Monday, December 4, 2023

Humanitarian War: An Oxymoron

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By Col R Hariharan

Israel’s revenge against the Hamas in Gaza has once again highlighted the humanitarian concerns of waging war against terrorists. It was triggered by the Hamas infiltrating across the border killing 1,200 Israelis and foreigners and abducting 240 people. 

The war started on October 7 and already over 12,000 people have died, including Israeli and Palestinian civilians and combatants. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that children form over a third of the dead.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which has been providing relief to Palestine people living in West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza since May 1950, reported the death of 102 of its own relief workers as of November 14. Many more of them are unaccounted and could be stuck under the rubble. Around 1.6 million people have been internally displaced and housed in relief camps.

Only one fifth of the 35 hospitals in Gaza are functioning. The Hamas appears to have used many of them as a cover for constructing extensive underground tunnels to store weapons and house cadres. As a result of rocket and missile attacks against the underground system, many hospitals have been out of action, causing casualties among patients. The Agency has estimated 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza, with more than 180 giving birth every day. Water, fuel and food to feed the refugee population is likely to run out soon. UNRWA is also running out of money—as against $481 million required for relief work till the end of the year, it has only $128.1 million, representing about 27% of the requirement.

Democracies have to be accountable to the people; so, they are hobbled by public opinion in handling the war against terrorists, who are often embedded amidst the population. Often emotions, rather than operational logic, drive their response. This is evident from the emotional responses of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former POTUS George Bush after terrorists attacked their country. Netanyahu in a televised address in October said: “We are at war… Not an operation, not a round, but at war. The enemy will pay an unprecedented price…. Israel would return fire of a magnitude that the enemy has not known.” This echoed Bush’s sentiments after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

Massive protests against Israeli operations in Gaza have been launched not only in Islamic countries, but also in Israel, Europe and America. Countries debating the war in Gaza in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), including India, have reflected the dilemma nations face in responding to Israel’s Gaza operations. 

India, one of the oldest protagonists of the Palestine cause, has taken a tough stand on cross border terrorism since 2019. This is reflected in its stand on the Israel-Hamas war in the UN. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first one to message Netanyahu, condemning the Hamas attack on October 7. India surprised everyone by abstaining when a non-binding Jordanian resolution was voted in UNGA on October 27. The resolution called for “an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” between Israeli forces and Hamas militants in Gaza. The resolution also asked for “continuous, sufficient and unhindered” provision of lifesaving supplies and services for the people trapped inside the enclave. An amendment to condemn the Hamas for the initial attack was voted out. 

However, India voted for another UNGA resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity in “Occupied Palestine Territory, including East Jerusalem and in the occupied Syrian Golan”. India’s Deputy Permanent Representative Yojna Patel, explaining India’s vote, said: “Our thoughts are also with those taken hostage. We call for their immediate and unconditional release….This humanitarian crisis needs to be addressed. We welcome the international community’s de-escalation efforts and delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza.” India too has contributed to this effort.

The Biblical quotation “a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8) reflects the reality of humanity reconciling to the idea of war as a part of life. Major religions speak in support of righteous war. The Bhagavad Gita contains exhortations for going to war for the right cause. The Buddhist middle path and its mindfulness techniques to nurture self-control and sense of moderation, tries to humanise war and prevent its worst excesses. 

History is full of “righteous wars” waged for the right cause. Even righteous wars cause death and destruction of innocent civilians, sidelined as collateral damage. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) traces the roots of concern for civilians in times of war to historic concepts of justice such as the Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC) and the Code of Justinian (ad 529-565). Of course, our own concept of Dharma Yudh encompassing the aspect of protecting civilians in times of war is probably even older.

International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a set of rules to protect persons who are not participating in hostilities, is contained for the most part in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 adopted by all nations. It also restricts the methods and means of warfare. The Conventions have been expanded by two Additional Protocols of 1977 relating to the protection of victims of armed conflict and the 2002 Additional Protocol. These Conventions provide specific rules to safeguard combatants who are wounded, sick or shipwrecked and civilians as well as medical personnel, military chaplains and civilian support workers of the military. The bulk of the Convention Part III Articles 27-141 gives regulations governing the status and treatment of protected persons. These provisions distinguish between the situation of foreigners on the territory of one of the parties to the conflict and that of civilians in the occupied territory.

How will IHL apply to countries fighting terrorists in their own country, often extending to the neighbouring country like in the case of Israel and India? UN member states have been carrying out the UN biennial Global Counter Terrorism Strategy Review (GCTSR). The eighth biennial GCTSR resolution was adopted on June 22. It specifically aims at furthering the promotion of human rights and protection of civilian space. But the heated debate that ensued among member states to deprioritise human rights and civil society engagement, based on their own experience against terrorists, showed the lack of consensus among member countries in evolving an acceptable strategy. This is not surprising as the UN has not been able to evolve even an acceptable definition of terrorism itself.

The war in Gaza is poised to become the greatest human tragedy of the 21st century if Iran’s Hezbollah militant groups, active across Israel’s border in Lebanon and Syria, join it. Netanyahu has issued a direct warning to Hezbollah: “Do not make a mistake and enter the war because …your entry into the war will decide Lebanon’s fate.” The Levant is a cauldron of diverse strategic interests pampering their own terrorist groups. This makes intelligence assessments difficult. 

If Hezbollah does not heed Netanyahu’s words and joins the war, Bertrand Russell’s words: “war does not determine who is right—only who is left” may well come true. That will validate my own cynical finding, after fighting insurgents for a few decades, that humanitarian war is an oxymoron. 

—The writer is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies

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