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ON AIR: The rules of war

Kevin Anderson | 18:04 UK time, Monday, 7 August 2006

Today, we're talking about the rules of war. Anu asked a series of questions this morning in her post that we hope to answer tonight.

We're on air now - click here to listen.

We started speaking to Moshe Yaalon, former chief of staff for the Israeli Defence Forces, who wrote this article in the Washington Post.

As he wrote:

The rules of war boil down to one central principle: the need to distinguish combatants from noncombatants. Those who condemned Israel for what happened at Qana, rather than placing the blame for this unfortunate tragedy squarely on Hezbollah and its state sponsors, have rewarded those for whom this moral principle is meaningless and have condemned a state in which this principle has always guided military and political decision making.

Judge Richard Goldstone, the chief prosecutor of the UN's Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, said, "The law is easy to state but difficult to apply."

We also spoke to Antony McIntyre. He is a former member of the Provisional IRA, and he served 18 years in the Maze prison. He was not part of an official army, but he told us how the Provisional IRA viewed the rules of war.

There were a range of civilian targets that became considered legitimate, and he said that in all wars, each side views the other as using less legitimate ways of fighting the war.

Anu asked Antony how the IRA fought differently from standing armies. Unlike standing armies, they had no prisons to keep prisoners so instead they shot them. Antony said he didn't condone the tactics, but that was what the IRA did.

Alain called from France. He said that major powers ignore the rules of war and ignore UN resolutions. The US and its allies have indiscriminately bombed civilian areas in Afghanistan.

Hannan in Belgium called and said he didn't know about the laws of wars but he did know about common sense. He said that he didn't hear anyone come up with a solution on how to fight 'terrorists, activists or whatever you want to call them'.

Antony said that Hannan was trying to pass off responsibility to civilians. "Civilians should have more rights than the military. The military should have no rights against them."

Jason Hartley is a soldier in the New York National Guard, and he wrote the blog and book, Just Another Soldier. He was in the infantry. He said that civilians are always the ones that get the 'short end of the stick'.

Anu asked Judge Goldstone if the Geneva Convention didn't let groups like Hezbollah off the hook by not expecting as much from them as organised

The laws of land warfare were something that we were familiar with, said Jason, but the ends justify the means in the minds of most soldiers. It ended up being very pragmatic if there is some larger goal achieved.

Antony said it was a common view but one that must be challenged.

Moshe Yaalon said that the this was the challenge for soldiers to fight not only according to rules but also in line with their values. For Israel, hitting civilians is a failure, he said. If civilians are killed, he said that there is an investigation. But he said for the other side, hitting civilians is a success. This is the assymetry in this warfare, and he said that this the challenge for the international community.

I watched the Lebanese Prime Minister today. He is a victim, but he is a victim of his own lack of leadership. They have a state within a state.

Antony said that General Yaalon's rational was self-serving. He said that it was his belief that Israel was guilty of war crimes.

General Yaalon said that none of our intelligence officers or pilots approved of any target where we knew civilians were. He repeatedly accused Hezbollah of running to buildings with civilians.

Judge Goldstone said that there was a lot of emotion being created here, but whether Israel is guilty of war crimes depends on the facts. And he said that most of the callers didn't know the facts. He said that there should be a truly international criminal court.

Jason said that the soldier in him wanted to side with Israel because of the Hezbollah's attacks on Israels cities, but the empathetic person in him wanted to side with the Lebanese because of the disporportionately of the Israeli response. But he said that Israel might be winning the battle and losing the war because they are creating anger in Lebanon.

Your e-mails

Wow, what a lot of e-mails.

Greg Dunn wrote us this from Edmonton, Alberta. Canada

I don't care if Hezbollah set up rocket launchers on top of a hospital. There is no excuse for bombing civilians. We are supposed to be better than they are. That is what is supposed to separate us from them. If a small town here in Canada fired rockets into the U.S it is absurd to think that the US would shell us. It would be resolved by our respective police forces.

Pentti Järvinen, a former Finnish journalist sent us this comment from Copenhagen Denmark:

A particular practical aspect, which at 15.33 GMT hadn´t been aborded, is a calculated misuse of civilians, mostly in prevalantly violent political manifestations, but also in the real fighting or bombing. That happens about averywhere, particularly in the Middle East, when the press is present. Once television was added, or is present, then that use is constant and premeditated, with rules written in the "combat manuals" of the parties, so of a very long date.
In factual and legal terms it means a falsification of calculatedly published facts. That subject would be worth some investigating and discussing too.
I´d say these rhings happen in conflicts where civilians and milice and military are mixed with press and politics, not just now and then, but as a rule, particulatly in the Middle east where the militant parties use to mobilise not too eager, in normal life civilian persons. If you take a very carefull and long look at all those pictures of mourning relations at a bomb site, if you trace the identities of the persond present, you are bound to arrive to some surprising results: like executed deserters offered as bodies of the enemy action. The press is so often so deceived, it´d time to do something.

We also got this message from an anonymous e-mailer:


Matthew Sparey had this point and question:

I feel I must raise this point - for the last three weeks I have been hearing Israeli commentators on the Conflict saying that Lebanese apartment blocks are legitimate targets because the Katyusha rockets are being fired from balconies, people's bedrooms etc. i.e from within the buildings.
Early on in the Conflict a report by a BBC journalist stated that the Katyusha rockets had to be fired from open ground. As an engineer this seems far more likely because in considering a simple case of action and reaction, firing a rocket from someone's balcony would more than likely rip the balcony from the building. So could someone explain to me what the REAL story is?

George in Hong Kong sent us this e-mail:

Am I the only person who has noticed in the conflicts between Israel and its neighbours that the ratio of Arab to Israeli dead to is always 10 to 1? Is it a deliberate policy of the Israeli High Command to keep up this level of atrocity come what may, even if it includes women and children and refugees? If we look back over the years of the Palestinian conflict this ratio is terribly constant as it still is to this day in Lebanon.

Harry sent us this e-mail:

The fact is that Israel never intentionally targets civilians, whereas Hezbollah continuously does so by the indiscriminate firing of rockets into civilian areas. It was tragically a pure coincidence that they hit soldiers yesterday.
Hezbollah knows where the Israeli soldiers are and accordingly have no excuse for firing on civilian targets. Unfortunately, the tactics of Hezbollah are that they hide in civilians areas, including schools, hospitals, churches and even mosques!
There is therefore no basis (other than bias or ignorance) to equate the civilian casualties on both sides or to accord any criminal responsibility on Israel which is simply fighting for survival and in defence of its citizens.


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