The Gaza campaign -- Analysis // Ben FrankelGaza civilians suffer as a result of Hamas's tactics -- and Israel's

Published 7 January 2009

Israeli drew many lessons from its inconclusive 2006 war in Lebanon; one of the more important ones is that Israel had been too restrained, too careful about distinguishing between Hezbollah and the state of Lebanon (i.e., civilian population and institutions) — with the result being too many Israeli soldiers dead and an inconclusive end to the fighting; whether the different, more ruthless tactics used in Gaza will succeed remains to be seen

We wrote on Monday that Israel, in its current campaign in the Gaza Strip, has gone back to the strategic approach associated with David Ben Gurion, the founding father of the state. This approach can be described as a strategy of “moderate goals ruthlessly pursued” (see 5 January 2009 HS Daily Wire).

Others, too, have began to notice the change in Israeli strategy, even if they do not engage in the historical analysis we offered. Noah Shachtman, the security maven at Wired, asks: “Are the Israel Defense Forces deliberately being less careful about civilian casualties than they were before?” He points to today’s article by Amos Harel, the military correspondent for Haaretz, who writes:

The incident in which some 40 Palestinian civilians were killed when Israel Defense Forces mortar shells hit an UNRWA school in the Jabalya refugee camp Tuesday surprised no one who has been following events in Gaza in recent days. Senior officers admit that the IDF has been using enormous firepower.

For us, being cautious means being aggressive,” explained one. “From the minute we entered, we’ve acted like we’re at war. That creates enormous damage on the ground … I just hope those who have fled the area of Gaza City in which we are operating will describe the shock. Maybe someone there will sober up before it continues.”

Matt Mathews, a U.S. Army historian, observed that during Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, “reports circulated that growing concern over casualties caused IDF commanders to become overly cautious” (see his We Were Caught Unprepared: The 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War). As the New York Times’s Ethan Bronner noted, after the conflict, many in Israel’s leadership felt that Israel “had been too restrained, too careful about distinguishing between Hezbollah and the state of Lebanon.” The perception was that Israeli soldiers were killed as a result.

Harel writes that,

Following the trauma of the war in Lebanon in 2006, the army realized that heavy IDF casualties would erode public (and especially political) support for the war and limit its ability to achieve its goals…. Therefore, it is using aggressive tactics to save soldiers’ lives. And the cabinet took this into account when it approved the ground operation last Friday, so it has no reason to change its mind now.

Hamas made a strategic decision to use the Palestinian population as a human shield. Hamas’s tactical decisions, too, aim to increase the scope of Palestinian civilian death and destruction: thus, placing caches of arms and explosives under residential buildings, mosques, schools, and hospitals assures that when Israel hits these caches, the secondary explosions wreak even more death and destruction in the surrounding area.

We cannot underestimate the suffering of the Palestinian population which Hamas strategy — and Israel’s response — have caused. Of the 700 Palestinians killed so far, 150, or 20 percent, are civilians. They include the 31 members of the Samouny family who were killed when a shell hit their house in Gaza City on Monday, and the 13 members of the Al-Daiya family who where killed later that day by another Israeli bomb. Nearly half of the 2,700 Palestinian wounded and maimed so far are civilians. The psychological damage to the population, especially children, is incalculable. 

Shachtman notes that the Israeli decision to be more ruthless in this campaign dovetails with the decision, made in the wake of 2006, to keep the press out of Gaza. This approach keeps valuable information out of Hamas’ hands, and also “blunts some of the damage when a terror group sets up shop inside a school or hospital — and then parades around civilians’ bodies, when Israel hits the place.”

We note that Israel’s total superiority in the air allows the IDF yet another advantage in the propaganda war which accompanies the real war: The dozens of Israeli UAVs continuously circling on the Gaza skies offer real-time video images of practically every rocket launch and mortar fire. The information is used to trigger an instantaneous attack on the launching crew (as we noted on Monday, Israel is using new ISR systems which dramatically shrink the sensor-to-shooter loop; see 5 January 2009 HS Daily Wire). The same images also help Israel prove some of its claims. For example, in the case of the UNRWA school incident in which forty Palestinian civilians were killed, Israel has provided the UN with images showing two Hamas operatives using the roof of the school as a firing position from which they operated a mortar. TV pictures of the school also show the dead bodies of two Hamas fighters, and many shell casings, among the bodies of the dead civilians. These images serve as the basis for Israel’s complaint to the UN about the fact that UNRWA allows Hamas to use the agency’s schools as Hamas military positions.

Ben Frankel is editor of HS Daily Wire