Interview with Franklin Lamb: Self Defense or War Crime? (Part II)

By International Lawyers Sans Frontiers

Part II: Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law: What Remedy?

Interviewer’s Note: On December 27, 2008, Israel launched a devastating 22 day and night bombardment of the Gaza strip. The assault left, amidst an estimated 600,000 tons of concrete rubble, some 1,740 dead (this figure includes more than 350 ‘forgotten’ stillbirths and trauma-caused abortions in Gaza during the 22 days of terror), a figure that increases as the severely injured continue to die. A majority of the victims were civilians, including nearly 900 (again including the stillborn) children, approximately 5,500 severely wounded, and more than one third of the 1.5 million population was displaced while more than 14,000 homes were completely destroyed. Approximately 92,000 Palestinians are still homeless with more than 16,000 living as many as 20 to a small tent without latrines, as supplies remain blocked at the borders.

International Lawyers Sans Frontiers and Hokok, the International Coalition against Impunity, asked American international lawyer and researcher, Dr. Franklin Lamb, of the Sabra-Shatila Foundation, currently based in Beirut, to comment on Israeli claims. In the following interview Lamb offers his brief analysis of the conduct of Israel and Hamas, against a backdrop of continuing on-the-ground investigations in Gaza. Dr. Lamb was interviewed at UNESCO Palace in Beirut. A transcript follows.

Part II: Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law: What Remedy?

(Also Read: Part I: What Law Applies?)

International Lawyers Sans Frontiers: Is the firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel lawful under international law?

Dr. Franklin Lamb: No. As a Palestinian Resistance force to Israel’s illegal occupation Hamas does have the right and responsibility to oppose it. In addition, as the legal sovereign power in Gaza and as a party to the armed conflict, Hamas has a legal duty to protect the life, health and safety of its civilians as well as the noncombatants of those placing its people under siege and blockade, essentially the same ’self defense’ argument Israel makes.

Hamas argues that it has a right of self defense and that firing rockets into south Israel is legitimate because they are firing soldiers not civilians and this is the area from which the Israeli tanks, planes and troops come from.

The targeting of military installations and other military objectives inside Israel is permitted as retaliation for Israeli attacks on the people of Gaza but not on civilians and Hamas must take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm. Launching indiscriminate attacks, or attacking military objects with indiscriminate weapons or if the anticipated harm to civilians and other noncombatants will be disproportionate to the expected military advantage this action constitutes a war crime. Hamas commanders must choose the means of attack that can be directed at military targets and will minimize incidental harm to civilians.

For example, if the weapons used are so inaccurate that they cannot be directed at Israeli military targets without imposing a substantial risk of civilian harm, then they cannot legally be deployed.

The use of such inaccurate weapons such as Qassim homemade rockets, white phosphorus artillery shells or cluster bombs as in Lebanon in 2006, is a blatant violation of international humanitarian law because their use in civilian areas violates the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks. International law prohibits such bombardment near or in any area containing a concentration of civilians, even if there are believed to be military objectives in the area.

Deliberately attacking civilians is in all circumstances prohibited and it constitutes a war crime, even if in retaliation for Israeli attacks, however unjust this may seem in the heat of battle. The presumption is that the targets were civilian and therefore criminal attacks. The burden is on Hamas and Israel to convince the fact trier that their targets were military targets.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: In Gaza, was Israel entitled to target Gazan infrastructure such as roads, bridges and power stations?

FL: No, with very limited exceptions. Airports, roads, streets, and bridges may be dual-use targets if actually used for military purposes. However, even then, the International customary and treaty law require the parties to the conflict to weigh carefully the impact on civilians against the military advantage served. They must consider all ways of minimizing the impact on civilians and they cannot legally undertake attacks if the civilian harm outweighs the definite military advantage. Additionally, one has to consider whether the destruction of particular roads, streets or bridges impede military transport in light of readily alternative routes and whether the infrastructure attacked is making an “effective” contribution to Hamas’ military action and its destruction offers a “definite military advantage”.

