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One year since Gaza: Why there's no such thing as a 'precision strike'

You often hear of an airstrike on Gaza being labeled a ‘precision strike.’ But how precise can a half- or one-ton bomb be when dropped on an area the size of Detroit?

Funeral for the 26 members of the Abu Jame' family, who were killed the previous day during an Israeli attack over the Bani Suhaila neighborhood of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, July 21, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org

Funeral for the 26 members of the Abu Jame’ family, who were killed the previous day during an Israeli attack over the Bani Suhaila neighborhood of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, July 21, 2014. Basel Yazouri / Activestills.org

“In Gaza, we use bombs that are extremely precise, and strike only Hamas targets – not civilians…” – Lt. Omer, Israeli Air Force Pilot

“None of us were fighting. We were not told that we would be attacked… [M]y sister, my mother and my children all died… We all died that day, even those who survived.” – Survivor of an airstrike in Khan Younis during Operation Protective Edge, interviewed for the UN report on Gaza

“A minute later […] the dust had settled and I saw my family all ripped to pieces. My family included my brothers, my wife and my children… The majority of those who fell were women and children.” – Survivor of an airstrike in Rafah during Operation Protective Edge, interviewed for the UN report on Gaza

When you read about an airstrike on Gaza by the Israeli Air Force, you invariably hear it being described as a “precision strike.” You might also occasionally read about “pinpoint” strikes, or hear references to the IAF’s ability to hit “pixel-sized” targets.

If one doesn’t stop to think about it too much, these terms seem entirely neutral—rendered bland by their very descriptiveness. As a result, it is easy to accept the bundle package such phrases come with. “Precision” implies accuracy, a direct hit on a target, minimal collateral damage. It suggests that a military attack has done solely what it set out to do and nothing more.

But look a little closer next time you read about the IAF’s “precision strikes.” If you are reading one of the big newspapers, you will generally find the term in quotation marks. This is because it is a phrase culled straight from the euphemistic military patois that goes into much of the IDF Spokesperson’s press releases (note that this is far from a uniquely Israeli phenomenon—see “surgical strikes,” below).

The Israeli army and government are at great pains to stress at all times their commitment to safeguarding the lives of civilians (even “enemy civilians,” an invalid concept under international law, yet a normative concept for the Israeli army, to say nothing of Israeli society).

To this end, the term “precision strike” is an excellent way of fostering the belief that  civilians’ safety is a priority, before the question even comes up. With the surrounding talk of terrorists and their infrastructure, there is little room left for doubt over whom and what these airstrikes are hitting.

As a piece of terminology, Israel’s “precision strike” is a cousin of the U.S.’s “surgical strike.” This, too, implies that the collateral damage is minimal, as well as suggesting that the attack is “a form of violence that serves a greater good: hurting some parts of the body so as to restore the whole to health,” as journalist Steven Poole explains in his book “Unspeak.” Ultimately, he continues, this metaphor “usefully conflates precision with delicacy, the latter being a quality which few missiles possess.”

A Palestinian child, killed in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza beach, is carried away by paramedics, Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Four children were killed during the attack. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian child, killed in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza beach, is carried away by paramedics, Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Four children were killed during the attack. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

And this is where we get to the fundamental problem with the concept of “precision strikes.” These strikes involved the dropping of 500 lb., 1,000 lb. and 2,000 lb. JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition)-guided bombs on residential neighborhoods, the force of which not only destroyed buildings but also created meters-deep craters in the ground.

The intensity of such a blast creates thousands of pounds of air pressure, to the extent that someone standing hundreds of feet away can have their lungs ruptured, limbs torn off or sinus cavities burst. In these circumstances, to talk of a “precision strike” is inaccurate, misleading and appallingly cynical.

Moreover, to speak of—and believe in—“precision strikes” dampens down accountability and responsibility. Because if a strike really is pinpoint, then who is counting how many are conducted? The more the better, surely?

