The recent killing of four Palestinian children by an Israeli airstrike while they played soccer on a beach in Gaza should call into question Israel’s claim that it’s waging a war of self-defense. Western journalists who saw the attack witnessed firsthand an ugly reality of life in Gaza — Palestinian civilians are too often caught in the crossfire in this tiny, densely populated and besieged coastal strip.
Early Sunday, an Israeli incursion into the Shujayea neighborhood in Gaza killed at least 60 more Palestinians. Most of the injuries being treated at Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital belong to civilians suffering from shrapnel injuries and amputations. More than 100 children have been killed so far and the Palestinian death toll just surpassed 400 with more than 3000 injured.
The UN says more than 70 percent of Palestinian casualties are civilians, a marked increase from previous Israeli assaults.
The toll on civilians has raised United Nations’ concerns of the Israeli use of disproportionate force in Gaza in violation of international humanitarian law. But the use of disproportionate force and the targeting of civilian infrastructure isn’t a new or surprising tactic for Israel. In fact, it’s a primary strategy according to Gabi Siboni, head of the Military and Strategic Affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. This strategy has a well-documented history in Gaza.
With the emergence of hostilities, “the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy's actions and the threat it poses,” Siboni wrote. The military response should aim “to inflict enough damage and punishment to require lengthy and immense reconstruction efforts.”
This strategy is playing out now in Gaza, just as it did some six years ago during an earlier Israeli assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. Now as then, Israel insisted that it wasn’t targeting civilians, but rather conducting a precision operation of self-defense. Yet after the fact, numerous international human rights groups came to very different conclusions.
A 2009 UN investigation (PDF) determined that Operation Cast Lead was not about self-defense, as Israel claimed, but was “directed at the people of Gaza as a whole, in furtherance of an overall and continuing policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population.” (1883-1884)
The investigation concluded that Israeli forces carried out wanton destruction of property, and food and sanitation infrastructure. This included (PDF) the ruin of more than 3000 homes, one of the lagoons at Gaza’s water treatment plant, sewage pipes and water wells, rooftop water tanks, a UN compound, Gaza’s only operating flour mill, agricultural land, chicken farms and a cement factory.
The investigation reached the overall conclusion that the destruction of this infrastructure served no military purpose but likely constituted attacks designed to increase the level of suffering among Gaza’s civilian population.
This is known as collective punishment, and it is illegal under international humanitarian law.
Now, as it did then, Israel is hitting Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. Israeli forces recently shelled El Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital, the only hospital of its kind in Gaza, causing its staff to evacuate all patients. Sixteen health-care facilities have been damaged, the homes of nearly 1900 families have been destroyed or are uninhabitable and nearly 50,000 people have sought shelter in UN facilities.
Meanwhile half of Gaza’s sewage treatment systems are no longer operating and hundreds of thousands of people are without water — the International Committee of the Red Cross recently warned of an impending and severe water shortage.
Much of the widespread destruction can be attributed to Israel adopting a policy of treating the entire Hamas-run infrastructure in Gaza, including its civilian components, as legitimate military targets. During Operation Cast Lead Israeli Defense Forces targeted police academies, the Ministry of Justice and Palestinian Legislative buildings. This time, Israel is targeting the homes of people it believes belong to armed groups, but without offering proof of their use for military purposes.
Israel has tried to downplay the controversy around its attacks on Palestinian homes by drawing attention to its use of leaflets, “roof knock” dummy missiles and telephone calls as a warning to residents of an imminent attack. Israel says this limits civilian casualties by giving Palestinians an opportunity to evacuate before its military forces launch airstrikes.
Israel used similar methods during Operation Cast Lead, but these methods have been criticized by human rights groups, and an earlier UN investigation found these warnings problematic because of their lack of clarity, or because they often directed Palestinians to unsafe areas.
Then, as now, Palestinians in Gaza really have nowhere to flee— all of its borders are sealed by Israel and Egypt. Where can anyone really go? Gaza has 1.8 million people, all crammed into a slice of land about twice the size of Washington D.C. Nearly 70 percent of them are refugees or descendents of refugees who were expelled or fled their homes in what is now Israel when it declared statehood.
What’s more, the recent destruction arrives on the heels of a repeatedly failed peace process, three major Israeli military operations within the last six years and eight years of a crippling Israeli blockade, imposed as punishment after Hamas prevailed in a democratic Palestinian election. All of these actions have taken their toll. The economy is in shambles, unemployment is soaring and quality of life has been severely and steadily degraded.
The current Israeli assault and the launching of a ground invasion will exacerbate Palestinian suffering immensely. And this is actually the point of Israel’s strategy of disproportionate force — to punish Palestinians in Gaza to such a degree so as to enable Israel to impose a cease-fire on its own terms, which likely includes an attempt to steadily erode the ability of Hamas to govern, if not to outright remove the organization from power.
Israel has other options besides punishing Gaza. Hamas has stated it is willing to enter into a long-term truce with Israel, and will accept Israel on the 1967 borders. But this would require Israel to negotiate with Hamas, and to accept the recently formed Palestinian unity government.
Further, the exclusion of Hamas from a recent cease-fire agreement cooked up by Israel and supported by the U.S. and Egypt, prompted Hamas to deny the agreement’s legitimacy. But Hamas did set out its own conditions for a cease-fire. Its primary demand is lifting the blockade of Gaza and other measures that would increase Gaza’s self-sufficiency and vastly improve its economy, such as the development of an airport and an international seaport. Its conditions also address Israel’s security concerns by allowing for UN supervision of these structures in addition to the Rafah border crossing.
Contrary to what it says, Israel is in fact waging a war of disproportionate force, not of self-defense. If Israel truly wants to put an end to Palestinian rocket fire, it will stop punishing Gaza and start dealing with the underlying causes of violent resistance to its policies: decades of dispossession and military occupation, and the denial of the right of Palestinians to live a dignified life in safety and security, in control of their own destinies.