Unlawful and Deadly, Amnesty International’s recent report on ‘rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict’, accuses Hamas and others of carrying out ‘indiscriminate attacks’ on Israel: ‘When indiscriminate attacks kill or injure civilians, they constitute war crimes.’
The report reiterates a formal symmetry between Israelis and Palestinians (previous reports have accused Israel of war crimes during Operation Protective Edge), asking both parties to take all precautions to respect civilian lives, and reminding them to ‘choose appropriate means and methods of attack’.
The use of weapons that are inherently indiscriminate such as unguided rockets is prohibited. And the use in densely populated areas of imprecise weapons that cannot be directed at a military objective with sufficient precision, such as mortars, is likely to result in indiscriminate attacks and is also prohibited.
There is an implied contrast with Israel’s superior technological capabilities, which the IDF claims allow it to carry out airstrikes with ‘surgical precision’. But the figures tell a different story. At least 2100 Palestinians were killed during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza last summer; around 1500 are believed to have been civilians (according to Amnesty some of them were killed by stray Palestinian rocket fire). On the Israeli side, 72 people were killed, 66 combatants and six civilians. These numbers point to a clear discrepancy. It is not only that Israel killed 300 times as many Palestinian civilians, but that the proportion of civilian deaths among Palestinians was much greater: 70 per cent of those killed by Israel were civilians, compared to 8 per cent of those killed by Palestinians. These figures clearly indicate that there is no correlation between precision bombing and distinguishing combatants from civilians. Hi-tech weapons systems can kill indiscriminately too.
Amnesty’s report shows not only how slippery international humanitarian law can be, but also that human rights organisations tend to ignore asymmetries of power, and reproduce them. The report essentially says that using homemade missiles – there isn’t much else available to people living under permanent siege – is a war crime. In other words, Palestinian armed groups are criminalised for their technological inferiority.
Nicola Perugini is Assistant Professor and Head of the Human Rights and International Law Program at the Al Quds Bard Honors College (Jerusalem). You can follow him @PeruginiNic
This article originally ran in the London Review of Books.