The Israeli army did, in fact, count how many airstrikes it carried during Operation Protective Edge last summer. They managed to squeeze in over 6,000 in 50 days, which is an awful lot of precision for a piece of land the size of Detroit. With quarter-, half- and one-ton payloads each time, even the most conservative estimate would come out with 3,000 tons of munitions dropped on the Gaza Strip during the war. The tens of thousands of artillery shells shot during Protective Edge—which, as “statistical” weapons do not even carry the pretense of precision—are another matter entirely.

So next time you read about a successful “precision strike,” think about the 142 families in Gaza who lost three or more relatives in a single airstrike. When the media, consciously or not, parrots the phrase without qualification, remember that in terms of the damage caused, there is no such thing as a “precision strike.” And when the next war comes, remember that “precision,” when referring to thousands of airstrikes on densely-populated areas, is a concept with diminishing returns.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      Information: this January the film “Censored Voices” was released at the Sundance Film Festival (I have not yet seen it) – it presents recordings of soldiers speaking about their experience after the 67 war. This is a Haaretz review:

      http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-features/1.640216

      The voices come from tapes made just weeks after the war’s conclusion and now presented, some of them for the first time, in the powerful new documentary “Censored Voices,” which premiered Jan. 24 at the Sundance Film Festival here.

      Piece by piece and story by story, they tear apart the heroic narrative of Israel’s great victory in favor of something far messier, more chaotic and more human.

      Reply to Comment
      • Cowboy

        Bruce “Siskel and Ebert” Gould. This is no place for you assinine movie review. Especially since you did not even see the film. Fool.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Milkshake

      If your Hamas friends don’t want any more precision airstrikes then they should be careful not to start any more wars with those that have capacity to delivery very very non-delicate precision airstrikes on their heads. When the next war comes remember that if your Hamas friends fire weapons from civilian areas then lots and lots of their civilians will die in the responses, and their deaths will be entirely on Hamas’ heads.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        “Israel’s assault on Gaza, as pointed out by analyst Nathan Thrall in the New York Times, was not triggered by Hamas’ rockets directed at Israel but by Israel’s determination to bring down the Palestinian unity government that was formed in early June, even though that government was committed to honoring all of the conditions imposed by the international community for recognition of its legitimacy.”

        Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/07/israel-provoked-this-war-109229.html#ixzz3ekJodLv8

        http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/07/israel-provoked-this-war-109229.html

        Reply to Comment
        • Yogurt

          This is contradicted by the fact that Israel was willing to accept a cease-fire with Hamas on day one. What caused the conflict to continue was Hamas’ refusal to accept it.

          Reply to Comment
        • Cowboy

          More skullduggery and intellectual dishonesty from Bruce Gould.

          Nice try in your attempt to lend Mr. Thall credibility by association of the NYT. His work, however, is that of an opinion. Not a reporter. You have struggled with that important difference before.

          The NYT publishes fools like Barghoutii and Rajoub. Does not mean that those works are endorsed by the NYT or even factually correct.

          Mr. Gould, you do not cut the mustard.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Ginger Eis

      The envious, the jealous and the hateful will dispute it, but objective, cold, hard facts and the testimonies of experienced, battle-hardened ex-Generals and Military Commanders from different countries simple do indeed bear witness to the truth that the IDF is The Most Moral Army In The History Of Mankind. No One ever claimed that the IDF is perfect, but we perform far better than the armies of our Western friends when it comes to the protection of innocent civilians in the middle of difficult combat.

      Here are some of those cold, hard facts:

      a. LEAFLET DROPS: the IDF dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets warning residents of specific combat zone of impending military attack and giving them enough time to leave for specific places that would not be attacked and where they would thus be safe;

      b. TELEPHONE CALLS: The IDF called the residents of specific combat zones and specific structures used as military structure on their individual telephones and informed them in their own language of impending military attack and told them to get out and where to go for their own safety;

      c) SMS-messages: the IDF sent sms-messages to the cell-phones of the residents of specific combat zones and specific structures used as military structure informing them of impending attack and telling them to get out to and head to a designated place for safety.

