Israel wants rules of war to be changed

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 24, 2009
A rocket fired on Israel from Gaza in January. Current international warfare laws do not cover organisations fighting from civilian areas

A rocket fired on Israel from Gaza in January. Current international warfare laws do not cover organisations fighting from civilian areas

Israel is launching a campaign to adapt the international laws on warfare to a new reality where organisations purposely operate from civilian areas.

They are hoping that the American and British governments, which face similar circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan, can be persuaded to join.

The effort comes in response to the UN Human Rights Council report released last week, which accuses the IDF of committing war crimes in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead at the beginning of 2009.

The government officially rejected the investigation, branding it “biased and imbalanced”, but there have been voices within the government saying that it is not so easy to disregard a report authored by one of the world’s leading authorities on the laws of war, Justice Richard Goldstone.

One of the main problems identified by Israeli legal experts is the difficulty in applying the rules of the Fourth Geneva Convention on safeguarding of civilians during warfare, drawn up in 1949, to today’s “assymetrical” wars.

“We believe that Israel scrupulously followed the international laws of war during Operation Cast Lead,” said a senior officer in IDF’s attorney general department. “But it would clearly make our operational planning more simple and help us to defend these things afterwards if the laws were updated.

“It needs to become more relevant to a situation where the enemy constantly uses civilians cynically, both as obstacles in the face of our forces and as a potential propaganda tool when non-involved people are killed, as unavoidably happens.”

The Fourth Geneva Convention was convened in the aftermath of the Second World War and addressed a situation in which two sovereign states are at war with each other. The realities of a modern army, confronting a guerilla movement operating from within the civilian population, and using it as a shield, are very different.

Israel hopes that the US and Britain, which are confronting similar circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan, will join in an international effort to launch a reappraisal of these laws.

Minister Yitzhak Herzog has proposed that former Supreme Court President Professor Aharon Barak, currently lecturing at Yale, should lead this initiative, due to his international prestige.

“The world has changed and, with it, international law must change,” says constitutional law expert Dr Aviad Hacohen of the Hebrew University.

“The structure of the law is not static but a dynamic being and every change in the reality of war has to bring about also a change in the laws of war.

“That doesn’t mean that the universal values of ethics and justice change, just that we have to adapt them to a new reality.”

Last updated: 4:27pm, September 24 2009