If its destruction is aimed more at inconveniencing the civilian population and even preventing it from fleeing the fighting and seeking safety, as many have claimed during the Gaza war, including some Israeli military commanders, it’s a war crime.

With respect to electrical facilities supplying the civilian population of Gaza, they are almost never legitimate military targets. Professor Alan Derchowitz and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs are currently arguing, as they did in 2006, that electricity is a dual-use target, given that both civilians and Hamas fighters use electricity. However the harm to civilians in Gaza was enormous, affecting refrigeration, sanitation, hospitals and other necessities of modern life and in a densely urban society, electricity is arguably “indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,” meaning that it can be attacked only in extremely narrow circumstances. Final judgment must await more detailed on-the-ground investigation, but Israel faces a very high burden to justify any of its thousands of infrastructure attacks on Gaza during its 22 days of bombing.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: Was Israel entitled to bomb the home of Hamas leaders such as the Interior Minister, Nizar Rayan along with 10 of his children, four wives and two neighbors?

FL: No. International law allows only the targeting of military commanders actually in the course of armed conflict, provided that such attacks otherwise comply with the laws that protect civilians. Normally, political leaders, as civilians, would not be legitimate targets of attack. The only exception to this rule is if their role, as commander of troops, or their direct participation in military hostilities renders them effectively combatants. To date there is no evidence that this was the case with Gaza Interior Minister Rayan. Israel has a heavy burden of proving otherwise.

We should bear in mind that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) defines, direct participation in hostilities as acts of war which by their nature and purpose are likely to cause actual harm to the personnel and equipment of enemy armed forces, and includes acts of defense. Consequently, Hamas political leaders could only be targeted individually, not his family, if Israel could show that he was effectively commanding Hamas forces. This has not been shown to date.

In principle, it is permitted to target the location where a combatant resides or works. However, as with any attack on an otherwise legitimate military target, the attacking force must refrain from attack if it would disproportionately harm the civilian population or be launched in a way that fails to discriminate between combatants and civilians. Israel failed to do this in the ____ case.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: Can Israel attack neighborhoods that house Hamas leaders or offices? And what are Hamas’ obligations regarding the use of civilian areas for military activities?

FL: Where the targeting of a combatant takes place in an urban area such as Gaza, one of the eight most densely populated areas on earth, the belligerent parties are under a strict legal duty to protect the civilian population, as the bombing of urban areas significantly increases the risks to the civilian population.

As of the December 27, 2008 commencement of Israel’s attack, the defending party in Gaza was Hamas. Israel thus had a legal duty to take all necessary precautions to protect civilians in Gaza against the dangers resulting from its bombardments.

This means that while Hamas must avoid locating military objectives, such weapons, ammunition and headquarters, within densely populated areas, Israel must avoid risks to civilians. It does not meet this obligation by claiming that it considers Hamas responsible for having located legitimate military targets within or near populated areas, or that Hamas may be using the civilian population as a shield.

The law is clear on this. Let us assume that Hamas placed weapons inside the basement of a civilian building, a clear violation. Israel is absolutely required to refrain from launching any attack that may be expected to cause excessive civilian loss when compared to the objective calculation of concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. In other words, a violation by Hamas does not give Israel the right to bomb civilians countless times in Gaza because of a suspected or even proved violation by Hamas. The reason is that the intentional launch of an attack in an area without regard to the civilian consequences or in the knowledge that the harm to civilians would be disproportionately high compared to any definite military benefit to be achieved would be a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime.

Even the presence of a Hamas fighters, commanders or military facility in a populated area never justifies attacking the area, but rather only the specific target can be individually targeted. It is a prohibited indiscriminate attack, and a war crime, to treat an entire area as a military target instead of attacking the particular military facilities or personnel within that area.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: Did Israel and or Hamas use Human shields in Gaza?

FL: The evidence to date is overwhelming that Israel used human shields despite its consistent denials. It is less clear so far about Hamas and we await the results of on the ground investigations, and hopefully a United Nations Security Council investigation, which your organizations and other have called for.

