Israel and Hezbollah Committing War Crimes

Several in the blogosphere are pointing to a Jerusalem Post piece entitled “Hizbullah committing war crimes.”

Hizbullah must immediately stop firing rockets into civilian areas in Israel, Human Rights Watch said Saturday. “Lobbing rockets blindly into civilian areas is without doubt a war crime,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Nothing can justify this assault on the most fundamental standards for sparing civilians the hazards of war.” “Most of the attacks appear to have been directed at civilian areas and have hit pedestrians, hospitals, schools, homes and businesses,” the humanitarian organization’s website stated.

While it’s hardly disputable that Hezbollah is committing war crimes, it’s hardly news. After all, murdering civilians is the sine qua non for terrorist groups.

However, supporters of Israel in this conflict should probably not cite Human Rights Watch. If one actually goes to the website in question, one will find numerous reports on this conflict:

HRW reports:

External reports linked on HRW front page:

Particularly illuminating: Questions and Answers on Hostilities Between Israel and Hezbollah

Some excerpts:

What is Hezbollah’s status in relation to the conflict?

Hezbollah is an organized political Islamist group based in Lebanon, with a military arm and a civilian arm, and is represented in the Lebanese parliament and government. As such a group, and as a party to the conflict with Israel, it is bound to conduct hostilities in compliance with customary international humanitarian law and Common Article 3, which as stated above applies to conflicts that are not interstate but between a state and a non-state actor. As is explicitly stated in Common Article 3, and made clear by the commentaries of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the application of the provisions of Common Article 3, as well as customary international law, to Hezbollah does not affect its legal status.

Was Hezbollah’s capture of Israeli soldiers lawful?

The targeting and capture of enemy soldiers is allowed under international humanitarian law. However, captured combatants must in all circumstances be treated humanely.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah has stated that the captured soldiers will be used to negotiate the release of Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab prisoners from Israel. The use of captives who are no longer involved in the conflict for this purpose constitutes hostage-taking. Hostage-taking as part of an armed conflict is strictly forbidden under international law, by both Common Article 3 and customary international law, and is a war crime.

Which targets are Israel and Hezbollah entitled to attack under international humanitarian law?

Two fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law are those of “civilian immunity” and the principle of “distinction.” They impose a duty to distinguish at all times in the conduct of hostilities between combatants and civilians, and to target only the former. It is forbidden in any circumstance to direct attacks against civilians; indeed, as noted, to do so intentionally amounts to a war crime.

It is also generally forbidden to direct attacks against what are called “civilian objects,” such as homes and apartments, places of worship, hospitals, schools or cultural monuments, unless they are being used for military purposes. Military objects that are legitimately subject to attack are those that make an “effective” contribution to military action and whose destruction, capture or neutralization offers a “definite military advantage.” Where there is doubt about the nature of an object, it must be presumed to be civilian.

The mere fact that an object has civilian uses does not necessarily render it immune from attack. It, too, can be targeted if it makes an “effective” contribution to the enemy’s military activities and its destruction, capture or neutralization offers a “definite military advantage” to the attacking side in the circumstances ruling at the time. However, such “dual use” objects might also be protected by the principle of proportionality, described below.

Even when a target is serving a military purpose, precautions must always be taken to protect civilians.

Now, there shouldn’t be any question as to moral equivalency. Hezbollah violates international law as a modus vivende and Israel is doing so only under duress. Then again, it is fighting a war that is asymmetric not only in military technology but also in propaganda. Hezbollah enhances its cause when it kills non-Muslim civilians; Israel loses ground every time it kills civilians.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anon says:

    While it’s hardly disputable that Hezbollah is committing war crimes, it’s hardly news. After all, murdering civilians is the sine qua non for terrorist groups.

    This is a bit peripheral to the post at hand, but the above makes a point that I wish many of the more strident conservatives (not including James here) would keep in mind when claiming that the media hates America, etc.

    I’m not claiming that there is no media bias. But I do think that a significant number of claims of media bias are simply cases of: (1) It’s always more newsworthy when the good guys (US, Israel, etc.) do bad things than when the bad guys do bad things, and (2) the well-known tendency of the media to over-report bad news and under-report good news.

  2. Anderson says:

    Crooked Timber has a couple of good threads on Hezbollah and Israeli war crimes.