Palestinians try to extinguish a fire after an Israeli air strike.
“Precise” and “surgical”: those were the buzz words mouthed by the Israeli army and its supporters to describe the November air assault on Gaza. But a new report by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem calls that narrative into question. The report reveals that over half of Palestinian casualties during Operation Pillar of Defense, the army name for the assault, were civilians.
In the midst of Israel’s attack on Gaza last November–which began with the assassination of a Hamas leader while truce negotiations were ongoing–the army claimed it was ensuring limited harm to civilians. “The IDF goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and to minimize collateral damage,” the Israeli army’s official blog claimed. A November 14 explanation of the military’s activities on that day says that the “IDF has precisely hit 80 more targets.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that “the targets of Israeli operations are all military. Israeli strikes are conducted in a precise surgical manner.”
That narrative was also pushed by supporters of Israel outside of official state channels. Writing for Foreign Policy magazine, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Jeffrey White said: “Based on the relatively low number of Palestinian casualties — roughly 110 killed, including both civilians and fighters — in the first six days, the strikes seem to have been relatively precise.” The Institute for National Security Studies, a leading Israeli think tank with ties to the government, also propagated this narrative. In an analysis of Operation Pillar of Defense, former Israeli general Amos Yadlin wrote that the attack was characterized by “a limited surgical aerial attack.”
But as B’Tselem states, their report “challenges the common perception in the Israeli public and media that the operation was ‘surgical’ and caused practically no fatalities among uninvolved Palestinian civilians.”
The numbers say it all: according to the B’Tselem report, “167 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military during Operation Pillar of Defense, including at least 87 who did not take part in the hostilities, 31 of whom were minors.” (United Nations figures are slightly higher: a Human Rights Council report documents that 168 Palestinians were killed by Israel, 101 of whom are civilians.) B’Tselem also states that “over the course of the final four days of the operation, the number of Palestinians killed who did not take part in the hostilities was 4 times greater than their number during the first four days.”
As the Israeli group points out, Pillar of Defense paled in comparison to Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza that generated international outrage. Indeed, the specter of another Goldstone report hung over the military’s conduct, and they were restrained by a stricter firing policy. As the Jewish Daily Forward’s Nathan Jeffay reported, it was a “common view” among critics of the Israeli army and supporters that “the military had acted on some of the criticisms in the United Nations investigation into Operation Cast Lead.” But the fact that Cast Lead–a brutal assault that killed 759 civilians–is a yardstick speaks volumes.
The B’Tselem report, drawn from on the ground investigations, concludes that Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups violated international humanitarian law (IHL) by firing rockets on Israeli civilian sites. It also says the firing of rockets from within civilian neighborhoods in Gaza violates international law. Palestinian rocket fire killed at least one Palestinian woman, and perhaps up to five. As for Israel, B’Tselem says that “in some cases at least, the military violated IHL and in other cases there are substantial reasons to believe IHL was violated.”
The human rights group investigated a number of specific cases that call into question the Israeli army’s stated aim of ensuring little harm to civilians. For instance, on November 18, 2012, the Israeli air force bombed the Jabayla refugee camp in Gaza, killing 36-year-old Jalal Naser and his 6-year-old son Hussein. According to B’Tselem’s investigation, Naser was not a member of any armed group and no rockets had been fired in the vicinity of their area. But the roof of their house was targeted anyway. Naser’s wife Maryam provided testimony to B’Tselem on the strike:
On Sunday evening, 18 November 2012, the whole family was home. Now and then we heard explosions and airplanes flying overhead, above the refugee camp. Just before 10:00 o’clock, we heard a powerful explosion that shook our house. My husband, Jalal, went up to the roof to see where the bomb had hit.
About ten minutes later, my son Hussein, who is six years old, went up to the roof to get his father. He was afraid that something would happen to him. A few minutes later, I heard a powerful explosion from the direction of the roof. The house filled with dust and smoke. I went outside. I was hysterical. I was crying and screaming. I asked Jalal’s brothers to come over and they came to the house. I told them that Jalal and Hussein had been on the roof. We went up to the roof and called Jalal but he didn’t answer. Then I saw Jalal and Hussein. They were covered in blood. I began screaming hysterically. Jalal’s brothers took me out of the house and brought me to one of their houses. A few minutes later, they told me that Hussein had been killed and that Jalal was seriously wounded and on his way to the hospital. A few hours
later, at around two o’clock in the morning, I was told that Jalal had died too. I was in shock and couldn’t stop crying.
In response to B’Tselem’s inquiry on the case of Jalal and Hussein Naser, the military said that “no suspicion of a criminal offense or a well-founded suspicion of violation of laws of war by any military entity had been found.”
The report also publishes the testimony of Israelis who endured Palestinian rocket attacks, which killed four civilians.
Other human rights investigations have also criticized Israel–and militant groups–for alleged violations of international law during Operation Pillar of Defense. AHuman Rights Watch investigation concluded that “at least 18 Israeli airstrikes during the fighting in Gaza in November 2012 were in apparent violation of the laws of war.”
But the Israeli Military Advocate General has said that the vast majority of cases they looked into “did not justify a criminal investigation,” though they are still examining some other cases.
The B’Tselem report concludes by demanding more information on the Israeli attacks, and states:
The relevant authorities must explain the greater number of Palestinian fatalities in the last four days of the operation in comparison to the first four days. The explanation must relate particularly to the fourfold increase in the number of fatalities among Palestinians who did not take part in the hostilities. In view of the military’s pronouncements of “surgical” strikes based on technological capacities that enable great precision and of information as to the presence of uninvolved civilians at the target immediately prior to the attack – the difference in the number of fatalities give rise to serious questions: Did the military, during the last four days of the operation, choose not to make use of these technological capabilities? Alternatively, did the military have accurate information and yet decide to authorize the attacks, despite the anticipated injury to uninvolved civilians?