More than 60 years of Israeli practice, going back to the ‘Iron Wall’ doctrine first enunciated by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s which has heavily influenced Israeli policy since 1948, shows that the Israeli military frequently shoots or rockets civilians whether or not they happen to be near military areas.

Israel is accused by many of frequently taking human shields in Gaza during the recent invasion. To date more than 90 cases have been documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, journalists and NGO’s currently working inside Gaza. According to a credible report by Donald Macintyre and Amnesty International, on January 5, 2009, at Jabalya Gaza, the second day of their ground offense, 40 old Majdi Abed Rabbo was forced by Israeli troops to protect themselves and to risk his life as a go-between in the hunt for three Hamas fighters. Abed Rabbo reported to Amnesty International that he was handcuffed for two days and abused by a unit of Israeli troops. The Israeli unit assigned him many tasks such as opening car doors, entering buildings ahead of Israeli troops as cover for them, first, being hit with rifle butts if he resisted their orders, forcing him to search houses and rooms and to enter a house where injured Hamas fighters were suspected in order to convey messages from the Israeli troops. Abed Rabbo witnessed other civilians being used as human shields and, as he reported, being forced to enter houses and take surveillance photos.

Astonishing numbers of verified accounts, more than 30 as of last week, gathered by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) and Hamoked, the Center for the Defense of the Individual are emerging from Gaza. The gathered evidence indicates that many detainees – minors as well as adults – were held for many hours – sometimes for days – in pits dug in the ground, exposed to bitter cold and harsh weather, handcuffed and blindfolded. According to Majdi Mohammed Ayid al-Atar, 43 of Northern Gaza, one of the individuals used by Israeli troops as human shields, the pits were without shelter, toilets or adequate food and water, with approximately 70 of his neighbors handcuffed and blindfolded and put in a ten foot deep ditch. Some detainees have testified that they had been held near tanks and in combat areas. While Israel says it will investigate scores of these claims, it faces a heavy burden of proof with respect to its use of human shields, as groups such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights, B’Tselem, Yesh Din and Adalah continue to document cases of Israeli forces using human shields.

Each use of a human shield is a war crime. The crime of “shielding” has been defined as intentionally using the presence of civilians to render certain points, areas, or military forces immune from military attack. Taking over a family’s house and not permitting the family to leave for safety so as to deter the enemy from attacking is a simple example of human shields. Evidence from victims, NGO’s, and hospital and rescue services strongly suggests that Israel made widespread use of this illegal practice in Gaza. While it may be unlawful, as noted above, to place forces, weapons and ammunition within or near densely populated areas, it is only shielding when there is a specific intent to use the civilians to deter an attack.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: Was it lawful for Israel to attack Hamas radio and television stations?

FL: No. Military attacks on broadcast facilities used for military communications are legitimate under international humanitarian law. But such attacks on civilian television or radio stations are prohibited if they are designed primarily to undermine civilian morale or to psychologically harass the civilian population. Civilian television and radio stations are legitimate targets only if they are used in a way that makes an “effective contribution to military action” and their destruction at the time offers “a definite military advantage.” Specifically, Hamas-operated civilian broadcast facilities could become military targets if, for example, they are used to send military messages or otherwise concretely to advance Hamas’ armed campaign against Israel. However, civilian broadcasting facilities are not legitimate military targets simply because they broadcast pro-Hamas or anti-Israel propaganda. Neither contributes directly to military operations, it is unlawful to attack them merely because they may shape civilian opinion.

Israel’s remedy is to counter Hamas broadcasts with competing broadcast of its own, i.e. broadcasts for broadcasts, propaganda for propaganda, not bombing.

Israel, during the ongoing period of international investigations, can offer any evidence it has that Gaza stations became legitimate military objectives because of their use to transmit military communications. If it has any proof, the principle of proportionality in attack must still be respected. This means that Israeli military planners and commanders should verify at all times that the risks to the civilian population in undertaking any such attack do not outweigh the anticipated military benefit.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: Lawyers defending Israel, specifically lawyers Justus Weiner and Avi Bell, of the Israeli government funded Jerusalem Center, as well as Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School are arguing that warnings given to Palestinians in Gaza in advance of Israeli attacks comply with international humanitarian law. What is your view?

