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As of this moment, a fragile truce holds in southern Israel. After Hamas volleyed 600 missiles at Israeli civilian targets on Saturday and Sunday, prompting Israel to attack hundreds of targets in Gaza, the air-raid sirens have fallen silent, for now.
But over the weekend, when the rockets fell, we saw all the old arguments against Israel’s acts of self-defense crop up. The air raids were “disproportionate,” we were told. There were arguments over individual civilian casualties, as if it would somehow discredit Israel if its precision strikes killed more than a handful of noncombatants. Yes, there were rote condemnations of Hamas’s efforts to kill as many civilians as it could, but once again all too many voices on the left rose at once, demanding that the nation under attack — the nation defending its schools, hospitals, and homes from an indiscriminate rocket barrage — exercise restraint.
It’s important, however, to be very clear about Israel’s legal obligations. When it comes to Hamas, “restraint” is Israel’s choice — one it may make for tactical and strategic reasons of its own. The actual law of war would allow Israel to invade Gaza, utterly destroy Hamas, and occupy Gaza City until Israel’s safety is ensured, even if it burned in the fight.
Let’s break this down as simply as possible. First, firing 600 rockets at civilian targets in a neighboring country is an act of war. It’s an attack by an army against a nation-state, and as such it grants the nation-state the authority under the international law of armed conflict not just to disable the specific military assets used to carry it out but to destroy those who carried it out.
For example, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, America had the right not just to sink the Japanese fleet but to defeat Japan’s military, invade its sovereign territory, and overthrow its government. The threat to the United States came not just from the Japanese armed forces (which could be rebuilt after defeat) but from the government that built that military and empowered it to attack America. Similarly, when America and its allies launched their war against the ISIS caliphate, they had the right not just to destroy ISIS’s military assets but to take ISIS’s territory. They had the right to fight house to house in Mosul, Raqqa, and elsewhere to eliminate not just ISIS’s ability to fight but also its ability to govern.
Hamas violates every single one of these commands. It uses civilian facilities for military purposes, it tries to blend in with the civilian population, and it uses civilians as human shields. This is crucial — under the law of war none of these things in any way limit Israel’s right to defend itself. So long as Israel otherwise complies with the laws of war, the resulting civilian casualties and damages to civilian structures are Hamas’s moral and legal responsibility. It’s that simple.
There’s nothing within that principle that grants any immunity to hostile armed forces. The right to defeat the hostile force remains; the response just must be mounted with an economy of force that’s consistent with the dictates of military necessity.
What does that look like when a hostile terrorist force embeds itself in a civilian population, disguises itself as civilian, and fights from civilian buildings? The recently finished Battle of Mosul is instructive. There, American forces fought alongside Iraqi allies and rooted out ISIS from the heart of one of Iraq’s largest cities. Here (from the New York Times) is just one before-and-after view of the sheer devastation in the city center. First, this is the Mosul Hotel area in November 2015:
And here’s the same area in July 2017:
This devastation is ISIS’s moral and legal responsibility. ISIS occupied Mosul. ISIS fought from civilian spaces. ISIS waged a futile fight from block to block and house to house. I could show you similar scenes of before-and-after devastation from America’s fights in cities such as Fallujah, Najaf, and Raqqa. This is what Hamas courts from Israel, and Israel would be well within its rights to oblige if it so chose.
But rather than recognize this legal reality, the international community subjects Israel to two separate anti-Semitic double standards.
Second, the world then holds Israel to a standard of military restraint that it applies to no other military force on the planet. If Israel even used American rules of engagement or applied American military doctrine, the devastation in Gaza would be orders of magnitude greater than anything we’ve yet seen. The Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have been far more aggressive and “kinetic” than Israel in our response to terror. We’ve destroyed far more urban territory, and we’ve inflicted vastly more civilian casualties. Yet, with isolated exceptions, we’ve done so under self-imposed rules of engagement that are stricter than the law of war requires.
It’s time to change the terms of the international debate. It’s time for the world community to stop imposing these double standards on Israel, and start doing what international law requires: holding Hamas responsible for the devastation that results from Israel’s legal, necessary, and proper responses to its provocations. Only then will Hamas know that if it sows the wind, it could truly reap the whirlwind, and it will have no powerful international friends come to its aid.