Back in January, I wrote a post advising that an area which desperately needs clarification is the development of moral guidelines pertaining the tactical and strategic prosecution of counter-insurgency operations. In light of that, I found this Ha'aretz article (via Yaacov Lozowick by way of Ignoblus) on Israel's Duvdevan unit very interesting. Duvdevan was formed specifically to engage in close-quarters operations to arrest or neutralize terrorist threats while minimizing the risk and harm to surrounding civilians. Several members of the unit received commendations in the wake of Operation Cast Lead for extraordinary efforts avoiding civilian casualties.
It may seem rather self-congratulatory to give awards for not killing civilians. But the instinct, I think, founders on an inaccurate view on the legal status of civilian deaths in wartime. It isn't illegal to kill civilians -- much the opposite, the law of war recognizes that civilian deaths happen without there being any legal liability. What is prohibited is the deliberate, reckless, or disproportionate killing of civilians. Consequently, there are presumably cases where it civilian casualties may have been justified, but additional risk, effort, or ingenuous maneuvers by the operatives managed to avoid them. This, needless, to say, is a good thing.
The efforts of the Duvdevan are important for another reason. As Mr. Lozowick notes, the question of how to avoid civilian casualties in these sorts of engagements while maintaining operational efficacy and efficiency is one that is not well developed -- Duvdevan have essentially been building their own models from scratch. But insofar as they are broadening our systems of knowledge in this area, they can actually change the norms of warfare itself. An military operation may be proportionate within one set of tactical constraints, but disproportionate in another where we've developed new ways of achieving the goal of the operation with reduced damaged or casualties. For those of us interesting in reducing overall stress and danger to non-combatants, developing these norms should be a top priority.