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What are the 'rules of war' and how do they apply in Gaza?

Local Palestinians are suffering amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza. This is leading some to allege violations of the "rules of war."
What are the 'rules of war' and how do they apply in Gaza?
Posted at 3:04 PM, Oct 17, 2023

As a ground invasion of Gaza by Israel looms, critics of the Jewish state say innocent Palestinians are suffering. 

"The past eight days, they were a nightmare for every single person living in Gaza Strip. We're living in constant fear," said Suzanne Baciso, a U.S. citizen in Gaza.

"We lost a colleague in our department the day before yesterday. He was killed with his family of 30 when their house was targeted," said Professor Ghassan Abu Sitta, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Shifa Hospital.

This is leading some to allege violations of the "rules of war," like targeting civilians and collective punishment. 

Even in war, there are rules to govern the conflict. A combination of international treaties and long-held customs create "international humanitarian law" — enforced by the International Criminal Court. 

These "rules of war" come down to a simple guiding principle. 

"Go back to the rules of kindergarten, which essentially were, do unto others as you would like done unto you," said Brett Bruen, former global engagement director for the Obama Administration.

Bruen says Israel shouldn't target Palestinian civilians. 

"Israel has an obligation not to target them and to make every effort to keep them safe. And I think what Israel would say is we go to extreme lengths to try and protect civilians, both in terms of what we choose to target, when we choose to target it," said Bruen. 

Bruen says there is an inherent challenge for a nation like Israel to engage a terrorist group like Hamas while following these humanitarian principles. 

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"You have non-state actors, the likes of al-Qaida, ISIS and now Hamas, who don't subscribe to any of those rules of war," said Bruen. 

Hamas has killed women and children, taken innocent civilians hostage and hidden amongst the people of Gaza — all violations of rules of war. 

"It is important that we not have two standards, that we not say, you know, on the one hand, Israel, you have to fight according to all of these rules — in some cases, rules we the United States have not abided by when we went into Afghanistan or Iraq or elsewhere," said Bruen. 

Along with days of airstrikes, a blockade by Israel to not allow food, electricity, or water into Gaza has been condemned by the United Nations as a violation of international law. 

"We need the necessities of life. Electricity. Water. Food. Drink. There is no water. There is no water at all. Medicines for children. Food. Drink. There is nothing," said Eyad Khalil, a 40-year-old Palestinian trying to buy food for the eight people in his family.

Humanitarian aid has been stuck for days at Egypt's border with Gaza. But President Biden says he is still confident that Israel will allow some aid in. 

"I'm confident that Israel is going to act under the measure ... the rules of war. I'm confident that there's gonna be an ability for the innocents in Gaza to be able to have access to medicine and food and water," said President Biden.

Bruen says these rules are only as good as their enforcement, which is tough to deliver on an international stage. 

He says the rules of war are really guidelines that a responsible nation should exercise in military action. 

"You should take it in a way that is responsible. You should take it in a way that demonstrates your values and ideally does not, you know, create another generation of terrorists, but at the same time, you cannot shrink from taking those steps," said Bruen. 


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