

      Israel expects the commission of inquiry on Gaza, which the Human Rights Council of the United Nations set up, to reveal damning evidence against its actions in the wake of the serious crimes being committed in the Strip during the current offensive.

      Today, Israel Today reported the massive destruction caused by the offensive, in addition to the large number of deaths on the Palestinian side. It predicted that these crimes will not go unnoticed and Israel will be punished for them. In turn, there is a prevailing fear in Israel that the Human Rights Council will publish an incriminatory report that could lead to indictments against Israeli officials to the International Criminal Court in The Hague on the accusation of committing war crimes.

      The newspaper said that the political and military leadership in Israel has been preoccupied with how to face the commission of inquiry. A series of deliberations have been discussed, including the deliberations that took place in the Political-Security Cabinet.

      The newspaper reiterated that Israel’s concern was focused at the end of the aggression, when crews from the international media enter Gaza and see the enormity of destruction caused by the Israeli aggression. This would increase international criticism about the size of military force used by the Israeli army, which will lead to a serious backlash in international public opinion, which would impact political leaders, especially those in Western Europe.

  5. Brendan Devenney
    Brendan Devenney
    August 1, 2014, 10:15 am

    I think this analysis of yours is valid Jonathan. Excellent analysis.

    I’ve been repeating the same type of analysis but from a different angle regarding the actual “targets”

    When the “news” says that Israel “responded” to rockets this morning, this statement is based solely on the word of the aggressor.

    In fact, the number of rockets fired is based on the word of the aggressor.

    Labelling “targets” as being hit because rockets were allegedly fired is based on the word of the aggressor.

    The alleged “target” fired upon because they “stored” rockets is based on the word of the aggressor.

    The claim that “warnings” were given before any strikes is based on the word of the aggressor. Dead men don’t speak.

    They claim that all Hamas members, whether “militant” or political representatives AND THEIR FAMILIES are “legitimate targets”

    Zionist Rabbis claim that because the majority of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip voted for them that they have “the right to kill” them.

    They’ve hit hospitals repeatedly, homes for physically handicapped, UN schools, marketplaces, flattened neighbourhoods, kids playing in a park, on the beach and watching the World Cup in a bar, murdered scores during each and every “humanitarian ceasefire”

    They claim to have gone for over 4000 “TARGETS”. They claim that over 2000 rockets have been fired.

    Even if 1, 2 or 3 rockets were fired from these ALLEGED rocket sites, that leaves a MINIMUM of 2000 to a more realistic 1000 “TARGETS” that WERE NOT “ROCKET LAUNCH SITES”



    2000-3000 “TARGETS” were NOT alleged rocket launching sites.


    1000-2000 “TARGETS” were alleged rocket launching sites BASED ON THE WORD AND WORD ALONE OF THE AGGRESSOR.

    In any warcrimes trial, Israel must account for every “target” and every shell fired.


  6. Brendan Devenney
    Brendan Devenney
    August 1, 2014, 10:17 am

    *should read “more realistic 300 targets”

  7. Justpassingby
    August 1, 2014, 10:20 am

    Warcrimes? This is crimes against humanity.

    • Hostage
      August 2, 2014, 10:18 am

      Warcrimes? This is crimes against humanity.

      The two are not mutually exclusive. War Crimes charges can only be leveled in connection with an armed conflict. Charges of crimes against humanity can be leveled even in peace time when there is no shooting going on at all. For example, the UN Apartheid Convention established that the crime of apartheid could be a crime against humanity. The 1st Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention of 1977 established that it could be a war crime committed by an occupying power.

  8. gracie fr
    gracie fr
    August 1, 2014, 10:30 am

    Speaking to the news agency, Rami Abdo, the director of the Euro-Mediterranean Observatory for Human Rights, said that the Observatory’s teams in the Gaza Strip had monitored the destruction of 250 economic facilities, including 180 factories, since the start of the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip on 7 July. Abdo pointed out that the losses incurred by the economic sector in the Gaza Strip are unprecedented, stressing that Israel has dragged Gaza’s economy decades backwards

  9. just
    August 1, 2014, 11:19 am

    “#Gaza We found this huge unexploded Israeli bomb right outside a UN food distribution centre… ”

    “On Friday morning journalists gained significant access – cut short by reported Israeli tank fire – to the former village of Khuza’a in south Gaza, which was demolished over the last 10 days by Israeli bombing:

    Here is a passage from a first-person account of the decimation of Khuza’a, by a writer identified as student Mahmoud Ismail. It was posted to Facebook and published on Global Voices Online on Monday 28 July:

    The first attack was on the road to Khan Younis, cutting Khuza’a off. The second hit the power transformers. The third, the mobile phone towers. The fourth, the landlines. We were alone, and the night in Khuza’a was pitch black, and the bombardment wasn’t stopping. The planes were hitting everything. The glass was falling from the windows, shrapnel was flying into the house and all around us. We sheltered in a place we thought was less dangerous, taking a position we thought would protect us. We counted the attacks and calculated the possibilities: is this the sound of a missile on its way to us? Is this shell in the house? Why hasn’t it exploded? Is so-and-so’s house targeted? Such-and-such mosque? This is a F16 attack, that is an artillery bombardment. The whole night was spent trying to hold on to our minds and what remained of our nerves. ”

