The proportion of civilian casualties has been similarly high in previous Israeli assaults on Gaza, as well as the war on Lebanon in 2006.  This time, even US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, no stranger to the concept of “collateral damage,” has gone on the record to express concern about the number of Palestinian civilian deaths.  With precision-guided munitions and a military that routinely describes itself as the “most moral army” in the world, why does Israel inflict such a huge ratio of combatant to non-combatant fatalities?

The level of death and destruction in the Israeli offensive in Gaza has surpassed that reached in previous attacks on that narrow strip of land.  At the time of the first 72-hour ceasefire, casualty figures among Palestinian civilians exceeded 1900 dead, with at least 73% (and up to 89%) of the fatalities being civilians, according to the United Nations.  By contrast, Hamas, which allegedly targets civilians and is considered in the West to be a terrorist organization, has killed 64 Israeli soldiers and 3 civilians.

The proportion of civilian casualties has been similarly high in previous Israeli assaults on Gaza, as well as the war on Lebanon in 2006.  This time, even US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, no stranger to the concept of “collateral damage,” has gone on the record to express concern about the number of Palestinian civilian deaths.  With precision-guided munitions and a military that routinely describes itself as the “most moral army” in the world, why does Israel inflict such a huge ratio of combatant to non-combatant fatalities? 

The standard justification given by Israeli leaders for the highly disproportionate civilian death toll is to accuse Hamas of hiding behind civilians or using civilians as human shields.  Yet, that accusation has never been documented with hard evidence and it has been widely disputed by human rights organizations, like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations during this and previous conflicts, not to mention journalists covering the violence on the ground. 

But if the charge of the use of human shields is not credible, what lies behind the massive number of dead and wounded civilians in Gaza, especially given Israel’s high-tech armaments and extensive intelligence network?  There are two sources of evidence that lead to the conclusion that Israel either intentionally inflicts harm on the civilian population or does not take sufficient precautions to avoid harm to them, as it is required to do under international humanitarian law.

The first piece of evidence comes from statements made by Israeli political and military leaders over the past several years.  On a number of occasions, senior Israeli officials have made it clear that their strategy in dealing with both the Palestinian and Lebanese civilian populations is to inflict suffering on them in order to achieve political ends. 

During the last Israeli attack on Gaza, in November 2012, the Israeli Interior Minister (and Deputy Prime Minister) Eli Yishai said the “goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.”  That sentiment, which strongly suggests a campaign against an entire population, has been echoed by a number of senior Israeli politicians during this year’s offensive.  The Deputy Speaker of the Israeli Knesset Moshe Feiglin has called for the wholesale destruction and depopulation of Gaza, leading to the eviction of Palestinians from their homes and their permanent “elimination” from their homeland.  Feiglin is a parliamentarian from Israel’s governing Likud party and has been a contender for the party leadership. 

Another Israeli parliamentarian Ayelet Shaked, from the Jewish Home party, which is a member of the governing coalition, made clear that the war in Gaza ought to be against the entire Palestinian population.  In a post on her Facebook page, she wrote: “What’s so horrifying about understanding that the entire Palestinian people is the enemy?  Every war is between two peoples, and in every war the people who started the war, that whole people, is the enemy.”

These statements by senior political figures are in accord with an Israeli military doctrine that has now become fairly widely known.  In the wake of the 2006 war in Lebanon, one top military commander articulated what he referred to as the “Dahiya Doctrine,” in reference to the southern suburb of Beirut, which was devastated by Israeli airstrikes. The head of the Israeli army’s northern command, Major General Gadi Eizenkot, stated: “What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on.”  He went on to say: “We will apply disproportionate force on it [the village] and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases.”  Eizenkot, who is now deputy chief of staff of the Israeli military, made it clear that he was articulating an official Israeli policy.

However misguided (not to mention immoral) this strategy may be, Israeli policymakers clearly think that by inflicting enough hardship on Palestinian civilians, they will alienate them from radical political groups.  Perhaps in the long run, they will get them to agree to permanent status as a subjugated and disenfranchised population living within the borders of the Israeli state or force them to emigrate.  This may sound like a deluded plan, but the current Israeli leadership has few other options, given that it rejects sovereignty for the Palestinian people.

