Understanding the Rules of War in the Context of the Israel-Hamas Conflict

Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner explain the principles that govern the laws of armed conflict and the current war between Israel and Hamas.
Janine Zacharia, Scott Sagan, and Allen Weiner present a discussion at the Stanford Law School. Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner discuss the laws of armed conflict and principles of just war theory in the context of the war currently being waged in Israel and the Gaza Strip at an event moderated by Janine Zacharia at the Stanford Law School. Melissa Morgan

As part of on ongoing effort by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) to provide research-based programming on the current situation in the Middle East, Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner joined moderator Janine Zacharia at an event co-sponsored with the Stanford Law School to discuss the legal framework of war and how the current conflict in Gaza fits into those precepts.

Scott Sagan is senior fellow at FSI and co-director of the institute’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Allen Weiner, an FSI affiliate, is a senior lecturer in law and director of the Stanford Program in International Law at Stanford Law School, and a former legal counselor at the U.S. Embassy in The Hague. Janine Zacharia is a lecturer in the Department of Communication.

Their discussion took place  before a Stanford student audience.

Conduct in Conflict

To understand how the principles of just war theory are relevant  today, Dr. Sagan began by outlining what they are and where they came from.

Principles governing honorable and dishonorable conduct in conflict have ancient origins, but the most comprehensive foundations of the law of armed conflict, or international humanitarian law, originate from the four Geneva Conventions concluded in the years following WWII and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, with atomic weapons. Beginning in 1949, these conventions provided an important set of agreements governing the rules of war. In the 1977 Additional Protocols, these agreements were developed and expanded on in greater detail to create the framework recognized internationally today.

However, as Sagan noted, neither Israel nor the United States is party to the Additional Protocols of the 1977 Geneva Convention.  Nevertheless, both countries accept that some of the foundational principles codified on the Protocols constitute customary international law, and are thus legally binding on them.

Key Principles of the Laws of War

In their discussion, Sagan and Weiner focused on three principles in particular: the principle of distinction, the principle of proportionality, and the principle of precaution. As defined by Sagan, they state the following:

Principle of Distinction — Only military targets are permissible in conflict; civilians and civilian targets are not permitted. It is left up to warring parties to determine what constitutes each one. 

Principle of Proportionality — Collateral damage will occur in war, even if civilians are not targeted. Therefore, militaries must weigh the advantage of attacking a particular target compared to the harm that it will do to civilians. Attacking a military target of high importance, even if it entails the risk of harming many civilians, might be acceptable, but attacking a target of low-importance with high potential for collateral damage is unacceptable.

Principle of Precaution — Military commanders must take precautions to limit the amount of civilian damage while pursuing targets.

Expanding on that, Weiner also reminded the audience of what the principles of armed conflict are not:

“The laws of war are not the same as human rights law,” he emphasized. “They recognize the existence of war. They recognize that armies are going to engage in killing and destruction. International humanitarian law is designed to minimize the worst suffering that war causes.”

The Laws of War in Practice

While these principles provide a general framework, applying them to the specific case of Israel and Hamas is legally complex.

“There is a lot of flexibility and discretion in the application of these laws,” Weiner explained.

The status of Gaza adds another layer of complication. As a sui generis entity, it falls into a gray zone of independent legal classification. Originally part of the Palestinian Mandate, after the Arab-Israeli 1948 war, it was controlled by Egypt until 1967. Israel took control of the territory at the end of the 1967 Six-Day War.  Around the time of 1979 Camp David Accords, Anwar Sadat relinquished any territorial claims Egypt might have to the territory.  Israel withdrew its military forces and citizens from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and since 2007 the territory has been governed by Hamas, which is not the recognized government of Palestine, whose status as a state is likewise contested on the geopolitical stage.

“All of these issues create incredibly complex issues regarding which bodies of law apply to Gaza,” says Weiner.

Beyond the contestation about what legal rules apply to this conflict between Israel and Hamas, and how they should be interpreted, another confounding issue in analyzing the application of laws governing the use of force is the scarcity of reliable, clear facts about what is or is not happening in Gaza. As other Stanford scholars have reported, misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war has been rampant, further fueling animosity and anger both on the ground and online.

Speaking to this, Weiner acknowledged, “I am not able to ascertain with confidence what the facts are around many actions taking place on the ground. And that makes commenting as an outsider about the application of the laws of war in this situation extremely difficult and fraught. We have to be modest and we have to be humble about this.”

Questions of Scale

Because many key facts regarding what has and is happening on the ground in Gaza remain unclear, Sagan and Weiner refrained from offering definitive opinions on if or how the rules of war are being violated.

Both scholars agreed that Israel’s goal of eradicating Hamas as the governing entity in Gaza as a response to the attacks on October 7 was a legitimate goal. But each was quick to caution that legitimacy alone is not always the best guiding principle in cases of conflict.

“We need to recognize that there can be acts which are lawful, but awful,” Sagan reminded the audience. “The aims may be legitimate, but if in pursuing those aims you are creating more terrorists than you are killing, the aim you had may have been lawful in terms of its scope, but awful in terms of its consequences.” 

Weiner returned to the principle of jus ad bellum proportionality in thinking about the consequences of scale in responding to an attack such as the one conducted by Hamas on October 7. That principle is different from the jus in bello concept of proportionality, which requires the military advantages of a particular action to be weighed against civilian harms. Under jus ad bellum proportionality, there is also the need to weigh whether the overall scope of a military campaign is proportional to the cause that triggered the response.

But, Weiner cautioned, the jus ad bellum proportionality test “is among the most notoriously fuzzy and ambiguous standards that is used.”  

Looking specifically at Gaza, Weiner continued, “I stipulate that destroying Hamas is a legitimate war aim for Israel under these circumstances. But if you can’t do that without causing excessive damage, I do wonder whether the goal of the state in resorting to war has become greater than the harm it is causing.”

Beyond Revenge

While laws and legal precedent may provide a type of formal structure for conduct in conflict, Sagan and Weiner also acknowledged the very impactful role that emotion and human impulses play in how the spirit of those structures are interpreted. 

Speaking to data he and colleagues have collected on the relationship between identity, nationalism, and the ethics of war, Sagan admitted that, “I am concerned that in this conflict and others, the desire for vengeance can easily cloud judgements about what is right and what is wrong.” 

Reflecting on his own experiences, Weiner offered this consideration:

“Having lived through the American response to 9/11, I felt that because there was so much demand for retribution and for vengeance, something about our norms and values and practices changed in the United States. And, clouded by that sense of vengeance, I think after 9/11 the United States made a series of decisions that turned out to be very bad decisions from a national security standpoint and a humanitarian standpoint. And I do worry that the same might be true in Israel, particularly in respect to the scope of the war aims that it is setting.”

As the conflict continues and more information becomes available, Sagan encouraged those in attendance to be judicious and open in their thinking and analysis, even — and particularly — when that may be uncomfortable.

“In cases like the one we are witnessing now, we have to be very strict about what are facts and what are values. We have rights to our own values and our own interpretations. But we don’t have rights to our own facts,” said Sagan.

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