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What Israel Can Learn From America’s Counterterrorism Missteps

The Strategic Case for Adhering to the Laws of War

Published in: Foreign Affairs
A man walks through the rubble of Israeli strikes in Gaza City, October 15, 2023.  © 2023 Mutasem Murtaja/Reuters

When Hamas-led Palestinian fighters launched their deadly assault in Israel on October 7, many foreign governments rushed to support Israel. The United States was particularly fervent in declaring that Israel had a right to self-defense, and it expedited military assistance to the country without conditions.

Now, Israel appears ready for a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in an effort, it says, to destroy Hamas. The Israel Defense Forces have launched thousands of airstrikes on the enclave, massed hundreds of thousands of troops on the border, and warned Palestinian civilians to evacuate the northern part of the territory. Gaza is a small, densely populated place whose 2.2 million people have nowhere to go.

In responding to the unspeakable crimes of Hamas, Israel should abide by the laws of war—not only to comply with international legal obligations but also for moral and strategic reasons. U.S. President Joe Biden has said as much in an interview, noting that “democracies like Israel and the United States are stronger and more secure when [they] act according to the rule of law.”

Hamas’s attacks against civilians in Israel, including opening fire on crowds, killing people in their homes, and taking women and children as hostages, is clearly unlawful. Unfortunately, in their initial response to Hamas’s atrocities, the Israel Defense Forces have themselves engaged in unlawful conduct. U.S. officials still have time to influence Israel before the land war begins. They should have a tough conversation with Israel about its conduct, publicly criticize Israel when it harms civilians, and curb military transfers to Israel when U.S. weapons are used to violate international law.


Clear evidence has already emerged that Israel is violating international law enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. On October 11, the Israeli authorities cut off water, electricity, fuel, Internet access, and food to Gaza, amounting to unlawful collective punishment of the civilian population. Although Israeli officials have restored water to some parts of southern Gaza, they are keeping the taps shut in most of the territory. On October 12, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a statement noting that without power Gaza’s hospitals are “turning into morgues.” On October 12, Human Rights Watch reported that Israel used white phosphorous, which can be used as a smokescreen or as a weapon, in operations in Gaza and Lebanon. Because white phosphorus can cause excruciating burns and long-term medical suffering, its use in populated areas violates the Geneva Conventions' requirement to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian injury and loss of life.

U.S. officials have either been unwilling or unauthorized to condemn these Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. When asked whether the United States was providing any guidance to Israel on civilian casualties, National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby said that the administration wanted to avoid “armchair quarterbacking the tactics on the ground by the IDF.” If the United States wants to maintain that it believes in international law, it cannot waver in holding Israel accountable for how it conducts hostilities.  

U.S. officials have no trouble criticizing other governments for violations of international law. Last year, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield condemned Russia’s conduct in the war in Ukraine, pointing to “the plight of people in Mariupol” who had “been without food, water, electricity, or gas for weeks.” The Biden administration may have reacted differently to Russia than it did to Israel because it believes that Hamas’s atrocities justify Israel’s conduct. But the rules guiding behavior in war don’t depend on whether the war itself is justified or whether the opposing side follows them. If they did, no party to a conflict would ever feel an obligation to abide by the laws of war.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have repeated that they are concerned about civilian protection in Israel’s operations. But they need to go further. If U.S. officials do not publicly stand against indiscriminate attacks, cutting civilians off from water and power, and the use of white phosphorus in populated areas, they damage U.S. credibility. When the United States lets violations of international humanitarian laws slide, it harms its ability to uphold the rules-based international order, now and in the future. The next time the United States condemns Russia for bombing an apartment block or a hospital, Russian President Vladimir Putin will surely claim unfair treatment.


The United States is perhaps the only country that can influence Israel in this moment. The U.S.-Israeli security relationship dates back to Israel’s creation after World War II. Since then, Israel has been the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. military assistance, accepting more than $158 billion (not adjusted for inflation), according to the Stimson Center. The militaries of the United States and Israel share intelligence and have trained together for decades.   

