Hussein Ibish

Israel's latest
self-inflicted wound

The incredible level of human suffering and civilian casualties in Gaza will haunt Israel for years to come

A Palestinian woman carries her daughter past rubble from a home which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Beit Hanu, in the northern of Gaza Strip on July 9 2014 (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

Israel's latest offensive in Gaza has brought with it two things that are disturbingly familiar: first, huge numbers of civilian casualties; second, endless protestations by Israel that it is not only trying to do everything it can to reduce those casualties, but that it has "the most moral army in the world," no less. The horrors being meted out on the innocent people of Gaza are bad enough, but they are compounded by Israel's endless and fatuous claims of unique morality, which are entirely inconsistent with the known facts.

At least 600 Palestinians have been killed in the violence so far. The UN has estimated that over 70% of them are civilians. Even if the UN is overestimating, that still means an enormous percentage of those killed by Israeli fire are civilians. I haven't seen any estimate in which the number of child victims was less than 100. The death tolls on Sunday and Monday both reached over 100 Palestinian dead, a shocking figure in any conflict.

Israel cites two reasons for these deaths. Either they are the consequence of "regrettable mistakes," which Israel has acknowledged on a small handful of occasions during this campaign, or they are the result of Hamas using the Palestinian population as "human shields." As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cynically and cruelly put it, Palestinians, including Hamas, seek “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause."

I have been very critical of Hamas's rule in Gaza and its role in the current conflict, but it's just not possible to dehumanize the 1.8 million innocent Palestinians of Gaza as being simply "human shields" for Hamas. Even if Hamas does have a practice and policy of seeking to deter attacks on strategic targets by ensuring that civilian deaths will occur, it doesn't explain numerous instances in which Palestinian civilians, and indeed children, appear to have been deliberately targeted for death. And it's not logistically possible for Hamas to actually make the entirety, or even the majority, of the Gaza population into literal "human shields."

What never gets mentioned is that Israel's military had a deliberate policy of using Palestinian civilians as, literally, human shields, in its operations in the occupied territories until this practice was made illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005. The Israeli military protested that ruling, arguing that the use of Palestinian civilians could "defuse tensions."

The dozens of disturbing and inexplicable incidents in which civilians have been killed either deliberately or with wanton disregard for their lives during this campaign appears to have struck Secretary of State John Kerry. Appearing on the Fox News Sunday television program, Mr. Kerry mumbled during a break, "It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation.”

Among the incidents that led to this widespread international reaction was the killing of 24 members of the Abu Jamaa family in a single airstrike. Israel says it ordered the evacuation of the area, and many others, but in Gaza there is often nowhere to go. The UN says its facilities are full to the brim with over 100,000 internally displaced persons, and that they have no more space for those fleeing the conflict.


Other targets include various health centers, mosques and a home for the handicapped. Hamas is cynical enough, to be sure, to have placed some of these targets in danger. And they have urged Palestinians to stay put when they were better advised to try to flee, if possible. But none of that explains or excuses the extraordinary proportion of civilian and child deaths in this bombardment.


Hamas can be criticized for refusing an Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire proposal that would have been politically difficult for the organization but also would have brought relief to the innocent people of Gaza. When the dust settles, they will have to explain to the Palestinian and Arab public why they preferred to keep fighting when the cost was so extraordinary.


But that will not exempt Israel from having to explain how, if their forces follow even the elementary rules of warfare, let alone the elevated ones it claims, so many of the dead are civilians, women and children. Israel's international reputation, already badly battered, has now suffered another grievous, self-inflicted wound. Even its friends around the world are deeply disturbed by what distinctly appears to be a wanton disregard for innocent life, a willingness to engage in indiscriminate attacks, and a lack of accountability when its forces deliberately target noncombatants. Israel, too, will have difficult questions to answer.


Hussein Ibish is a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE). He is also a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He tweets @Ibishblog

No such thing as fair warning. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

  • Dave146

    Why were you not EQUALLY critical of the el-Sisi government, which has massacred more than 1,000 civilians (including 600 in the Rabaa Massacre, alone)? (Yes, you were critical, but not NEARLY as much so as you are of Israel. The depth of your rhetoric, the passion, the invectives, the length and number of you articles against Israel, etc. all greatly exceed that which you wrote about Egypt.) The protestors who were massacred were not launching rocket attacks against Egypt, nor digging tunnels from which to launch terrorist attacks. Why are you more critical of the Israeli government, when it defends itself against violent terrorists led by Hamas?

    August 4, 2014

  • ahmedbg

    "Hamas gains political PR of incalculable magnitude by encouraging its people to remain in the line of fire and Israel has to contend with this before attempting to demolish their armaments cached in schools, rocket launchers and underground passages"- Mr John, I'm pretty sure you are well it is a densely populated area. Where exactly would you recommend them to run to? Maybe I could pass the word.. "Israel has the most moral army in the world,"- mr/miss manjarola, let me start off my thanking God is real isn't Russia and 100000 lives won't be lost. Now moral , let me see. Oh yess, we destroy the hospitals they are treated In, it's moral. We take down innocent civilians with guns knowing very well they are unarmed, very moral.y friend, u happen to know nothing about morality. I wonder if you wud write these words if you were in that situation, not that I'm hoping you will, but no one deserves to live like this.

    July 26, 2014

  • Brendan

    A very good, well-balanced article.

    July 24, 2014

  • john.macarthur.10

    I think you misquote the Israeli policy with regard to non-combatants in 2005. They believed at the time that the presence of civilians within a combat zone would give their enemies, as well as themselves, pause before engaging. But it was not so then and it remains not so now. Hamas gains political PR of incalculable magnitude by encouraging its people to remain in the line of fire and Israel has to contend with this before attempting to demolish their armaments cached in schools, rocket launchers and underground passages The fact is, Hamas uses its own people as a weapon of war and in confined spaces like Gaza, seems quite prepared to sacrifice them.

    July 23, 2014

  • Aaron_W

    Hamas or any government of the oppressed people has no choice but to fight in the midst of civilians, since Israel has crowded everyone into this tiny land. Where would you have the people move to?

    July 29, 2014

  • Jacob the aggressive watcher

    you mentioned it all. Should Israel be blamed that HAMAS started this war by sending 100s of rockets indiscriminately into Israel? If there is a criminal perpetrator does the police send 1 person to stop him ( 1 vs 1 to be proportionate? ). Certainly not. HAMAS is the root of all evils in the Strip. They kicked Fatah out after Israel left. Kicked from roof tops if you forgot. Gaza is the size of Singapur. and see what they achieved. But the religion of hate hindered all. Do some introspection. Is it this extreme form of Islam that prevents HAMAS et alt. to become free people?

    July 23, 2014

  • Aaron_W

    What a stupid comparison, Gaza to Singapore! Do you not see the huge differences in what freedoms are allowed in these two places? Islam (or Judiasm) is not at the root; it is simple greed of Zionists and extremist Jews which places settlements ahead of peace and understanding.

    July 29, 2014

  • John2014

    How can it not be collateral damages in the most dense city in the world. As the previous comment states, Bashar Assad would have finished it in one day by gazing everybody. r. Ibish, I generally like your articles but, this one is rubbish and irrational.

    July 23, 2014

  • manjarola

    If Israel do like Russia did in Chechenia, and Assad do in Syria, the hamas will be destroyed in 10 days and 100.000 inocent peoples will lost the life. Israel has the most moral army in the world,

    July 22, 2014