FL: These claims are spurious. The IDF, through leaflets dropped by aircraft, and recorded messages to telephones, did in some cases call of Gazan civilians to evacuate their homes and neighborhoods.

International humanitarian law requires that warring parties give effective advance warning of attacks that may affect the civilian population if circumstances permit. What constitutes an effective warning depends on the circumstances such as the timing of the warning and the ability of the civilians to leave the area. In some cases the IDF are reported to have dropped leaflets in Gaza giving residents only two hours warning before a threatened attack. In other reports that gave 30 minutes or 5 minutes or “now!”

The required warning is made largely useless in cases as in Gaza, where bomb damage to roads and bridges, as well as air attacks on civilian vehicles, effectively prevented the ability of civilians to flee an expected attack. Virtually every Palestinian, inside or outside the Gaza refugee camps set up following their ethnic cleansing in the 6 months before and after Israel was created in May of 1948, believes from experience that they themselves are targets of Israel during hostilities.

In Gaza, evidence to date suggests that Israeli warnings we calculated to cause forced displacement, threatening civilians with deliberate harm if they did not heed them. Israel failed in its duty also because even after warnings have been given, its attacking forces were required to still take all feasible precautions to avoid loss of civilian life and property. This includes canceling an attack when it becomes apparent that the target is civilian or that the civilian loss would be disproportionate to the expected military gain. Israel appeared to use its warnings as acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population that is their statement calling for the evacuation of areas that are not genuine warnings, but are primarily intended to cause panic among residents or compel them to leave their homes for reasons other than their safety The Geneva Convention prohibits this practice and violating the prohibition is a war crime.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: The same group of lawyers working with the government of Israel has published articles arguing that Israel’s land and sea blockade of Gaza is legal. What is your view?

FL: They have it backwards. Both are illegal. Under the provisions of the International Law of the Sea and the Laws of Armed Conflict, Israel has illegally targeted Gaza’s only international border crossings, imposed a naval blockade for the past 18 months, attacked ports, and bombed road escape routes out of the country. Blockades as a tool of war are sometimes legitimate under international humanitarian law; however, their imposition is subject to the principle of military necessity and proportionality.

As Hamas has no navy or shipping fleet, the Israeli blockade, which was set up long before the current attack, appears to have as its primary purpose the intimidation, harassment or starvation of Gaza’s civilian population. Several humanitarian aid boat crews have been threatened with death if they failed to desist in their mission to Gaza. In December one was actually attacked and severely damaged. These actions are forbidden by international humanitarian law, which prohibits armed forces from deliberately causing the civilian population to suffer hunger by depriving it of its sources of food or supplies.

As you mentioned, Israeli recruited lawyers, without offering any proof, have attempted to justify the blockade of Gaza, on the grounds that it restricts the re-supply of the military. Moreover, this purpose must be weighed against the costs to the civilian population. Those costs can also shift over time, as shortages of necessities intensify. Even if a blockade were assumed lawful at the outset, it could become unlawful if mounting civilian costs became too high and outweighed the direct military advantage. In those circumstances – for example, if food or medical supplies ran low – Israel would be obliged to permit free passage of material that is essential for civilians and to protect humanitarian personnel delivering those supplies. Numerous testimonies to from eye witnesses including aid workers, journalists, medical staff and local officials suggest that this was not the case.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: If the targets are legitimate military objects, was Israel’s use of weapons like DIME, white phosphorus, and cluster bombs legal in Gaza?

FL: Under international law, none of these weapons can be used in or near civilian areas because the blast effects of these weapons cannot be directed at military targets without imposing a substantial risk of civilian harm and the weapons cannot distinguish between military targets and civilians. Many cases of Israel’s misuse of these weapons are being documented by an increasing number of on-the-ground investigations.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: Israeli lawyers, again, specifically Justus Weiner, Avi Bell, and Alan Dershowitz have all argued that Israel has not engaged in “collective punishment” in Gaza. What is meant by collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza and what is your view?

