The news today that the IDF, working to free hostages in Gaza, instead shot and killed three of them in a tragic battlefield calamity is so horrible it’s hard even to think about. But the truth is that scholars of war have thought about such matters before, and have come to an unambiguous conclusion. The Geneva Conventions require combatants in war to wear insignias or clothing that clearly identify them as combatants. Hamas does not do so, and in failing to do so, it was impossible for IDF forces to know the difference between captive and captor.

Article 44: “In order to promote the protection of the civilian population from the effects of hostilities, combatants are obliged to distinguish themselves from the civilian population while they are engaged in an attack or in a military operation preparatory to an attack.”

This language is mirrored in other places in the Geneva conventions to protect combatants should they be captured by the enemy—they need to be in uniform or wearing insignias indicating their status as combatants so that their opponents will know who they are and grant them prisoner-of-war status, which obliges humanitarian treatment.

Israel will mourn, and Israelis will rage and weep, and will demand to know how such a thing could have happened. The one thing they can be sure of is that the blame resides entirely with Hamas.

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