The second reason for thinking that the civilian death toll in Gaza is a result of deliberate Israeli policy comes in the form of an “ethical code” for the Israeli military dating from 2006, which was drawn up jointly by Amos Yadlin, currently the head of Israeli military intelligence, and Asa Kasher, a professor of philosophy of Tel Aviv University.  The code is elaborated in two published academic journal articles, which state that it is the “result of work done within the framework of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] College of National Defense.”

The main innovation of this Israeli “ethical code” is that it gives higher priority to safeguarding the lives of Israeli soldiers than to protecting the lives of civilians on the other side.  As the authors admit, this contravenes the “principle of distinction” in international humanitarian law (IHL), which explicitly requires parties to a conflict to make an absolute distinction between civilians and combatants.  The principles of IHL demand that warring parties attach higher priority to protecting the lives of civilians (including, of course, enemy civilians) than their own combatants.  It also flies in the face of centuries of theorizing about the laws of war, which enshrines the same moral principle.

How then does the Israeli military establishment justify this contravention of morality and international law?  One can find a number of justifications in the work of Kasher and Yadlin, none of which stand up to serious scrutiny (as I have also argued in an academic article written in response).

First, they say that this measure is required in the fight against “terrorism.”  But they define “acts of terror” in such a way that they can be exclusively directed against combatants, so by their own admission they do not attach lower priority to the lives of enemy civilians as a result of the fact that their adversary targets civilians.  Indeed, even if one’s adversary does aim at civilians, this does not give one moral or legal sanction to target civilians oneself.  Otherwise, morality and law would be a matter of vengeance.

A second justification given by Kasher and Yadlin is that in Israel most combatants are conscripts rather than professional soldiers.  But this is irrelevant, since the principle of distinction is based on the fact that combatants have intentionally embarked on acts of violence and are actively seeking to endanger others, whether they are conscripts or not, thereby forfeiting their right to security and to be left in peace.  In addition, combatants are armed, prepared for combat, and capable of defending themselves.

The third reason given for negating the principle of distinction in international law is that the Israeli military is engaged in actions directed against organizations based in areas over which Israel has no control and that it has not placed the civilians in those areas.  But this justification is untenable.  Let us set aside the fact that Gaza is still occupied land subject to a seven-year blockade and that Israel controls who can enter and exit the territory. Even if we ignore that detail, the fact that Israel is not responsible for placing the civilians where they are is simply irrelevant.  Generally, during wartime, a state has no say in the placement of civilians on the other side, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t responsible for trying to spare their lives, or for attaching more importance to saving their lives than the lives of soldiers.

The writers sometimes also give a fourth reason, which is based on the principle that people have “special obligations” to relatives or compatriots, and that by extension, states have obligations to provide services and benefits to citizens that they do not have to non-citizens.  But this moral principle is inapplicable to the case at hand.  A state may have obligations to educate or provide healthcare to its citizens, but that does not mean that it is justified in endangering the lives of civilian non-citizens to a greater extent than combatant citizens.

This argument for privileging the lives of Israeli soldiers over Palestinian civilians is not merely theoretical, but has been implemented in the conduct of the assault on Gaza.  As the New York Times reported, Israeli forces “have pummeled neighborhoods with heavy artillery, which analysts said was militarily necessary to safeguard soldiers.”  The paper also quoted Israeli military analyst Amos Harel defending this strategy, which involves an infringement of the laws of war: “In a dense urban environment, you need to use aggressive force to save soldiers’ lives.”

The huge and wildly disproportionate death toll among Palestinian civilians is not a matter of happenstance or the fault of Hamas.  It is either a result of deliberate Israeli policy to inflict harm on civilians or an Israeli military code that attaches lower priority to the lives of civilians on the other side than to those of its own soldiers (and most likely, both).  Either way, the responsibility for Palestinian civilian deaths lies squarely at the door of Israel.