FL: International law prohibits the punishment of any person for an offense other than one that he or she has personally committed. Collective punishment is a term used in international law to describe any form of punitive sanctions and harassment, not limited to judicial penalties, but including sanctions of any sort, administrative, by police action or otherwise, that are imposed on targeted groups of persons for actions that they themselves did not personally commit. The imposition of collective punishment is a war crime. Whether an Israeli attack or measure in Gaza amounted to collective punishment depends on the target of the measure and its punitive impact, but of particular relevance is the intent behind a particular measure. If the intention was to punish, purely or primarily as a result of an act committed by third parties, then the attack is collective punishment.

It is true that many have accused Israel of collective punishment in Gaza including UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, Amnesty International, Professor Richard Falk, Jeremy Hobbs, Director of Oxfam International, and many others.

I have here a statement by Richard Falk on January 12, 2009 in which he correctly states the law in my view:

And still Israel maintains its Gaza siege in its full fury, allowing only barely enough food and fuel to enter to stave off mass famine and disease. Such a policy of collective punishment.. Such a policy of collective punishment, initiated by Israel to punish Gazans for political developments within the Gaza Strip, constitutes a continuing flagrant and massive violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: What were Israel’s and Hamas’ obligations to agencies seeking to provide humanitarian assistance?

FL: Israel’s military operations in Gaza displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and cut off many others from access to food, medical care and basic necessities. Humanitarian agencies had great difficulty reaching the populations in need because of the ongoing Israeli bombing campaigns, including air attacks targeting border passages, roadways, streets, UN buildings, schools and vehicles. For 22 days and nights Israel failed to secure safe passage for humanitarian convoys for basic necessities or for wounded persons or to evacuate civilians from areas of active conflict.

Under international humanitarian law, parties to a conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid and unimpeded passage of impartially distributed humanitarian aid to the population in need. The belligerent parties must consent to allowing relief operations to take place, and may not refuse such consent on arbitrary grounds. They can take steps to control the content and delivery of humanitarian aid, such as to ensure that consignments do not include weapons. However, deliberately impeding relief supplies is prohibited, and doing so as part of an effort to starve or pressure civilians is a war crime.

Additionally, international humanitarian law requires that belligerent parties ensure the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel essential to the exercise of their functions. This can be restricted only temporarily for reasons of imperative military necessity. As on-the-ground investigations continue, much evidence is emerging that Israel interfered with humanitarian relief personnel, constituting war crimes.

Now that some journalists and NGO relief agencies are being allowed in, Amnesty International has documented the Israeli attack on19 medical workers within 20 days, or about one a day killed. They documented the shelling of ambulances that were clearly marked as such or NGO rescue vehicles that were marked, such as Save the Children. One woman testified about how she raised a Save the Children logo flag, and it was still attacked. Each such incident in a punishable war crime and that accountability runs up the chain of command of the Israeli military.

Intl. Lawyers w/o Frontiers: Finally Dr. Lamb, what can individuals do to help enforce the requirements of international law in order to help ensure the safety of the Palestinians trapped in Gaza.

FL: There are so many actions that individuals and human rights and grass root organizations can take that are calculated to support and uphold the Principles, Standards and Rules of International Humanitarian Law with respect to Palestine/Israel and specifically, Israel’s war against Gaza.

For many years going back to the 1970’s Israeli aggressions against Lebanon and Palestine have caused an increasing percentage of the international public to assert that “Israel has gone too far, something must be done”. The attacks from 1978 (Operation Litani), the July 1981 Bombardment of the Fakhani area of Beirut, the 1982 invasion and occupation of Beirut (Peace for Galilee) and the Sabra-Shatila Massacre, 1993 (Reverse Direction), 1996 (Grapes of Wrath) the West Bank including Jenin in 2002 (Operation Defensive Shield), and the July 2006 War on Lebanon, among others.

