Israel and the occupied territories: The rules of engagement

Andre Marty sits in on a class in Gaza where Palestinian militants are versed in the legal framework for combat
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The Independent Online

As they drop in in small groups of four to five their eyes first scan the room, always one hand under their jackets, even while shaking hands. Men with beards, all aged from 25 to 38. In the Gaza Strip, life can be very short, especially if you are a young man under arms. Indeed, it is almost a miracle that some of these men are still alive; they are either wanted by the Israeli security forces or hunted by other Palestinian groups.

Terrorists, as the Israelis call them; freedom fighters, as they understand themselves; they are always on the alert, in fear of being assassinated, therefore they have chosen the time and the place for this very particular meeting.

Around five months ago, the leaders of all the military wings of the different Gaza factions met in a secret location, somewhere in the coastal area. They were given a proposal by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to be taught the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the "Law of Armed Conflict". They agreed.

IHL encompasses the rules and limits of war as laid out in the Geneva Conventions, now ratified by every country in the world, and other international treaties. Its aim is to minimise the impact of war, especially upon civilians. The Israeli army, like almost all other regular armed forces, learn about IHL as part of their military training. Now, these 31 young men, each affiliated with one of the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip, are around the table to learn about it too.

In charge of the project is Iyad Nasr, head of the communication unit of the ICRC office in Gaza. Iyad has the daunting task of discussing with his sceptical audience some of the rules of war the rules that both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, have variously been accused of violating.

The Gaza Strip, a coastal area trapped between Israel and Egypt, is a tiny little land, a little smaller than the Isle of Wight. According to B'Tselem, the Israeli information centre for human rights, since the beginning of 2007 until the end of November, 321 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces, the vast majority of them inside the Gaza Strip, while 11 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians. During the same period, 345 Palestinians were killed by Palestinians.

Around 1.5 million people live in the Gaza strip under miserable conditions. "In the past, we came to the market to shop for the whole week; nowadays I can only provide food for one day, and I'm limited to very few things. My savings are eaten up," says Khairy Al-Badawy, a 43-year-old tailor at Al-Hamra Market in Gaza City. Al-Badawy, a father of five, has had to shut down his tailor shop because of the virtual closure of the Gaza Strip. Following its unilateral disengagement in 2005, Israel still exerts control over all Gaza's principal border crossings, the sea coast and airspace. Al-Badawy says that imports of fabric for the production of clothing have not been allowed since September, when Israel declared the coastal strip a "hostile entity".

Winter begins, the temperature drops, but many people are living in houses without windows, let alone heating and warm bedspreads. Eighty per cent of Gazans depend on food aid, 90 per cent of the children have been diagnosed as traumatised by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as by the factional fighting between Palestinian militant groups. In addition, over the last year, Gaza has increasingly been plagued by criminal gangs. Gazans complain they live in an urban prison, trapped with no escape possible. The difficult living conditions in the Gaza Strip are a fertile ground for extremists. "If the situation doesn't change, for sure I will join one of the groups," says Mohammad, a baby-faced 16-year-old.

The militants, for their part, carry out their actions largely in disregard of international humanitarian law, by using homes and busy streets for their attacks, sometimes even launching rockets into Israel from public places. During the internal clashes in June of this year, even the sanctity of hospitals, protected under international humanitarian law, was violated, as armed militants entered in search of members of rival groups, and thousands of rounds were fired from the rooftop of Shifa Hospital in the centre of Gaza City.

"Even wars have limits", one of the ICRC flip charts presented to the group reminds them. And so, here they sit, politely listening to a language they understand perfectly: "Are you using dum-dums?" asks Iyad Nasr. Almost reflexively, 31 hands reach for their guns to check. "I shot a round of bullets at a flak jacket and not too much happened," argues one of the commanders.

Nasr explains very vividly the effect of this particular kind of prohibited ammunition on a human body: the bullet changes shape upon impact, and sometimes fragments due to the notches on the casing. This creates a larger wound, with greater blood loss and trauma. In fact, the Hague Convention of 1899, one of the first formal treaties setting out the laws of war, prohibits the use of bullets in warfare which easily expand or flatten in the body.

It is this very concrete language that creates awareness in the group of the senior commanders. One of them suddenly asks: "Do we have to hold a prisoner in a house or could we also keep him underground?" Two seconds of astonished silence everyone in the room knows what incident he is referring to: Alan Johnston, the BBC-correspondent who was held hostage for 114 days in the Gaza Strip. Nasr explains: "In order to change their thinking, we have to educate them about International Humanitarian Law. Understanding it will change their behaviour."

"We didn't study these things before," admits one of the senior commanders barely 35 years old. So, will the newly acquired knowledge of the Laws of War mean an end to firing rockets out of public areas like school yards, and an avoidance of civilian targets in the future? "New elements have to be considered in our decision-making", was the smiling answer.

A few days ago, Iyad Nasr was telephoned by a senior leader of one of the armed groups. "Iyad, I have a serious problem," the caller said. "Since your training, my commanders are challenging me, they said even firing rockets out of a school yard is forbidden." The ICRC trainer must have smiled to himself at that moment.