Reports about the suffering of Palestinians caught in the battle zones around Gaza City in recent days are largely true, even if some visuals are touched up and some of the heartrending stories are fabricated. (One Israeli reporter was treated at one Palestinian home to the usual speech about starvation, but the family was visibly getting food from the Israel Defense Forces squad nearby.)
Hundreds, many of them non-combatants, including women and children, have died. Thousands were wounded. Others still are stranded out of reach. The hospital ERs are overflowing. Basic provisions are available only intermittently, and electricity, water, and sewage infrastructures have been damaged.
Even if specific cases must be investigated – if only to disprove media reports – it is unwise for Jewish advocacy groups to spend much time and resources trying to dispute specific facts when this overall reality is all too evident. What must be done, however, is to make it very clear, first and foremost to ourselves, why this is happening.
â€¢ It is not because Israel is callous. Not difficult, admittedly, for some media to pick statements by folks in the street who are bitter and impatient with the “bleeding hearts” after eight years of Hamas terror atrocities and rocket attacks. But this is certainly not the case with Israel’s political leadership or the IDF. A special “Humanitarian Affairs HQ” has been set up under the command of a talented and caring man, Brig. Gen. Baruch Spiegel, who spent much of his life in recent years promoting cooperation with the Palestinians. Constant efforts are under way at the governmental level to take care of various aspects of the supply situation. In fact, the problem in Gaza now is distribution, not overall shortages. Equally sensitized are the battlefield commanders, at the brigade level, who spent years fighting terror in the west bank while working to reduce or avoid civilian losses and collateral damage. They are trying to apply the same conceptual framework at the outskirts of Gaza.
â€¢ It is not because we “turn a blind eye.” The Israeli media, in particular Ha’aretz, some of whose reporters specialize in bringing the Palestinian version, but also the three other regular dailies – Yediot Achronot, Ma’ariv, The Jerusalem Post – carried extensive stories from day one. The electronic media are less intense but still open to the alternative point of view. The government itself made it clear, more than once, that the people of Gaza are not our enemy and their plight is well understood.
â€¢ It is not because the troops are poorly prepared. Unlike the situation in 2006, the IDF combat brigades – strictly regulars, so far; but even the reservists are better trained – have gone into this battle with a great degree of detailed preparation for all scenarios.
So what are the reasons for the recent spate of tragic stories that are eagerly picked up and elaborated upon by foreign media, though at least some are true? One minor set of explanations does relate to problems on the Israeli side:
â€¢ Poor coordination, at least at the early stages, between the various ill-matched bodies – from the intelligence services to the Ministry of Transport (in charge of the Israeli side of the border crossings) – which must be part of an effective humanitarian response.
â€¢ Battlefield conditions (again, particularly in the first few days, when visibility was low; but still relevant), which can easily lead to misunderstandings and failures to figure out “who is who.” On the ground, unlike air combat, there are no IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) modules. It is legitimate to demand an inquiry into the death of innocents at Israel’s hand, but it is not legitimate to imply that these could have been deliberate acts when roughly half of the IDF’s own casualties since the ground campaign began were killed by friendly fire. The number of IDF soldiers actually killed by Hamas in open battle has been minuscule. By densely investing in some areas, the IDF produces an overwhelming effect and reduces the risk of a breach in the perimeter, leading to an abduction or a suicide bombing. But this does raise the likelihood of friendly fire or of misidentification.
â€¢ In the few cases in which harm was done by a soldier or officer acting in breach of orders – because of fatigue, fear, or folly – an investigation is indeed due, but not in the midst of battle (as distinct from the theoretical case of malicious action, which would require an immediate response). Any other mode of action is one sure way to demoralize soldiers while at the same time asking them to adhere to the highest standards of conduct.
The overwhelming reason for civilian losses, however, as both Melanie Phillips and Michael Waltzer have argued recently, is the manner in which Hamas conducts itself generally, and, more specifically, the way its “military wing” chose to fight this battle. Four aspects stand out. Some of them, to one degree or another, are in the category of war crimes.
First, melting away from the open battlefield, where they are indeed at a disadvantage, and into the densely populated areas, where they have prepared a real warren of tunnels and escape routes, hiding places, munitions depots, and laboratories in densely populated areas. Any attempt to fight them there is bound to lead to civilian losses.
Second, putting away the uniforms, which served them so well in parades and various acts of demonstrable defiance but now are a giveaway to Israel’s prying eyes. Fighting in civilian clothing from amid the general population makes them indistinguishable, leaving the true civilians vulnerable. The use of a woman suicide bomber is another way of pushing the IDF to suspect all that they see around them.
Third, using schools, mosques, and even hospitals and ambulances for military purposes – placing fighters, stockpiling weapons, hiding high-ranking commanders (possibly, in hospital operation rooms), and transporting troops and weapons.
Fourth, abusing people, specifically children, as “human shields.” There have been cases in which whole families were brought to the rooftops to deter an Israeli air strike.
Fifth, booby traps. Large parts of the populated areas are wired – even a piano, in one school near Gaza, was booby-trapped. This is a deadly practice not only for the IDF but for the Palestinian neighbors. It is perhaps the case that the tragedy that engulfed the UNRWA school was due to secondary detonations of booby traps set in motion by what the IDF squad thought to be a well-aimed mortar shell.
None of this is new to the IDF. Jenin showed the way more than six years ago. This is why Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked his ministers, early on, to vote “no” in the cabinet if they feared the inevitable consequences of action. None did. The IDF, in turn, faced a bitter choice – refuse the ground battle because of its extreme complexity and let Hamas declare victory, or go in, with all that this entails, albeit slowly and cautiously, and let Hamas refuse battle, which many have done already.
The IDF took the second option. For many of the soldiers in the field, after all, this is not some colonial foray into a foreign land. It is a battle to take their grandmother, mother, kid sister out of rocket range. There are no other options.