Author: Janina Dill

[Janina Dill is a Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.] In the ongoing military campaign ‘Protective Edge’ the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) consistently issues warnings before air strikes against targets in Gaza. The population is warned of impending attacks with phone calls, text messages or so called ‘knocks on the roof’ (dropping of non- or low-impact explosives on the intended target). The warnings play a central role in Israel’s claim that, contrary to Palestinian armed groups, namely Hamas; it obeys the strictures of international law. ‘While the IDF goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties, Hamas deliberately puts civilians in the line of fire, the IDF maintains on its official blog. The First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, the relevant sections of which have the status of customary international law, in Article 57(2) c indeed prescribes that ‘effective advance warning shall be given of attacks which may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit’. Warnings, their frequency and form, are at the centre of a narrative that Israel does not simply comply with, but goes beyond the call of international law in its care for the civilians of Gaza. ‘Israel's use in the Gaza Strip of non-lethal warning shots to the roofs of buildings which constitute military targets … is not legally obligated’, the Military Advocate General’s Corps holds. Media commentary commends Israel for giving civilians a way out without even being obliged to do so. This is a misunderstanding of Article 57. The provision establishes an unequivocal obligation to warn before attacks that implicate the civilian population – as air strikes against a territory as densely populated as Gaza will regularly do. Granted, it is not an absolute obligation. The law recognizes that sometimes it may not be possible to warn. Crucially the provision does not say ‘warn if possible’, but ‘warn unless impossible’. It is open to interpretation when that is the case and reasonable people may disagree, but the default is to issue a warning and it is a failure to do so that requires explanation. Warnings are not acts of charity. But are the kinds of warnings issued as part of Operation Protective Edge manifestations of the IDF’s commitment to the laws of war? The practice raises two distinct concerns. The first is that the air strikes the IDF carries out after issuing warnings are indicative of a misunderstanding of the legal implications warning before an attack. It has none! The second is the concern that the practice itself violates international law. I discuss them in turn.

[Dr. Janina Dill is a Hedley Bull Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations and Research Fellow in Politics at Merton College, Oxford] I am very grateful to Gabby Blum and Chris Kutz for their thoughtful comments on my paper. We agree on the fundamental challenge: killing combatants in accordance with the principle of distinction under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is morally problematic. In my paper I engage the preferred remedy of a growing number of philosophers, which is to distinguish between individuals who are liable to being killed and those who are not. I show why it is impossible for IHL to regulate warfare accordingly. Nonetheless, I accept such an individual rights-based approach to justifying killing as morally appropriate in war. Professor Blum disagrees on the grounds that “killing in battle is not designed to be an execution”. That is, of course, true. Acts in war are an appropriate means to mete out neither moral nor legal punishment. But can we therefore dismiss as irrelevant the moral status of the individuals whose deliberate killing IHL sanctions? The impetus behind Blum’s own proposal is the conviction that combatants’ lives are no less valuable than others’. From this acceptance that all human life is of prima facie equal value generally springs the notion that individuals have a right to their own life that they can forfeit only through their own conduct. Blum holds that in war posing a threat is enough to be subject to the threatened combatant’s right to (presumably lethal) self-defense. It has to be an actual, immediate threat, not the kind of presumed potential threat that IHL is satisfied with, but it “does not matter if someone threatening is also morally guilty, because we have a right to defend ourselves even against the morally-innocent attacker,” or so Blum argues. I do not have the space to problematize the terms innocent and guilty here, but even if the would-be defender had no involvement in bringing about the situation in which he is threatened, his right to use lethal force against a likewise completely innocent attacker would at least be questionable. Crucially, this innocent threat/innocent defender scenario is rarely encountered in war. What if the would-be defender was guilty himself of posing a threat? The likeliest case in war is that the combatant supposedly exercising self-defense at the same time poses a threat to his attacker. Normally, in this case we decide who actually has a right to self-defense by making a judgement about the difference in moral status. That the victim of an assault uses force to fight back does not give her attacker a moral right to defend himself. If we refuse to take moral status into account and insist on the symmetry between combatants on both sides, such cases of “mutual self-defense” reduce the principle to absurdity. I do not argue that we should change IL either to reflect the liability approach or to challenge the symmetry between belligerents. Moreover, I wholeheartedly agree with Blum that it would be legally and morally preferable if IHL allowed the killing of fewer combatants and demanded that those who can be are spared. While such proposals have met with criticism by military practitioners, they certainly raise fewer concerns of practicability than distinction according to individual liability. Yet, they do not solve the problem this paper grapples with: the fact that IHL does not and, I argue, cannot vouchsafe the protection of individual rights in war. In his considered engagement with my paper Professor Kutz raises two questions that, in the kindest possible way, query my grasp on reality.