In the wake of the killings of several settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), there has been much handwringing from on high. A case in point is David Samel’s post Are the settlers civilians? On MondoWeiss.

Others, particularly Max Ajl, have already pointed out the immorality of condemning the acts of people who live under the heel of a criminal occupation in which we are all complicit. Indeed, one need only imagine the torrent of outrage that would ensue even today if Germans were to condemn the European antifascist resistance for their attacks on civilians under German occupation. The media in Nazi Germany in fact did carry such condemnations of the “barbaric” acts of the resistance. Would anyone today dream of citing these condemnations as proof of anything other than the revolting cynicism and hypocrisy of their authors?

In the following remarks, I would like to deal with an equally egregious defect in Samel’s piece – the way in which it deals with – or, perhaps, fails to deal with – international humanitarian law.

Samel’s post goes awry before he’s even done writing the title, which misstates the issue by conflating the different types of settlers in the OPT – commonly known as “lifestyle settlers” and “ideological settlers” (though he does touch on the distinction in the text of the piece, in a manner to which we will return) – and creates the impression in those unfamiliar with the applicable legal principles that the discussion is taking place on uncharted territory.

Even though the applicable legal framework – the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Protocols Additional – sets clear and mandatory standards for determining who is a civilian, and reams of doctrinal literature exist interpreting those and other related provisions, Samel does not even attempt to engage the legal definitions of the terms “civilian” and “combatant” – indeed, he never even cites the relevant provisions. Instead, he prefers to cloud the issue with red herrings about the upbringing of settlers (“They have been taught since birth that they are entitled to live on this land”) and absurd strawman arguments such as his question about “allowances for those who are retarded or autistic”. To make matters worse, he creates an express functional equivalency between those resisting a brutal, criminal occupation and those actively participating in one.

It only goes downhill from there.

International Humanitarian Law and Armed Illegal Settlers

International humanitarian law – the law of armed conflict – recognises exactly two kinds of people: civilians – who are entitled to the protections of the Fourth Geneva Convention (including, crucially, the right not to be shot at if they are not directly participating in hostilities) – and combatants – who enjoy the privileges and protections enshrined in the Third Geneva Convention (but can be shot at with impunity as long as they don’t surrender or become physically incapacitated). Combatants are members of military and paramilitary organisations, with the exception of the members of the medical services of those organisations, who bear arms openly, make themselves recognisable by affixing badges or other distinctive marks to their persons, and are subject to a fixed chain of command. Civilians are, basically, everyone else. Under international humanitarian law, they may not be targeted for attack except to the extent that they actively participate in hostilities, and even then, only for the duration of their participation in the hostilities (the latter restriction, it is worth noting, is expressly rejected by the Israeli government). The relevant definitions can be found in Art. 4 of the Third Geneva Convention, as well as Art. 43(1) and Art. 50 of the 1977 Protocol Additional.

How, then, do these definitions apply to the illegal settlers in the OPT?

The “lifestyle settlers” are Israelis who have moved to the illegal Israeli settlements (generally) in close proximity to the Green Line, so called because their decision to become settlers is based on the tax incentives and other subsidies that allow them to enjoy a living standard unavailable to them within Israel. While their presence is totally illegal and serves to render the robbery of Palestinian land a fait accompli, the “lifestyle settlers”, by and large, do not participate actively in hostilities (except, of course, for those who are active members or reservists of the Israeli military). As such, they clearly fall within the definition of “civilian” within the meaning of international humanitarian law (subject to the aforementioned qualifications).

There is, however, another type of settler: the paramilitary “ideological settler”. These are far-right, fanatical nationalists, who go out of their way to encroach on Palestinian territory. They are also armed to the teeth. With regard to this group, Samel writes:

Armed – Some have questioned whether the victims were armed, and suggested that if they were, they deserved their fate. This makes little sense to me. If they were armed, it seems it was purely for defensive purposes, as they were not engaged in any aggressive operation themselves. Considering what happened to them, their fears were not imaginary. True, if they and their fellow settlers were not living this illegal, immoral lifestyle that was choking the lives of their fellow human beings, they would have no need for armed defense, but here, their possession of weapons to use defensively in the case of hostility does not make them kill-worthy. There’s no reason to believe that the Palestinian gunmen even knew whether they were armed. (emphasis added)

There are two possibilities here: Either Samel is being extremely disingenuous, or he is almost impressively ignorant of the relevant facts. Either way, this paragraph alone should suffice to make clear that his comments are not to be taken seriously.

