Future adversaries of Western states might now be encouraged to use similar tactics as those employed by Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel, a senior former American military commander has warned.
Lt. Gen Richard F. Natonski (ret.), former Commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command who led the U.S. ground assault during the second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004, told a webinar held in recent days by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) that the tactics are not limited to Israel’s environment.
Discussing the tactics in question, Natonski explained that the use of human shields in protected structures, such as hospitals, mosques and schools, could be used more often to provoke an enemy into causing civilian casualties and then highlighting those casualties to the global media for effect.
“When we look at adversaries like Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Haram—these are non-state actors, meaning they are not associated with a nation, but they have the sophisticated weapons of a nation-state,” he said. “As you look at Hezbollah in Lebanon, they have more rockets and missiles than most of NATO does in Europe.”
Assessing Hamas’s public-influence campaigns during last month’s conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Natonski said “there are really two audiences that Hamas is appealing to. One is the global audience, and two is the Arab world—mostly, the Palestinians. You can lose all the battles but win the war with a proper campaign of influencing the media.”
The former commander noted that Israel uses precision munitions in an effort to minimize civilian casualties, as does the United States when targeting enemy positions.
“These are bombs that hit exactly where they’re aiming. This minimizes collateral damage and yet hits the targets you want,” he said. “We have seen in attacks in Gaza that Hamas or at least civilians were given a warning, with a knock on the roof, which is essentially a submunition dropped on the building that is going to be attacked, that the enemy and civilians in that building should evacuate because shortly thereafter it’s going to be hit with a real bomb. Surprisingly, I have seen in the Gaza Strip that telephone calls were made to buildings shortly before they were attacked. Everything is being done in order to minimize those civilian casualties despite the fact that Hamas, in the case of the Gaza Strip, is putting tunnels, putting rocket-launchers, putting mortar facilities and headquarters in buildings that are protected, those being hospitals, schools and mosques.”
Three pillars of the laws of armed conflict
During the webinar, LTC (ret.) Geoffrey S. Corn, a Professor of National Security Law at South Texas College of Law Houston and a former U.S. Army senior law of war expert adviser, said, “One of the ironies of what we’ve seen here is there is a lot of discussion about how Israel violated the proportionality rule when it was trying to attack legitimate enemy targets, and there’s not enough discussion on how the deliberate attack on civilian populations by Hamas was a blatant war crime because the Israelis were fortunate enough to be able to interdict most of those missiles.”
Corn dissected the three pillars of the laws of armed conflict—the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution—and said that they have often been mischaracterized during the May conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“A state always has the right to act proportionally and reasonably in response to an actual or imminent act of unlawful aggression against it,” he said. “It’s no different than if you’re in a bar and someone takes a punch at you. You have a natural right to defend yourself. A state is like a person in international law.”
The rule of proportionality allows a state to take measures that are reasonably necessary to terminate a threat to its security, he said. “It’s not a tit-for-tat concept of proportionality where if Hamas fires one missile, you’re allowed to fire one missile back.” However, he added, “the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces were legally authorized to do what was necessary to restore the status quo of safety for the people of Israel.”
Once hostilities begin, the principle of distinction calls on all belligerents to direct attacks against legitimate military objectives, he noted.
“Now, a civilian building can become a military objective by the way the enemy uses or intends to use it. So it doesn’t mean just a military target. It means something in the definition of the law if it gives an enemy an advantage and you an advantage if you attack it,” he said.
Israel complied with international law on armed conflict when it took feasible precautions to mitigate risks to the civilian population, he said. Those precautions include the choice and development of weapons and tactics designed to mitigate civilian risks, in addition to issuing warnings.
During hostilities, said Corn, “the proportionality concept doesn’t protect any enemy fighter. The idea is that if the commander anticipates that an attack on a lawful target will result in civilian casualties or destruction of civilian property, the commander is obligated to make an assessment: Is that civilian risk excessive when compared to the concrete and direct military advantage the commander is going to derive from the attack? Those principles are universal.”
Addressing Hamas rocket attacks, Corn said that “if you’re deliberately attacking civilians, it is a war crime and a violation of the law per se.”
Hezbollah observing Hamas’s success
Jonathan Ruhe, director of foreign policy at JINSA, told JNS, “It is sadly ironic that Israel is the target of so much condemnation because it seeks to mitigate harm to civilians while Hamas fires indiscriminately at Israel, and intentionally and illegally uses Gazan civilians as shields for its military operations.”
He added that Hamas benefits from the “widespread misunderstanding of international law, whereby people tend to focus on the immediate cause of harm to civilians—for instance, an Israeli airstrike against a legitimate military target—rather than the underlying responsibility for that harm, namely Hamas’s exploitation of civilians to increase collateral damage from Israeli operations.”
Hezbollah, for its part, is observing Hamas’s success with this strategy, argued Ruhe, and it, too, relies on using Lebanese civilians as shields.
“Despite unprecedented rocket fire from Gaza recently, Hezbollah’s much more potent arsenal could actually overwhelm Israel’s air defenses,” he said, and this would mean that the IDF, while still complying with international law, is bound to “conduct much more intense counter-operations than anything yet seen in Gaza.”
Originally published in JNS