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Does Israel intentionally target civilians?

Israeli policy (unlike Hamas or Hezbollah) is not intended to maximize civilian casualties. Yet it does intentionally target civilians: it is intended to produce maximal civilian distress, while avoiding mass civilian casualties.

In discussions about the Israeli-Arab conflict, one of the perennial issues is the targeting of non-combatants. The reactions to the brutal murders in the settlement of Itamar, and the collective punishment of the nearby Palestinian village Awarta (where the alleged killers live) have exemplified the concern many feel about the lack of distinction between those involved in hostilities and uninvolved civilians.

Even more attention has been given to the curious Washington Post article by Judge Richard Goldstone, who headed a UN fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of war crimes during the Gaza war of 2009. One of the key statements in this op-ed was (my emphasis):

While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.

I believe Goldstone’s article (and to some extent, his committee’s report) miss a critical nuance. Israeli policy (unlike Hamas or Hezbollah) is not intended to maximize civilian casualties. Yet it does intentionally target civilians: it is intended to produce maximal civilian distress, while avoiding mass civilian casualties.

One of the clearest articulations of this policy, cited in the Goldstone report, was made by Major General Gadi Eizenkot, in 2008, while discussing the lessons learned from the 2006 Lebanon war. According to him (Heb), trying to hit rocket launchers is “complete nonsense”, because “when there are thousands of launchers on the other side, it is impossible to hunt them down.” Israel, instead, should focus on deterrence:

Every village from which they fire from Israel, we will deploy disproportional force, and cause massive damage and destruction. As far as we are concerned, these are military bases.

Eizenkot emphasized that “this is not a recommendation, this is the plan and it has been approved”.

The concept which underlies this plan is clear. Hitting military targets is difficult, and destroying the enemy’s entire armed forces would require immense resources. Non-combatants, on the other hand, are labeled “soft” targets for a reason. By inflicting massive damage on the civilian population, one creates public political pressure, within the other side, to end hostilities under favorable conditions.

This has been Israel’s explicit policy in Lebanon for decades now. The Israeli Air Force official website, describing (Heb) an IDF operation in Lebanon in 1993, notes that many Lebanese civilians were forced to leave their homes, and adds that “the refugee convoys were supposed to apply pressure on the Lebanese government to act against the terrorist organizations.” A similar operation in 1996 is described (Heb) in even more explicit terms: “a massive bombardment of the Shiite villages in South Lebanon, in order to induce flight of civilians to the north, towards Beirut, thereby applying pressure on the government of Syria and Lebanon to restrain Hezbollah’s activities.”

The air force commander at the time is quoted explaining that the concept behind the operation was to create better conditions for Israeli political leadership, when it comes to negotiations with the Lebanese and the Syrians. “The way to implement this concept was to attack infrastructures, in order to create increasing economic damage, which will start affecting the residents and the Lebanese government.” The West Bank, as well as Gaza itself, have been targets of similar policies.

Certainly, Israel targets combatants and their armaments quite extensively. Much of the harm to civilians occurs as “collateral damage” during such attacks. This can be almost as reprehensible as targeting civilians intentionally, when callous indifference becomes extensive and systematic (as when the IDF’s chief ethicist pens a tome explaining why Israeli soldiers’ lives are more important than those of Palestinian civilians). Endemic cover-ups, unaccountability, and non-existent or inadequate investigations create an atmosphere of impunity which encourages attacks on non-combatants, even if there is no explicit policy directive to do so.

This can cause quite a lot of civilian casualties, but it does not mean that causing such casualties is an Israeli objective. Although efforts to avoid outcomes of this sort are almost always insufficient, they are not completely for show. To some extent, they are even motivated by genuine moral concern. Ultimately, however, they reflect strategic considerations.

Israeli policy makers believe that mass civilian casualties will create international pressure on Israel to end its military operations before they achieve their goal. This has been a major concern in almost every operation conducted in the Palestinian territories or in Lebanon over the past few decades. That is why, as a rule, the IDF prefers to avoid a large amount of non-combatant deaths.

On the other hand, Israeli policy is often explicitly intended to harm civilians, by causing them economic distress, displacement, disruption of critical service, shortage of basic goods, etc. This kind of effect is less likely to induce international pressure, yet Israeli decision makers believe it can produce public pressure on the enemy’s leadership, causing it to make concessions that are in line with Israel’s interests. Although many civilians die as a result of these actions, that is not their intent, and they are often carried out in a manner designed to actually reduce casualties, while maximizing non-lethal civilian suffering.

