On Sunday morning, Israel conducted an air strike to take out Hamas operatives on a street in Rafah, in southern Gaza. Reporting afterward indicated that three Hamas guerrillas on motorcycles were struck, and at least seven reported bystanders were killed in the attack.
The media and the UN promptly went into overdrive to characterize this incident as an attack on a UN school, because the street where the Hamas guerrillas were struck was outside the school (which is being used as a shelter). Rick Moran reconstructed the event, however, using multiple sources, and pointed out at PJ Media that the air strike, which appears to have involved a single missile, didn’t hit the school at all. In fact, it looks to have upheld Israel’s usual standard of precision, hitting the target it was aimed at and leaving, in the words of the UK Telegraph, minimal physical destruction: “just a small but deep hole in the road where the missile had landed.”
That in itself defies the reflexive media characterization of an indiscriminate shelling attack “on a school.” But blogger Lenny Ben-David also did some sleuthing on the collateral casualties in the attack, and what he found was that all but two of them appeared to be military-age males.
Review pics of UN Rafah school attack. Appears 1-2 kids & 6-7 mil aged men. 1 child is too many ,but ratio 1 civ: 4 combatants unprecedented
— Lenny Ben-David (@lennybendavid) August 3, 2014
— Lenny Ben-David (@lennybendavid) August 3, 2014
Whether the young adult males were on the street near Hamas for fell purposes or not, these facts paint a picture different from the “attack on a school” narrative.
In fact, Israel didn’t attack a school. The IDF attacked Hamas guerrillas. The guerrillas had positioned themselves, for whatever reason, on the street outside of a school. They were taken out in a pinpoint strike and the school was never hit, nor was anyone in it or on its grounds hit.
As a matter of waging war lawfully, the IDF’s action comports with the standards of international convention. The IDF targeted combatants, and took care to use as precise a weapon system as possible to minimize collateral damage in an area that might have civilians in it. Regrettably, there were apparently at least some children in the area, but it is by no means clear that that factor was different from any previous instance of the IDF targeting Hamas operatives in vehicles on city streets. The targets and their vehicles were outside the school grounds – on the other side of its perimeter fence – at the time of the strike. The IDF used only the force necessary to accomplish the task; no more. And it used that force as precisely as technology allows. It didn’t choose a more destructive method, which might have guaranteed the kill better but at a higher collateral cost.
What all this means is that, based on what we know at this point, Israel’s action was not even questionable, much less indictable. Far from being disgraceful, it is an example of the preternatural care and restraint routinely shown by the IDF.
Yet the U.S. State Department, in a near-hysterical press release, condemned the attack in intemperate and embarrassingly irresponsible language.
The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which at least ten more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed. The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israeli Defense Forces. We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties. UN facilities, especially those sheltering civilians, must be protected, and must not be used as bases from which to launch attacks. The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians. We call for a full and prompt investigation of this incident as well as the recent shelling of other UNRWA schools.
We continue to underscore that all parties must take all feasible precautions to prevent civilian casualties and protect the civilian population and comply with international humanitarian law.
It’s not actually funny that hardly a word of this communication is valid or pertinent. It’s horrifying, because it came from the government of the United States.
There was no shelling; the number of displaced persons housed at the school is irrelevant (and seems to have been included for rhetorical effect), given that the school was not hit, nor was it likely to be; the exceptional care taken by the IDF is what ensured that the school would not be hit, even though Hamas was putting the area around the school in danger; and the suspicion (in this case, the knowledge) that “militants” are operating nearby does, precisely and emphatically, justify strikes, which is why it is a war crime to hide military activities behind civilians and/or protected sites.
There is no moral principle of war that the presence of civilians demilitarizes what would otherwise be a military target, rendering it ineligible for attack. Rather, the opposite is true. It is not a war crime or an inherently vicious or disproportionate act to attack a combatant. Period. That applies no matter where he is.
This is what makes the State Department press release so acutely irresponsible. The money sentence:
The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.
A correspondent of mine pointed out that with this declaration, the Obama administration is going even further than the UN’s specious indictments of Israel:
You realize that this is worse than what the UN has generally been saying. The UN boilerplate has been the “presence of militants” doesn’t justify firing. This is saying even militants “operating” is no justification.
It’s a good point, and it highlights the foolishness of the posture suggested by the State Department statement. There’s no safety net at the bottom of the slippery slope it implies: if a “militant” can arrange to operate near one or another officially recognized venue of “innocent civilians,” there will be no attacking him at all. The whole earth can fill up with guerrillas attacking anything they want, and hiding with impunity behind women and children.
But the sober fact is that the states parties to the United Nations have not signed off on any such convention for warfare. Rather, it is the recognized function of the nation-state, under our modern-age philosophy and set of conventions, to prevent such predatory activities by “militants,” and to do so effectively but accountably. Nations, NGOs, and individual UN officials are often eager to condemn Israel in whatever way is convenient to hand. But the nations reserve the right to wage war as necessary to defend themselves and their interests, even if that means killing civilians to get at combatants. They have no plans to actually rewrite the Geneva Convention or the Rome Statute to change the rules for themselves.
Certainly the United States has no such plans. The air strike on the Hamas guerrillas on Sunday was reportedly from a drone – which puts it in the same category of strike that Barack Obama has authorized far more of than any other person on the planet. Indeed, he has acknowledged that his own drone strikes may kill innocent civilians – innocent foreign civilians, on other nations’ territory – but has justified them on the same basis Israel does: because they save the lives of his and other nations’ citizens, whether military or civilian.
That’s what the nation-state is there for. Its top two tasks both involve protecting the life of a people, as it is lived on territory: on one hand protecting the people against outside powers – nation-state aggressors; aspiring hegemons or emperors – and on the other protecting them against marauding “militants,” whether they are called terrorists, guerrillas, separatists, or some combination of those categories. Every convention to which the United Nations have committed themselves in making war is based on this understanding. If that were not so, no one would have signed on to any of the conventions.
The U.S. State Department has ignored this fundamental reality, in favor of striking an untenable and essentially emotional posture in an official statement. In effect, it has apparently launched an effort to deconstruct, clause by clause, the raison d’être of the nation-state. It may be no surprise that the Obama administration has done this, but that doesn’t make doing it any less destabilizing.
The U.S. is supposed to be the adult in the room: the nation that stands fast, upholding the pokey old conventions we’ve all actually agreed on, while the other nations roil around lobbing sophomoric taunts and complaints, and failing to even get the basic facts of an incident right in official statements. But here we are. The U.S. State Department now has all the gravitas of an NGO scold, with no accountability or sense of proportion.