The carnage of Gaza 2009 has seen more individuals and organizations calling for measures to hold Israel accountable for its actions than ever before.

Individuals and organizations can encourage and support measures such as boycotts and divestitures within their countries and among their local governments as well as join the international efforts such as demanding international investigations like those currently being undertaken by the United Nations (concerning the shelling of a UN school in Jabaliya that killed 43 and wounded scores of others as well as other alleged Israeli attacks on civilians) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (investigating the use of depilated uranium) in Israel actions.

Among them I would suggest the following:

With respect to the more than 300 submissions to International Criminal Court regarding Israeli crimes in Gaza, individuals and organizations can submit evidence to the Office of the Prosecution under Article 15 of the Rome Statute and support the call for other tribunals to investigate and judge war crimes committed in Gaza perpetrated from all quarters. The Court staff is very helpful and Submissions can be emailed to: or faxed to: +31 70 515 8555.

Local petitions, taking their governments to task for selling arms to Israel, demonstrations, briefings, teach-ins, op-ed pieces, letters to the editors of journals and newspapers, and talking about the issues involved will all help. This pattern of rejecting the norms of civilized conduct must not be allowed to continue and we as individuals are the ones, who can, by our persistence, bring it to an end as history rejects the injustice of the occupation of Palestine.

Individuals and organization can express solidarity with this week’s launch by the Turkish state prosecutor of an investigation into claims of Israeli crimes against humanity and genocide. The complaint is against those who the Turkish Petitioners claim they can prove were in some way responsible for giving orders for the attack on Gaza including 19 Israeli officials and makes use of Article 13 of the Turkish Penal Code, which allows Turkish courts to try those charged with committing genocide and torture, even if the crime was perpetrated in another country.

Similar initiatives are under way in France and more than 25 European Union countries. Each should be supported. Domestic laws in many countries allow for claims against international crimes and they should be researched and employed by citizens

Lobby for the suspension of Israel from the entire United Nations System, including the General Assembly and all U.N. subsidiary organs and bodies. What the U.N. General Assembly has done to genocidal Yugoslavia and to the criminal apartheid regime in South Africa is fully applicable to Israel. The legal basis for the de facto suspension of Israel at the U.N. was explained recently by Professor Francis Boyle and I would like to quote him:

As a condition for its admission to the United Nations Organization, Israel formally agreed to accept General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) (1947) (partition/Jerusalem trusteeship) and General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) (1948) (Palestinian right of return), inter alia. Nevertheless, the government of Israel has expressly repudiated both Resolution 181 (II) and Resolution 194 (III). Therefore, Israel has violated its conditions for admission to U.N. membership and thus must be suspended on a de facto basis from any participation throughout the entire United Nations System.

Second, any further negotiations with Israel must be conducted on the basis of Resolution 181 (II) and its borders; Resolution 194 (III); subsequent General Assembly resolutions and Security Council resolutions; the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949; the 1907 Hague Regulations; and other relevant principles of public international law.

Individuals and organizations should encourage the Palestine National Authority, the Provisional Government of the State of Palestine to sue Israel before the International Court of Justice in The Hague for inflicting acts of genocide against the Palestinian People in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention;

The international community must work on the local level to have the U.N. General Assembly impose economic, diplomatic, and travel sanctions upon Israel pursuant to the terms of the 1950 Uniting for Peace Resolution.

Individuals and organizations should support Professor Francis Boyle’s call for an International Criminal Tribunal for Israel (ICTI). This can be established by the UN General Assembly as a “subsidiary organ” under article 22 of the UN Charter. Article 22 of the UN Charter states the UN General Assembly may establish such subsidiary organs as it deems necessary for the performance of its functions. With this legal mechanism, the GA could convene legal, military and human rights experts to investigate the entire range of war crimes allegations made during the Gaza war, by Israel and Hama. The purpose of the ICTI would be to investigate and Prosecute suspected Israeli war criminals for offences against the Palestinian people including the recent aggression against Gaza.

(Also Read: Part I: What Law Applies?)

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