The aerial bombardment of civilians in densely populated cities began in earnest when Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany came to the assistance of their fellow fascists in Spain and bombed Republican civilian targets in the Basque region.

The impact of the bombardment was immortalised in Picasso’s antiwar painting Guernica that graphically depicts the suffering inflicted. The painting is in black, white and grey and shows the grotesque brutality of war – screaming women and dead babies in the cubist style which Picasso pioneered. He said it expressed the “horror of the military caste which is now plundering Spain into an ocean of misery and death”.

The bombing of Republican towns in Spain was a practice-run of the shape of things to come in modern warfare in World War II. After its outbreak, Germany initially bombed military targets in the south of England from July to September 1940. What then happened was that in September the Luftwaffe – Nazi Germany’s airforce – strayed in error and bombed civilian areas in the outskirts of London. In retaliation, Winston Churchill ordered the bombing of civilians in Berlin. This infuriated Adolf Hitler who unleashed an indiscriminate bombing campaign against British cities in the Blitz between September 1940 and May 1941, after which bombing civilians became the norm by all combatants.

The iconic picture of St Paul’s engulfed in smoke still standing as a symbol of British resistance to Nazi bombardment of London, belies the fact that as the war progressed the British inflicted as much civilian harm on Germany as they suffered during the Blitz – and more.

Near the end of the war the Allies – Britain, the US and the Soviet Union – had a deliberate policy of saturation targeting of civilians in Germany to break their spirit of resistance as part of Allied military strategy. It was even justified on ethical grounds on the basis that the civilian population was not as innocent as it was assumed to be; it was argued that the support civilians provided to the Nazi war effort justified bombing German cities from the air indiscriminately.

Hamburg and Dresden were incinerated by Allied bombing and the Americans razed Tokyo in Japan, even before they dropped two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing about 200,000 innocent civilians.

In the recent film about the scientist Oppenheimer, a biopic on the race to develop the atom bomb during World War II by the US, the scientist visits President Truman after the bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered. During the visit Truman boasts that although Oppenheimer developed the atom bomb he, Truman, made the decision to drop it – as if it were a great achievement to kill so many civilians without compunction.

An element of revenge was involved in all the deliberate targeting of civilians by the Allies in World War II. The British were as merciless as the Nazis in their use of unguided bombs (dumb bombs) on Germany’s civilian population as payback for the Blitz, and the Americans used atom bombs on the Japanese as payback for “the day of infamy” on November 9, 1941 when Japan attacked America’s Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour unprovoked.

These days civilians are protected on paper by an impressive array of international treaties most of which were passed in the aftermath of the excesses of World War II. The 1945 UN Charter to maintain peace; the 1948 Genocide Convention that defined and made genocide a crime; and the 1949 Geneva Convention to protect civilians in time of war supplemented by the 1977 Additional Protocols that prohibit indiscriminate attacks on civilians, were all the direct the result of the bitter experience of World War II in a spirit of never again!

Besides the post-war treaties, the Nazi leaders faced criminal charges of waging aggressive war, crimes against humanity and war crimes at Nuremberg in 1945, which was given treaty force by the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court with jurisdiction to try leaders for the crimes of genocide and aggression; crimes against humanity; and war crimes.

Nowadays the international community has the legal tools to require countries to conduct wars and other armed conflicts in accordance with civilised values, but as the wars in Ukraine and in and around Gaza show it is difficult to enforce civilised warfare.

So far as the war in Ukraine is concerned, there is a warrant out for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. But he has not been charged with waging a war of aggression against Ukraine or for bombing civilians indiscriminately.

In Israel’s war in Gaza, there are plenty of accusations and counter accusations, but little action by the international community to enforce a civilised conduct of the war. On an objective analysis of the known facts the “proximate cause” of the war in Kissinger-speak was an attack by Hamas on October 7, 2023 on Israeli settlements around Gaza, during which 1200 innocent civilians were murdered and more than 200 were taken hostage. It was unquestionably a terror attack and the Arab and Muslim world needs to call it out for its barbarism.

Since then Israel has been engaged in a high intensity bombardment of Gaza and a land invasion with tanks and infantry. Its stated objective is to destroy Hamas in self defence, but it is also in revenge for the humiliating nature of Hamas’ attack. The catastrophe for Gaza and its people has been immense. The dead and injured are disproportionately high: 17,000 dead, many of them children, and those injured are many more.

According to President Biden, Israel is engaged in “indiscriminate” bombing of Gaza’s civilian population and according to US intelligence sources it is using “dumb bombs”. Dropping such bombs on densely populated areas killing thousands of civilians is a war crime.

An Israeli victory is expected but it will be a Pyrrhic victory , not only because of the huge number of civilian deaths and the razing of Gaza but also because the Palestinians put up a spirited resistance in Gaza.against overwhelming odds. And that appeals not only to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Arab street but also to the Arab salon and even in the corridors of power in the Arab world.

Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge