It is impossible not to feel the world’s deep anguish over yet another war with a heavy toll for civilians. After deadly cross-border attacks by Palestinian Hamas fighters last weekend, Israel is preparing a military operation into the Gaza Strip. The crisis comes at a moment when the Middle East appeared to be moving into a new era of warmer relations between Israel and many Arab states.
Yet even as the war escalates, it is also triggering widespread calls for the protection of the innocent, one of the principles in international humanitarian law and a value that strengthens the possibility of peace.
“It should be possible to stand with the residents” of the villages in southern Israel struck by Hamas “while still remembering that living on the other side are human beings just like them,” wrote Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist, in Haaretz. “It should be possible, even in the current atmosphere, to speak about Gaza in human terms.”
The crisis has elevated concern for civilians for obvious reasons. Hamas has killed Israeli citizens and taken many as hostages. Israel has shut off supplies of water, food, fuel, and electricity to Gaza, an urban strip along the Mediterranean Sea. A military operation to hunt down militants risks a steep civilian toll. “Separating Hamas from Gaza is an almost impossible task,” Daniel Byman, a Georgetown University international studies professor, told The Economist.
U.S. President Joe Biden warned of the potential humanitarian cost of a large-scale military response. “It is really important that Israel, with all the anger and frustration … that exists, is that they operate by the rules of war,” he said at the White House last night. Those concerns are shared. The United Arab Emirates Foreign Ministry stressed the need to “preserve the lives of civilians, and offered its sincere condolences to all the victims who fell as a result of the recent fighting.”
One effect of the current crisis may be a rediscovery of the global norm to protect the innocent. Under humanitarian law enshrined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, a person has inherent innocence. Every Muslim nation is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, which encodes the principle of protecting civilians. That support reflects a coincidence between Islamic law and humanitarian law. “A Muslim is conscious of God during war and armed conflict and strictly adheres to the norms of warfare, respecting human dignity,” wrote Zuhdija Hasanović, dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies at the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in a 2020 book. “And if he has this consciousness during war, how can he not have so during peace?”
That view, wrote Daniel Reisel, co-founder of the London-based Jewish organization Yachad, is consistent with Jewish law based on “Abraham’s imperative not to harm the innocent among the enemy.”
In a speech at the Austrian Center for Peace in July, Robert Mardini, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, argued that the “single most effective way to reduce suffering in war is to uphold the fundamental principle of humanity.” At a time when more than a hundred conflicts worldwide threaten the safety of civilians, that principle is already getting a fresh look in Gaza and Israel.