Does Israel intentionally target civilians?

Israeli policy (unlike Hamas or Hezbollah) is not intended to maximize civilian casualties. Yet it does intentionally target civilians: it is intended to produce maximal civilian distress, while avoiding mass civilian casualties.

In discussions about the Israeli-Arab conflict, one of the perennial issues is the targeting of non-combatants. The reactions to the brutal murders in the settlement of Itamar, and the collective punishment of the nearby Palestinian village Awarta (where the alleged killers live) have exemplified the concern many feel about the lack of distinction between those involved in hostilities and uninvolved civilians.

Even more attention has been given to the curious Washington Post article by Judge Richard Goldstone, who headed a UN fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of war crimes during the Gaza war of 2009. One of the key statements in this op-ed was (my emphasis):

While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.

I believe Goldstone’s article (and to some extent, his committee’s report) miss a critical nuance. Israeli policy (unlike Hamas or Hezbollah) is not intended to maximize civilian casualties. Yet it does intentionally target civilians: it is intended to produce maximal civilian distress, while avoiding mass civilian casualties.

One of the clearest articulations of this policy, cited in the Goldstone report, was made by Major General Gadi Eizenkot, in 2008, while discussing the lessons learned from the 2006 Lebanon war. According to him (Heb), trying to hit rocket launchers is “complete nonsense”, because “when there are thousands of launchers on the other side, it is impossible to hunt them down.” Israel, instead, should focus on deterrence:

Every village from which they fire from Israel, we will deploy disproportional force, and cause massive damage and destruction. As far as we are concerned, these are military bases.

Eizenkot emphasized that “this is not a recommendation, this is the plan and it has been approved”.

The concept which underlies this plan is clear. Hitting military targets is difficult, and destroying the enemy’s entire armed forces would require immense resources. Non-combatants, on the other hand, are labeled “soft” targets for a reason. By inflicting massive damage on the civilian population, one creates public political pressure, within the other side, to end hostilities under favorable conditions.

This has been Israel’s explicit policy in Lebanon for decades now. The Israeli Air Force official website, describing (Heb) an IDF operation in Lebanon in 1993, notes that many Lebanese civilians were forced to leave their homes, and adds that “the refugee convoys were supposed to apply pressure on the Lebanese government to act against the terrorist organizations.” A similar operation in 1996 is described (Heb) in even more explicit terms: “a massive bombardment of the Shiite villages in South Lebanon, in order to induce flight of civilians to the north, towards Beirut, thereby applying pressure on the government of Syria and Lebanon to restrain Hezbollah’s activities.”

The air force commander at the time is quoted explaining that the concept behind the operation was to create better conditions for Israeli political leadership, when it comes to negotiations with the Lebanese and the Syrians. “The way to implement this concept was to attack infrastructures, in order to create increasing economic damage, which will start affecting the residents and the Lebanese government.” The West Bank, as well as Gaza itself, have been targets of similar policies.

Certainly, Israel targets combatants and their armaments quite extensively. Much of the harm to civilians occurs as “collateral damage” during such attacks. This can be almost as reprehensible as targeting civilians intentionally, when callous indifference becomes extensive and systematic (as when the IDF’s chief ethicist pens a tome explaining why Israeli soldiers’ lives are more important than those of Palestinian civilians). Endemic cover-ups, unaccountability, and non-existent or inadequate investigations create an atmosphere of impunity which encourages attacks on non-combatants, even if there is no explicit policy directive to do so.

This can cause quite a lot of civilian casualties, but it does not mean that causing such casualties is an Israeli objective. Although efforts to avoid outcomes of this sort are almost always insufficient, they are not completely for show. To some extent, they are even motivated by genuine moral concern. Ultimately, however, they reflect strategic considerations.

Israeli policy makers believe that mass civilian casualties will create international pressure on Israel to end its military operations before they achieve their goal. This has been a major concern in almost every operation conducted in the Palestinian territories or in Lebanon over the past few decades. That is why, as a rule, the IDF prefers to avoid a large amount of non-combatant deaths.

On the other hand, Israeli policy is often explicitly intended to harm civilians, by causing them economic distress, displacement, disruption of critical service, shortage of basic goods, etc. This kind of effect is less likely to induce international pressure, yet Israeli decision makers believe it can produce public pressure on the enemy’s leadership, causing it to make concessions that are in line with Israel’s interests. Although many civilians die as a result of these actions, that is not their intent, and they are often carried out in a manner designed to actually reduce casualties, while maximizing non-lethal civilian suffering.

Are these policies better than intentionally causing civilian casualties? Morally, I think the distinction is shaky. Whether caused by deep indifference or during the course of trying to produce “mere” civilians suffering, it seems to me that the hurting of civilians, both lethal and non-lethal, is reprehensible and wrong.  Israeli hypocrisy on this issue is, of course, also a very poor ethical defense.

Politically, however, understanding the difference is quite significant. First, inaccurate allegations make it easier for Israeli hasbara to paint all criticism as lies (as the Goldstone “retraction” debacle makes clear). Second, recognizing this distinction gives Israel an incentive to continue its current policy. Although it is quite bad, a policy that seeks to maximize civilian casualties would be much, much worse. The Israeli government is avoiding this kind of policy because it believes it will pay an internal and international price. I would like to think that equal condemnation of all policies that target civilians would make Israel cease such practices altogether. However, it is just as likely to tilt it in the opposite direction.

Current Israeli policy on targeting civilians should be exposed, criticized and unequivocally condemned. But ignoring the nuances is counter-productive, even dangerous.