Are these policies better than intentionally causing civilian casualties? Morally, I think the distinction is shaky. Whether caused by deep indifference or during the course of trying to produce “mere” civilians suffering, it seems to me that the hurting of civilians, both lethal and non-lethal, is reprehensible and wrong.  Israeli hypocrisy on this issue is, of course, also a very poor ethical defense.

Politically, however, understanding the difference is quite significant. First, inaccurate allegations make it easier for Israeli hasbara to paint all criticism as lies (as the Goldstone “retraction” debacle makes clear). Second, recognizing this distinction gives Israel an incentive to continue its current policy. Although it is quite bad, a policy that seeks to maximize civilian casualties would be much, much worse. The Israeli government is avoiding this kind of policy because it believes it will pay an internal and international price. I would like to think that equal condemnation of all policies that target civilians would make Israel cease such practices altogether. However, it is just as likely to tilt it in the opposite direction.

Current Israeli policy on targeting civilians should be exposed, criticized and unequivocally condemned. But ignoring the nuances is counter-productive, even dangerous.

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    1. directrob

      “designed to actually reduce casualties, while maximizing non-lethal civilian suffering.”
      You more or less nailed it. Since the Goldstone report we all know that this tactic is a war crime and maybe a crime against humanity. (Hezbollah and Hamas had the same tactic, they knew quite well the rockets though nasty were almost ineffective for killing but effective for creating terror and causing economic problems as people had to sit/sleep in shelter).
      Your request for nuance though is a bit difficult as it is asking us to lie. Israeli soldiers do target civilians on purpose as a policy. (If a number of civilians would come near to the buffer zone to harvest their crop or to get gravel, some of them will be killed as a policy. Also as a policy only a few)

      Reply to Comment
    2. Jed

      War causes “distress”? What an epiphany. I think you are missing “a critical nuance” on the definition of war. It is the Arab terrorists of Lebanon and Gaza who terrorizes the Jews so they would be in “distress” and leave. Israel killed hundreds of terrorists in the second Lebanon war and in Gaza with a much better ratio than the US or British.
      Both wars were started by the Arab terrorists as part of their “Death by a thousand cuts” strategy.
      I think I missed the part where Roi explains how to fight terrorists who are inside civilian homes, neighborhoods, and in the Lebanese case, in tunnels under entire towns.
      Sending Danny Din? or do you have any other magical solution?

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    3. Great points, Roi. And one thing that might be added is that the classic definition of terrorism (“the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”) pretty much describes Israeli military behavior as well.

      (Of course it describes Hamas behavior equally as well).

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    4. Perfect. One observation: When there is any chance of danger to Israeli soldiers (NOT civilians), any remnants of regard for enemy civilian life vanishes.

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    5. nir sarig

      To assume that civilians have no collective responsibility means that
      the Hamas is an alien force that is completely without popular support.
      Why then do +972 members advocate negotiations with them?
      If Indeed They Represent the population aren’t they (civilians) accountable?

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    6. Yossi Gurvits writes: “When there is any chance of danger to Israeli soldiers (NOT civilians), any remnants of regard for enemy civilian life vanishes.”

      I doubt this means that Israel ignores chances of danger to Israeli civilians — apart from the fact that all Israeli policy invites terrorism (almost seems to have such invitation as a major or sole purpose, to keep the pot boiling as it were).

      But if ANY CHANCE of injury to Israeli soldiers is to be avoided, why use them? Why does Israel EVER use “boots-on-the-ground” soldiers? Don’t bombs and rockets and aircraft-strafing do the jobs of Israeli warfare? Is training IOF soldiers in beastliness “up close and personal” as much a part of the purpose of these wars as developing “terrorist” responses?

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    7. Would Nir Sarig be against negotiations with the IRA and Real IRA? One was a terrorist organisation that has killed innocent people and one IS a terrorist organisation that has killed innocent people.

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    8. Danny

      Nir Sarig – by your logic, would the people of Sderot be considered a legitimate target for Qassam rockets because the majority of them are Likud/Lieberman voters? Or does your argument only apply to Arabs?

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    9. Is it actually true that there was state intention to cause civilian discomfort as policy?

      I’m not sure.

      If the setting is war, different than skirmish, then the set of genuine military targets expands greatly. Civilian infrastructure that is inadmissible in a skirmish, becomes potentially admissible in a war.

      Electrical infrastructure, communications infrastructure, logistical infrastructure.

      I don’t see any logical military justification for targeting sewage, but MANY of the contested targets sited in the Goldstore report, are in that set of targets that could be admissible in a war, while not admissible in a skirmish.

      I don’t think you proved your point, so much as asserted it. “It must be true”, isn’t necessarily.

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    10. Roi Maor

      @Richard – the vast majority of my article was quotes from official Israeli sources. There was hardly a mention there of the logic you present. There was talk about destroying villages, and creating a refugee crisis, however. How do you address that?

