This post originally appeared on the London Review of Books Blog on July 29, 2014.
The Palestinian body count in Gaza has passed 1000, with more than 5000 wounded. Over 70 per cent of the casualties are civilians, including more than 200 children. Extended families have been wiped out. Children playing on a beach have been targeted and killed by Israeli gunboats. Over two thousand homes have been damaged or destroyed. According to an IDF spokesman, 120 one-tonne bombs landed in the Shaja’yya neighbourhood alone. Yet, with three Israeli civilians and 40 Israeli soldiers killed, Israeli leaders and their US allies insist on describing the carnage as a war of self-defence.
They also say that the Israeli army wages war with moral integrity. It doesn’t target civilians. It never intends to kill them. It even warns Gazans when an attack is coming so they can get out of harm’s way.
The ‘unintentional’ killing of civilians is not illegal under international law. If civilians are not deliberately targeted, if they are killed in pursuit of a legitimate military objective and the number of deaths is ‘proportional’ to that objective, then civilian casualties are accounted for as ‘collateral damage’. However, as Neta Crawford argues in Accountability for Killing, it’s worth thinking more critically about the category of unintentional civilian deaths. Most civilian deaths in urban counterinsurgency warfare may be ‘unintentional’, but they are also predictable.
Gaza is a densely populated territory cordoned off by air, sea and land, from which no escape or exit is possible. The IDF is dropping bombs powerful enough to flatten eight-storey apartment buildings, sending large metal gates soaring through the air. Drones fire missiles into crowded areas, even targeting civilians attempting to flee. The Israeli military is pounding densely populated cities and refugee camps with shells from Merkava tanks and missiles from Apache helicopters, even areas the IDF has previously told civilians to escape to.
There is no safe place in Gaza. There is nowhere to go. And there is nothing unintentional let alone moral about civilians being killed when there is a 100 per cent probability that an assault on a refugee camp or a crowded neighbourhood or city street will result in mass civilian casualties. The distinction between the intended and the unintended has lost all sense here.
And what if the civilian casualties are not unintentional at all? The Israeli state is skilled at aligning itself with the interests and proclaimed values of the US. After 9/11, Ariel Sharon worked hard to equate the US fight against ‘Muslim terrorists’ in Afghanistan and Iraq with Israel’s struggle against Palestinians. But Israel’s war is different from America’s. Not because the US military is more moral, or more sensitive to the laws of war, but because the US operated with a different ideological fantasy. The US military went to liberate Iraqis and Afghans from regimes they wanted to be liberated from, or so we were told. Iraqi and Afghan civilians would embrace the US and its mission. Hearts and minds had to be won.
Israel’s war in Gaza is not about winning Palestinian hearts and minds. Israel does not claim to be protecting or liberating Gazans from an oppressive regime. Rather, the IDF’s tactics recall the logic of the British and American fire bombing of German and Japanese cities during the Second World War: target the civilian population. Make them pay an unbearable price. Then they will turn against their own regime.
When Israel attacks hospitals in Gaza, when it wipes out extended families, when it mows down children running on a beach, it is engaged in a premeditated act. The war is an extension of the collective punishment unleashed on West Bank Palestinians after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in June. Is it proportionate? Compare it with the way the Israeli police searched for and held accountable the three Israeli Jews who burned a Palestinian teenager alive in revenge. Imagine the IDF rampaging through the towns of those Israeli perpetrators, holding entire communities responsible for what they did, demolishing their family homes.
Or imagine if Hamas were able to aim its rockets. Imagine it targeting the home of a high-ranking officer in the IDF, killing his wife and children, nieces and nephews, along with the family next door. Imagine these casualties being described as ‘collateral damage’ for which Hamas bore no legal or moral responsibility.
The IDF’s bombardment of Palestinian homes, schools and hospitals, indiscriminately pummeling the people of Gaza into the ground, deserves to be called what it is: a war crime.
Photo Credit: A Palestinian family salvage belongings in the Shujai’iya neighbourhood of Gaza City. Photograph: Khalil Hamra/AP