Civilian casualties are the worst of many terrible events that take place in conflicts. Even in the most just or necessary war, those waged to protect a country from outside attack, civilian casualties are as tragic as they are inevitable.
Israelis and Jewish communities worldwide – however supportive of Israel’s ongoing operation to stop Hamas terrorism – are pained by the loss of civilian life in Gaza. We are constantly reminded of the unfolding tragedy through significant media coverage that, to a disproportionate extent, has emphasized civilian casualty counts.
While this is natural given the terrible human cost of war, I describe it as “disproportionate” because I have yet to see comparable media focus on civilians fatalities from operations undertaken by other Western militaries (such as American drone strikes in various countries).
Our response to civilian loss of life should not be to draw facile and baseless conclusions, but rather to examine how and why civilians have died. In the context of Gaza, this requires examining four essential pieces of verified – and verifiable – information.
1. Hamas makes extensive use of civilian infrastructure to perpetrate violence.
While parts of Gaza are densely populated (as are parts of Tel Aviv), it is a common misconception that all of Gaza is densely populated. At least one analyst has observed that Hamas controls a number of large and uninhabited sections of Gaza (including where settlements once existed) but chooses not to use those locations as missile launch sites.
Instead, Hamas launches missiles from civilian neighbourhoods while concealing weapons, operatives, and tunnel entrances in homes, mosques and schools. Israeli troops have even taken fire from Hamas fighters located in hospitals, a predicament that has forced Israel to make the same terrible choice that would any other Western military.
Video footage reveals that Hamas exploits the Red Crescent by using its ambulances to move fighters in Gaza. From Hamas’ perspective, this is an effective tactic. If Israeli forces choose not to engage, Hamas enjoy greater freedom of movement. If Israeli forces engage, Israel bears a tremendous public relations cost – even if no civilians are harmed. This likewise explains why Hamas’ headquarters have long been located in Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital.
Hamas has also devoted significant effort to building an intricate array of automated traps and explosives throughout Gaza. While Israeli troops are the intended target, such traps make no distinction between soldiers and civilians. One can only imagine the terrible consequences were a child in Gaza, for example, to unwittingly enter a house rigged with explosives – such as this one.
Even the UN agency established to assist the Palestinians (UNRWA, which is by no means friendly to Israel) issued a statement of condemnation on July 17th after finding a cache of missiles in one of its schools in Gaza. On July 22nd, the discovery of a second stockpile in another UN school yielded another statement of condemnation. This routine would be laughable were the issues not so serious.
- Hamas openly tells Palestinians to ignore Israeli evacuation notices.
It is a matter of public record that, on television broadcasts and in bulletins, Hamas has openly called for Gazans to ignore Israel’s warning notices and even gather on the rooftops of targeted buildings.
A UN report issued early in the conflict (July 9th) was remarkably clear on the reason for civilian loss of life: “In most cases, prior to the attacks, residents have been warned to leave, either via phone calls by the Israel military or by the firing of warning missiles.” In other words, civilians ignored – either by their own volition or under duress from terror groups – evacuation notices transmitted by Israel.
Again, from Hamas’ perspective, this approach yields benefits regardless of the outcome. If Israel cancels its mission, Hamas’ infrastructure is spared; if Israel proceeds with the mission, Palestinian fatalities enable Hamas to claim a public relations achievement. While it is difficult to imagine any organization abusing its own people in this way, we cannot overlook the fact that Hamas openly glorifies death and claims responsibility for suicide bombings.
3. Hamas uses civilians as combatants and disguises combatants as civilians.
On that point, during the height of the Second Intifada in the early 2000’s, Hamas recruited Palestinian teenagers as young as 14 to serve as suicide bombers. News reports this week revealed that hospitalized Israeli soldiers report having seen 13- and 14-year-olds in Gaza running at Israeli troops while wearing suicide bomber-belts.
We need not rely on Israeli accounts to confirm Hamas’ use of children to attack Israeli soldiers. Hamas recently released a video declaring that it is distributing thousands of hand grenades to the youth of Gaza to use against Israeli troops.
At the same time, independent observers have confirmed that Hamas has disguised its fighters as civilians. On Sunday, CTV journalist Janis Mackey Frayer posted a tweet from Gaza that quickly went viral: “Inside Shejaiyya we also saw several #Hamas gunmen. One passed dressed in a woman’s headscarf… tip of a gun poked out from under cloak.”
4. Israel uses unprecedented measures to reduce civilian casualties.
Media have widely reported on the single greatest factor in reducing Israeli civilian casualties: the Iron Dome. Were it not for the Iron Dome having intercepted hundreds of missiles, Israel’s major cities would be devastated and countless Israelis would be dead or wounded.
Less attention has been paid to the various means by which Israel warns Gazans of impending operations. Israel uses phone calls, text messages, and flyers to warn Gazans in advance of IDF operations, providing clear instructions to preserve their safety. This is even before Israel deploys a “knock on the roof”, a non-explosive missile that emits a loud boom when dropped on a building. Far from harming those inside, the tactic serves as a warning for those inside to evacuate prior to an Israeli strike.
This innovative approach has saved countless civilians by clearing Hamas sites of innocent bystanders. Colonel Richard Kemp, who once commanded British forces in Afghanistan, recently confirmed in email correspondence with CIJA that he has never heard of any other military – including NATO troops in Afghanistan – using the knock on roof technique.
The above four points represent a brief summary of the serious challenges and dilemmas facing Israeli troops operating in Gaza, as well as the steps Israel has taken to mitigate them. The combination of a large civilian presence, a sophisticated network of tunnels, and intricate planning on the part of Hamas may make Gaza the most complex environment in which a modern Western military has had to operate.
Above all, headlines related to civilian casualties should prompt more than our rightful sorrow; they should invite an honest and thorough analysis of why and how civilians have been put in harm’s way in Gaza.