Nothing Unintentional

Nadia Abu El-Haj

The Palestinian body count in Gaza has passed 1000, with more than 5000 wounded. Over 70 per cent of the casualties are civilians, including more than 200 children. Extended families have been wiped out. Children playing on a beach have been targeted and killed by Israeli gunboats. Over two thousand homes have been damaged or destroyed. According to an IDF spokesman, 120 one-tonne bombs landed in the Shaja'yya neighbourhood alone. Yet, with three Israeli civilians and 40 Israeli soldiers killed, Israeli leaders and their US allies insist on describing the carnage as a war of self-defence.

They also say that the Israeli army wages war with moral integrity. It doesn’t target civilians. It never intends to kill them. It even warns Gazans when an attack is coming so they can get out of harm’s way.

The ‘unintentional’ killing of civilians is not illegal under international law. If civilians are not deliberately targeted, if they are killed in pursuit of a legitimate military objective and the number of deaths is ‘proportional’ to that objective, then civilian casualties are accounted for as ‘collateral damage’. However, as Neta Crawford argues in Accountability for Killing, it’s worth thinking more critically about the category of unintentional civilian deaths. Most civilian deaths in urban counterinsurgency warfare may be ‘unintentional’, but they are also predictable.

Gaza is a densely populated territory cordoned off by air, sea and land, from which no escape or exit is possible. The IDF is dropping bombs powerful enough to flatten eight-storey apartment buildings, sending large metal gates soaring through the air. Drones fire missiles into crowded areas, even targeting civilians attempting to flee. The Israeli military is pounding densely populated cities and refugee camps with shells from Merkava tanks and missiles from Apache helicopters, even areas the IDF has previously told civilians to escape to.

There is no safe place in Gaza. There is nowhere to go. And there is nothing unintentional let alone moral about civilians being killed when there is a 100 per cent probability that an assault on a refugee camp or a crowded neighbourhood or city street will result in mass civilian casualties. The distinction between the intended and the unintended has lost all sense here.

And what if the civilian casualties are not unintentional at all? The Israeli state is skilled at aligning itself with the interests and proclaimed values of the US. After 9/11, Ariel Sharon worked hard to equate the US fight against ‘Muslim terrorists’ in Afghanistan and Iraq with Israel’s struggle against Palestinians. But Israel’s war is different from America’s. Not because the US military is more moral, or more sensitive to the laws of war, but because the US operated with a different ideological fantasy. The US military went to liberate Iraqis and Afghans from regimes they wanted to be liberated from, or so we were told. Iraqi and Afghan civilians would embrace the US and its mission. Hearts and minds had to be won.

Israel’s war in Gaza is not about winning Palestinian hearts and minds. Israel does not claim to be protecting or liberating Gazans from an oppressive regime. Rather, the IDF’s tactics recall the logic of the British and American fire bombing of German and Japanese cities during the Second World War: target the civilian population. Make them pay an unbearable price. Then they will turn against their own regime.

When Israel attacks hospitals in Gaza, when it wipes out extended families, when it mows down children running on a beach, it is engaged in a premeditated act. The war is an extension of the collective punishment unleashed on West Bank Palestinians after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in June. Is it proportionate? Compare it with the way the Israeli police searched for and held accountable the three Israeli Jews who burned a Palestinian teenager alive in revenge. Imagine the IDF rampaging through the towns of those Israeli perpetrators, holding entire communities responsible for what they did, demolishing their family homes.

Or imagine if Hamas were able to aim its rockets. Imagine it targeting the home of a high-ranking officer in the IDF, killing his wife and children, nieces and nephews, along with the family next door. Imagine these casualties being described as ‘collateral damage’ for which Hamas bore no legal or moral responsibility.

The IDF’s bombardment of Palestinian homes, schools and hospitals, indiscriminately pummelling the people of Gaza into the ground, deserves to be called what it is: a war crime.