      d). RADIO BROADCASTS: the IDF broadcasts by radio, and when necessary technologically “hijacks” local Palestinian radio station, warning the residents of specific combat zone of impending military attack and giving them enough time to leave and head to designated places for safety;

      e). TELEVISION BROADCASTS: the IDF when necessary technologically “hijacks” local Palestinian television station to warn residents of specific combat zone of impending attack and giving them enough time to leave and head to specific designated places for safety;

      f). FOOD, WATER and MEDICINE: the IDF sends in massive shipments of food, water and medicine to prevent the enemy civilian population from starving. In this way the IDF also feeds the same terrorist militias that is fighting the IDF and killing Israeli civilians and supplies them with all sorts of nutrients – free of charge;

      g). GAS and ELECTRICITY; the IDF provided water and electricity to the same territory from which Israel and Israeli civilians are being attacked and killed. Israel essentially powered and continues to power her own mortal enemies!

      All of the above and many more are unprecedented in the entire history of warfare. No other Western army has engaged in such massive foolishness – massive foolishness, i.e. feeding and powering your own mortal enemy. Instead of eliminating our enemies as the Arabs and the Europeans would have done long ago, we reveal to them the time, place and manner of our attack; we abort missions to save their civilians; we feed them, give them water and electricity and treat them cost free in our own hospitals, etc.

      What else can any reasonable person demand of the IDF, and why, Ms. Natasha Roth? Could Hamas and the rest of the barbaric, terrorists Palestinian leadership ever part of your Equation?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The 183-page HRC Report makes it clear that in many horrifying instances no such telephoning or SMS or other messaging was delivered.

        Reply to Comment
        • Zeus

          • Actually, the report is 184 pages, Ben, not 183 as you have claimed several times now.

          • Maybe you should start citing the page number of the report you claim to have read so that we can discuss the evidence on which the report is based.

          • Hamas leaders prove you wrong here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXZEzbT0H1s

          Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The testimonies of experienced, battle-hardened ex-Generals and Military Commanders? Fair enough. Shmuel Zakai qualifies, as I’m sure you would agree. This is from the article Bruce just linked to:

        The notion that it was Israel, not Hamas, that violated a cease-fire agreement will undoubtedly offend a wide swath of Israel supporters. To point out that it is not the first time Israel has done so will offend them even more deeply. But it was Shmuel Zakai, a retired brigadier general and former commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division, and not “leftist” critics, who said about the Israel Gaza war of 2009 that during the six-month period of a truce then in place, Israel made a central error “by failing to take advantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians in the [Gaza] Strip. … You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they are in and expect Hamas just to sit around and do nothing.”

        Reply to Comment
    4. Ginger Eis

      Bad logic!

      (1). When Israel and our good Ol’ United States talk about “precision strike”, they make a statement purely based on technology.

      (2). Ms. Natasha Roth claims that there is no such thing as “precision strike” and to prove her point she presents us photos of dead bodies!

      Well, folks, that’s one of the “badest” logic ever to be presented on this site, because dead bodies says wholly and utterly naught about “precision strikes”, its technological possibilities or lack thereof. Ms. Roth neither made a single argument that demonstrates the technological impossibility of “precision strikes” nor demonstrated in any way that the cause of the deaths she references is a result of imprecise bombing. What Ms. Roth presented is thus nothing other than mere propaganda at its core.

      Regardless,

      Here is a very good example of “precision strike”:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUbgcXNlsw8

      (3). So, why was there (high) civilian casualties in Gaza? Here are the answers:

      a. Hamas publicly ordered the civilians not to evacuate buildings and the areas Israel warned those civilians to evacuate for their own safety! There is ample documented evidence to prove it.
      b. Hamas fires missiles at Israel from behind civilian homes, hospitals and schools in the full knowledge that Israeli response will arrive within seconds and minutes.
      c. Hamas stores missiles and rockets in civilian homes, hospitals and school and there is ample documented evidence to prove it;
      d. Hamas uses its own civilian population as human shields. According to Hamas’ ideology, ALL Palestinians are “resistance fighters” incl. babies; yeah, you heard me: babies! They all “fight” in their respective ways and capacities. Some fight by confronting Israel directly (the actual terrorists); others “fight” by serving as human shields (the aged, the children, etc.). They all get to be “martyrs” and go to paradise if they are killed in the line of “duty”, while Israel takes a severe beating in the world public opinion because of civilian casualties. The Islamists in Gaza think that Westerners are overfed, over pampered, spoiled little fools who would never be able to figure them out. And Ms. Roth is proving their point very excellently;
      e. some residents returned to the places they evacuated, while hostilities were still ongoing.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ginger Eis

      Here is the undisputable EVIDENCE of Hamas using Palestinians civilians as Human Shields and causing their deaths!

