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Homes in the crosshairs: Israeli war crimes, deterrence and impunity

On the eighth day of Israel’s most recent assault on the Gaza Strip, a senior officer in the Israeli military commented on the overnight bombing of the house of senior Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades figure Marwan Issa. “You call it a home”, the anonymous official said, “we call it a command centre and a military post for all intents and purposes”. For all intents and purposes.

NGO B’Tselem has documented ten examples of family homes bombed by Israel with a combined death toll of 52 persons, including 19 children. B’Tselem described the IDF’s justification for such attacks (which, it noted, changed over time), as “unfounded and illegal”, calling the tactic “punitive home demolition from the air”.

The organisation has been joined in its condemnation by Human Rights Watch, who published Wednesday a briefing on Israel’s “killing of civilians in violation of the laws of war” (which conducted deliberately or recklessly, constitutes war crimes).

Noting the Israeli military’s “long record of unlawful airstrikes with high civilian casualties”, the human rights organisation’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson observed that Israel “would never accept an argument that any Israeli home of an Israel Defense Force member would be a valid military target”. IDF spokesperson Peter Lerner, when asked to provideevidence houses in Gaza are used for command and control, “declined to provide specifics”.

As UNRWA urges the Israeli military to end its “attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure” in the Gaza Strip, there is a grim familiarity about all of this. On 18 November 2012, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the house of the al-Dalu family in Gaza City, killing 12 people, including four children aged seven or under. Subsequently, in an unapologetic and unconvincing justification for this and other atrocities, the Israeli military described the massacre of the al-Dalu family as an “unfortunate result“.

Let’s put aside for the moment how the IDF describes the obliteration of a family the same way one might regret losing a football match. Whatever else you call it (and others choose ‘war crime’) this “result” was in fact entirely predictable and a direct consequence of decisions taken by Israel’s military and political leaders. There is, in fact, a long history of ‘unfortunate results’.

On 13 July 2006, during Israel’s assault on Lebanon, an airstrike destroyed the home of a cleric “not known to have taken any active part in hostilities”, killing him, his wife and ten children, and the family maid. Assessing the war as a whole, Human Rights Watch concluded Israel intentionally failed “to distinguish between combatants and civilians”. Amnesty International stated that “the extensive destruction of public works, power systems, civilian homes and industry was deliberate and an integral part of the military strategy”. That is to say, war crimes.

In a paper written after the 2012 ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’ attack, former National Security Advisor Giora Eiland praised the devastation of Beirut’s Dahiya neighbourhood in 2006, and said it was a mistake not to have attacked “all targets of infrastructure and governance” in Gaza. His logic for such a strategy was to establish “deterrence”.

This concept can be traced back to the famous 1923 essay written by Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, where in light of expected resistance to “Zionist colonisation” from “the native population”of Palestine, the “policy towards the Arabs” would have to be that of an “iron wall”. The Palestinians, Jabotinsky believed, would accept the colonisation of their land “only when there is no hope left“.

Plus ça change. In August 2002, Israel’s current Defense Minister and then-IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon was asked about the goal of Israel’s response to the Second Intifada. Ya’alon defined victory as “the very deep internalisation” by Palestinians that violence “will not make us fold” – a lesson, he said, that would have to be “burned into…[their] consciousness“. A month previous, he had overseen the bombing of Salah Shehadeh’s family home that killed 15, including eight children.

In recent years, those articulating a doctrine of deterrence have emphasised the targeting of civilian infrastructure. The then-IDF Northern Command chief Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot declared in 2008 that in a future confrontation with Hezbollah, Israel would view “civilian villages” as “military bases”. Haaretz picked up on these remarks, as well as other strategy papers, reporting: “IDF plans to use disproportionate force in next war”. Less than three months later, the ‘Operation Cast Lead’ massacre began.

To the extent that the Israeli military is concerned about the deaths of Palestinian civilians, it is with a focus on the propaganda battle, or hasbara. In the aftermath of ‘Operation Cast Lead’, Israel’s foreign ministry “created a special task force” whose remit included “repairing damage to Israel’s image abroad as a result of the Gaza operation”. Israeli officials believed, correctly, that “negative sentiment toward Israel” would grow “as the full picture of destruction” and harm done to civilians emerged.

This time too, so-called “public diplomacy” has been described as “a central front” of ‘Operation Protective Edge’. In its report on propaganda efforts by the Israeli government and others, The Jerusalem Post noted that a “major problem” recognised by all those involved in defending Israel “is that there are many more casualties in Gaza than in Israel, and photos from Gaza trigger an emotional response”.

Meanwhile, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer this week told “700 American Jews” that “Israel is being routinely portrayed in both conventional and social media as an angry, well-armed giant leaving many innocent victims in its wake”. Dermer complained that Israel was losing “the war over public opinion, as Israel is vilified for the civilian casualties its bombs cause in Gaza”.

The doctrine of deterrence is not the only significant context for Israeli war crimes – so too is a well-documented culture of impunity. The Israeli army, naturally, exonerates itself. Out of hundreds of criminal complaints filed with the Israeli military prosecutor as a result of ‘Operation Cast Lead’, only 52 investigations were opened. Three indictments were filed: for credit card theft, use of a Palestinian child as a human shield, and “manslaughter of an anonymous person”.

After Pillar of Defense, the Israeli military “closed probes into more than 60 allegations of misconduct” having found no basis for “opening a criminal investigation” in any of the cases. More broadly, in the years 2009-2011 indictments were served in just 2.5% of cases of alleged offenses committed by Israeli soldiers.

In fact, even as more Palestinian children were being killed in Gaza, the Israeli army announced that there would be no charges for the killers of Yusef Abu Aker Shawamreh, a 14-year-old Palestinian child shot dead while out picking plants. For an apartheid-enforcing Israeli military, it was yet another ‘unfortunate result’.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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