Surely, anyone who is not deeply disturbed by the reports of mass deaths of Palestinian civilians, particularly children, lacks a moral conscience. As someone who supports Israel’s basic existential right to defend itself, I struggle to reason through all the reports of civilian bloodshed.
I am speaking specifically about Palestinian civilians. Regardless of how many Israeli civilians fall victim to terrorism, comparing the death toll on both sides leads to old tired arguments of moral equivalence, of which there is none. That Hamas is a terrorist organization that freely and intentionally inflicts terror on innocent civilians is undisputed. It is the claims against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), that they are no better, that is troubling.
As I see it, here is an outline of six possible explanations for the high count of civilian deaths, ranging from the mundane to the completely outrageous:
Collateral damage is reasonable. Any military conflict, particularly in densely populated areas, will have a substantial number of casualties. Relative to the firepower used by both sides, the death toll is relatively low.
This is hard to stomach, much less to gauge. How do you draw a baseline for a reasonable body count? Is there really some limit below which it is acceptable? This is the utilitarian argument of sacrificing the few for the good of the many. Can you really justify protection of one set of people from future harm — no matter how certain — by harming another set of people in the present?
Israel’s military tactics are crude and error-prone. The IDF’s principles of protecting civilians notwithstanding, its strikes are imprecise and its warnings are ineffective.
This is certaintly true to a certain extent. Several incidents in this conflict so far, like the death of four young cousins playing soccer on the beach, leave very little doubt that the IDF misfired without incitement. The IDF was quick to issue an apology in that instance. The first IDF casualty was also likely caused by friendly fire, showing that mistakes do occur. In contrast, though, IDF videos show meticulous specificity and precision in destroying targets. So the question is whether errors are the outlier or the norm.
Israel blatantly and surreptitiously targets and kills civilians. Probably because they want to bring Hamas to its knees but possibly because it is led by genocidal maniacs exercising a form of ethnic cleansing.
Israel’s ethos, separate from policies or questionable practices it has demonstrated in the past, has always embodied universal values of morality and ethics. Yes, there has always been corruption and extremism, but those are deviations from that ethos. The Israeli hasbara has always tried to underline Israel’s values and moral stance in light of objectionable policies and tactics. The IDF stresses a moral code that seeks to avoid civilian casualties. Soldiers who lack that code are prohibited from engaging in combat and disciplined. To suggest that such a moral code is a lie would condemn generations of soldiers and military leaders as deceitful criminals. The truth is that the ethos is a genuine ideal, constantly reiterated within Israeli society. There are certainly Israelis who defy it (Baruch Goldstein, Yigal Amir, and the murderers of Mohammed Abu Khdair are notorious instances), but they are hypocrites. At some margin it is possible that a soldier acts in rage and commits such atrocities. But those incidents are far and few between.
As far as the theory that the IDF targets civilians in order to reign in Hamas, it is having quite the opposite effect. The brutality of civilian casualties only gives Hamas more legitimacy in the world arena and acts to embolden them. For what it’s worth, a rising death toll reflects poorly on Israel. Even on purely strategic, non-humanitarian grounds, Israel should be doing everything within their power to curb it.
Hamas exaggerates the total death toll. The real-time body count updates are either completely unreliable estimates, or are manipulated to influence the perception of civilian suffering.
That Hamas is a totalitarian regime ruling a helpless population is undisputed. As is the fact that such regimes often control — and manipulate — the flow of information. While it’s hard to prove without doubt that the statistics have been fabricated, it certainly raises the specter of manipulation. There have been countless reports of doctored images and footage from the conflict, conveniently borrowed from previous wars or from other regions altogether. Most of the death toll updates are provided directly by the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health (MOH). Given the intensity of the war and the massive destruction of property and disruption of communication networks, it’s quite amazing that the MOH is able to gather, collate, and corroborate precise body counts from all across the Strip, meticulously broken down by demographics and combatant status.
