Indiscriminate Attacks

Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon

Unlawful and Deadly, Amnesty International's recent report on 'rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict', accuses Hamas and others of carrying out 'indiscriminate attacks' on Israel: 'When indiscriminate attacks kill or injure civilians, they constitute war crimes.'

The report reiterates a formal symmetry between Israelis and Palestinians (previous reports have accused Israel of war crimes during Operation Protective Edge), asking both parties to take all precautions to respect civilian lives, and reminding them to 'choose appropriate means and methods of attack'.

The use of weapons that are inherently indiscriminate such as unguided rockets is prohibited. And the use in densely populated areas of imprecise weapons that cannot be directed at a military objective with sufficient precision, such as mortars, is likely to result in indiscriminate attacks and is also prohibited.

There is an implied contrast with Israel's superior technological capabilities, which the IDF claims allow it to carry out airstrikes with 'surgical precision'. But the figures tell a different story. At least 2100 Palestinians were killed during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza last summer; around 1500 are believed to have been civilians (according to Amnesty some of them were killed by stray Palestinian rocket fire). On the Israeli side, 72 people were killed, 66 combatants and six civilians. These numbers point to a clear discrepancy. It is not only that Israel killed 300 times as many Palestinian civilians, but that the proportion of civilian deaths among Palestinians was much greater: 70 per cent of those killed by Israel were civilians, compared to 8 per cent of those killed by Palestinians. These figures clearly indicate that there is no correlation between precision bombing and distinguishing combatants from civilians. Hi-tech weapons systems can kill indiscriminately too.

Amnesty’s report shows not only how slippery international humanitarian law can be, but also that human rights organisations tend to ignore asymmetries of power, and reproduce them. The report essentially says that using homemade missiles – there isn't much else available to people living under permanent siege – is a war crime. In other words, Palestinian armed groups are criminalised for their technological inferiority.


  • 6 April 2015 at 9:44am
    stettiner says:
    Do not despair. The international law is being re-written as we speak. We have already a new tailor made definition of what constitutes an occupation. Hand picked political resolutions of UN:s General Assembly are being incorporated in the international judicial system. And let's not forget the great democratic gain of this development: every member of the "kill the jooos" peace movement is nowadays an interpreter of international humanitarian law. Soon enough we'll see the final solution of the Israeli question.

    • 6 April 2015 at 7:53pm
      David Gordon says: @ stettiner
      Well, this sounds just like hasbara propaganda and nothing more. International law is not being "rewritten as we speak". As far as the resolutions of the UN are concerned, it would help if Israel followed them.

      The solution of the Israeli question will arrive when both sides follow international law, and when both sides agree to try and live in peace. War crimes have probably been committed on both sides. Let the International Criminal Court adjudicate. In the meantime, illegal settlement should stop.

    • 7 April 2015 at 2:11pm
      Gadol says: @ David Gordon
      True, Let the ICC judge who is a war criminal and who is not. He who has a clear conscience need not be afraid of the judgment.

  • 6 April 2015 at 1:42pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    30 times, not 300.

    Not sure about the argument, though. On one hand, the quoted paragraph is criticising Israel for not using 'precision bombing', preferring to use tactics like mortar attacks on built-up areas - which are inherently indiscriminate and hence a war crime. On the other, if Hamas had been doing nothing but launch unguided rockets we wouldn't be looking at an 8% civilian casualty rate. Technology is a side issue, in other words; having unguided rockets (and mortars) doesn't compel you to use them. There are breaches of international law on both sides, but far more of them - both proportionately and in absolute terms - on the Israeli side.

    • 7 April 2015 at 3:05pm
      In that case it's 6, not 5 - so a factor of 250, not 300.

      And (repeating myself, but I didn't want this comment to be nothing but an arithmetical nitpick) the figures really don't suggest that "Palestinian armed groups are criminalised for their technological inferiority", and hence that the evenhandedness of international law was spurious and should be qualified in some way. On the contrary - despite their technological inferiority, Palestinian armed groups were far more effective at attacking military rather than civilian targets than the technologically-superior IDF. The 'one rule for all' approach is quite damning enough of Israel's record.

    • 20 June 2015 at 2:58am
      mwolverine says: @ Phil Edwards
      The entire argument is completely absurd. Should we also look at casualty rates for WW II? More Germans were killed than Americans, British and French - combined. If we look at civilian deaths, Germany had over 1 million while the USA had a couple thousand (plus nearly 10,000 Merchant Marine deaths).

      Hamas and other terrorist groups were not able to (intentionally!) kill Israeli civilians because Israel invested in bomb shelters, early warning systems and anti-missile missiles. At the other end, Hamas prioritized building attack tunnels (employing children, likely hundreds of which were killed in work accidents such as tunnel collapses).

      But the #1 reason there were more civilian casualties in Gaza is that this is where the fighting took place. (Again, how many Canadian civilians were killed in WW II in Canada? I'm going with zero.)

      Why was the fighting in Gaza? Because that's where Hamas holed up and fired rockets FROM (never mind, for a second, that these indiscriminate weapons were intentionally fired at civilian targets). Hamas planned - wanted to - draw IDF forces into Gaza neighborhoods, where they had prepared tunnels, booby traps and IEDs. Because Hamas was willing to sacrifice its own people to kill (or capture) a few Israeli soldiers.

      When unarmed Gazans peacefully protested their homes being turned into a battle field, at least 20 were executed by Hamas. (After that, no one else complained....)

      The "technological inferiority" argument fails not only because it could likewise be used to excuse, rationalize and even justify blowing up civilian buses and hotels - or hijacking commercial airliners and flying them into office buildings, but because it neglects that judicial systems focus on INTENT rather than the choice/availability of weapon. Consider someone who uses a knife to murder vs a case of manslaughter with a gun.

      The INTENT of the rocket launchers is to terrorize and murder civilians. Giving the terrorists better technology would just increase rather than remedy this.

      I suspect that most people who make a false issue of these ratios aren't trying to lower the Gazan death toll (else they'd be raising the issue of children killed digging tunnels, they'd raise consciousness about Gazan families killed by misfired rockets and secondary explosions, they'd condemn the launching of rockets from behind schools and hospitals (drawing return fire and by design turning residential neighborhoods into battle zones), and of Hamas executing peaceful protesters. Their real complaint, sadly, is that not enough Israelis/Jews are being murdered.

  • 15 April 2015 at 2:28pm
    rupert moloch says:
    I seldom agree with stettiner, and the wholesale killing of Palestinian children in their already miserable ghetto horrifies me. But! 2 wrongs don't make a right.

    Hamas might be (debatable) a least-worst option for public administration in Gaza, but I'm not convinced their (sectarian, militarist) cause should eclipse the universal application of human rights law. Israeli civilians should be entitled to the same protections as the Palestinians. A bitter pill for advocates of Palestinian self-determination, but one we should swallow like adults.

Read more