In the wake of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, Israel remains in the spotlight for the civilian casualties and widescale destruction of civilian areas caused by its attacks on Gaza. Like most democracies whose air wars kill large numbers of civilians, Israel claims the moral high ground. Though acknowledging that the harm caused to civilians was regrettable, Israel argues that its armed forces took all feasible precautions to avoid it, while taking care to aim their strikes at Hamas military targets. By contrast, according to Israel, Hamas was targeting Israeli civilians directly and intentionally.
But this kind of thinking misses an important point in the laws of war. The requirement to avoid indiscriminate attacks is more than just an injunction against targeting civilians directly. It also prohibits attacks using weapons systems that would be incapable of being directed at a specific military objective in the particular context of their use, because their effects cannot be limited or are of a nature to strike military and civilian objects without distinction.
The rule prohibiting indiscriminate attacks, found in Article 51 of the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, was the basis for banning anti-personnel landmines, biological weapons and chemical weapons, among others. But it is also a general principle meant to guide targeting practices even where specific weapons systems have not themselves been explicitly banned. And it is a rule worth considering as the international community assesses the actions of Israel in Gaza and the wider question of how to apply humanitarian law in urban spaces, in particular.