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  • Writer's pictureJames Ron

Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths

Updated: Oct 26

The Israeli air force just carried out a strike on Islamic Jihad leaders and installations in Gaza. Apparently, the bombings also killed 13 civilians, including the wives and children of the guerilla leaders, as well as a dentist and his wife.

Collateral damage is sometimes a war crime, but sometimes, it's not; it depends on the specifics of what was targeted, why, and how. Basically, the civilian deaths and destruction need to be "proportionate" to the military value of the target. The means used to reach the target, including the bombs and their targeting systems, must not be excessively destructive or indiscriminate.

I remember interviewing dozens of Chechen civilians fleeing Grozny during the second Chechen war, in 1999. I was working for Human Rights Watch at the time in Ingushetia, a small Russian province next to Chechnya, located a short drive from the Chechen capital.

I was speaking to dozens of civilians each day in a local hospital. There were wounded people everywhere, including many elderly and children.

After pumping out a rash of reports to Human Rights Watch about the impact of Russia's bombardment, the group's legal advisor sent me a terse note: "You aren't a war correspondent. You need to investigate proportionality and targeting. Not every civilian death is a war crime."

I knew all that, but I had forgotten that point in the heat of the moment. Arguing about international humanitarian law, the "laws of war," seemed beside the point.

Today, I'm not sure who was right. My outraged self that wanted to rage about the human cost of Russian artillery fire, or the human rights investigator self who was tasked with figuring out which of those deaths was indeed "illegal"?

Interesting fact: At 1,700 kilometers, Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, is equidistant from Gaza and Kyiv.

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