Steven Aiello
Steven Aiello

The Israeli Soldiers Who Died Protecting Palestinians

No, the headline isn’t a typo. It’s not a sick joke. It’s the truth, the cold, hard truth. I imagine many people will feel uncomfortable with this. Many on the Israeli/Israeli supporting side don’t want to think about our soldiers dying to protect Palestinians, not with all of the terror inflicted over the years by Palestinian terrorists and terror organizations. Many on the Palestinian/Pro-Palestinian side may find the idea ludicrous, or perhaps offensive, that Israeli soldiers, responsible for Palestinian deaths, could be saving Palestinian lives. But I believe it’s the truth, a truth that few want to think about or face.

Before I explain how and why Israeli soldiers are dying to protect Palestinians, I should explain how the Iron Dome saves Palestinian lives at great cost. The Iron Dome— the rocket interception wonder that has all but neutralized the threat of rockets from Gaza, just in time with Hamas’s capabilities to reach virtually every major Israeli population center, at $50,000 a shot, saves Palestinians. How? Why? I’ll explain.

Israel has absorbed a tremendous amount of rockets from Gaza in the last decade. Thousands in fact. The vast majority have fallen in the sparsely populated southern desert area of the country, causing minimal harm or injury. Those living in the area have high frequencies of PTSD, their property values are shot, but for the most part the threat to Israelis has been minimal.

The ability to reach larger population centers, with more powerful rockets, demonstrated in 2012 during Pillar of Defense, now puts Israel’s entire population #underfire, as the hashtag goes. Regardless of how the escalation started (and presumably had this escalation been avoided, it would have occurred at a later point in time), once broad swaths of Israel’s civilian population comes under fire, it is going to react. That’s why it has one of the strongest militaries in the world. For defense, for protection.

Critics of Israel may not want to hear this, but the Israeli army has acted with great, even unprecedented, care in taking on the challenge of fighting an enemy in a highly densely populated area. Israeli Air Force strikes have killed twice as many adult males as women and children combined. That’s 70% of the casualties coming from 25% of the population—the 25% of the population from which fighters are typically drawn. Needless to say, with deaths in the hundreds, those numbers are not an aberration. A realistic estimate shows the probability of being killed if you’re a member of a Palestinian terror group to be 25 to 50 times that of a civilian. That’s not targeting civilians. That’s not randomized shooting. That’s precise; it’s discriminatory. One of the world’s most powerful air forces has averaged about 8 strikes per death. That’s basically shooting around people. You could close your eyes, pull a trigger and kill more people.

Such precision, such discrimination, is only possible because Israel can afford to. Not just in budgetary cost (although surely there is great costs to the high numbers of flights and strikes needed to practice such precision), but in human life. If Israel had not invested in bomb shelters, emergency response systems, and especially the Iron Dome and other interception defenses, Israel could not have danced around its enemy while its civilians were shot at. Israel could not have afforded the precision, the discrimination, if hundreds were dying of Hamas rockets. With the capabilities to do so, the Air Force could, would have stopped pulling punches, would have hit back far harder than it has. Not targeting civilian structures—we don’t do that (accidents occur, but we don’t intentionally target civilians), but hitting military targets with far less concern for collateral damage. Israel has the luxury of taking the hits and pinching back, saving hundreds if not thousands of Palestinian lives, and it has that luxury at a price tag—that of the entire emergency defense system, one in which we spend up to 50 times the cost of a Hamas rocket to intercept it.

(For those who believe Israel doesn’t have the right to self-defense, shouldn’t have fought this or other wars, etc., my contention still holds true. Regardless of your beliefs and whether you’re right, the Israeli government and public don’t share those views. The government would be responding, and thus anything that affects that response in a way that saves Palestinian lives—saves Palestinian lives.)

It should be clear then that Israel (and US aid) have funded a defense system that, while it protects Israeli lives, probably protects Palestinian life even more so. What about the soldiers? Where do they fit in, how could they be saving Palestinian lives, even as they’re shooting at Palestinian targets?

Here too, we must consider the alternatives. Israel is no longer helpless, no longer defenseless. Once again, our Air Force, if needed, could raze Gaza, could do so with fewer strikes than we’ve used in fact. More importantly, the tunnels, Israel’s stated primary operational objective, could be taken down with aerial strikes. Numerous pundits have questioned the feasibility of Israel effectively striking Iranian subterranean nuclear bunkers, a task that would likely involve refueling mid-air. For an Air Force of such capabilities, taking out a few dozen tunnels, even well-dug tunnels, on home turf, should be a simple task.

