In the beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, the titular characters create a game called Calvinball that has only one permanent rule: It can never be played the same way twice. This creates a constant reshuffling of standards and rules so that no player has the ability to strategize from one round to the next.

Israel’s second extended operation at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City has proved that for much of the world, international law and human-rights norms are a game of Calvinball, and the lack of official rules means Israel can be held to different expectations each time it bends over backwards to meet the previous, obviously capricious, standard set by its critics.

Last week, the IDF went back into the Shifa hospital complex. The site was raided earlier in the war because it housed Hamas terrorists, Hamas transit tunnels, weapons, and hostages all with the knowledge of at least some doctors there and international organizations.

According to the IDF updates on the current operation:

  • Out of 800 total suspects at the hospital, 500 have confirmed ties to Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
  • 170 of those who have fired on Israeli soldiers at the hospital have been killed, including Hamas Interior Ministry Operations Chief Faack Mabhouh.
  • Doctors accompanied soldiers to treat patients at Shifa; food and water deliveries have continued.

Hamas has waged a fierce battle for the hospital, reportedly firing on IDF troops from maternity wards and emergency wings, to maximize patient danger and the destruction of medical equipment and capabilities.

Compared to Israel’s November operation at Shifa, this one has attracted far less press attention (aside from the usual perfunctory stenographic work mainstream newspapers in America do for Hamas). One reason for this is that in November, Israel had to spend time searching the hospital after securing it and committing to the slow process of finding and neutralizing the tunnels. This meant the world spent weeks criticizing Israel before informed criticism was even possible, and then moved the goalposts every time Israel revealed a Hamas war crime in the hospital complex. It was a round of Calvinball. By the time the scope of Hamas’s use of the complex was made clear, the press had moved on.

This time, the press had no excuses even before the operation. Everyone already knows how Hamas turned a large hospital into a war zone. As well, the presence of senior Hamas military commanders makes even the attempt to spin this is an Israeli overreaction look ridiculous. Hamas has been caught in the act, which should theoretically be a headline-dominating story for days. There should be a tidal wave of condemnations from foreign ministries around the world and apologies from medical NGOs and media organizations for having—wittingly or unwittingly—aided a terrorist army’s unprecedented assault on international law and coopting journalists and doctors into undermining the safety and credibility of their peers in other conflict zones.

Ah, but that wouldn’t be Calvinball. The rules adjust, and Israel must adjust with them—and as soon as it does, the rules will change again.

“Israel’s opponents are erasing a remarkable, historic new standard Israel has set,” writes John Spencer, perhaps the leading expert in the field at the moment.

But of course they are; if there is no potential for a Hamas victory, even a public-relations one, there is no story. Israel’s critics should be overjoyed at the blueprint Jerusalem is providing for new and creative ways to protect civilians in urban warfare. But to Israel’s critics, international law isn’t stagnant; those were the laws of war in the last round of Calvinball. And hey, why is Israel’s army always fighting the last war, anyway?

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