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Rafah Air Strike and Principle of Distinction

In response to a devastating Israeli military strike in Rafah that claimed the lives of 45 Palestinians, British Foreign Minister David Cameron and US President Joe Biden have urged Israel to rigorously protect civilian lives during its operations. This strike, which targeted Hamas leaders but also caused significant civilian casualties, has intensified scrutiny and criticism of US military support for Israel.


This is while International Humanitarian Law (IHL) lays out clear guidelines for the conduct of hostilities, with the Principle of Distinction being a cornerstone. This principle mandates that all parties in a conflict differentiate between combatants and civilians, ensuring that military operations are directed solely at legitimate military targets.


Customary international law unequivocally forbids deliberate attacks on civilians. Parties to a conflict are required to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols reinforce this, underscoring the imperative to protect civilian lives during hostilities.


Indiscriminate attacks are also prohibited. The obligation is to direct attacks only at military objectives. The attacking party must ensure that their targets are valid military objectives. If there is any doubt about the nature of a target, the attack should be postponed.


The recent air strike in Rafah highlights significant concerns regarding Israel’s adherence to these IHL principles. Israel, while maintaining its right to self-defense, must carefully balance its security operations with the protection of civilians.


The principle of proportionality requires that the anticipated military advantage from an attack must not be disproportionate to the harm inflicted on civilians. The tragic loss of civilian lives in Rafah raises serious questions about the proportionality of the strike.


Accountability is paramount in upholding IHL. Parties responsible for violations must face consequences. The international community closely monitors such incidents and expects accountability for any breaches of international law.


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