Palestinians Can't Be War Criminals

Media dispatches sent round the world describe the Qassams as primitive, unguided, home-made. They are all of those. They are also a war crime.

In a thousand ways, in a thousand places, the Qassam rocket has been written off. It has been routinely dismissed as negligible, its capability little more than symbolic, barely a weapon at all when compared to the monstrous might of Israel's arsenal. Media dispatches sent round the world describe the Qassams as primitive, unguided, home-made.

They are all of those. They are also a war crime.

They are a lethal weapon fired intentionally and specifically at purely civilian targets. As such, their use, at the hands of their Palestinian gunners, is a flagrant violation of international law.

"Preposterous," the chorus of exclusively pro-Palestinian progressives will now chime. "The Palestinians have no other means to defend themselves from the savagery, the butchery practiced by Israel, which kills many, many more civilians."

"Everyone knows that the Israelis are the war criminals here," Palestinians themselves may offer. "Remember who the real victims are. Examine what Israel has done to us. Open your eyes. We are the victims in this place. We cannot be war criminals, we are the Palestinians."

Fair enough. Don't take my word for it. Take the word of Human Rights Watch.

Any party to any armed conflict "is obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war," the organization declared earlier this month, after a Sderot mother of two was killed by a Qassam.

"Because Qassams are not capable of accurate targeting, it is unlawful to use them in or near areas populated with civilians.

"International humanitarian law prohibits direct attacks against civilians and civilian objects as well as indiscriminate attacks and attacks that cause disproportionate damage to civilians," the organization continued. "A prohibited indiscriminate attack includes using weapons that are incapable of discriminating between civilians and combatants or between civilian and military objects."

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, went further.

"The Hamas-led Palestinian Authority needs to take immediate steps to end attacks on civilians by Hamas' own militant wing and other armed groups," Whitson said. "If the Palestinian Authority aspires to recognition as a lawful government, it must stop these blatant violations of the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law."

At this juncture, the irked progressive may be heard asking what any sane person could expect the Palestinians to do - just do nothing, sit on their hands and wait for the Israelis to come and strafe them in their homes, blow holes in their walls, shell their sidewalks?

No one expects them to do nothing. But why do the wrong thing, the immoral thing, the inhuman thing? What gives a war crime the cache of self-defense? Especially when that criminal act only provokes more escalation, more killing, more crimes.

You may ask, when Israeli artillery, ill-advised, ill-directed, ill-spotted, ill-timed, and lacking a real-time target of a Qassam launching crew, shells a residence a quarter mile from its intended target, killing a score of innocents in tragic error, is that not a violation of international humanitarian law as well?

It is. And it is up to Israel to accept responsibility, bring those responsible to justice, and, crucially, take concrete steps to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy.

Just as it is up to Palestinians of moral conscience to rise up and speak out against their side's violations of international law in the firing of Qassams.

"The fact that Hamas characterizes its attacks as reprisals does not exempt it from the ban on targeting civilians," said Whitson. "There is never any justification for targeting civilians."

Moreover, the organization said in a statement, "Unlawful attacks said to be committed in response to another unlawful attack are a form of reprisal, which is a violation of international humanitarian law."

Until this year, when Hamas became the democratically elected ruling party of the Palestinian Authority, the PA could argue that attacks on civilians were the work of independent armed organizations beyond the Authority's control.

No more. Hamas is now the government. As a result, the act of firing Qassams has now been upgraded. Once it was merely terrorism. Now it has become state terrorism.

On the solely pragmatic level, the Qassams have tarnished and undermined the Palestinian cause as has no other action since suicide bombings cost the Palestinians their entire reservoir of international sympathy.

Certainly, the United Nations' chief human rights official is never going to feel the same way about Hamas after nearly being hit by a Qassam this week.

UN Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour was touring Sderot when Qassams landed a few hundred yards from her car. One of the rockets crashed through a factory roof, killing plant worker Yaakov Yakobov, 43, a father of four children.

Arbour's position, a UN spokesman said after she visited Gaza earlier in the day, was that Qassam rockets were illegal weapons because they are inaccurate, and those firing them cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians.

But Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas' armed wing and, thus, for its attitude toward international law, was having none of it. "There should be no sympathy for the enemy," he declared, "who shows no sympathy for our women and children."