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Debating the tactics and ethics of warfare on both sides of Mideast conflict

July 24, 2014 at 6:12 PM EST
The growing number of casualties in the battle between Israel and Hamas has raised questions about the tactics being used by both sides. Judy Woodruff gets debate from Noura Erakat of George Mason University and Amos Guiora of the University of Utah about accusations that Hamas is using civilians as human shields and the ethics of targeting civilian areas.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: With the number of casualties rising, there is a growing focus on the tactics being used by both sides. We look at that with two experts on the law of armed conflict.

Amos Guiora, an Israeli, is a professor of law at the University of Utah. He had a 19-year career in the Israel Defense Forces and is the author of the book “Legitimate Target: A Criteria-Based Approach to Targeted Killing.” He joins us from Jerusalem. And Noura Erakat, a Palestinian, is a human rights attorney and activist. She’s also an assistant professor at George Mason University, and she has written extensively about self-defense and humanitarian law.

And we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

Amos Guiora, let me start with you. Let’s talk about the tactics and this charge by Prime Minister Netanyahu that Hamas is deliberately putting civilians in a place where they are in jeopardy, where their lives are at risk. Where does this — is there hard evidence for this?

AMOS GUIORA, University of Utah: Good evening, and thank you for having me.

With respect to the question of the human shield, I think that the pictures tell a graphic story in terms of children tragically being killed, unfortunately, and tragically, I empathize.

But I don’t think there’s much doubt that one of the reasons — not the only reason, but one of the reasons that children are dying in this conflict is absolutely because of human shielding by Hamas, whose spokesman I believe it was last week made a very public pronouncement calling on families to “make sure” — quote, unquote — that their children be in the vicinity of whether it’s the tunnels or the rocket launchers and thereby endangering children and therefore really making them human shields.

I don’t think there is any doubt that that is an egregious violation of international law. That’s A. And, B, it’s absolutely a tragedy on the human level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Noura Erakat, how much of that is going on?  And we do read reports about it. And if it is, how does Hamas justify it?

NOURA ERAKAT, George Mason University: So, I think you asked a very pertinent question, is there any hard evidence for actual human shielding, or that Hamas is using Palestinians as human shields?

And there just isn’t. The hard, difficult truth is that Israel is targeting civilians or recklessly targeting them in ways that amount to a violation of international law. Israel has made the claim that its adversaries use human shields, as it did in 1996 in the south of Lebanon, in 2006 in Lebanon, as it did in 2008 and 2009 against Gaza.

And the U.N. reports that have been published and investigated as well as reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, Breaking the Silence, an Israeli — group of Israeli soldiers, all refute this claim.

And so we continue, we continue to accept this talking point without any rigorous evidence, and yet Israel refuses to subject its own evidence, supposed evidence, to public and judicial scrutiny.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Amos Guiora, if there’s no evidence of it, then why does Prime Minister Netanyahu and others and others say this?

AMOS GUIORA: Well, I think, first of all, I want to disagree with Noura, with all due respect.

And I also take you to the leaflets that were dropped by the IDF last week requesting people or warning them to leave their neighborhood prior to an attack, the knocking on doors and telling people that an attack is forthcoming.

And, unfortunately, what we are seeing is that Hamas is literally preventing people from leaving their neighborhoods and their homes. In that sense, I think at the end of the day, the responsibility clearly lays at the doors of Hamas that is preventing people from escaping areas which the IDF announces in advance, pre-warning, in accordance with international law, that an attack is forthcoming. I think that again was a violation of international law and clearly a tragedy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that? Again, there have been reports that the Israelis have tried to warn the civilians in Gaza to leave, but Hamas has said to them, don’t leave.

NOURA ERAKAT: Well, let’s just put this all in context.

I think everything makes more sense with context. The Gaza Strip is under Israel’s occupation, remains occupied, despite Israel’s withdrawal of 8,000 soldiers in 2005. It remains an occupying power. And it has sealed four of the five exits to the Gaza Strip. So these 1.8 million Palestinian civilians have nowhere to go.

It’s not that Hamas is preventing them from going. They literally cannot leave. They don’t even have the opportunity to become refugees. Second of all, as for the warnings, these warnings are warned by rockets that are also very harmful and that provide the Palestinians less than three minutes to leave their homes.

