War Crimes and Accountability: The Case Against Israel’s Military Operations in Gaza Commentary
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War Crimes and Accountability: The Case Against Israel’s Military Operations in Gaza

Member states of the United Nations are bound by the rule of law, both within their borders and in their interactions on the global stage. This legal framework includes international humanitarian law, which aims to protect civilians during times of armed conflict. Israel, as a member state, has an obligation under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure the safety of civilians. In particular, it should pay heed to the Convention’s ban on the intentional targeting of civilians or civilian objects, and its proscription on the forced displacement of civilians from their homes.

The principles of the laws of armed conflict are unequivocal: military necessity, discrimination, proportionality, and a prohibition on unnecessary suffering are the guideposts for parties to an armed conflict. Ideally, militaries should train their troops to respect these principles. Recent military operations by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have demonstrated a troubling disregard for these principles, raising serious legal and ethical concerns, as well as questions of possible criminal liability.

Military Necessity and the Targeting of Civilians

Military necessity permits attacks only on targets that offer a definite military advantage. The IDF’s targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure does not align with this principle. Attacks that appear to have little to no military necessity constitute war crimes, as they result in the unwarranted suffering of civilians. For example, airstrikes on densely populated areas with known civilian presence lack justifiable military objectives, thereby violating the principle of military necessity.

Discrimination and Indiscriminate Attacks

The principle of discrimination requires belligerents to distinguish between combatants and civilians, targeting only legitimate military objectives. The use of weapons systems that cause widespread damage to civilian areas, hospitals, and cultural sites reflects a failure to discriminate between military and civilian targets. Such indiscriminate attacks are unequivocally war crimes under international law. Not only does the destruction of cultural heritage sites and essential infrastructure cause immediate harm; it causes long-term detriment to the affected populations.

Proportionality and Civilian Harm

Proportionality in armed conflict dictates that the harm caused to civilians and civilian property must not be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. The IDF’s use of disproportionate force, resulting in extensive civilian casualties and destruction, violates this principle. When military operations cause more harm to civilians than the military gain justifies, they cross the line into illegality and immorality, making them prosecutable as war crimes.

The IDF’s deployment of heavy artillery and airstrikes in populated areas inflicts significant suffering on civilians, far beyond what is necessary to achieve any legitimate military goal. The extensive collateral damage resulting from these operations highlights a blatant disregard for the well-being of non-combatants, further solidifying the case for war crimes.

Accountability and the Role of the International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has rightly begun to investigate and seek accountability for these alleged violations. The laws of armed conflict make clear that the actions of one belligerent do not justify unlawful conduct by another. Even if Hamas fails to adhere to international humanitarian law, this does not grant Israel the right to ignore the laws of armed conflict. The obligation to protect civilians and conduct hostilities lawfully remains paramount and binding.

The persistent violation of international humanitarian law by the IDF undermines Israel’s standing as a nation that once prided itself on law and order in the Middle East. The intentional targeting of civilians, the indiscriminate nature of their attacks, and the disproportionate use of force, as well as the forced displacement of civilians, are all actions that erode respect for international norms and degrade the moral fabric of military conduct. The pursuit of accountability by the ICC is a necessary step toward restoring justice and upholding the principles of the laws of armed conflict. The international community must hold all actors to these standards, ensuring that the rule of law prevails over the chaos and destruction of war.

David M. Crane is the Founding Chief Prosecutor for the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone. He is also the founder of the Global Accountability Network.


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