According to the official Israeli Defense Forces website Israel’s military adopted policies to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza. These included warnings via texts and phone calls, leaflets and “roof-knocking,” the firing a non-lethal round prior to the use of live ammunition. Israeli officials have been quick to embellish the IDF’s allegedly humanitarian ways. For example, Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, speaking to John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, said “The Israeli Defense Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize… a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint.” And our own Senator McCain chimed in with “the restraint of the Israelis, in my view, is admirable” while Senator Rubio asserted Israel will perform the Gaza operation with “great restraint” as with “everything Israel does.”
Nevertheless, unlike Israel’s 2008/9 attack on Gaza, dubbed Cast Lead, this time it has been rather more difficult to sustain the illusion of IDF restraint or even that of an army which adheres to basic military and humanitarian law. The reason for this is quite simple. The video record from inside Gaza effectively puts paid to any protestations of Israeli restraint. American reporting may be prejudiced in Israel’s favor, op-eds may be overwhelmingly pro-Israel and Bibi Netanyahu may be able to get on US TV anytime he wants, but images of dead and dying women and children are hard to overlook.
For instance the Israeli claim that firing a warning shot saves lives took something of a knock when one of their dummy rounds killed four children who were feeding the family ducks on the roof of their home. The attack and its aftermath were caught on video. Similarly, the oft repeated statement that civilians are not targeted was discredited in rather gruesome fashion when naval gun fire killed four boys playing soccer on a Gaza beach. Unfortunately for the Israel propaganda machine just behind the beach was a hotel housing foreign correspondents who filmed the scene even as they were helping to gather up wounded and dead children.
Israel asserts that it warns residents of impending bombardments and ground offensives with leaflets and phone calls. Advice to civilians to flee might be considered humanitarian if the Israelis did not then proceed to shell UN schools sheltering the refugees. Sometimes the aerial and artillery attacks themselves were caught on video and sometimes only the bloody aftermath . Journalists and bystanders also recorded Israeli attacks on first responders, ambulances and hospitals, thoroughly discrediting pious Israeli assertions, loudly echoed by their American apologists, about Israeli “purity of arms.” Eventually even Uncle Sam tired of Israeli attacks on UN facilities and claimed to be “appalled” by the “disgraceful shelling” of a UN school in Rafah, but, of course, not so horrified as to deprive the Israelis of ammunition to reload.
Israel also targeted key civilian infrastructure, most notably Gaza’s only electric generating station. An Israeli spokesman claimed tank fire knocking out the plant was a “mistake,” but how can you blast in error something as big as a power plant with its fuel storage tanks, transformers, turbine hall and transmission lines?
Although we are not yet in a position to make a systematic evaluation of Israeli intentions and results of their current attack on Gaza, we may perhaps develop a number of hypotheses based Israel’s 2008/9 assault, Cast Lead. The two campaigns are similar in a number of ways. In both cases the proximate cause was Israel’s killing of a number of Hamas cadre. The operations were of approximately the same duration and the casualties in both overwhelmingly Palestinian civilians. Of course there were differences. In addition to the presence of international journalists who found themselves in a position to document Israeli war crimes, in this round Hamas resisted the invasion of Israeli ground forces. Israeli soldiers from elite units like the Golani Brigade were killed. It is an open question whether Israeli military losses result from improved military skills of the resistance, or the degradation of an army spending most of its time on the West Bank on occupation duty beating unarmed kids, harassing old ladies at check points and protecting Israeli settlers.
Much of what Israel did to Gaza in 2008/9, and in this round, appears to have been done to cause the maximum suffering and pain to Gaza’s 1.7 million people. Israel’s high tech military bombed and shelled an essentially defenseless population living in overcrowded urban areas. Attacks on UN schools serving as shelters proved that for civilians in Gaza there was no safe place. In both assaults Israel did tremendous damage to Gaza’s infrastructure and to private homes, farm property, schools, universities and mosques. It would be hard, Ambassador Dermer’s absurd comments notwithstanding, to avoid the conclusion that Israel employed vastly disproportionate force, a crime in and of itself, to sow terror and despair among the people of Gaza.
What Israelis said about Cast Lead, the 2008/9 assault, ought to inform our view of the current invasion. IDF’s official after action report, The Operation in Gaza claimed the IDF “carefully checked and cross checked targets…to make sure they were being used for combat or terrorist activities, and not instead solely for civilian use,” attacked “solely…military objectives,” ensured that “civilians and civilian objects would not be harmed,” and that “sophisticated precision weapons” were used “to minimize the harm to civilians.”
The reality, of course, was very different. After the January, 2009 ceasefire Israeli Foreign Minister (currently Justice Minister) Tzipi Livini crowed, “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the current operation, which I demanded.” Soldiers who had participated in the campaign stated in individual interviews that the IDF “used a huge amount of fire power and killed a huge amount of people,” “We shot at anything that moved” and “As for rules of engagement, the army’s working assumption was that the whole area would be devoid of civilians…Anyone there…was to be killed.”
Nor were Israeli combatants shy about describing property destruction in Gaza: “The amount of destruction was incredible. You drive around those neighborhoods and can’t identify a thing. Not one stone standing over another. You see plenty of fields, hothouses, orchards, everything devastated. Totally ruined”; “At first you go in and see a lot of houses. A week later, after the razing, you see the horizon further away, almost to the sea.” And “I was in Gaza and they kept emphasizing that the object of the operation was to wreak destruction on the infrastructure.”
Who are you going to believe? The official history of the Israel’s assaults on Gaza? Or soldiers who were actually there? Self-serving avowals of Israeli restraint circulating in the media now? Bibi Netanyahu and his American shills? Or your own eyes?
John Taylor lived and worked in the Middle East for a number of years as an archaeologist, banker and international civil servant. He worked for a major US bank in New York, Paris, Athens and London and is a graduate of the Universities of Chicago and Cambridge. He has a Commercial Pilot’s License and has been flying high performance and experimental sailplanes for 30 years.