OpinionIsrael at War

Misplaced moral outrage on civilian casualties

Israel seeks to minimize harm to non-combatants, while Hamas seeks to maximize it as a propaganda tool.

Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip, Feb. 26, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip, Feb. 26, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team, and a participant in the Israel Victory Project.

“Israel has taken more steps to avoid harming civilians than any other military in history. … Steps that Israel has taken to prevent casualties [are] historic in comparison to all these other wars.” — John Spencer, chairman of urban warfare studies, West Point, Feb. 17, 2024

“[Immediately after taking office] Obama authorized two Central Intelligence Agency drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, which, combined, killed an estimated one militant and 10 civilians, including between four and five children.” — Obama’s Embrace of Drone Strikes Will Be a Lasting Legacy,” New York Times, Jan. 12, 2016

“In recent years, we have investigated civilian harm from U.S. air strikes … in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, and found that thousands of civilians have been killed or seriously injured … with little accountability.” — Amnesty International at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Council hearing, Feb. 9, 2022

The recent accidental deaths of seven foreign aid workers with World Central Kitchen in the Gaza Strip have sparked an eruption of anti-Israel vitriol that highlights the vicious Judeophobic prejudice that is sweeping much of the globe today. This is something that defies all and any tenets of morality and reason. Indeed, by any conceivable criterion of human decency, there is no conflict in recent history in which the gulf between good and evil, wanton barbarism and humanitarian restraint, has been so clearly delineated as that between the protagonists in the ongoing war in Gaza.

Painstaking Israeli restraint

The tragedy of collateral damage has been a lamentable aspect of warfare ever since nation-states began to displace dynastic monarchies as the dominant structural element in the international system and perhaps even before that.

Rarely if ever has one of the belligerent parties—let alone the victim of a brutal unprovoked attack on its civilians—demonstrated such painstaking care to avoid harm befalling enemy civilians as Israel. This is reflected in the unequivocal declaration of the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Col. Richard Kemp: “I have fought in combat zones around the world including Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Macedonia and Iraq. I was also present throughout the conflict in Gaza in 2014. Based on my experience and on my observations, the Israel Defense Forces … does more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

In Gaza, the vulnerability of non-combatants is greatly exacerbated by the malicious actions of their leaders, who cynically exploit them by deliberately placing them in harm’s way and coercively preventing them from seeking safe havens. Thus, as a Wall Street Journal piece underscores, “Israel seeks to minimize civilian casualties, while Hamas seeks to maximize civilian casualties and use them as a propaganda tool.”

Israel setting ‘gold standard’ for avoiding civilian casualties

The chairman of urban warfare studies at West Point, John Spencer, described Israel’s achievements in avoiding collateral damage as “unprecedented,” particularly given the complex combat conditions in Gaza above and below ground. According to Spencer, Israel is setting the “gold standard” for avoiding civilian casualties.

Likewise, Kemp praised the IDF for its record of avoiding civilian casualties during its operations in Gaza and pointed out that the average combatant-to-civilian death ratio in Gaza is about 1:1.5, while according to the United Nations, the average combatant-to-civilian death ratio in urban warfare in general is 1:9—six times higher.

The issue of civilian casualties in Gaza is hugely complicated by Hamas’s heinous practice of exploiting medical facilities as a cover for its terror activities. This includes the copiously documented abuse of ambulances for the transportation of terror-related personnel and materiel.

Israeli moderation is underscored by comparison to non-combatant fatalities in other military encounters involving democracies at war. In World War II, nearly 600,000 European civilians were killed by Allied aerial bombardment of German cities that were reduced to rubble and ashes. Moreover, cities in other countries in Nazi-occupied Europe were bombarded—including their non-combatant civilian residents. One of the most grisly and tragic of these events occurred in Copenhagen in March 1945, when the RAF was sent to bomb the Gestapo headquarters in the city. It inadvertently hit a nearby school, killing 123 Danish civilians, including 87 schoolchildren.

Then there were the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—neither of which was ever designated as a military target—of whom between 100,000 to 200,000 were incinerated and irradiated by the U.S. atomic bombings in early August 1945.

“There is always a cost to defeat an evil.”

Half a century later, after hundreds of thousands were killed by American bombing in the Vietnam War, NATO launched a war against Serbia. The NATO campaign consisted of high altitude—and hence far from accurate—bombing raids that regularly hit civilian targets. These targets included residential neighborhoods, old-age homes, hospitals, open-air markets, columns of fleeing refugees, civilian buses, trains on bridges and even a foreign embassy.

When then-NATO spokesman Jamie Shea was pressed on the issue of the significant numbers of civilian casualties, he responded, “There is always a cost to defeat an evil. It never comes free, unfortunately. But the cost of failure to defeat a great evil is far higher.” This is exactly how Israelis feel about the war against Hamas.

These were not the only post-World War II instances of pervasive human suffering caused by large-scale U.S.-led military operations.

More babies died in Iraq than in Hiroshima

After Saddam Hussein’s 1991 takeover of Kuwait, the United States and its allies imposed sanctions on Iraq and dispatched forces to repel the invasion. Even after Hussein was evicted from Kuwait, sanctions and military operations continued. These measures resulted in tremendous suffering for the civilian population. The scale of it can be gauged by a 1996 60 Minutes interview with the late Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and secretary of state under Bill Clinton. Albright was quizzed by the interviewer Leslie Stahl about the ravages the U.S.-led measures wrought on the Iraqi population.

Stahl asked,We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright responded, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”

Of course, it should be underscored that—unlike Israel’s post-Oct. 7 response to a massacre of its citizens on its sovereign territory—at this (pre-9/11) time, neither the U.S. homeland nor any U.S. resident had been harmed by the Iraqi regime.

‘A tremendous human toll … ’

In 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks in which almost 3,000 people died, a U.S.-led military coalition (in which the U.K. played a prominent role) invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban government and uproot Al-Qaeda. The Oct. 7 massacre was—in proportion to Israel’s population—almost 35 times the toll of the 9/11 atrocity; the equivalent of nearly 50,000 U.S. fatalities.

Although reliable figures regarding the toll the war inflicted on the civilian population of Afghanistan and neighboring countries are not easy to obtain, an estimate published by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs states, “The U.S. post-9/11 wars … have taken a tremendous human toll on those countries.” It presents a 2021 assessment that almost 47,000 Afghani civilians were killed, but adds a proviso that “several times … more have been killed as a reverberating effect of the wars,” including through “water loss, sewage and other infrastructural issues, and war-related disease.”

Thousands of civilians hit ‘with little accountability

U.S. strikes in which indisputably civilian targets were hit are a matter of record. During the 20-year war in Afghanistan, several weddings, parties and processions were struck by drones—inflicting hundreds of fatalities, including women and children. Such strikes took place not only in Afghanistan but in other countries, including neighboring Pakistan and more distant Iraq, Yemen, Libya and even Somalia.

Summing up the consequences of the U.S. strikes, Amnesty International USA stated: “In recent years, we have investigated civilian harm from U.S. air strikes and U.S.-led Coalition airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, and found that thousands of civilians have been killed or seriously injured by U.S. air strikes (both using drones and manned aircraft) with little accountability.”

Finally. the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition—launched on the dubious or at least unsubstantiated allegations that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction—wrought untold misery on millions of Iraqi civilians and a death toll upwards of 300,000 non-combatants.

Closing caveat

The current vogue of berating Israel is both unfounded and unfair. Lending this abuse support or sympathy will only serve to fan the flames of today’s smoldering embers of hatred that will eventually engulf those who propagate it.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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