There are, as some have noted, two ways to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A narrow lens, focused on 10,000 square miles or so of the West Bank and Israel, shows a military power controlling a largely unarmed entity in occupied territory. A wider lens reveals a tiny minority of Jews – one of the Middle East’s only thriving minorities – clinging to a thread of land along the Mediterranean coast.
To a certain extent this is the difference between the imminent UN-commissioned report on the summer’s 50-day war in Gaza and the Israeli review released Sunday: One will likely focus on the hundreds of Palestinian deaths, including the tragic deaths of nearly 500 children, and assert that war crimes were committed; the other acknowledges the deaths but seeks to put them in the larger framework of an enemy that targets civilians and operates from among its own people and an army that goes to some lengths to try and limit the deaths of innocents.
The 250-page Israeli report, to be sure, is braided with several strands of Israel advocacy, an attempt to defend against allegations with the army’s time-honored tactic of offense providing the best defense. For example, among the dozens of pages addressing the legal infrastructure of the IDF MAG Corps and the Attorney General and the High Court of Justice, there is but brief mention of the fact that, despite the efficiency and openness of the system, not one Israeli soldier has been charged with wrongful death or any crime more severe than looting; nor is there a clear recommendation to change any army procedures.
The central argument, though, is coherent and persuasive and evidence of the fact that Israel has understood that war is increasingly fought in the sphere of public opinion and that there, too, Israel must strive for clarity. Ironically, an offshoot of this realization is that as the calls for external scrutiny rise, the thirst for rigorous domestic investigation subsides. This helped bury the notion of a joint Israeli and international commission of inquiry and played a role in the sinking of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee inquiry, both of which would have lent credibility to the bulk of Israel’s claims.
The report opens with a description of Hamas and its ideology – ” “[t]here is no war going on anywhere, without [the Jews’] finger in it” – and asserts that Israel, searching for three abducted Israeli teenagers (later found dead) in June 2014, “tried to avoid escalation in the Gaza Strip.” It does not dwell on the 10 Israeli brigades sent to operate in the West Bank and the combustible dismantling of Hamas infrastructure there – a move taken in light of the kidnapping and with the then-classified knowledge that Hamas intended to unseat the PA in the West Bank through a series of orchestrated terror attacks.
Instead the report states that despite Israel’s diplomatic efforts to curb escalation, Hamas and other terror organizations continued to fire mortars and rockets at Israeli civilians and, when the organization on July 7 fired more than 60 projectiles at Israel, the government was “left with no choice” but to launch an aerial offensive.
“No government would have failed to respond to such an unceasing barrage of attacks on its citizens,” the authors of the report wrote.
The many dozen pages cataloging Hamas’s violations of the laws of armed conflict provide specifics about the known nature of the war. The al-Tawheed mosque in Khuza’a and the Sheikh Hasnain mosque in Shejaiya were used as weapon storage depots and command posts; other mosque minarets were used as sniper nests. Al-Wafa hospital in Shejaiya “was transformed into a sniper post, an anti-tank missile launch site, a weapons storage facility, a platform for operational surveillance devices, and a cover for tunnel infrastructure.” Schools and UN facilities were repeatedly used as cover to enable nearby rocket launches.
Embedding military operations within the civilian environment, the report notes, “is not ancillary to their main military objectives; nor is it an inevitability of combat within the Gaza Strip. Rather, it is a deliberate and systematic strategy designed to draw IDF forces into combat inside densely populated areas where civilian casualties and damage will be blamed on Israel and produce international sympathy for Hamas.”
The report also predominantly takes a bird’s eye view of the army’s response to this combat doctrine, explaining how Israel adhered throughout to the principles of distinction – discerning between enemies and innocents – and proportionality – which demands that a party launching a strike on a specific target ensure that the expected collateral damage not “be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”
This means that an attack against a low-value military target that is expected to result in 100 civilian fatalities, the authors explain, “would be considered disproportionate, whereas one hundred attacks against military objectives of the same value that are expected to each result in one fatality per strike is likely to be regarded as proportionate.”
There is also careful documentation of the goods ferried from Israel to Gaza during the war – 5,637 trucks carrying 122,575 tons of supplies – and the efforts made to warn the public to leave anticipated combat zones.
Finally, the Israeli government report seeks, nearly a year after the war, to shed light on the matter of civilian deaths. Not only does it make the long-absent claim that of the 2,125 Palestinians killed during the war, 936, or 44 percent, were militants, but also that the numbers so often quoted during the war – generally that some 1,500 civilians had been killed by Israeli troops – were purposely skewed by Hamas.
On July 11, the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry in Gaza uploaded “guidelines” to its website: “Anyone killed or martyred is to be called a civilian from the Gaza Strip or Palestine, before we talk about his status in jihad or his military rank,” the report quotes. “Don’t forget to always add “innocent civilian” or innocent citizen in your description of those killed in Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip…. Do not publish photos of military commanders. Do not mention their names in public, and do not praise their achievements in conversations with foreign friends.”
Taking the wide-angle view, the report notes, too, that after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, claimed that only 48 of its members were among the over 1,100 dead. Later that number was radically altered by a different Hamas spokesman. “Not coincidentally,” the report notes, that admission “came only after the Goldstone Report was published.”