  10. John Douglas
    John Douglas
    August 1, 2014, 11:26 am

    Thanks to Jonathon.
    The modern manipulation of language in international politics is gets too little attention. The meaning of a word does not pop out of nature, fixed in stone. Meanings are humanly created, often powerful, tools. For example, “Terrorism” and “terrorist” are words of immense negative power that confer evil upon and deny basic rights to whomever they apply to. The definition is generally, “A non-military body intentionally inflicting harm on non-combatants to achieve a political objective.”
    It’s very convenient for governments, no matter how evil, that this terrible word, “terrorist” cannot ever be used to describe their acts, and can easily be used to describe the acts of insurgencies. The second manipulation concerns “intentionally” and is used to distinguish victims of terrorism from victims of collateral damage. Generally an action’s consequences are “intentional” if the person was aware that they would happen and did the action anyway. This distinguished intended from unintended consequences. When the IDF knows that a school contains fifty children as well a five Hamas fighters and knows that shelling will kill many children (in addition to The Hamas fighters) The IDF will have intentionally killed the children. Some would object that it was not intentional because the IDF would rather have not killed the children. But would 9/11 not have been a terrorist act if bin Ladan had thought to himself, “Gee, I’m really sorry that all those people have to die?”
    Conclusion: Government forces by commonly constructed definitions can indiscriminately and intentionally kill noncombatants and never be have the label “Terrorist” applied to their actions. Very convenient.

  11. just
    August 1, 2014, 11:31 am

    “JUST IN: Secretary of State Kerry: Hamas must immediately and unconditionally release the missing Israeli soldier ”

    Full, um, statement here:

  12. American
    August 1, 2014, 11:43 am

    ” Even if we assume total good faith on Israel’s part that it is trying to hit only Hamas and other military sites, it is clear it cannot do so even with the advanced weaponry it has.”>>>>>

    And let us ‘not fall for’ blaming the type of weapons used and give Israel an out.
    Israel selected the shells to use and their bombers would have to be 90% off in every target they have hit so far to claim this excuse.

  13. John O
    John O
    August 1, 2014, 11:52 am

    I’m not sure the article sought to excuse the Israelis (at least, that’s how I saw it when I read the paper this morning). Poor training, which is mentioned in passing, is likely to be a major cause. It’s worth reading the passage in David Saul’s book “Military Blunders” on the IDF’s poor performance in Lebanon in 2006. Back then the army was fully stretched just sustaining the occupation, with very little training in “conventional” warfare, as budgets were cut. Reservists in particular lacked training. Nothing seems to have improved since then.

  14. Donald
    August 1, 2014, 11:53 am

    On a related note, Hamas is ignored when it says it is targeting something military and condemned when it is clearly firing at civilians. Basically, whatever else you want to say about them, they’re honest about what they’re doing so far as I can tell. I think it is wrong to fire at civilians, but agree that the way international law is interpreted, all they are supposed to be able to do is stand out in whatever open spaces exist in Gaza, dig foxholes, and wait for Israel to bomb them at its leisure. Of course one could argue (as I would) that they should only use nonviolent resistance, but that nonviolent route is never urged on the Israelis. So yes, the way the law is interpreted is biased.

    But all Israel has to do is be dishonest and claim that they try to avoid civilian casualties and for many in the West, that’s enough to cast doubt on whether they are committing war crimes. So that’s why there is all this hedging about “possible” war crimes. So we get the sorts of arguments I saw on the PBS Newshour last night. I couldn’t bear to watch it for more than a minute or two, but one expert said that Hamas was undoubtedly guilty of war crimes and the other agreed that there was no question about it. But they split on Israel, with one saying that they were and the other saying that they weren’t. The “controversy” arises solely because Israel claims it tries to avoid civilian deaths. Nobody would do this with any other country (except maybe the US itself) if it uses indiscriminate firepower in an urban environment. Try imagining how much credence the mainstream would give the Syrian government.

  15. chet
    August 1, 2014, 12:20 pm

    The Israeli response to claims of breaches of international law — FOAD!! — Uncle will always be there for us in the UNSC.

  16. asherpat
    August 1, 2014, 2:36 pm

    ““By this standard, only rich countries, or countries rich enough to purchase high-tech weapons, have a right to defend themselves against high-tech aerial assaults. It is a curious law that would negate the raison d’être of law: the substitution of might by right.”

    How does shooting a 20kg of high explosive aimed specifically at an Israeli city “defends against high-tech aerial assaults”? Perhaps they are trying to intimidate Israeli civilians? “The use of violence or the threat of violence, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political goals” – definition of terrorism!

  17. Brendan Devenney
    Brendan Devenney
    August 1, 2014, 7:01 pm

    Asherpat says

    ““The use of violence or the threat of violence, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political goals” – definition of terrorism!”

    So you agree that Israel is a terrorist state.

  18. Curatica
    August 1, 2014, 7:30 pm

    If I may continue Mr. Cook’s argumentation, I would say that there is a a clear criminal intent in the IDF actions. If it is true that the strikes are inaccurate, the army should know it precisely, and should know precisely that they will cause numerous, indiscriminate victims. But this is precisely the goal of the Israelis: to murder as many Palestinians as possible and let the survivors die of wounds, hunger, thirst, or sheer despair. After all, why and how would one live among ruins, after having lost a house, all the belongings and an entire family including his or her own children and parents?

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