The United States has a duty to make sure that its partners uphold agreed-upon standards. In a 2016 executive order that remains in place today, then President Barack Obama declared that the United States will “engage with foreign partners to share and learn best practices for reducing the likelihood of and responding to civilian casualties.” The 2022 Civilian Harm Mitigation Response Action Plan initiated by Austin articulates that U.S. security partners are under the same legal obligations as U.S. forces to minimize harm to civilians. The new Conventional Arms Transfer policy of 2023 allows the State Department to stop transferring arms to countries that harm civilians with U.S. weapons.

Washington should not waive these commitments for its closest partners. The United States crafted these policies in response to its own missteps. Extensive civilian harm caused by U.S. forces and U.S. partners in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria bred deep mistrust, even hatred, of the United States and likely aided recruitment by armed groups. Heavy-handed operations left tens of thousands of civilians displaced, adding to regional instability. The deaths and injuries suffered by civilians across counterterrorism operations have never been accurately counted or recognized, but they are still present in the daily lives of victims and their families. U.S. officials aiming to help Israel in this moment of crisis should share what they’ve learned about the risks of failing to meet a high standard of conduct.

Scores of U.S. failures can inform Israel’s actions in Gaza. Take the U.S. military’s 2016 operation to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in Mosul, Iraq. ISIS fighters operated amid a population of 2.5 million people. The group dug tunnels between the homes of Iraqi families so its fighters could find safe passage. The old city of Mosul was a warren of narrow streets and packed residences and markets. Yet just two weeks before U.S. forces attacked, Washington had no military plans for what to do with the civilian population. The U.S. military dropped leaflets from airplanes telling civilians to stay away from ISIS. Of course, there was no way for civilians to comply; ISIS would execute anyone holding a flyer. As fighting intensified, nearly 900,000 civilians fled Mosul, some of whom were shot in the back by ISIS as they tried to escape. The U.S. military destroyed infrastructure, including a water facility, and more than 5,000 homes in the old city. Many civilians died because the U.S. military used large bombs, artillery, rockets, and mortars with wide-area effects in densely populated areas.

Although the U.S. military promised the most “precise air war in history,” the reality was anything but. After the destruction of Mosul, the United States made similar mistakes in an operation in Raqqa, Syria. According to a report from the RAND Corporation, “As many as 80 percent of the buildings were deemed uninhabitable” after a U.S.-led coalition bombed ISIS in Raqqa, and “several thousand civilians who had survived months of shelling and street fighting had nowhere to go for safe drinking water within the wreckage.” Mosul and Raqqa needed billions of dollars to rebuild and their civilian populations continue to suffer in ways that are impossible to calculate. Even if Iraqi and Syrian civilians were relieved to be free from brutal ISIS rule, many of those who lived through U.S.-led operations were devastated, losing property and family members. The U.S. military seemed to forget the lesson espoused by General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded international forces in Afghanistan, and warned in 2009 that for every civilian killed, many more insurgents were created.


Gaza is not Iraq or Syria. But there are lessons that can be drawn from the U.S. experience in those countries. The United States undermined its own mission by failing to prioritize civilian protection. The unlawful actions of ISIS, including using human shields, should have made protecting civilians more critical—not less—for U.S. strategy.  

Just as the international community developed and adopted the Geneva Conventions after the barbarity of World War II, the Pentagon created policies to protect civilians at least in part as a  response to its failures in places such as Mosul and Raqqa. The U.S. military believed it could do better, and that realization should galvanize the United States to engage with its friend Israel to protect civilians and adhere to international law. U.S. officials should draw upon their own mistakes to remind Israel that violating the laws of war comes with moral, legal, and practical consequences that will last far beyond the end of the fighting. What happens now in Gaza will determine Israel’s credibility on the world stage. The United States was rightly outraged at Hamas when it went after Israeli civilians. Now Washington needs to make sure that Israel steers clear of targeting civilians in its response.

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