Suicide Bombings in Israel

The Second Intifada brought with it a wave of suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israeli civilians.

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Human Rights Watch, an internationally respected body monitoring violations of human rights and international law around the globe, went even further by declaring in November 2000 that suicide bombing attacks are crimes against humanity and that the people responsible for planning and carrying out suicide bombings that deliberately target civilians should be brought to justice. The report went on to state that well-established principles of international law require those in authority be held accountable when people under their control commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. Leaders who order such crimes, fail to take reasonable preventive action, or fail to punish the perpetrators are also responsible for such crimes. In March of 2002, Amnesty International issued a report with similar conclusions.

Laws of Combat

The approach that categorizes suicide-bombing actions as crimes against humanity or war crimes is part of a broad international movement to establish what is and is not permitted in armed conflicts, with the understanding that violations of these norms are to be considered criminal acts.

One of the central tenets of current international humanitarian law with respect to armed conflicts is that no deliberate targeting of civilians is permitted, under any circumstances--so that even actions that might once have been permissible, such as the allied carpet bombings of German residential areas during World War II--would now be forbidden by international norms.

Firing upon enemy soldiers engaged in combat is an acceptable part of warfare, as is targeting elements in the enemy's chain of command and control of forces, as well as industrial and infrastructural buildings. Harming civilians as an unintended consequence of such actions is regrettable but does not constitute a war crime. In contrast, deliberately intending as policy to kill and maim civilians has been outlawed in evolving international understandings.

International humanitarian law is clear that even reserve members of military forces are combatants only while on active duty, and at other times are accorded the same protections as all other civilians Given these conclusions, some observers called on all Palestinian armed groups to halt attacks on civilians immediately and unconditionally, and urged the Palestinian Authority (PA) to ensure that those in any way responsible for such attacks were brought to justice, along with a public campaign making clear that the PA does not consider as "martyrs" people who die carrying out attacks that deliberately or indiscriminately kill or cause great suffering among civilians.

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Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.