Legal and Moral Responsibility for "Collateral Damage"

by Mordecai Plaut

Salah Shehadeh, head of the Izzadin Al Kassem Brigades of the Hamas, was killed by a one-ton bomb dropped on the building in which he was staying in Gaza. None of the surrounding buildings was seriously damaged and none of the residents in those buildings was killed. According to Palestinian reports -- which are usually very exaggerated -- nine other people were killed and over a hundred were injured in the surrounding buildings. Most of the others who were said to be killed, lived in rubble and hovels around the building and Israeli intelligence apparently did not realize that they were there.

Of those killed, at least one was another Hamas member. Another was Shehadeh's wife, who was publicly photographed dressed as a fighter some months ago, meaning that she was not a civilian bystander.

Israel has publicly explained why it was important to kill Shehadeh and also detailed the great efforts it made to make sure that only Shehadeh was killed.

Salah Shehadeh was a very competent mass murderer who was responsible for hundreds of Israeli deaths and many Palestinian deaths as well. He was actively planning many more murders, including horrible plans that would murder hundreds of innocents at once. He had the imagination and the organizational ability to launch these awful nightmares, and the world is certainly a much better place without him. Abilities such as his, especially in a society that reveres them, could easily be directed elsewhere by him or by those taught by him. Indiscriminate and cruel murder is driven by an evil dynamic of its own and tomorrow -- or ten years from now -- there is no telling where it will be directed. Those whom the CIA taught to kill in Afghanistan later used their skills against America.

Israeli intelligence has followed Shehadeh's movements for months, and had refrained from doing anything because it did not want to kill anyone else, even though doing so allowed him to continue his murderous work.

One of the primary principles that underlies all international agreements about warfare is that fighting and killing should be confined to the fighting and killing forces. Civilian casualties are to be avoided at all costs and must never be targeted. Accordingly, fighters are supposed to be dressed in distinctive clothing and they are supposed to live apart from civilians, such as in army bases, so that they may be legally targeted, though they will of course be defended.

However, the framers of this law recognized the tactical temptation there is to use civilians as shields. Fighters may dress like civilians and live among civilians so that they will be difficult to target. Thus they thought through the legal and moral character of such behavior and concluded that fighters who live among civilians and dress like them are fully responsible for all civilian casualties that result from the legitimate attempt of their enemies to defend themselves against their efforts.

Salah Shehadeh had no legal right -- and certainly no moral right -- to target the many civilians he murdered, much less to harm them. All Israeli fighters are clearly dressed as such.

Israel had every legal and moral right to target him and, according to international law, the responsibility for other damage and destruction is his, not Israel's.

It is also worth nothing that Palestinian society glorifies and welcomes the death of its own citizens. Though we will never accept their ethics in this respect or anything else, Rachmono litzlan, remembering this can help the heart assent to conclusions of the mind that are described above.

May these weeks of comfort bring comfort to all the bereaved, and a final end to all the bloodshed.

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