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Are Israel and Hamas violating international laws of war?

July 31, 2014 at 6:36 PM EDT
The UN human rights commissioner accused both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes in their ongoing conflict. Judy Woodruff gets debate on the lawfulness of their tactics from retired Lt. Col. Gary Solis of the George Washington University and retired Lt. Col. Geoffrey Corn of South Texas College of Law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With the late-breaking news of a humanitarian cease-fire due to take effect within hours, we return now to the ongoing battle between Hamas and Israel and questions being raised about whether either side is violating the laws of war.

Joining us are retired Lieutenant Colonel Gary Solis. He had a 26-year career in the Marine Corps, served two tours in Vietnam and became a military lawyer and judge. He’s now on the faculty at both George Washington and Georgetown University law schools. And retired Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Corn, he had a 22-year career in the Army, where he served as a lawyer. He’s now a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston.

And we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

To you first, Colonel Corn. We want to talk about both sides in this conflict. Let’s start with Hamas. What is it that you believe Hamas is doing that violates international law?

LT. COL. GEOFFREY CORN (RET.), South Texas College of Law: Well, I think the two most obvious examples are the deliberate attack on civilian population centers, with apparently no effort to target specific military targets in Israel.

Just firing missiles in the direction of Israeli population centers is a clear violation of the law. And the other is locating their vital military assets within the midst of the civilian population in an apparent attempt to make it more difficult for the Israeli Defense Forces to target those assets, which is also a clear violation of the law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what international law are you referring to?

LT. COL. GEOFFREY CORN: Well, the international law that I’m referring to — and I’m sure my friend Gary will refer to — we call the law of war, or it’s often called international humanitarian law.

And it’s one of the oldest bodies of international law. Many of these rules are codified in treaties that are binding on nations throughout the world, including the Israelis. And even the rules that are not applicable as a matter of treaty law apply to all parties to a conflict as a matter of what we call customary international law.

And there is almost universal agreement that these rules apply to all sides of this conflict, the Israelis and Hamas collectively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Solis, you’re general — you’re nodding. You generally agree that these are laws that this discussion is based on?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS (RET.), The George Washington University: Yes, entirely agree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about his point that when it comes to Hamas — he made two points, that they are deliberately firing into civilian areas, that civilians are the target, and, number two, they are commingling what are called military assets, weapons, rocket launchers with their own civilians?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: I think that Geoff is entirely correct. And of course we much see the same thing going on in Israel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you about Israel in a minute. But essentially you are two — the two of you are in agreement about what Hamas is doing?


I think Hamas is clearly in violation of law of armed conflict, international humanitarian law, for the very reasons that Geoff has mentioned.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, no ifs, ands or buts?



Well, let me turn to how you view, Colonel Solis, how you view Israel, because I know you — as you just said, you believe Israel is also violating international law.

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: Yes, I’m afraid so.

I think that Israel is violating the core principles of the law of armed conflict, of distinction and proportionality. That is, they’re not distinguishing between military objectives and civilian objects and civilians themselves.

And in regard to proportionality…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, just back up. Can you expand on what you mean by that?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: Distinction?

Yes. The law of armed conflict says that parties to a conflict, be it an interstate conflict or a non-interstate conflict, in other words, a state on one side and an armed opposition group on the other, in such conflicts, the parties are bound to target only civilians — excuse me — only combatants, and not target civilians purposely or civilian objects, either one.

To do so is a violation of distinction, perhaps the principal, core concept in the law of war, and Israel is doing that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying they’re not making that distinction and they should be.

Colonel Corn, what about that point about what Israel is doing?

LT. COL. GEOFFREY CORN: Well, I would have to respectfully disagree with my friend Gary.

I think, first off, we don’t have enough information to conclusively to establish that Israel is violating even the principle of distinction or proportionality. Both of these principles are applied in a fact- and situation-specific context.

I think there have been incidents that raise concern that there may be violations. But we have to know more details about why targets were attacked. We have to have more details about what was in proximity of those targets. Did Hamas have military assets embedded in civilian areas?

And maybe even the possibility that there were mistakes made, that a round went off course or that a soldier or a pilot simply made an error. What I would say is, I think we see an overall effort on the part of the IDF to apply the law in good faith. They have issued more warnings than I can think of any professional military organization issuing in an urban attack, to my knowledge.

They embed military lawyers at every level of battle command to advise commanders on their obligations. So I think we have to be a little bit cautious about reaching that conclusion at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Solis, so he’s saying, number one, there’s not enough information and, number two — well, you heard him. I won’t repeat it.

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: No, I disagree with Geoff.

I think that the facts that we have seen on the ground, the statements from the U.N., the photographs we have seen are indicative of a unit, of a command that is not overly concerned with distinction. And I think the Israelis have the ability to be much more discerning in their targeting. And they are not, in my opinion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think they have the ability to be more discerning?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: Because their weaponry is more sophisticated and more advanced. They have drones in the air. They have helicopters in the air.

They know where they are firing their weapons. And although artillery is not a pinpoint system, it has the ability to home in on specific targets, which ability is not being exercised fully.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Corn, what about that?

LT. COL. GEOFFREY CORN: Well, first off, I think if the facts play out and establish that, there needs to be an investigation. And individuals who violate these rules should be held accountable by the Israelis themselves.

But I would note that this is the most difficult type of combat that any military can engage in. Every military commander is trained from inception to avoid close combat in an urban environment at all costs. The fact that the Israelis have put ground troops into this environment, I think, indicates how serious they see this strategic objective.

But it also means that this is an incredibly complex and difficult tactical environment. And you cannot just look only at the effects of combat, because that can provide a distorting effect on the analysis. You have to look at the entire situation to decide whether or not there was a violation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You want to respond to that quickly?  And then I have a final question.

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: No, I just — I simply disagree with Geoff. I believe that there is sufficient evidence of an awareness of proportionality and its disregard by the Israelis. And I believe that is evidenced by the facts on the ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When a conflict is under way, as it has been there for more than 20 days, how much does it matter whether laws, international laws are being violated? Are — is one side or another going to be held accountable, do you believe, Colonel Solis?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: I believe that they will not, at the end of the day, although the violations, in my opinion, are clear.

And that’s because the U.N. Security Council will have a member, the U.S., who will exercise a veto should Israel be brought before them. And I don’t believe that the ICJ is going to take up this case, nor is the ICC, the International Criminal Court.


Colonel Corn, should one side or another be held or both sides be held accountable?

LT. COL. GEOFFREY CORN: Well, first off, I think it’s clear that international law matters. That’s why we’re talking about this on this venue.

That’s why the international community is so concerned about what’s happening, because they’re focused on the law and the expectations of compliance with the law. I agree with Gary that it’s unlikely that there be an international criminal accountability for these actions.

But I don’t think that means there won’t be accountability. I tend to believe that, if the Israelis conclude, after the conflict, after they review everything, that some of their commanders acted improperly, that they will take action against them, and they have done that in the past. I’m not sure Hamas will be subjected to any responsibility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Geoffrey Corn, Colonel Gary Solis, we thank you both.


LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: Thank you.