The Inability to Distinguish
Combatants and Civilians in the Gaza Conflict
Massacre in Korea, 1951, Pablo Picasso
The past two weeks following the October 7th attack by Hamas on Israel have seen some of the worst dialogue surrounding the status of civilians in warfare that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.
There is a fundamental framework for the conduct of war in the modern era that ought to be unimpeachable by any party or political tendency—that there is a firm and unmistakable difference between a civilian and a combatant. Whether in State or Non-State warfare, the legal and moral category of who constitutes a combatant is something that we should collectively be able to recognize. It is a category that transcends political cause or State allegiance and is predicated on our shared humanness.
Outside of the most depraved corners of the internet, or most viscerally committed pro-Russian propagandists, the massacres committed by Russian forces at Bucha and across Ukraine were rightfully recognized as the horrors that they were. Innocent civilians were shot in basements, malls were bombed and lives irrecoverably shattered.
We also all understand implicitly that these were not acts incidental to the conduct of war. These were not accidental strikes in which all due care was taken by Russian forces to prevent civilian deaths—they were horrific crimes as they were the intentional targeting of innocents.
This brings me to the past two weeks. Wide swathes of both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian supporters have taken it upon themselves to construct intricate arguments for why the intentional disregard for the category of civilian is not applicable to their opponents. Why the other side is fundamentally not human and worthy of being distinguished from a combatant in the ongoing conflict.
For a segment of the Pro-Palestinian camp, the haute term has been to describe the Israeli civilians killed by Hamas in the October 7th attack as not civilians but as settlers. Dispensing with much of the academic jargon behind the use of this term—most of which amounts to graduate students who read Fanon’s Wikipedia page—it is essentially a rhetorical tool to justify the ethnic cleansing of Israeli civilians.
It is meant to develop a language that is capable of dispensing with the legal and moral category of being a uniformed combatant who is engaged in hostilities. A grandmother, some children, and a bunch of concertgoers aren’t actually civilians you see, but they are accomplices in a system of violence against which any blow is acceptable. If you just place it in the proper historical context, well then of course you’d see.
Really this is just an attempt to sidestep what makes a civilian a civilian—namely that they are not involved in hostilities—by assigning them to a new category in which there is nothing they can do to avoid being an active guilty party. It provides a manner of seeing the world in which the destruction of innocents is actually a liberatory act, a form of cosmic justice.
You shouldn’t concern yourself with the over 1,000 people who were mercilessly killed in a planned military operation. Never think about them as individuals who merely wanted to live their lives in peace—to come home to their friends and families. It demands you don’t recognize what is directly in front of your face for what it is.
Similarly, the rhetoric of the Israeli State and its most vocal supporters has been equally eliminationist in its rhetoric. Cutting off water, food, and electricity to Gaza is acceptable since the millions of civilians living in Gaza are personally responsible for the actions of Hamas.
Of course, never mind that Hamas has not had an election since 2006, and those living in Gaza have no say whatsoever in who governs over them. Forget that they have nowhere else to go. In the words of the Israeli defense minister—they are all animals—so what act against them isn’t justified?
In the past two weeks, the IDF has killed more civilians than the international coalition killed in the 9-month-long Siege of Mosul. They have fired thousands of munitions into one of the most densely populated sections of the world, at an operational tempo that precludes even the most incredulous observer from believing that they are practicing even a token level of care for preventing collateral damage.
Furthermore, Israel has been very open about their willingness to use collective punishment against Gaza as revenge for the October 7th Hamas attack. They refuse to open a humanitarian corridor, have lobbied to prevent any aid from reaching Gaza, and have recently all but said they will not distinguish civilians from combatants in an upcoming ground invasion.
Every day in Gaza hundreds of people are being killed. Children are being buried in the rubble. Settlers have been gunning down random Palestinians in the West Bank for no crime other than to have been born on land that those settlers wanted.
The reasons really aren’t terribly different from the pro-Palestinian camp. Instead of being settlers, in this context, they are all terrorists and animals who are unworthy of being given the consideration of any distinction in status. It is the same sort of random terror and violence inflicted by Assad upon innocents who have no choice about where they live.
The brutality inflicted upon Palestinians by Israel for decades does not provide any sort of framework that makes the massacre of October 7th acceptable. In turn, the horrors committed by Hamas in no way provide any excuse for the flagrant violation of international law by Israel now.
There is no excuse for any of this. It is not the warfare that is conducted by those who recognize in their enemy the same humanness as themselves. Nobody needs to accept any of the reasoning provided by any of these sides for the atrocities they’ve deemed themselves allowed to commit. They’re all wrong.
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