Did Israel Go Too Far in Protecting Civilian Lives in Gaza?

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These days major reports are coming out on the Gaza war last summer. The main issue of contention: did Israel go on a rampage in Gaza, killing civilians recklessly or even intentionally, or did it try to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible?

The report of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva should be out any day. The UNHRC is a notorious Israel-bashing body, 80% of whose resolutions have condemned Israel. Prof. William Schabas, previous head of its current “fact-finding commission” on Gaza, had to step down when it turned out he’d been in the pay of the Palestinians. This commission’s report is, of course, expected to hit Israel hard.

Meanwhile the Israeli Foreign Ministry has issued a report on last summer’s war. Among other things, it presents captured Hamas documents and Hamas internet posts exposing Hamas’s human-shields strategy and exploitation of actual or supposed civilian deaths for media purposes. It also gives detailed evidence on Hamas’s use of schools, hospitals, and mosques as missile-launch sites, command centers, and weapons depots.

Cynics and Israel-haters, of course, will say: What would you expect from the Israeli Foreign Ministry? For an excellent three-minute summary of Israel’s case, see this video by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. It not only presents Israeli sources but also Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, who said Israel’s efforts to save civilians lives in Gaza were unprecedented, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said Israel went to “extraordinary lengths” to limit civilian casualties.

And a third report, prepared by independent experts, also backs Israel’s case. The High Level International Military Group on the Gaza Conflict was led by Gen. Klaus Naumann, former German chief of staff and top NATO official, and included, among others, former Italian and Spanish chiefs of staff, a former U.S. Air Force officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Col. Kemp.

The High Level Group’s “Key Preliminary Findings” not only state:

            None of us is aware of any army that takes such extensive measures as did the IDF last summer to protect the lives of the civilian population in such circumstances…. Measures taken to warn civilians included phone calls, SMS messages, leaflet drops, radio broadcasts, communication via Gaza-based UN staff and the detonation of harmless warning explosive charges, known as “knock on the roof”. Where possible the IDF sought also to give guidance on safe areas and safe routes.

The High Level Group also states:

We were briefed on some cases where the IDF declined to attack known military targets due to the presence of civilians, risking, and in some instances costing, Israeli lives…. A measure of the seriousness with which Israel took its moral duties and its responsibilities under the laws of armed conflict is that in some cases Israel’s scrupulous adherence to the laws of war cost Israeli soldiers’ and civilians’ lives.

That, perhaps, should be the real focus of controversy.