Yet the army chose a ground operation. A ground operation drastically increases the chances of Israeli casualties. What advantage does it bring? It reduces the risk of (Palestinian) civilian harm. Hamas’s tunnels have been dug deep, they are extensive, and they run under homes and residential areas. A solely aerial attack would require more powerful munitions to be fully effective. Civilian harm would be greatly increased. The alternative (again once a commitment to destroying the tunnels had been made; the question was how) was a ground invasion. A ground invasion puts Israeli boots on the ground, in harm’s way, where tunnels are booby-trapped, where soldiers are ambushed. More than 30 Israeli soldiers, sons and fathers, are dead, and the mission isn’t over. The same objective could have been achieved without sending in ground troops. But more Palestinian civilians would be at risk. And Israel wasn’t willing to do that. More than 30 Israeli soldiers will not return to their families, to protect Palestinian lives.

For all of these efforts, Israel is excoriated, by the UN, by the media, by foreign statesmen and on twitter. Legitimate criticism of Israel might focus on how war could have been prevented, whether it was necessary, if enough is done to achieve peace, or what more could be done to protect lives. But to accuse Israel of war crimes, of non-discrimination, of random firing or (worse) targeting of civilians, contradicts the great costs in dollar and life that Israel has undertaken. Costs borne by Israelis, to protect Palestinians. Yet we hear such excoriation, we read it. Israelis are aware of it. The UN Human Rights Council will have another fact finding mission and will once again blame Israel while ignoring or whitewashing Hamas.

Israelis, who by and large, right or left-wing, do not like being under rocket fire, who see soldiers dying and hear international criticism, even as rockets are found in UN schools, as attacks are launched from hospitals, when these same Israelis see the international assault on Israel and on the Israeli army, they question why we go to such lengths, why we undertake such costs. We’ve all heard the questions by now, the frustration. I don’t mean the “we should bomb all of Gaza”. I’ve heard that too, it disgusts me, and I typically respond to the speaker and then walk away. But the majority, who recognize the need to avoid civilian casualties, wonder why we put soldiers in harm’s way if at the end of the day we’ll be charged with heinous crimes in any case. Why go to so much trouble? Keep the soldiers home, bomb the tunnels, and we’ll all be happy. All except the mothers and parents in Gaza who will mourn, the children in Gaza, the grandparents. They won’t be happy; they won’t win.

I bring this up firstly so we’re aware, so we’re cognizant, so like it or not, we acknowledge the truth. I bring it up because it hurts to see the cruelties being written and said about a people’s army which has the strictest rules of engagement and the lowest ratio of civilian harm to militants in an asymmetric battle perhaps in history, especially when we have sacrificed in blood to keep the ratio down as far as possible. But I also bring this up as a challenge to those who unduly criticize Israel, those who go above and beyond, speaking of war crimes, indiscriminate killing, or worse, civilian targeting. Those people need to realize that as the world raises expectations that Israel fight with both hands tied behind its back and its eyes closed, Israelis will lose patience. It’s already happening. People will support and demand that the priorities and considerations change. Soldiers will stay home, bombs will drop, more powerful bombs, the kinds the US and other armies drop. And the biggest losers will be those Palestinian parents, children, grandparents.

You can criticize Israel, but be reasonable, be realistic, think about the consequences. Recognize the costs incurred, the steps taken, the measures made, to minimize harm. Recognize that 8 air strikes per death means shooting around people, not shooting at them. That given a choice between fighting in a city and fighting in an army base, or a rural area, we’d choose the latter, but we’re not given that choice. That the only time Hamas can be troubled to wear a uniform, in line with the Geneva Conventions and in protection of civilians, is when its members don IDF uniforms as a ruse. Understand the reality and criticize constructively, or risk making the situation worse. Acknowledge the deaths of Israeli soldiers, strange as it may seem, in sanctity of Palestinian life, for if you ignore it or criticize it, Israel will not bother. And the biggest losers in that scenario are Palestinians.

About the Author
Steven Aiello has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. Steven has served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress, and founded Debate for Peace ( He can be reached via email at