Every day the death toll announced by the Gaza health ministry increases, and, assuming that their figures are accurate, as most experts do, we already know that thousands of children have been killed as the total approaches 10,000 dead, but how many of this number are Hamas fighters? No one knows, or if they do, they are keeping it to themselves.
The Israeli justification for all these deaths is that Hamas soldiers and commanders are hiding behind civilians, and may be in tunnels underneath schools, hospitals, and refugee camps, but what is the Israel risk-ratio requirement to kill Hamas civilians so as to eliminate Hamas?
These are questions that have been asked by the leading US newspaper The Washington Post.
In an article published yesterday day the Post pointed out that the Israeli airstrikes that hit the Jabalya refugee camp on Oct. 31 sent several buildings crashing down on families driven out from their former homes in Gaza. More than 110 people were killed, many of them women and children crushed beneath the rubble, doctors said, but no one knows how many of them were Hamas.
The Israeli military said the operation achieved its aim, but what was the aim?
“We were focused on our target,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said Monday, referring to Ibrahim Biari, a high-ranking Hamas commander. “We know that he was killed.”
Since the conflict began, nearly 10,000 Palestinians have already been killed, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, as the IDF presses for the destruction of the Hamas militant group that rules the enclave. Although Israeli officials insist that each strike is subject to legal approval, experts say the rules of engagement, which are secret information appear to include a higher threshold for civilian casualties than in previous rounds of fighting.
“There was always a conscious effort to limit the amount of civilian casualties in the few occasions that we have struck in areas where we knew that there would be civilian casualties,” said Jonathan Conricus, the international spokesman for the IDF. He would not comment on whether Israel has changed its rules of engagement and accused Hamas of inflating the death toll.
“Essentially, the laws of armed conflict strike a balance” between the military advantage of the attack and the expected harm to civilians, said Pnina Sharvit Baruch, a former IDF legal adviser.
“The higher the military advantage, the higher harm to civilians would still be considered proportionate,” she said, describing the logic used by Israel’s, saying that any harm to civilians is collateral, not intentional.
The consequences of those calculations are spread across the floors of Gaza’s hospitals and morgues.
Entire families have been killed; infants are buried with their parents in mass graves.
Strikes have hit water towers and bakeries, schools and ambulances.
Human rights groups have flagged a growing number of strikes as potential war crimes and urged an international investigation.
In comments last month, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Karim Khan, said that every military decision-maker in the conflict should be “on clear notice that they will be required to justify every strike against every civilian object.”
International law requires militaries to make clear distinctions between civilians and militants, and to take all possible precautions to prevent civilian harm. The principle of proportionality prohibits armies from inflicting civilian casualties that are “excessive” in relation to the direct military advantage anticipated at the time of the strike.
It is an inexact standard that requires a full investigation, a difficult task in an active war zone.
How Israel is selecting its targets is shrouded in secrecy, making it extremely hard for experts to judge their legality. U.S. officials say they do not know exactly how IDF commanders are assessing the threshold for civilian casualties — even as they publicly urge srael to minimize the death of noncombatants.
The Israelis have significantly reduced the number of airstrikes in recent days, a possible sign that the U.S. message is getting through, one senior State Department official told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks.
The official added that strikes were still causing dramatic casualties.
In the Jabalya attack, which took out an entire residential block, the Israeli military suggested it was carefully planned to target a senior Hamas figure in the tunnels below the refugee camp.
“And we struck it and it was taken out and dozens of Hamas operatives were killed with him,” Conricus said. “Of course, it’s sad and regrettable that civilians are killed, but it is a legitimate military target.”
In calculating the risk to civilians, military planners could reasonably have assessed that the number of casualties would be in the hundreds, experts say.
“The Jabalya strike, because it was a planned attack, shows that Israel must have a tolerance for civilian casualties which is orders of magnitude greater than that that was used by, say, the U.S. Air Force in the war against ISIS,” said Mark Lattimer, executive director of the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights.
On Oct. 14, just a week into the war, the Israeli air force said it had dropped 6,000 bombs on Hamas targets in Gaza. By contrast, a little more than 7,300 bombs were dropped on Afghanistan by the U.S.-led coalition in all of 2019, the heaviest year of aerial bombardment there.
On Sunday, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari appeared to hint that major hospitals could be targeted, citing their alleged use by militants to fire on Israeli forces. He described medical facilities as a “key part of Hamas’s war machine” and urged that they be evacuated.
Medical relief organizations and doctors inside the hospitals have repeatedly emphasized that they cannot comply. The facilities are packed with hundreds of people, some of them on life support, as well as newborns in incubators.
Women in Gaza give birth to 5,000 babies per months, which works out at around 160 babies daily.
Thousands of displaced residents are also sleeping on hospital grounds, believing them to be safer than the bombarded residential neighborhoods they fled.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has framed the fight against militants in existential terms. The group and its infrastructure — spread among Gaza’s population of more than 2 million civilians — can and will be destroyed, he has said.
Baruch said the savagery of Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault on Israel, which killed more than 1,400 people, gives Israel greater latitude under international law to act in self-defense: “Those standards say, we understand that you might be attacked so viciously that the only way to defend yourself is to use a lot of force and unfortunately harm civilians because there is no other way.”
But the principle of proportionality remains unchanged, experts say, and there is a great deal of unrest in international diplomatic circles about how the Israelis seem to be interpreting the old Biblical maxim of their ancestors, ‘an eye for an eye’.
Sources: Washington Post,