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Michael Oren
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The US charge of ‘indiscriminate bombing’ is over the top

Washington should know that the Gaza civilian death toll is relatively low – its accusations endanger Israel's security
President Joe Biden speaks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden speaks in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Every civilian death is a tragedy. Another country, struck by the type and immensity of the atrocities committed against Israel, would likely have responded with vastly greater force and inflicted far greater numbers of civilian casualties. But Israel is the Jewish State, not only in the way we conduct our daily lives but in the moral manner in which we defend ourselves.

Even when the enemy is using its own population as a human shield, Israel must do its utmost to reduce the damage to civilians. This is not only a strategic interest for Israel – civilian casualties help substantiate the charges of war crimes and genocide that could result in boycotts and sanctions – but also a moral imperative.

For that reason, the IDF takes unprecedented measures to warn civilians of impending actions and to evacuate them from combat zones. It’s why, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Israel has maintained the lowest combatant-to-civilian casualty rate in modern warfare – as Hamas’s own statistics show.

How, then, can the Biden administration accuse Israel of ״indiscriminately bombing” Gaza, of reacting “over the top” to the events of October 7th, and of dehumanizing the Palestinians? The oft-leveled charge that “too many Palestinians have been killed” implies that a smaller number would have been acceptable to the White House. The history of our previous rounds of fighting with Hamas, each of which produced similar claims of “too many Palestinians killed,” suggests that no such number exists.

President Biden and his staff continue to uphold Israel’s right to self-defense, to supply us with vital forms of ammunition, and to resist mounting calls for a permanent ceasefire. Yet, the accusations they level at Israel do far more than insult our soldiers. They fundamentally endanger our security.

By asserting that Israel is violating international humanitarian law, our American ally is bolstering those who accuse us of committing war crimes and perpetrating genocide. The next time Israel faces these charges in an international court, statements by the president, the secretary of state and other administration officials will be adduced as exhibit A for the prosecution.

That evidence, moreover, would be demonstrably false. Israel’s efforts to reduce civilian casualties, often at the expense of our own soldiers’ safety, are well documented. “Despite the unique challenges Israel faces in its war against Hamas,” the internationally recognized urban warfare expert John Spencer recently wrote in Newsweek, “it has implemented more measures to prevent civilian casualties than any other military in history.”

Such unprecedented steps include the use of precision and small-diameter bombs, warning civilian populations through dropped leaflets, text messages, phone calls and even military maps indicating intended combat zones, and designated four-hour pauses on multiple days for civilian evacuations. Though Hamas obstructs and sometimes even shoots civilians fleeing the fighting, countless civilian lives have been saved by Israel’s restraint.

Far from being indiscriminate, each air strike in Gaza must be approved by IDF intelligence and legal officers to assure the minimal impact on civilians. Mistakes tragically happen, especially in densely built-up environments where terrorists in civilian clothes routinely mix with the local inhabitants. Such incidents are scrupulously investigated and the appropriate lessons drawn.

The administration’s charges not only ignore these extraordinary efforts, they fly in the face of their results.

Though Hamas is well-known to grossly inflate its casualty figures, even that of the 28,000 civilian deaths cited by the “Gaza Health Ministry” actually proves Israel’s case. The 28,000 includes the nearly 12,000 terrorists killed by the IDF. Deducting that number as well as the civilian casualties caused by the thirty percent of Hamas rockets that fall short within the Gaza Strip, and the total will be roughly 13,000 civilian fatalities. That is a ratio of nearly one combatant death for every civilian.

According to The New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Watson Institute of Brown University, in America’s wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the ratio was four civilians killed for every combatant. The record for NATO’s 1999 intervention in Serbia was similarly four-to-one.

Apart from the unprecedented challenges confronting Israeli forces in Gaza, their success in reducing civilian casualties is also unmatched.

That success, however, is nothing to be celebrated. On the contrary. Israel’s goal for its terrorist-to-civilian fatality ratio should always be one-to-zero. Outrage at the civilian casualties, meanwhile, must be directed at those who cynically and barbarously engineer them. Hamas’s goal is to delegitimize Israel and brand us as war criminals. That is precisely the objective served by accusations of “over the top” reactions, indiscriminate bombing, and dehumanization.

About the Author
Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset Member, and Deputy Minister for Diplomacy, is the founder of the Israel Advocacy Group and the Substack, Clarity.