Robert Goldman is a professor of law at American University.

The killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas and retaliatory airstrikes on the densely populated Gaza Strip by Israel raises numerous issues under international law.

Indeed, President Joe Biden made express reference to the “laws of war” in comments he made at the White house on Oct. 10, 2023, noting that while democracies like the U.S. and Israel uphold such standards, “terrorists” such as Hamas “purposefully target civilians.” Speaking the same day, the European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell condemned Hamas’ attack but also suggested that Israel was not acting in accordance with international law by cutting water, electricity and food to civilians in Gaza.

But international law and the very nature of the conflict itself — along with the status of the two sides involved — is a complex area. The Conversation turned to Robert Goldman, an expert on the laws of war at American University Washington College of Law, for guidance on some of the issues.

What are the “laws of war”?

The laws of war, also known as International Humanitarian Law or IHL, consist of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions, their two Additional Protocols of 1977, the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, as well as certain weapons conventions.

Simply put, these instruments seek to spare civilians and others who are no longer active combatants from the effects of hostilities by placing restrictions and prohibitions on the conduct of warfare.

It is important to understand that modern IHL is not concerned with the reasons for, or the legality of, going to war. Rather, that is governed by the United Nations Charter and a member state’s own practice.

It is also important to note that violations of the laws of war are notoriously hard to prosecute and can be frustrated by lack of cooperation by the parties involved.

What is the nature of the conflict between Israel and Hamas?

The answer to this question is by no means clear.

Continue reading