As it winds towards a 72-hour truce brokered by Egypt, the latest round of conflict between Israel and Hamas has–finally–resorted to the pattern with which the international media are familiar: Palestinian terrorists attack Israel, Israel defends itself for a bit, a civilian target is hit, and Israel is forced to stop. Usually the media neglect to mention that Hamas hides weapons in, or initiates battles from, those same civilian sites, on purpose.
Obviously, it is against international law to target civilians intentionally–or even unintentionally, if there is good reason to foresee that large numbers of civilians will die in an effort to hit a low-value enemy target. It is also against international law to use civilian sites–schools, mosques, UN facilities, and above all hospitals–to store weapons, hide command bunkers, build terror tunnels, or fire weapons at Israelis, even Israeli soldiers.
The media know that Hamas is violating international law in both of the ways described above–both targeting Israeli civilians and placing Palestinian civilians in harm’s way. And yet it has blamed Israel disproportionately for civilian deaths in Gaza, owing to some or all of three factors: 1) there are many more Palestinian civilians dying (by Hamas’s design); 2) Israel is perceived as the stronger (and more responsible) party; 3) antisemitism.
Whatever the reason, by blaming Israel unthinkingly, the media ensure more Palestinian civilians will die in future. We know that is so because terrorists repeat the pattern in every war, faking casualties and rearranging bodies to bolster perceptions of Israeli brutality (see link and below). If journalists would stop staring agape and start thinking about the international law they accuse Israel of breaking, they might react differently.
— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) August 3, 2014
Kristof takes as authentic a photograph in which the bodies have apparently been arranged.
International law places the burden on the side that places civilians in harm’s way. While the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, for example, only bans attacks on civilian targets if they are intentional, it applies no qualification to the prohibition against “utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations,” which is what Hamas does.
The obvious reason for doing so to prevent armies from using human shields. If the attacking side is always to blame–as Israel invariably is, when judged by the media–then the side using civilians as shields will have an incentive to keep doing so. While Hamas displays its extremism every time it prods children to stand atop buildings that are to be bombed, it is not just being fanatical. It is also being logical, given the media’s behavior.
When large numbers of civilians are killed in such strikes, instead of jumping to conclusions–as the media and the Obama administration have done–that Israel is to blame or that its actions are “indefensible” and so on, the appropriate reaction is to express sorrow at the loss of innocent life, and thereafter to withhold judgment until it is known exactly who launched the attack, and why. Almost always, Israel has been on the right side of the law.
There are occasions when Israel does deserve criticism. One that comes to mind is the use of cluster munitions in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, which were not technically illegal but which posed great risk to civilians and therefore arguably were disproportionate. Such mistakes of judgment occur in war. Yet by treating every Palestinian death, justified or not, as an Israeli war crime, the media guarantee more such deaths will occur.