When Israel attacks Gaza, civilian deaths are factored in

Analysis - Israel's strategy in Gaza
4 min read
31 August, 2022
In-depth: Testimonies from Israeli soldiers and experts reveal that military attacks in Gaza are carried out knowing that Palestinian civilians will be killed.

Following the latest onslaught on the besieged Gaza Strip in August in which 48 civilians were killed, including 16 children, the Israeli military has been actively trying to demonstrate it avoids harming civilians.

However, soldier testimonies and expert knowledge reveal attacks on non-combatants are a routine part of military operations - and are often factored in.

According to a former soldier who served in the aerial intelligence unit of the army’s air force, the Israeli military maintains a database of potential targets that is supposed to be regularly updated to confirm if they are still relevant military sites.

"The Israeli military knowingly attacks sites where civilians are present"

“What happens though is that there are so many of these targets and the soldiers are honestly lazy 18-year-olds who are bored out of their minds and have no idea what they're doing,” the ex-soldier, who wished to remain anonymous, told The New Arab.

“The problem is that a significant portion of [the targets] aren’t reconfirmed, so then decisions are made that are based on faulty intelligence.”

For example, Israel mistakenly categorising civilian complexes as military compounds is a common phenomenon.

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In 2019, the Israeli military admitted that an airstrike on a home in the Gaza Strip, which killed a family of nine, was mislabelled as an Islamic Jihad compound when the location should have been marked as a civilian building "with some military activity".

According to Israeli military officials, it hadn’t checked whether the site contained civilians over the past year.

But the military doesn’t just accidentally attack civilian sites; it is acutely aware civilians are present at its target locations.

“The Israeli military knowingly attacks sites where civilians are present,” Shir Hever, the military embargo coordinator for the Boycott National Committee of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, told The New Arab.

Palestinians hold placards with messages and pictures on 17 August calling for children's protection during a vigil at the site where 5 children of the Najm family were killed in the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. [Getty]

“Part of it is the densely populated Gaza Strip, the world’s largest open-air prison where non-combatants have nowhere to hide. It’s also that soldiers and officers who choose to use lethal force know that they will not be held accountable by the Israeli authorities,” he added.

“No soldiers were charged or sentenced for the killing of civilians in Gaza since the First Intifada [Palestinian uprising from 1987-1993].”

Civilian casualties are also taken into account. According to soldiers’ testimonies to Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence on Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014, it’s not required to determine if civilians are inside a structure before attacking it.

"The military doesn't just accidentally attack civilian sites; it is acutely aware civilians are present at its target locations"

“Say the target was [Hamas’] deputy battalion commander in Shuja’iyya, an attack would be launched if the number of civilians wasn’t too high. By too high, I mean a two-digit number,” an anonymous soldier told Breaking the Silence.

The Israeli military denounced the soldiers’ testimonies, calling them false in a statement to The New Arab.

“Prior to each strike the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] takes many precautionary measures that are based on accurate intelligence to reduce the possibility of harming civilians during operational activities,” the military spokesperson said.

“Additionally, all IDF targets are approved and examined from a legal perspective and according to international law.”

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Surveillance as a form of dehumanisation

Israeli military operations in Gaza are also particularly enhanced by surveillance. According to Hever, every meter of the Gaza Strip is under constant Israeli surveillance from the Mediterranean Sea, drones flying overhead, and electronically.

“Israeli spyware cannot only hack into phones to listen to conversations or read text messages, but also subvert phones and turn them into eavesdropping devices, and download the entire phone history,” Hever said.

This information is used to locate resistance fighters and justify killing them, but Hever explains there is no accountability in this process.

“High-ranking officers do not check the raw data collected from surveillance but simply take intelligence officers at their word that the information is there,” Hever said.

"Soldiers and officers who choose to use lethal force know that they will not be held accountable by the Israeli authorities"

The unnamed officer who worked in aerial intelligence described how because Israel controls Gaza’s airspace, planes can fly incredibly close to the ground.

“What that means is that they have high-resolution footage of the entire strip,” she said, explaining they would comb through the skies multiple times each week during her service.

Hever described the Israeli surveillance gathered on Gazans as mainly mechanical - simply being used for target acquisition.

“Surveillance can gather a lot of information, but the Israeli military is not using this information to get to know their Palestinian victims, their culture, religion, their plans, and strategy,” Hever said.

“They dehumanise them, and this also empties their own surveillance data from its value as anything more than target acquisition technology.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum