America Must Stand with its Allies when International Law is Violated

The aftermath of a Hamas rocket barrage on central Israel, which left 55-year-old Ramat Gan resident Gershon Franco dead, May 15, 2021. Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90.

by Gerard Filitti

The world is watching warily to see whether the Biden Administration remains resolute in America’s support of, and commitment to, its allies, in the face of a distorted narrative of false equivalence regarding the situation in Israel that is being pushed by fringe elements within the Democratic party. This fringe, represented by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, has recently been joined by Bernie Sanders who, after a week of terrorist attacks against the population of Israel, called for an “evenhanded approach” and observed that “Palestinian lives matter.”

The danger of this distorted narrative, as it is increasingly amplified by media in search of a non-existent balance of equities, is that it erodes the trust of our allies in our security commitments in situations where the truth is clear — where our ally is the victim of naked aggression and war crimes. If America cannot clearly and unequivocally stand with Israel when terrorist elements attack its civilian population with thousands of rockets fired indiscriminately, how can it be trusted to support Taiwan against a Chinese invasion? Will we search for an evenhanded approach if Poland or another NATO ally is invaded by Russia, or if a GCC partner is attacked by Iran?

History teaches that acceding to terroristic aggression does not beget peace or stability. It leads to barbarity, despotism and genocide. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain famously proclaimed “peace for our time” after Western powers failed to honor their security commitments to Czechoslovakia, instead ratifying Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland. Less than a year later, the world was embroiled in a war during which the most horrific atrocities were committed by a despot emboldened by appeasement nurtured by propaganda that, as today, presented a false narrative ignoring the human rights of millions of Europeans.

Contemporary international human rights law is informed by the atrocities of World War II. Crimes against humanity were codified in the charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1945, and subsequent international treaties provide that the deliberate, widespread or systematic killing of civilians by an organization or government is a crime against humanity. This is precisely what the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other terrorist organizations masquerading as quasi-governmental entities purporting to speak for the Palestinian Arabs are doing: deliberately and systematically killing (and attempting to kill) Jewish civilians in Israel. This is a crime against humanity.

More than that, the actions of these entities constitute war crimes as defined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and in the Additional Protocols of 1977 that supplement the Conventions. The Conventions and Protocols prohibit targeting civilians. The prohibitions on indiscriminate warfare are considered the norms of customary international law. Indiscriminate attacks are those that are not aimed at military targets or, as a result of the method of attack cannot be aimed at military targets. International law is being entirely ignored by Hamas and so-called pro-Palestinian actors as they launch salvos of rockets indiscriminately, targeting Jewish population centers in Israel. This is a war crime.

So, too, is using civilians as human shields to protect critical military infrastructure. It is undisputed (albeit inadequately reported) that terrorist-controlled rocket launchers are emplaced in the midst of housing developments, that terrorist operations are planned and directed from offices co-located with the civilian population, and that tunnels used for offensive military purposes are strategically dug in residential areas. Moreover, the people manning the rocket launchers that target Israeli civilians are not themselves civilians, as claimed, but rather militants.

Hamas and its cohorts have every reason to continue using civilians as human shields when they see politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Sanders demand a halt to Israel’s self-defense as they seek a Chamberlin-esque “peace for our time.” These politicians, who have unquestioningly bought into the false narrative and propaganda coming from terrorists, are not just facilitating more attacks against Israeli civilians. They embolden terrorists to continue using human shields, resulting in the deaths of Palestinian Arab civilians. The recklessness of these politicians is staggering.

Just as there can be no legal equivalence between the terrorist attacks against Israel’s civilian population and Israel’s self-defense, there can be no equivocation in America’s commitment to the safety and security of Israel and its people. Ultimately, treating (or attempting to treat) an aggressor on the same moral terms as its victim is contrary to the norms of international law that calls for punishment for perpetrators of war crimes. Without this clarity of understanding by America’s leaders, our allies will question our commitments to their security and shake the bedrock of American foreign policy.

America’s honor and standing in the world will be imperiled, and global security jeopardized, by any failure on the part of the American government to clearly and unequivocally support Israel as its civilian population faces constant attack by terrorists.

Gerard Filitti is Senior Counsel at The Lawfare Project.