Samel’s claim here is that, assuming the settlers who were killed were indeed armed, it was “purely for defensive purposes”, because “they were not engaged in any aggressive operation themselves.” This is loopy. The fact that they were not involved in any aggressive operation at the time they were killed does not mean that they were never involved in such actions. Even John Wayne Gacy and Jürgen Stroop took some down time every now and then. However, even leaving aside this rather curious logic, there is ample evidence of the way in which these settlers use their weapons (for an extensive, but hardly exhaustive, list see Seham’s post on MondoWeiss).

The fanatical “ideological settlers” routinely and systematically engage in violent, sadistic attacks against defenceless Palestinians, including young children. These attacks range from harassment of Palestinian villagers, crop destruction, house occupations, and rock throwing to wanton murder. They knowingly and voluntarily take up positions in a war zone. They routinely kill and maim defenceless people (the only kind they are willing to confront), and have done for decades. Their weapons – which allow them to engage in their regular pogroms without fear of retaliation – are military-grade automatic assault rifles and the like.

These settlers make no secret of their violence. Indeed, they celebrate it as openly as they bear their arms, to the extent of building a shrine to Baruch Goldstein, who earned their undying adoration by massacring Palestinians as they worshipped in a Hebron mosque. They are part of an organised movement that has the specific objective of ethnically cleansing and settling every last bit of Greater Israel.

Paramilitary Settlers as State Organs

They commit their crimes with the knowledge of the Israeli government. Given that they conduct their terrorist operations in an area under complete occupation by Israeli military and police forces, and that their general objectives (at a minimum, the settlement and ethnic cleansing of Palestine) are entirely consistent with official Israeli objectives, it seems reasonable to say that they are operating not only with the knowledge of the Israeli government, but with its more or less active approval, as the government makes no effort to punish their crimes, disarm them, remove them from the OPT (as required by international law), or otherwise meet its duty to ensure that the occupied Palestinian population is safe from their depredations. Indeed, to the extent that Israel’s military get involved at all, it is to protect these settlers from any kind of retaliation from their victims.

As such, it is at least arguable that these paramilitary settlers meet the dependency and control test established by the International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on State Responsibility and the jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice. In essence, this doctrine holds that a person or group can be considered a de facto organ of a State – and its unlawful acts thus can be attributed to that State – where that person or group operates under conditions of complete control and dependency on that State. While it is not necessary to prove that the paramilitary settlers are de facto State organs in order to hold that they are not civilians under international law, it is useful to examine this question in order to fully understand their legal status.

The degree of control required in order for a person or group’s crimes to be attributed to a State as a de facto organ is a matter of some debate. In Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro (ICJ 2007), the International Court of Justice held that various Bosnian Serb paramilitaries operating within Bosnia could not be considered de facto agents of Serbia and Montenegro in the context of the massacre committed by them at Srebrenica. There, the Court found that the paramilitaries, which (at the time) were operating in territory not controlled by Serbia and Montenegro, and which answered not to the government of that State but to the quasi-state Republika Srpska established in Bosnia, were organisationally and operationally too independent of Serbia and Montenegro to be deemed de facto agents at the time of the Srebrenica massacre.

The situation of the paramilitary settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is fundamentally different in ways that suggest that they could validly be deemed de facto organs of the Israeli State. For one thing, they operate in territory that is under the complete and exclusive control of the State of Israel, which exercises that control through extensive occupying military and police forces. As Marko Milanović has noted, the ICJ in the Srebrenica case “all but hinted at the possibility that its demanding complete control test would indeed have been met for events taking place in 1992,” when Yugoslavia’s regular army was operating in Bosnia. This would seem to hold particularly true in the case of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, given that the Israeli government, which exercises civilian and military jurisdiction, as well as complete military control, over the OPT, has not made the slightest effort to disarm the paramilitary settlers or to remove them (along with the other illegal settlers) from the territory, as required by international law. Indeed, Israel protects the paramilitary settlers from any form of reprisal (or even protest) for their actions by the Palestinian civilian population.

In short, the Israeli government, through its military and police organs, not only refuses to take any action to curtail the activities of these settlers, but in fact takes decisive action to ensure that they can operate with impunity.

It is not saying too much to argue that, in these circumstances, the combination of deliberate actions and omissions of the Israeli armed forces, are what make the terrorist operations of the paramilitary settlers  – which are entirely consistent with the overall Israeli policy of settling and ethnically cleansing every useful bit of the Occupied Palestinian Territory – possible in the first place. Without the cover provided by the Israeli military, these notorious cowards would not even be in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, let alone engage in systematic attacks on the Palestinian population. They are only tough when there’s no risk.