      Watch. And weep!

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXZEzbT0H1s

      This evidence bears witness to you about the real cause of (high) civilian casualties in Gaza. Did Mary McGowan Davis and Doudou Diène consider that extremely important evidence that was and is in plain view? Of what value then is their “investigative repport”? How is Israel responsible for the deaths of those who were used as human shields by Hamas or willfully chose to be human shields?

      Anyone who claims to be involved in this conflict, because of “human rights” or merely concerned about innocent Palestinians, but chooses to be blind to- and is unwilling to openly, publicly and very forcefully both in speech and in writing condemn the barbarous acts of Hamas et al. as seen in the video clip above is a complete hypocrite and a liar!

      Reply to Comment
    6. Cowboy

      What Gaza needs is not a ship with or without superfluous aid material but a government that isn’t a terrorist organization. It needs foreign friends who genuinely care about the plight of Palestinians caught in the grip of such Islamist tyrants. But instead it gets people whose main purpose is providing moral encouragement and public relations stunts aimed at undermining Israel’s legitimacy and supporting Hamas’ war on the existence of the Jewish state.

      The talk of bringing help to the Palestinians in Gaza is a sham that extends the so-called aid ship (which carried a mere two boxes of aid). The Palestinians already have an entire United Nations refugee agency — UNRWA — devoted to them while the uncounted millions of other refugees around the world must make do with sharing one to tend to their needs. UNRWA operates in Gaza with Israeli cooperation, despite the fact that it is a highly political group that is not only dedicated to preventing refugee resettlement — the normal task of a refugee aid group — but also allows Hamas to use their facilities and schools for storing armaments.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Marnie

      Great post as usual Mr. Pollock.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Hannibal

      “The intensity of such a blast creates thousands of pounds of air pressure, to the extent that someone standing hundreds of feet away can have their lungs ruptured, limbs torn off or sinus cavities burst. In these circumstances, to talk of a “precision strike” is inaccurate, misleading and appallingly cynical”.

      That is very true, which is one of the reasons why there is no such thing as clean war. All wars are dirty business – no matter how good and disciplined an army may be. Those of us who have relationships with combat in for example the United States Marines and actually see the bodies of our best buddies blown to bits in a matter of a second know all too well about the horrors of war. But soldiers chose to fight, children, babies etc. don’t get to make that choice, and when heavy weaponry is employed in their vicinity, the pressure from the sound alone melts their internal organs. That said, the question I continue to ask myself though is what more could be expected of the IDF – given the steps Israel takes to avoid civilian casualties as listed by Ginger Eis above? Should we tell the IDF to fold-up, get back inside Israel and fight only the militants who cross the border and enter through tunnels or from the sea? Should we tell the People of Israel that they have no right to exercise their right of self-defense, because the armies of Gaza are hiding behind their wives and children as the UNHCR is telling Israel? Does the militia armies who rule Gaza have any responsibility towards their own civilians whom they use and/or at least encourage to serve as human shields? I think that is what I miss from this article, i.e. the responsibility of everyone to protect civilian. Talking exclusively about the responsibility of Israel does not exactly promote the interests of innocent Palestinians and Israelis alike.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Brian G

      Israel has surrounded Gaza with heavily armored patrols on land and sea, automated guntowers along the borders, and armed remote-controlled aircraft(drones), helicopters and jets in the skies over Gaza. The ” precision strike” is more like “shooting fish in a barrel” with 1st prize being the huge Gas field off Gaza’s coast, and 2nd prize the rich farmlands of Gaza

      Reply to Comment