Since Israel’s dismantled its few settlements in the territory, Gaza’s residents have suffered from a blockade and repeated engagements between militants and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), costing thousands of lives. The conflict originated in mid-June, when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed by an unknown group of Palestinians. While Hamas’ Gazan leadership almost certainly had nothing to do with the kidnappings, the Israeli government used the boys’ disappearance to launch a crackdown on Hamas, first in the West Bank, and subsequently in Gaza. In turn, Hamas responded with an increased volley of rockets directed at Israel.
Israel’s approach to the conflict in Gaza makes little strategic sense. It cannot eliminate Hamas (without a lengthy and unlikely occupation), and doing so would likely only provide an opportunity for even more radical groups to come to power. The initial stated goal was to destroy Hamas tunnels, but Egypt managed to do just that without any kinetic military action. Attacking Gaza has increased the number of rockets heading toward Israel and resulted in the deaths of 31 Israelis. As Israel expert Brent Sasley argues, Israel’s strategic objective of creating a “quiet” Gaza is vague and likely unattainable.
If Israel does indeed lack a strategy in dealing with Gaza, then what is guiding its tactics in the current conflict? 680 Gazans have been killed by the IDF since Operation Protective Edge began. According to the UN, 74% of those have been civilians (though this is statistic reflects the death toll from a few days ago). Human Rights Watch, while being conservative in its claims, notes there is evidence that Israel likely deliberately targeted civilians. Additionally, there is evidence Israel has used anti-personnel flechette shells. In all likelihood, Israel has repeatedly and intentionally shelled civilian targets.
Hundreds of civilian deaths in a few days is a horrendous record, but it should also be noted that Israel does have the capacity to kill more. Consequently, Israel has walked a fine line between portraying itself as a protector of Gazan civilians and publicizing fairly transparent attempts to deny the category all together. What explains Israel’s seemingly schizophrenic strategy of intentionally targeting civilians (knowing these incidents will end up in local and international news) while simultaneously trumpeting its humanitarian credentials? Why kill huge numbers of civilians while also targeting Hamas? Why not just one or the other?
Factors that lead Israel to target civilians
Domestic politics: Going after Hamas has long been popular in Israel, and this current flare-up is no different. The drawn-out saga of the kidnapped teenagers was manufactured to gain public support for the Netanyahu administration, and the subsequent blaming and targeting of Hamas seems to represent a continuation of the strategy. Creating a high body count, be the victims militants or civilians, in a war against Hamas garners public approval, especially among the Israeli right.
Revenge: Some within Israeli’s government and military may genuinely believe Hamas was responsible for the kidnapped teenagers’ deaths or that they deserve to be punished for launching rockets at Israel. This desire for revenge may cloud their differentiation between Hamas militants and innocent civilians. If these officials have the ability to authorize airstrikes, then civilian targets may appear as fair game. In sum, ideology alters strategic perception.
Poor strategy: The IDF may be targeting civilians in the misguided hope this will deter future support for Hamas. While there is ample evidence that Gazan suffering at the hands of Israel increases support for Hamas, a purely militaristic vision of incentives for altering behavior may result in the counterproductive targeting of civilians. The competing role of Israeli institutions also likely plays a role here. As Brent Sasley argues in an interview, despite the rise of impressive government-sponsored research institutes, the IDF still tends to have the final say. Civilian agencies that may tend to favor more dovish approaches are losing out.
Poor intelligence: While the Israeli government would be loathe to admit it, it’s possible that the IDF consistently lacks the necessary intelligence to consistently strike locations containing Hamas members. Commanders are under pressure both from military superiors and political officials to kill militants, and therefore they frequently launch airstrikes against targets that may be of no military value to appear successful.
Malfunctioning technology: Despite lauding its “pinpoint strikes”, it’s possible Israel does not have the ability to hit the targets it intends to consistently. While I am no expert on military technology, this explanation seems unlikely considering the IDF’s ability to warn homes it is about to bombard. I have not come across a case of the IDF warning a house only for them to then miss.
Factors That Prevent Israel From Targeting Civilians
International pressure: The extremely unequal casualty rate from this conflict, combined with significant public evidence of intentional targeting of civilians, provides Israel with a significant incentive to halt deliberate attacks against civilians. Even the United States, Israel’s normally staunch ally, has quickly called for a ceasefire. Israel is already fairly isolated internationally, and it risks becoming even more so.
The remnants of strategy: Simply, removing Hamas militarily will only lead to an even more radical alternative. Prior to the conflict, Hamas was at its weakest point in recent years and its unity deal with Fatah meant it would likely play a subservient role in any future Palestinian government. While political calculation seems to have generally won out over strategical concerns in this conflict, it’s possible those within the Israeli government concerned about the conflict’s bolstering of Hamas are encouraging a lower body count.
Fear of Israeli deaths: While the Israeli government has recently shown itself to be fairly willing to escalate conflict to suit political needs, it may also fear a backlash if too many Israeli soldiers and civilians die in the conflict. Killing Gazan civilians will only increase Hamas attacks, and this presents a dilemma for Israeli politicians and military leaders.
While there are factors pulling Israeli military tactics in multiple directions, there is one element that may be doing both simultaneously. Israel’s long-term strategy for dealing with military threats has been an attempt to manage, rather than destroy, them through periodic engagement (or “mowing the grass”, itself a deeply unsettling term). This strategy emerged out of Israel’s earlier conflicts with conventional Arab armies, but Israel is now much stronger and its enemies much weaker. Mowing the grass may have made strategic sense in 1967 and 1973, but in the present day it is highly counterproductive. However, it may be nothing more than strategic inertia that causes Israel to engage in semi-regular medium-intensity conflicts. Killing a few hundred civilians is a part of mowing the grass, and if Israel’s strategic logic does not evolve, a similar conflict will erupt a few years from now.
All of these factors likely play some role in determining Israeli behavior, and I’ll leave it up to those that know more about the conflict than I do to identify the more influential ones.