Put briefly, given their open bearing of arms and organised, systematic violent conduct, crucially enabled by the full military force of the Israeli government, these “ideological settlers” look less like private individuals and a lot more like a semi-official paramilitary wing of the Israeli government on the model of the South Lebanon Army or the US death squads in Latin America, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  This description seems particularly apt in the light of the fact that they direct their military efforts against the same occupied population as the government of the state to which they profess allegiance. As such, there is at least a strong case to be made that they constitute part of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict within the meaning of Art. 43(1) of the First Protocol Additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides that“[t]he armed forces of a Party to a conflict consist of all organized armed forces, groups and units which are under a command responsible to that Party for the conduct or its subordinates, even if that Party is represented by a government or an authority not recognized by an adverse Party”.

Indeed, the only open question that arises in determining whether the paramilitary settlers are combatants within the meaning of Art. 43(1) is whether there is any accountability for their actions at all, and that question only remains open because of the culture of impunity enforced by the Israeli government. However, even in the absence of serious efforts to hold the paramilitary settlers accountable, it seems reasonable to assume that the Party to the conflict in whose interest they act (Israel) would likely hold them accountable if they were ever to do something to which that Party seriously objected (though, given Israel’s standards, this could forever remain a theoretical question). Furthermore, the existence of a system of accountability is merely a prerequisite for POW status; it need not be met in order to establish that a person is a lawful military target. As such, it seems fair to assume that the paramilitary settlers are not entitled to the protections afforded civilians by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Samel makes much of his assumption that the Palestinians who killed the settlers could not know whether they were lifestyle settlers or (paramilitary) ideological settlers:

This was most probably all the gunmen knew about their victims – that they were settlers. Maybe they were indeed armed and fanatic members of the most racist strain of the settler movement. But they were anonymous settlers when killed. In my view, they were civilians, not engaged in any immediately threatening behavior, and therefore not subject to a death sentence.

That’s assuming a lot. First of all, the killings occurred near Hebron, a hotbed of paramilitary settler activity. Second of all, Palestinians would hardly have access to lifestyle settlers, who live a highly sheltered existence in gated enclaves and use the bypass roads to avoid any actual contact with Palestinians in the OPT. Third of all, the paramilitary settlers do not, as a rule, make any attempt to conceal their identities when they carry out their pogroms. Given the regularity of these attacks, and the fact that the attackers do not go far from home to commit their crimes, it does not seem particularly “out there” to suggest that the Palestinians would recognise at least their most frequent attackers on sight.

This is, unlike much of the rest of Samel’s assertions, a question of legal significance. Art. 50(1) of the 1977 Protocol Additional provides that “[i]n case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.” However, Samel has not provided any actual facts in support of his claim that “all the gunmen knew about their victims” was “that they were settlers”. The fact that neither Samel nor I can say what they knew at the time does not mean that there was actual doubt.

It is worth recalling at this point that Samel is a lawyer. As such, he can be expected to have at least some rudimentary understanding of legal analysis and research. Yet he makes no attempt to apply – or even cite – the legal provisions that are dispositive of the question his article is ostensibly supposed to answer.

Not only does he fail to analyse the question based on the controlling legal provisions, he blatantly mischaracterises the standard when he accuses those who doubt that the paramilitary settlers are entitled to the protections afforded to civilians of applying a standard that is “[obviously similar] to Alan Dershowitz’s ‘continuum of civilianality, one of his most morally reprehensible concepts” (which is also a blatant mischaracterisation of Dershowitz’s bogus continuum). By Samel’s reckoning, denying civilian protections to members of heavily armed paramilitary groups working closely together with a Party to the conflict – as the Geneva Conventions and Protocols Additional themselves do – is morally equivalent to a “continuum” that allows for the wilful killing of persons who never even remotely participated in hostilities. One gets the distinct impression from Samel that the Geneva Conventions allow the crucial question of who is entitled to civilian protections to hinge on the signature on a person’s paycheque.

One might object at this point that Samel’s article was published on a political blog frequented by the lay public looking for a brief, informative article and not a treatise, rather than a specialised journal of international humanitarian law. This is no excuse for two reasons. First of all, the Geneva Conventions and other international legal instruments are no stranger to MondoWeiss, as they come up frequently in discussions of Israeli crimes. Second of all, discussing the Geneva Conventions does not require a confusing foray into the world of fertile octogenarians and unborn widows. These are well-known legal instruments, written in fairly straightforward language, and, as noted above, this would hardly be the first time that the readers of MondoWeiss were confronted an analysis of the Geneva conventions. Samel’s failure to engage the legal standards contained in the Conventions and Protocols is at best intellectually lazy, and at worst a disingenuous attempt to shed darkness on a well-lit corner of the law.