If we were hit with a rocket that supposedly warned us to leave right now, I think we would be so struck as to be immobilized, rather than expect the Palestinians to leave and then think, Israelis, for these supposed warnings and then the direct targeting of civilians.

Civilian families have been targeted in their homes. A U.N. shelter has been targeted despite Israel having the coordinates. We should reject these talking points and subject this to scrutiny, to judicial and public scrutiny, and not accept Israel’s evasion of accountability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amos Guiora, what about that and frankly the other argument that one hears that even if Israel believes that Hamas is firing rockets from civilian populated areas, they shouldn’t be firing on civilians?

AMOS GUIORA: Right, two responses.

First of all, Noura mentioned that Israel is giving Palestinians three minutes. We Israelis would love to have three minutes’ notice before rockets arrive in our vicinity. We have, depending on where you live in Israel, between 15 seconds to 90 seconds. We live outside Jerusalem, and we have 90 seconds to find a shelter.

Three minutes is much more than 90 seconds. That’s A. B, Noura mentions that Hamas — sorry — the Gaza Strip is under Israeli occupation. I remind all of us that the Palestinian Authority itself has said that Israel doesn’t occupy the Gaza Strip.

Hamas won — history is important. Hamas won elections in 2006 and Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. Decisions by Hamas over the course of the past eight years to destroy the greenhouses that Israel left, to build tunnels, to have a rocket-making industry, rather than building the Gaza Strip into what it really could have been, which would be a wonderful place for people to live, that — at the end of the day, I think that’s on Hamas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let me just stop you there.

AMOS GUIORA: I agree with Noura. Context is important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I just want to ask you, and what about the notion that Israel shouldn’t be targeting civilians if it knows they’re anywhere in the vicinity?

AMOS GUIORA: I think that’s a great question.

Here’s the reality, that when you’re engaged in trying to take out rocket launchers in real time, that you’re making every possible, conceivable effort to target only the rocket launcher, but because rocket launchers are not sitting in open fields, but are embedded in the civilian community, as hard as you try to target only the rocket launcher, it is a tragic inevitability operationally that indeed collateral damage is such that innocent civilians will get killed and they are being killed.

I don’t think there’s any argument about that. But the question that we need to ask ourselves is when the rocket launchers are embedded in the civilian community, it’s all but inevitable, again tragically, that civilians will die.

If the rocket launchers were to post themselves a place far removed from the civilian population, then obviously there would be a reduction, a minimization in the loss of civilian lie. But, again, because they’re clearly embedded, they’re firing from within the civilian community, that lends itself to the loss of innocent life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you to respond to that and also to the charge that about Hamas is firing, attempting to fire on and hit civilian populations in Israel.

NOURA ERAKAT: So, let me answer the first question.

With all due respect, Amos, we’re reverting to this talking point that Hamas is using human shields. Again, there is absolutely no evidence for this. It’s Israel’s word against the United Nations, against Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, Breaking the Silence Israel, as well as the National Lawyers Guild.

What country, what other country would we accept a repeated talking point with no evidence that this is the case? That’s one. The second, the World Health Organization says that the Gaza Strip will be unlivable in the next six years, by 2020. The access to sanitized water, to hygienic water will be impossible.

This is not Hamas’ fault. This is the result of Israel’s imposition of a debilitating and cruel siege that is killing Palestinians even in the absence of rocket fire. In reference to…

JUDY WOODRUFF: To firing on the civilians in Israel.

NOURA ERAKAT: Hamas is firing on civilians. Look, it’s not controversial.

Hamas has crude rocket fire and, therefore, cannot distinguish between civilians and combatants within Israel. So it’s an ipso facto violation, but that’s not what’s in controversy. And it’s far less insidious than the fact that Israel, which we deem the only democracy in the Middle East and provide $3.1 billion a year, as opposed to the sanctions and the designating Hamas as a terrorist organization, Israel targets civilians with precise weapons technology that we provide to it.

And here is what is an actual controversy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, this is an argument that I know could go on. We are going to have to leave it there, but we will continue to look at it. We appreciate it, Noura Erakat, Amos Guiora. Thank you both.

NOURA ERAKAT: Thank you for having us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And right after we taped that discussion, violence broke out in the West Bank. Israeli newspapers are reporting that 10,000 Palestinians marched from Ramallah and fought Israeli troops and police with rockets and firebombs. The Israelis used tear gas, stun grenades and gunfire. Palestinian news accounts said that two protesters were killed.