“Our job is preventing terror. Yet we face a tragic dilemma. Whatever we decide when fighting terror, some innocent people are going to get hurt.” Amos Yadlin, former deputy commander of the Israel Air Force, now head of the Institute for National Security Studies, writing in 2004.

When Israel left Gaza in 2005 the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said: “We desire a life living side-by-side, in understanding and peace. Our goal [in disengaging] is that the Palestinians will be able to live in dignity and freedom in an independent state.”

The Hamas bomb-making chief Muhammed Deif replied instantly: “I thank Allah the exalted for his support in the Jihad of our people. To the Zionists we promise that tomorrow all of Palestine will become hell for you.”

And he was true to his word: as soon as Israel withdrew. Hamas quadrupled its rocket fire into Israel. In this way the terms were set for the Israel-Hamas relationship, and the appalling suffering of civilians on both sides.

The rockets held by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have become ever more potent: from the short-range and crude Qassams fired into Sderot in 2005 to the sophisticated Iranian-supplied Fajr-5, R160 and M-302 rockets of 2014, capable of reach Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Zichron Ya’akov, 100 miles from Gaza.

Israel, then, cannot avoid grappling with an excruciating dilemma: how to use force against the terrorists of Gaza, without that force endangering the civilians of Gaza. It has developed three responses. None are foolproof.

First, intelligence. Each target is selected following long-term intelligence efforts indicating a direct link to terrorist infrastructure. I have sat with IAF spotters responsible for monitoring Gaza from the skies and seen how intimate and “real-time” is the relationship between intelligence and the use of force, and how dedicated those young soldiers are to getting it right. (The opening of the documentary The Gatekeepers captured this work and the dilemmas it throws up.)

Second, warning. Israel uses a variety of methods, each constantly refined, to avoid strikes causing civilian causalities. These methods include: leaflet drops, texting, phone calls to buildings that are going to be bombed, the use of pin point precision rockets, the use of the “knock on the roof” tactic – where Israel deploys a “scare” bomb which only makes noise in order to warn civilians leave the targeted area. Missions are aborted or altered, when they may cause civilian deaths, sometimes at huge cost to Israel. Amos Yadlin, former deputy commander of the Israel Air Force, recalls:

In August 2002 we had all the leadership of Hamas in one room and we knew we needed a 2,000-pound bomb to eliminate all of them. Think about having Osama bin Laden and all the top leadership of al-Qaeda in one house. However, use of a 2,000-pound bomb was not approved – we used a much smaller bomb – and they all got up and ran away.

Third, self-limitation. While the international law of war elevates military necessity in such a way it can be invoked to justify almost everything, Israel has deliberately limited its invocation of military necessity, requiring in addition:

  • Purpose – the action must really help to defend Israeli citizens.
  • Intelligence and Proof – malicious intent and capacity must be confirmed and action must really save lives. (For example, when terrorists tried to use wire cutters to break through the fence but were unable to do so, they were monitored but ignored. When they came back the next night with better equipment, and broke through, they were engaged.)
  • Effectiveness – when there will be a lot of collateral damage, an alternative is taken.

The fruits of these three responses to the dilemma – intelligence-gathering, warning civilians, and self-limitation – were seen in the 2008-9 round of conflict in Gaza, which took place before Israel had developed many of the methods used today to avoid casualties. As British Colonel Richard Kemp noted about that conflict:

A United Nations study shows that the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in Gaza was by far the lowest in any asymmetric conflict in the history of warfare. The UN estimate that there has been an average three-to one ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in such conflicts worldwide. Three civilians for every combatant killed. That is the estimated ratio in Afghanistan: three to one. In Iraq, and in Kosovo, it was worse: the ratio is believed to be four-to-one. Anecdotal evidence suggests the ratios were very much higher in Chechnya and Serbia. In Gaza, it was less than one-to-one.

In the 2012 Gazan conflict. 1,600 Israeli strikes against long-range missiles and terror infrastructure caused 60-70 Palestinian civilian deaths. Each was a tragedy. Absolutely. But the ratio of combatant to non-combatant deaths was without precedent in modern warfare.

So why, despite those efforts, do civilian casualties still happen, if there is an absence of intent?

First, it is in the very nature of what the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously called “the fog of war” – intelligence is always incomplete, sometimes mistaken, while soldiers and planners are not just subject to human limit like anyone else but have to act in a fevered and terrifying climate.

For example, the deaths of eight non-combatants in an Israel Air Force strike in Khan Yunis on the house of a terrorist leader on Tuesday was a tragic case of the fog of war. Israeli security forces told family members by phone that the house was going to be bombed. The IAF also carried out a “knock on the roof”, sending a small missile, without an explosive warhead, onto the building’s roof to warn the strike was imminent. They family left, but seem to have returned to the house just as the missile meant to destroy the home was fired. ‘There was nothing to be done, the munition was in the air and could not be diverted,” said a senior air force officer. “Although you see [the family members] running back into the house, there was no way to divert the missile.’

Second, the awesome destructive power of modern munitions means that their sustained use within urban settings in which combatants and non-combatants are co-mingled, will always – despite every effort – produce civilian casualties.

Third, Hamas engineers the co-mingling of combatants and non-combatants. It consistently and intentionally uses the people of Gaza as human shields and deliberately locates rockets in populated areas, inside housing complexes, mosques, hospitals and schools. Hamas is even using the IDF’s early warnings to encourage civilians to gather on buildings being targeted as human shields, whilst its commanders hide underground. (It may be that Hamas urged a return to the house in Khan Yunis.)

David Cameron has been talking this week about the dilemma he faces balancing security and human rights. Whatever position one takes on the proposed legislation he feels is needed, the dilemma he identifies is real. This dilemma faces democratic societies the world over, and Israel has reckoned with it for a lot longer. In a world departing from the norms of human behaviour by the day, the Israeli experience is one we can’t afford to ignore.


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