Opinion: I’m an expert in urban warfare. Israel is upholding the laws of war

gaza diamond dnt
CNN embeds with Israeli forces inside Gaza
03:57 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute (MWI) at West Point, codirector of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project and host of the “Urban Warfare Project Podcast.” He served for 25 years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq. He is the author of the book “Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connection in Modern War” and co-author of “Understanding Urban Warfare.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

All war is hell. All war is killing and destruction, and historically civilians are inordinately the innocent victims of wars. Urban warfare is a unique type of hell not just for soldiers, who face assaults from a million windows or deep tunnels below them, but especially for civilians. Noncombatants have accounted for 90% of casualties per international humanitarian experts in the modern wars that have occurred in populated urban areas such as Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa, even when a Western power like the United States is leading or supporting the campaign.

John Spencer

The destruction and suffering, as awful as they are, don’t automatically constitute war crimes – otherwise, nearly any military action in a populated area would violate the laws of armed conflict, rules distilled from a complicated patchwork of international treaties, court rulings and historic conventions. Scenes of devastation, like Israel’s strikes on the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza earlier this week, quickly spark accusations that Israel is engaging in war crimes, such as indiscriminately killing civilians and engaging in revenge attacks. But war crimes must be assessed on evidence and the standards of armed conflict, not a quick glimpse at the harrowing aftermath of an attack.

Hamas forces indisputably violated multiple laws of war on October 7 in taking Israelis hostage and raping, torturing and directly targeting civilians, as well continuing to attack Israeli population centers with rockets. Years of intelligence assessments and media reports have shown that Hamas also commits war crimes by using human shields for its weapons and command centers and by purposely putting military capabilities in protected sites like hospitals, mosques and schools.

On the other hand, nothing I have seen shows that the Israel Defense Forces are not following the laws of wars in Gaza, particularly when the charges that the IDF is committing war crimes so often come too quickly for there to have been an examination of the factors that determine whether an attack, and the resulting civilian casualties, are lawful. The factors that need to be assessed are the major dimensions of the most commonly agreed to international humanitarian law principles: military necessity, proportionality, distinction, humanity and honor.  

President Joe Biden and multiple European countries, including the UK, Germany and France, are supporting Israel’s self-defense even as they express concerns over the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Though Gaza’s legal status is unresolved under international law, Israel needs no permission to enter the territory and resort to using force in order to wage defensive operations because Israel’s right to immediate and unilateral self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter is universally recognized.

Israel has pledged to obey international law, and one of its cornerstones is proportionality. The concept is often misunderstood to allow only for equal numbers of civilian casualties on both sides, with any lopsided numbers considered disproportionate. But proportionality is actually a requirement to take into account how much civilian harm is anticipated in comparison to the expected concrete and direct military advantage, according to UN protocols. In other words, a high civilian death count in Jabalya could potentially be considered legal under international law so long as the military objective is of high value. The Israel Defense Forces said the intended target in this case was the senior Hamas commander who oversaw all military operations in the northern Gaza; neutralizing him is an objective that most likely clears the proportional bar. Furthermore, Israel pointed out that the loss of life was compounded because Hamas had built tunnels that weakened the targeted structure that then collapsed in the strike.

The attack also passes muster on the level of “military necessity,” the principle that the action was necessary to pursue an allowed military goal (killing enemy troops), rather than an illegal goal (causing civilians to suffer). The IDF has said that its aim is to remove the rockets, ammunitions depot, power and transportation systems Hamas has embedded within their civilian population. So far, a number of military experts have assessed that Israel appears to be trying to follow the law of armed conflict in its Gaza campaign.