Did Israel Employ “Disproportionate Force” in 2014 in Gaza?
Recently, in the wake of U. S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ insistence that Israel used “Disproportionate Force” against Gaza in 2014, the debate about whether or not Israel did, in fact, act “disproportionately” has resurged.
It is important to understand the background leading up to Israel’s 2014 incursion into Gaza. Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militant/terrorist groups in Gaza had been bombarding Southern Israel for years, with increasing frequency.
Israel had warned Hamas that it would be held responsible if the rockets did not stop. They didn’t, and Israel eventually mounted a large-scale attack on military targets in Gaza after a major escalation on Hamas’ part, which fired over 40 rockets into Israel on July 7, 2014. Israel’s operation (“Protective Edge”) began the next day, July 8..
Casualties in Gaza were estimated by the UN Human Rights Council, Hamas, and Israel, with the number of killed ranging between 2,125 to 2,310. Hamas and the UNHRC claimed that 1,617 (70%) and 1,462 (65%) respectively were civilians, while Israel claimed that 761 (36%) were civilians. There were 66 Israeli soldiers killed, along with 5 Israeli civilians and 1 Thai civilian.
Israel’s goal in the campaign, which lasted approximately seven weeks (July 8 to August 26), was to stop the rocket fire. An additional goal, which became more critical as the campaign unfolded, was to find and destroy as many Hamas tunnels as possible. These tunnels were constructed with the aim of infiltrating and attacking Israeli civilians inside Israel proper.
Much of the world has criticized Israel for what it calls “disproportionate force”, or, in other words, they claim that Israel responded with WAY more force than was necessary, resulting in an excessive number of civilians killed and wounded, and much more property damage than was necessary.
But, is that true?
The IDF stated that it attacked 5,263 targets in Gaza, including:
- 1,814 rocket and mortar launch or otherwise related sites
- 191 weapon factories and warehouses
- 1,914 command and control centers
- 237 government institutions supporting the militant activity
- hundreds of military outposts inside buildings
In addition, Israel found and destroyed some 34 tunnels leading out of Gaza and into (or toward) Israel.
In Gaza, Hamas (and other “militant” groups) bases its facilities in predominantly residential areas, as well as inside mosques, schools, and hospitals. There are many first-hand accounts substantiating this. This makes it almost impossible to avoid civilian casualties, but, Israel went to unprecedented lengths to warn civilians of impending strikes, including telephone calls, emails, text messages, radio broadcasts, leaflets dropped from the air, and “roof knocking”, wherein objects are dropped on roofs to warn residents that they need to evacuate. Still, Israel aborted many attacks when they determined that civilians were present in the target areas.
The concept of “proportionality” in warfare is well-established, and is part of most national legal systems.
Generally, it states that nations must not deliberately attack civilians, but if civilians are killed or wounded in attacks on legitimate military targets, that is “proportional”. The caveat is that the incidental loss of civilian lives cannot be “excessive” in relation to the anticipated “concrete” results of the attack.
What that means, in essence, is that if an army is attacking a military force’s capabilities and forces, with the objective of denying the enemy the ability to wage war, or of “convincing” him that it is not in his interests to continue fighting, without the intention to harm civilians, those civilian deaths are “proportionate”. In World War II, the Allies bombed several German cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, with the aim of forcing the Axis forces to surrender. The Americans detonated two atomic bombs over Japan with the same aim, vastly increasing the number of enemy civilians killed while vastly reducing the number of Allied soldiers killed.
The principle of proportionality does not require that roughly equal numbers of combatants on both sides of a conflict will be killed. The principle refers strictly to the use of force necessary to defeat the enemy and render him unable to continue.
It would appear silly, in my opinion, to expect that wars would produce the same number of casualties on both sides. In order for a conflict to end, one side must be defeated, or, both sides must arrive at the realization that continuing would be so horrible as to be impossible.
In the case of Israel vs. Gaza/Hamas, the hostilities ended when Hamas decided it had had enough and agreed to a cease-fire. Had they not agreed, Israel would have continued their campaign.
One might argue that because Hamas did not surrender unconditionally (as did the Japanese and Germans in WWII), it is highly likely that this conflict will “flare up” in the future, especially given that Hamas is rebuilding its capabilities with the express objective of attacking Israel. But, for the most part, the rockets are not flying.
For a more detailed discussion of specific laws about proportionality, see http://www.crimesofwar.org/a-z-guide/proportionality-principle-of/ or do a Google search. There is a plethora of material defining “proportionality”.
That brings us to a discussion of whether or not Israel employed “disproportionate force”.
Israel continued its bombardments and ground attacks until Hamas agreed to and abided by a cease-fire.
Prior to that point, Israel had proposed several cease-fires, but Hamas either breached them or rejected them, indicating that further attacks on their capabilities were necessary.
Once Hamas agreed to a cease-fire and honored it, Israel stopped firing.
It is important to note that following the final cease-fire, there have been almost no rockets fired from Gaza right up to present time, indicating that Israel’s application of force was both necessary and justified.
Israel’s elaborate and widespread efforts to avoid casualties have been widely acknowledged as going well beyond any measures taken by ANY army in ANY war to date, and in fact, the ratio of civilian casualties to “fighters” is the lowest of any major conflict in history. This alone would indicate that Israel did not inflict “disproportionate” damage on Gaza.
The incidence of civilian casualties is tragic, but entirely expected, especially in an urban warfare environment in a densely populated area. It is impossible to avoid, particularly when, as was the case in Gaza, the ruling party (Hamas) forcibly prevented civilians from evacuating areas that were to be attacked. This, in itself, constitutes a war crime on Hamas’ part.
In summary, I have to disagree vehemently with candidate Sanders’ position that Israel employed disproportionate force. There simply is no evidence to support that contention, and there is ample evidence to suggest precisely the opposite – Israel employed the necessary amount of force to compel Hamas and its associated organizations to stop firing rockets at civilians inside Israel. That was the objective of the Israeli forces, and it was attained. That is, by any legal definition of the proportionality principle, “proportionate”.