Courtesy Reuters

Fighting the Laws of War

Protecting Civilians in Asymmetric Conflict

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In December 2008 and January 2009, Hamas and Israel waged a fierce three-week battle in the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Forces targeted urban infrastructure in Gaza, devastating populated areas as they attempted to end the barrage of Qassam rockets fired indiscriminately by Hamas toward southern Israeli cities. The war ended inconclusively in January, when Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire amid concerns about mounting civilian casualties. But the conflict shifted from Gaza to Geneva in April, when the UN Human Rights Council appointed former South African judge Richard Goldstone -- chief UN prosecutor in Yugoslavia and Rwanda during the 1990s -- to lead a fact-finding mission to Gaza. In September, Goldstone's team announced its conclusion: both Hamas and Israel had violated the laws of war, and both had possibly committed crimes against humanity.

Many have interpreted the Goldstone report, as it has become known, as yet another battle in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, waged by other means. But the report addressed a more far-reaching issue -- namely, the difficulty of distinguishing civilians from combatants in modern urban warfare.

Two recent books explore that dilemma by examining the relationship between the laws of war and civilian protection during battle. In Moral Dilemmas of Modern War, Michael Gross contends that the current safeguards against civilian casualties are too stringent to address the complexities of today's wars, barring states from adequately combating irregular forces. Meanwhile, Stephen Rockel and Rick Halpern argue in Inventing Collateral Damage that the current international regulations are too weak, permitting and even

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In This Review

Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination, and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict
Michael L. Gross
Cambridge University Press, 2009
336 pp. $27.99
Inventing Collateral Damage: Civilian Casualties, War, and Empire
Between the Lines, 2009
372 pp. $34.95

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