The UN’s OCHA report (PDF), published daily, sources its figures from the MOH, but requires corroboration from another rights group. Yet, because of the restriction of mobility into, out of, or within the Strip, such groups usually depend on a single contact on the ground, and that information itself might come directly from the MOH. In similar conflicts, the counts were adjusted down and disputed weeks and months after the fighting stops. But by then the message of Israeli brutality has already sunk in.
Hamas exaggerates the non-combatant portion of the death toll. The body count is close to the truth, but many more of the casualties are legitimate military combatants than is reported.
This is consistent with Hamas propaganda, and easier to achieve than fabricating casualties. When the fighting eventually stops, different organizations will explore and examine the circumstances of civilian casualties on the ground. While unaccounted corpses might raise a few eyebrows, it may be much harder to disprove that a dead civilian was not in fact a combatant. This is helped by the fact that Hamas’s fighters integrate themselves within residential neighborhoods, and are often dressed in civilian clothes. While the IDF is obligated to operate under international humanitarian law, Hamas isn’t.
Hamas intentionally puts Palestinian civilians in harm’s way. Hamas urges civilians to ignore warnings and stay put either to deter Israeli strikes or to cause greater suffering, which benefits them.
Since its inception in 1987, Hamas has maintained a messianic message of deliverance through jihad. Such an extreme ends can only be achieved through extreme means. The death of innocents, by that logic, is a necessary sacrifice. Hamas invented the suicide bomber and expanded the tactic over the years to include women and children. The use of human shields in conflicts is both documented and proudly heralded.
Hamas’s viability hinges on its self-portrayal as a victim. By showing determination in face of turmoil, wealthy nations like Iran and Qatar keep supporting it. So its public relations apparatus is almost as important a tool as its military tactics. Taken together, it’s not necessary to prove that Hamas doesn’t value human life absolutely. It’s enough to demonstrate that they value their fundamentalist goals above human life.
If such ideations are to be believed, and if we, as rational observers of the conflict, have such a visceral reaction to the stories of civilian deaths, and if Hamas’s relevance is so dependent on international financial, military, and spiritual support, is it really that hard to reason why civilian deaths are a relatively small price to pay? Innocent Palestinians are not only collateral damage, they form a sort of moral currency that gives Hamas legitimacy in the eyes of the world.
The use of human shields, whether or not to deter IDF aggression or to promote an atmosphere of despair, are a well-established fact. As are the calls on civilians to ignore Israeli warnings to evacuate. But what if Hamas is doing more? Hamas has been known to store munitions and explosives within civilian structures like apartment buildings and schools. Those weapons are used as caches for launching rockets into Israel or to resist IDF infantry. But what if those weapons include explosives that also serve to amplify Israeli strikes and therefore the death and destruction?
Despite my Israeli upbringing, I have been wholly persuaded by American ideals of personal freedom. For that reason, I am very distrubed by civilian deaths. I strongly identify with my Israeli compatriots, not just loved family and friends who live there. But I am not ready to declare one life more valuable than another.
But I also consider myself a rational thinker, and a Bayesian at that. The regional threat by Hamas and other militant groups is an existential threat — not just to Israel but to Arab civilians living under their regimes. No democratic election or measure of legitimacy is tempering the religious zealotry of these organizations. Given what we already know about the values of Israel and its military, as well as Hamas and its fighters, how do we reconcile the unspeakable horrors reported by the conflicts. If Israel’s global support is diminished by the reported rise in civilian casualties, and if Hamas’s stance conversely benefits from it, is it that hard to imagine that we, as international observers, are being somehow manipulated?
Outlining these possiblities is sadly not bringing me any closer to resolution. Perhaps they raise more questions than they answer. But the truth, while we may never find it, is in all likelihood a demented combination of all these possibilities. And the next inevitable conflict will raise the same moral questions. The only thing I can hang onto in maintaining support for Israel is a morally superior, nationally shared ethos of peace and liberty.