  • 30 July 2014 at 1:05am
    joycean says:
    An important piece. Thank you.

  • 30 July 2014 at 10:37am
    farthington says:
    The complementary crime, essential to the first, is that all the structures of authority of the so-called 'civilised' or 'free' world are committed to the ongoing impunity of Israeli governments.
    The ethnic cleansing will continue until there are no significant numbers of Palestinians remaining west of the Jordan.
    Then the cabal who run the joint will start on the population of Israeli Arabs.
    And then, beyond the borders awaits.
    Ah, the cleansing spirit of Lebensraum.

  • 30 July 2014 at 3:29pm
    Pennywhistler says:
    Let's see -- Hamas stores rockets in schools, underneath the kids. Israel bombs the school. So it is a "war crime".

    Hamas shoots rockets at Israeli civilians from the courtyard of a mosque. Israel bombs the mosque. So it is a "war crime"

    Hamas creates a huge infrastructure of underground tunnels (without creating any bomb shelters for it civilians)in order to inflitrate Israel and murder civilians and kidnap military personnel. Israel drops bunker-buusters to destroy those tunnels. So it is a "war crime".

    Got it.

    Got it.

    • 30 July 2014 at 5:02pm
      socialtexture says: @ Pennywhistler
      Each of the first two claims you have put forward about Hamas have been thoroughly debunked by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Goldstone Report, and Israeli legal and human rights organizations, among others. So there's a choice: look at the enormous body of evidence presented by reliable organizations, and either A) accept it, and the conclusions about Israel-Palestine that follow, or B) reject it, and instead accept the Israel-US propaganda, with no 'evidence' apart from the pronouncements of those perpetrating the crimes.

      As for the tunnels, this article said nothing about them, nor has anyone suggested that the bombing of tunnels is a way crime - so why throw that in there?

    • 30 July 2014 at 11:20pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Pennywhistler
      Have you read Greg Mitchell on the tunnels? You might find it helpful

    • 31 July 2014 at 11:30am
      Jams O'Donnell says: @ Pennywhistler
      Have a read at this, if you can bear to lose your tribal prejudices first, and have an open mind. Don't expect this will be the case though.

    • 1 August 2014 at 9:38pm
      stettiner says: @ socialtexture
      Sure, I believe every word HRW says, especially after their efforts to raise money in Saudi Arabia in order to fight the "common enemy"....

  • 30 July 2014 at 11:08pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Why don't the government of Gaza evacuate their children like London did in World War II?

  • 31 July 2014 at 10:34am
    stettiner says:
    Greg Mitchell, right... Very serious guy. "The tunnels are being used as a pretext for mass slaughter" and the usual litany about too few Jewish deaths.

    Reminds me of an Australian surgeon I heard on radio a few years ago. He's a burn expert, traveling the world trying to map out reasons for burns, especially where the children are victims. The experience says the reasons are the same world around, namely overcrowded dwellings and poor supervision over kids. But not in Gaza. Every burned arab child answered the question "how did it happen?" the same way: "a Jew pushed me into a boiling kettle"....

    • 31 July 2014 at 10:54am
      Harry Stopes says: @ stettiner
      Yeh mate, sounds legit.

    • 31 July 2014 at 11:31am
      Jams O'Donnell says: @ stettiner
      More tribal thinking. This sort of logic will help no-one.

  • 1 August 2014 at 8:42pm
    CJDM says:
    If the IDF is so proud to have a cutting edge anti-rocket system, if its Iron Dome is capable of stopping almost every rocket that's targeted to populated areas of Israel, why the IDF attacks so unmercifully the Palestinian civil areas? With the powerful military structure that Israel has, Palestinian zones assumed to harbour “terrorists” or rocket launchers could be reached without annihilating civilians. So, either the IDF simply wants to destroy the entire Palestine people or its military intelligence, despite having such a power and cutting edge technology, is unbelievably short-sighted.

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