Civilian vulnerability in asymmetric conflict: Lessons from the Second Lebanon and Gaza Wars

Michael L. Gross

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


During war, civilians are subject to collateral and direct harm. By law and ethics, the principle of proportionality mitigates collateral harm and the principle of noncombatant immunity forbids direct harm. Each principle hopes to limit civilian death and injury significantly. During asymmetric war between a large and technologically superior state army and a small and far less sophisticated nonstate guerrilla organization, two phenomena weaken these principles. First, noncombatants are outwardly indistinguishable from the guerrillas who operate in their midst. As a result, state armies inevitably subject noncombatants to unnecessary and disproportionate harm as they attempt to destroy guerrilla forces. Second, state armies are redefining the status of civilians who provide war-sustaining aid. By law, civilians who do not directly participate in the hostilities retain their immunity despite the essential financial, educational, welfare, telecommunications and legal support they provide a military organization. The cadre of active fighters in guerrilla organizations, however, is small in number and to maintain an effective fighting force they must depend upon civilians who work for institutions associated with the organization’s political wing. Increasingly, state armies are attacking these “associated structures” directly, thereby stripping immunity from a hitherto protected class of civilians. It is difficult to proscribe these attacks entirely because state armies must disable associated targets to prevail in asymmetric war. Attacking the few military targets available is generally insufficient to decide a conflict and allow state armies to achieve their military and political goals. Nevertheless, neither the inability to readily distinguish combatants from noncombatants nor the necessity of disabling associated civilian structures relieves state armies from their duty to mitigate the suffering of civilians. To help protect civilians, nonlethal tactics and weapons deserve serious consideration.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCivilians and Modern War
Subtitle of host publicationArmed Conflict and the Ideology of Violence
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781136333408
ISBN (Print)9780415693936
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2012

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2012 Selection and editorial material, Daniel Rothbart, Karina V. Korostelina and Mohammed D. Cherkaoui.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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