Israeli hasbara (propaganda) during Operation Breaking Dawn emphasized the desire to minimize harm to Palestinian civilians. As proof of this, in a precedent-setting move, even the calculated killing of Tayseer Jabari, commander of the military branch of Islamic Jihad in the northern Gaza Strip, was revealed in detail to the public. Israel truly has reasons to market this externally, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. One of the ways to test the connection between this policy and reality is in examining the number of those killed.
In this case, we will examine the percentage of (“uninvolved”) civilians out of the total number of those killed in three operations, which were completely based on attacks from a distance, mostly from the air, without a ground campaign: Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, which lasted about a week; Operation Guardian of the Walls in 2021, which lasted about two weeks; and Operation Breaking Dawn, which lasted three days.
To compare the data, I will use the reports of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which consistently analyzes the data about Palestinians killed and determines their affiliation. The center is identified with the Israeli intelligence community, so basing ourselves on its figures will reduce disagreement if the data still have some problems, and differences exist between these data and other reports.
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For the three campaigns, the percentage of civilians among those killed was about 40 percent, as identified by the Amit Center. During Pillar of Defense, the figure was 68 civilians out of 169 people killed, and at least 95 out of 236 during Guardian of the Walls. For Breaking Dawn, it was 16 civilians out of the 38 people killed in total by attacks conducted by the IDF – not including those killed by Islamic Jihad – in other words, 42 percent. The initial conclusion from this comparison is that Israel’s official rhetoric differs from the way the forces acted.
Amira Hass’ reports (as published in Haaretz Hebrew edition, August 12), according to which more civilians were killed than the Amit Center reported, seemingly show an incautious pattern of action of fire in densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip. In spite of the criticism of Israel in past campaigns and the investigation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague against Israelis suspected of carrying out war crimes, there has been no significant change in Israel’s actions.
The more in-depth conclusion concerns the dispute in the West, which deals with the question of how much does the use of precision munitions aid in reducing the harm to enemy civilians. One of the critical claims is that because of the precision weapons, leaders and generals approve the attack on targets that under other circumstances in the past would not have been possible to attack, out of a fear of a large number of civilian casualties.
This conclusion is valid here too. Israel did not fight in an identical way in all the campaigns. It was possible to expect that because of the precision, the harm to civilians would be reduced, after all the use of precision munitions has expanded significantly since the beginning of the previous decade. But instead we have seen an increase of attacks from the air in crowded areas – attacks on residential buildings – so the percentages of those killed remained the same. Increasing the precision also increased the boldness and did not reduce the harm to civilians.
This leads us to another conclusion: The use of a weapon does not necessarily stem from a security constraint, but also from its availability. This is why the circumstances that have led to the deaths of civilians are worth investigating seriously, and it is doubtful the military will do this itself. The results of such an investigation must change policy and behavior, and not official hasbara messages.