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    11. Richard Witty

      The answers that you quoted were not answers to questions, but assertions that could have been associated with other questions or contexts. Its correlative at this point.

      My point about the set of legally admissible targets remains, that in war that set includes communications and electrical infrastructure, while in a contained skirmish, it doesn’t.

      I don’t doubt that Israel sought to inflict the greatest inconvenience that it could among admissible targets. (Maybe they just ignored prudence entirely. From the Goldstone report, the number of instances of responsible training and selection criteria described, indicates to me that they didn’t ignore prudence. The Goldstone Report described the norm of prudence and adherence to international law as a basis of identification of exceptions that were then more conspicuous.)

      If some of those exceptions shifted in any way from inadmissible to admissible, as a result of the Goldstone qualification, that is a big deal.

      It does not make it good policy, nor does it excuse actual war crimes (a smaller set).

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    12. Jacob

      Hamas has declared war on Israel. It is not fighting to end the occupation but to end Israel’s existence. In a war civilians always suffer, especially when combatants hide among civilians and store weapons in private homes and places of worship. The Geneva Convention clearly states that the presence of civilians does not grant immunity from military attacks. When Hamas fires its weapons, while using civilians as human shields, it can not enjoy any immunity from attack. Those who use civilians in that way are responsible for the
      civilian casualties.
      Israel could have used carpet bombing in Gaza without endangering any of its soldiers. But that would have caused tens of thousands of civilian deaths. It did not do that, precisely because it did not, and does not, target civilians.

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    13. Monster

      I would ask those that are saying Israel is completely in the right for its war crimes, and that negotiation with Hamas is inconceivable – what about the current leaders of Israel? The vast majority of them are the children of the terrorists that created Israel through violence, terrorism and force…Irgun, Stern, and Hagana ring a bell, anyone?

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    14. Piotr Berman

      Nir Sarig has a point. Civilians who support enemies of the state have to be handled somehow.

      Imagine a province where most of inhabitants support rebels. Given vast area, bad state of the road etc. rebels are hard to find, but the civilians are not. So we can reasonably put forth a policy of destroying some villages, except that this is hard work and we have not enough troops. But not all is lost! There are volunteers, patriotic folks, who will do it with only most rudimentary support from the state.

      What is the difference between Sudan vs Darfur and Israel vs Gaza? Basically, IDF is more organized, has better weapons, can try a much larger variety of collective punishments than unimaginative Janjaweed (did they try to deny coriander to the Furs?), and keeps the killings at the lower level. But the basic principle, to go after civilians because the armed opponents are too bothersome to apprehand, is the shared principle.

      The responsibility for massacres of Furs is squarely in the hands of Fur rebel movements.

      Lastly, very good argument by Jacob: Israel could carpet bomb Gaza, and it did not! This is the principle of massive moral superiority. Suppose that you could kill 10000 and you killed 10, then your morality coefficient is 10000/10 = 1000.

      Thus Israel could make a “parking lot” out of Gaza and it did not, for the morality coefficient of 1000. In the same time, Hamas killed 8 Israelis, and perhaps they could not even kill 9! Give or take, their morality coefficient is at most 2. This moral calculus explains craving for nuclear weapons. Suppose Hamas gets nukes. Presto! morality coefficient shoots up from 2 to 10000.

      Needless to say, the possibility of, say, morally superior Iran, presents intolerable danger.

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    15. RichardNYC

      This piece is an exercise in duplicity. Knowing that the phrase “targeting civilians” has come to mean “trying to kill them”, you attempt to fashion a new definition that more accurately describes Israeli policy (which, you concede, does not “target” civilians in this sense). However, for some mysterious reason, you still think it is appropriate to maintain the terminology of the now discredited allegation (“targeting civilians”). As justification for this rhetorical decision, you offer us a ridiculous moral proposition: “Are these policies better than intentionally causing civilian casualties? Morally, I think the distinction is shaky.” Really Roi? I don’t believe you. I think you see a difference between deliberately killing someone and deliberately bombing their chickens. Of course, you knows that, when you says “Israel targets civilians”, most people are not going to understand what you “really” mean. Credible journalists don’t mislead their audiences by re-defining precise phraseology and then employing it in a way that will be misunderstood. Writing a piece to cover yourself in the event someone notices your deception doesn’t redeem this kind of behavior, especially when the cover is not believable at best or dishonest at worst.

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    16. RichardNYC


      Your outside sources are irrelevant. Roi concedes up front that by “targeting”, Goldstone meant “killing.” He takes issue with Goldstone’s definition for the purpose of inserting a new meaning that Goldstone never intended.

      Reply to Comment