THE conventions of war are fictions. They apply a veneer of civilisation to violence, but they lure people into the confused business of judging relative guilt and innocence. There is, of course, no difference between an infant in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, stabbed to death by a Hamas militant, or an infant in a flat in Gaza City, killed by a retaliatory Israeli missile strike. More difficult is a judgement about a young Gazan man, brutalised from childhood by the deprivations inflicted by Israel and infected by the murderous ideology of the Hamas organisation. Or a member of the Israeli Defence Forces, under orders to protect settlers in their illegal appropriation of Palestinian land. In the scriptures, Hebrew as well as Christian, God creates all things and loves all things, and laments the death of all, looking at them with eyes of infinite knowledge and infinite mercy, without which no true judgement can ever be made.
This is not to say that guilt should be shared between attacker and defender. The guilty party is always the one that initiates violence, perhaps doubly so when knowingly unleashing violence on their own people in an attempt to draw others into their conflict, as Hamas has. Just as horrific as the mounting death toll from the attacks in southern Israel, as more bodies are uncovered, is the conviction that the Israeli government will not stop attacking Gaza until it has killed at least as many Palestinians. But then what? As the Archbishop of Canterbury observed after visiting the disputed border between Georgia and South Ossetia last week: “If there is to be a secure future, with happiness, with security, with economic prosperity and flourishing for the poorest in both countries,” there must be an end to the killing of people on both sides.
And this is where the conventions of war come into play, or what Martin Griffiths, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency-relief co-ordinator at the United Nations, called the “laws of war” this week, as he pleaded for the humane treatment and immediate release of the hostages taken across the border to Gaza by the militants. It is relatively easy to accept losses inflicted during an exchange of fire between equally armed combatants. It is far harder to negotiate peace after the deaths of babies and children, old men and women, not just as collateral damage, but deliberately targeted. The visceral horror prompted by such acts does not die down quickly. It is for this reason that the principles of a just war were developed, requiring a just cause, the protection of civilians, proportionate response, and so on. The Hamas incursion failed on all counts; the Israeli response is shaping up to follow suit. Without restraint, the chaos and brutality that we have seen this week will continue to have free rein.