Is Israel prepared to play by the same bloody rules as Syria’s regime and “crazily” disregard international rules to maintain its hold in the region?

Veteran New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last week asserted that this disregard is Israel’s core military strategy. The Israeli security establishment, for its part, says his claim amounts to what US Vice President Joe Biden calls “malarkey,” and does not reflect IDF policy.

In his column, “If I Were an Israeli Looking at the Iran Deal,” Friedman wrote Israel is prepared to play by what he called “Hama rules” (– not Hamas rules, as some read it).

Hama is a city in western Syria, where then-Syrian president Hafez Assad had his forces massacre tens of thousands of civilians in 1982 in order to put down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. The nearly month-long slaughter remains one of the bloodiest cases in history of an Arab government attacking its own people.

Photo of destruction in Hama following Hafez al-Assad's massacre in 1982. (Wikimedia Commons)

Photo of destruction in Hama following Hafez al-Assad’s massacre in 1982. (Wikimedia Commons)

In effect, Friedman was casually and off-handedly alleging that Israel conducts itself in conflict in the same way that Bashar Assad’s father and predecessor carried out a 27-day bloodbath, with the Syrian army deliberately mowing down women and children.

While the term itself comes from Friedman’s book “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” in his new article he offered no history of the event or explanation for the comparison, apparently assuming the reader would understand the context.

Despite the damning nature of the accusation, IDF officials took the comment with an almost bored sense of “heard it before,” before giving a quick, rehearsed dismissal of the claim that Israel deliberately targets civilians.

Smoke rises after an Israeli strike on Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, July 31, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Majed Hamdan)

Smoke rises after an Israeli strike on Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, July 31, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Majed Hamdan)

“It’s dramatic and it’s ludicrous,” an IDF official said of Friedman’s comparison, “but essentially he just misses the mark.”

In an interview with The Times of Israel, the official, who is an expert in the army’s rules of engagement and on international legal standards for warfighting, cited the steps Israel takes to prevent the deaths of innocent people, and what has to happen before a strike is carried out that could endanger civilians.

‘War without mercy’

Friedman acknowledged in his article that Israel’s enemies, especially non-state groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, make frequent use of human shields. Though Israel does not actually target innocent civilians, he admitted, he argued that the IDF has shown that it will “not be deterred” by the threat of civilian casualties when faced with the use of human shields in Gaza or Lebanon. To Friedman, this is what constitutes Israel’s willingness to wage war by “Hama rules” — to wage “war without mercy.”

The Gaza conflict’s civilian-to-combatant ration is dramatically lower than the US campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen. Does that mean the US and NATO play by ‘Hama rules’?

But that is not “war without mercy,” the IDF official responded. Rather, “that is war.”

Armies are forbidden from deliberately targeting civilians, but international law does allow civilian deaths in strikes against a “legitimate military target,” the officer explained.

This does not give armies carte blanche to wantonly kill innocent people. Armies are required to distinguish civilians from combatants and compare the civilian casualty costs to military gains — and not, as so many assume, to the number of civilian dead on their own side. Together these steps make up the concept of military necessity, the officer explained, and are followed by the IDF both at the strategic planning level at headquarters and at the tactical command level in the field.

Some countries may be more or less strict in these determinations, the officer added, but all are required to make the decision on whether or not to pull the trigger when innocents could be hurt.

A so-called IDF target card. Before making a military strike, the army fills out one of these cards, listing potential legal problems of the attack and necessary steps to prevent civilian casualties. (2014 Gaza Conflict Report by the IDF)

A so-called IDF target card. Before making a military strike, the army fills out one of these cards, listing potential legal problems of the attack and necessary steps to prevent civilian casualties. (2014 Gaza Conflict Report by the IDF)

The IDF must also take all possible precautions to prevent civilian casualties, the official said. To this end, Israel developed its “knock on the roof” technique, in which a non-explosive ordinance is dropped on a building before the actual bomb to warn those inside of the impending attack.

However, the IDF official explained, the Geneva Convention does not require that precaution if it is “not feasible” in a given situation or to achieve a legitimate military aim.

“For example, one incident where it might not be feasible,” he offered, “is if you need the element of surprise. If I now provide a warning of a strike, then the target — say, a senior Hamas commander — could just run away.”

In other words, just as a patient can die in surgery without it being deemed medical malpractice, so too civilians can die in a military strike without it constituting a war crime.

Local rules?

This concept is not unique to Israel. Every military throughout history has killed civilians, and future armies will no doubt do so as well.

That’s not “local rules,” as Friedman called it. That’s abiding by the same rules followed by the US, Europe and every army around the world, the IDF official said.

In last summer’s Gaza war, between 50 to 70 percent of those killed were civilians, depending on whose statistics you believe.

The aftermath of the 1982 Hama Massacre in Hama, Syria. (Freedom House/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The aftermath of the 1982 Hama Massacre in Hama, Syria. (Freedom House/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Even the most dramatic figures, however, pale in comparison to the most conservative estimates for Assad’s Hama massacre.

Of the 20,000-40,000 people killed in Assad’s campaign, only approximately 2,000 are believed to have been insurgents, meaning 90-95% of the casualties were innocent civilians. Some within Assad’s own family even put the figure closer to 97.5%.

The Gaza conflict’s civilian-to-combatant ration is dramatically lower — not only than Assad’s massacre, but than the US campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen. The Reprieve human rights group found that in US drone strikes against 41 wanted individuals in those countries, some 1,147 people were killed — a death toll that was 96.4% noncombatant.

Civilian casualties are a fact in every war. Even in Kosovo in 1998-1999, in which NATO attacked then-Yugoslavia to save civilians from a genocide, a third of the 1,500 casualties caused by NATO were among the very civilians they were trying to save.

Do the US and NATO play by “Hama rules?”

The difference between simple war as fought by the likes of the US and Israel, and Friedman’s so-called “Hama rules,” the IDF official claimed, is that one side deliberately targets innocent people, while the other works to avoid civilian deaths.