The Laws of War Matter—Now More Than Ever

The Laws of War Matter—Now More Than Ever
Photographs of Israeli hostages being held by Hamas militants are projected on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, Nov. 6, 2023 (AP photo by Leo Correa).

Writing in the New York Times this week, Amanda Taub articulates what many observers have been asking lately: Does it even make sense to speak about the laws of war, when armed actors on all sides of most conflicts seem only too willing to ignore them? Do the laws of war become mere rhetorical tools that can even escalate conflicts, allowing actors on both sides to point fingers at the other while ignoring their own culpability?

It is true that in armed conflicts worldwide, military actors and their civilian leaders have been willing to ignore the rules of law or invoke them only when convenient. In Sudan, civilians are at risk from resurgent conflict with undertones of the earlier Darfur genocide. In Azerbaijan, ethnic Armenian civilians have been forcibly displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh. In Ukraine, noncombatants have suffered rape, torture, bombardment and environmental warfare during Russia’s invasion—itself a violation of the ban on territorial aggression.

But perhaps the conflict most disheartening to U.S. observers this past month is that unfolding in Israel and Gaza. In Israel, Hamas fighters slaughtered and abducted children, women and the elderly along with numerous young, unarmed civilian men, going well beyond what might have been considered a lawful attack by a national resistance movement had they targeted only Israeli military bases. In response, the Israeli government has cut off humanitarian supplies to the entire civilian population of Gaza and killed thousands of civilians with bombardments that have leveled hospitals, schools and entire neighborhoods, going well beyond what might be considered a proportional military response to an armed attack.

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