What Is A War Crime?


Israel commits war crimes in the form of collective punishment, disproportionate force, targeting of civilians, and other violations of the Geneva Conventions and international law. Despite these repeated war crimes and other human rights violations, the United States government continues to give Israel economic, military, and diplomatic support in violation of its own laws.

Israel repeatedly violates the Geneva Conventions by:

  • Targeting, killing, and collectively punishing non-combatant men, women and children
  • Moving its own population into an occupied zone
  • Imposing unnecessary curfews and closures
  • Exercising disproportionate use of force

 Israel defies international law and hundreds of U.N. resolutions by:

  • Refusing to end over 40 years of military occupation
  • Expanding and adding Israeli settlements
  • Building the Apartheid Wall to take over Palestinian land and water resources
  • Denying the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees


       A war crime is defined as a grave violation of the Geneva Conventions or international humanitarian law. Both Israel and the United States are signatories to the Geneva Conventions. Under our Constitution, ratification of a treaty, such as the Geneva Conventions, makes that treaty binding U.S. law. In other words, a treaty becomes, in effect, U.S. law that our government is duty bound to uphold.

Two basic principles underlie the definition of a war crime. One is the principle of distinction, and the other is the principle of proportionality. The principle of distinction means that armed forces must distinguish between civilian populations or targets and military forces or targets, and they are prohibited from deliberately targeting civilians. The principle of proportionality means that the armed forces of a country cannot attack a military target in a way that would result in the loss of civilian life or property disproportionate to the military advantage to be gained.


       Out of these principles flows the crime of collective punishment, which is defined as reprisals directed at civilians. An example is punishment meted out against civilians for the resistance activities of insurgents, such as the infamous Nazi retributions against civilians for acts of the Resistance in France, Italy, and other countries that often involved the wholesale slaughter of towns. The prohibition against collective punishment is spelled out in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It reads, “No protected person [that is, a civilian] may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. . . . Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.”

Our own military has prosecuted soldiers who took part in or led acts of collective punishment. Lt. William Calley, who led the U.S. Army’s massacre of civilians in the South Vietnamese village of My Lai during the Vietnam War, was charged with premeditated murder and court-martialed for taking reprisals against the village after his unit came under attack from nearby insurgents. Calley’s unit murdered hundreds of women, elderly men, children, and infants.

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