War is hell. We can all agree about that. People are killed, many of them noncombatants. Many of those noncombatants are children. On Wednesday, four children were killed on the beach in Gaza. They were playing soccer in the sand when they were hit by two consecutive rounds, fired from an Israeli aircraft. It was a senseless tragedy.
I had returned to my small seaside hotel around 4 p.m. to file photos to New York when I heard a loud explosion. My driver and I rushed to the window to see what had happened. A small shack atop a sea wall at the fishing port had been struck by an Israeli bomb or missile and was burning. A young boy emerged from the smoke, running toward the adjacent beach.
I grabbed my cameras and was putting on body armor and a helmet when, about 30 seconds after the first blast, there was another. The boy I had seen running was now dead, lying motionless in the sand, along with three other boys who had been playing there.
By the time I reached the beach, I was winded from running with my heavy armor. I paused; it was too risky to go onto the exposed sand. Imagine what my silhouette, captured by an Israeli drone, might look like as a grainy image on a laptop somewhere in Israel: wearing body armor and a helmet, carrying cameras that could be mistaken for weapons. If children are being killed, what is there to protect me, or anyone else?
Later that evening, as the gruesome, detailed reports piled up, along with a stream of harrowing images (too harrowing to link to here) from the scene, the Israeli army issued a statement:
The IDF has no intention of harming civilians dragged by Hamas into the reality of urban combat. We are carefully investigating the incident in question. Based on preliminary results, the target of this strike was Hamas terrorist operatives. The reported civilian casualties from this strike are a tragic outcome. Hamas’ cynical exploitation of a population held hostage has caused the IDF to cancel strikes on terrorist targets on multiple occasions this operation. The investigation is ongoing.
Channel 10 military correspondent Alon Ben-David reported that an Israeli aircraft had fired a warning shot at a Hamas naval installation next to where the Palestinian children were playing. When they attempted to flee, they were apparently misidentified as Hamas men and targeted.
Meanwhile, senior Israeli officials began to take questions about the incident in international and local media.
“I think it’s terrible that Hamas is butchering its own children,” one minister, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, waxed hyperbolic in an interview with CNN. “Hamas is conducting massive self-genocide. They’re taking women and children, placing them next to missile launchers and shooting the missiles at Israel.”
“But these kids were playing on the beach,” the interviewer pressed.
The minister didn’t hesitate. “Israel never targets civilians deliberately. Period,” he said. “What Israel does is defend itself.”
And it’s true that Israel’s policy is to never deliberately target noncombatants and to avoid bodily harm to them whenever possible. As it takes pains to demonstrate, the army makes every effort to warn civilians of impending airstrikes when there is no danger of the target escaping. Still, a high ratio of civilian casualties seems almost a foregone conclusion (tallies in Gaza have so far put that ratio at over 70%, and Israel does not provide figures), whether due to the near-certainty of occasional errors in the identification of targets – some 1,800 bombing sorties have been conducted in Gaza since the onset of Operation Protective Edge – or as (darn that euphemism) “collateral damage” when noncombatants are at the wrong place at the wrong time.
So why, as a general rule, have Israeli officials been insisting that responsibility for all civilian casualties lies exclusively with Hamas? This should be asked not necessarily in relation to Wednesday’s incident; the army’s investigation will likely result in an acknowledgement of the mistake, and President Shimon Peres has apologized. But that is largely a function of visibility: The shelling was caught on film, witnessed by multiple journalists. Noncombatants are dying in Gaza every day, by all accounts in greater numbers than combatants. Indeed, Hamas embeds its fighters, rockets and installations among Gaza’s civilians, but it is Israel that chooses to attack these targets, and in so doing it must not shirk its share of the responsibility when noncombatants are harmed.
The obvious, yet discomfiting, truth is that acknowledging the fallibility of the IDF, and admitting off the bat when it makes mistakes, would undermine Israel’s international legitimacy to wage war on Hamas, which has been lobbing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians for years. The government wants to keep its options open as long as it can, enabling an extended campaign, especially now that it has put boots on the ground. With Israel subject to – some would say, singled out for – intense international scrutiny, taking any responsibility for civilian deaths in Gaza would severely constrict the army’s operational freedom and compound already mounting pressure to end the offensive.
A second cabinet minister spelled out that calculus on Wednesday night in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2:
I think that as opposed to previous cases, this time the world understands that the horrible, needless, heartbreaking death of these kids is Hamas’s fault. And this is why we still have broad international credit to continue acting in Gaza and even to enlarge the operation in Gaza if need be. I reiterate: this is heartbreaking, but the party that wanted this to happen all along is Hamas. That’s why it uses these children as human shields. The State of Israel does everything in its power to avert such tragedies, but we’re in a state of war; they’re also firing on our children.
The minister’s argument was evocative of a comment once made by prime minister Golda Meir, immediately recognizable to any student of the conflict: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”
Replace the word “Arabs” with the word “Hamas” (in keeping with another prime-ministerial maxim — “the Arabs are the same Arabs”) and one is left with the gist of official Israeli reactions to civilian deaths: They are all Hamas’s fault. They fire from populated areas. They want their children to die. We didn’t want to to kill them, and therefore bear no responsibility in their deaths.
Whether Israel must truly say these things if it is to retain international backing, and whether the shocking Palestinian civilian toll is a reasonable price to pay for an inevitable ceasefire that will likely provide all-too-brief respite from rocket attacks on Israeli civilians – these questions are beyond the scope of this piece. Still, one thing must be said, even if it is not – even if, indeed, it cannot be – uttered at this time by decision makers in Jerusalem: However inadvertently, the Israeli military killed those Palestinian children, not Hamas. It was a senseless tragedy. Period.