Maybe It’s Time to Stop Assuming That Israel Is Capable of Surgical Military Strikes in Gaza

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Relatives of 5 Palestinians, killed by Israel, mourn over dead body of them at Jabalia Refugee Camp in Gaza City, Gaza on August 4, 2014. Israeli airstrikes hit a house, in which 5 Palestinians- including 1 child- were killed, at Jabalia Refugee Camp. (Photo by Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Early last Wednesday morning, Israeli troops shelled a school in the Gaza refugee camp of Jabaliya in which the United Nations had been operating a shelter, killing 21 Palestinians. This morning, Ben Hubbard and Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times published a lengthy reconstruction of the attack, concluding that Israeli troops fired indiscriminately into a very crowded refugee camp without taking much care either to distinguish Hamas attackers from civilians or to try to avoid designated U.N. humanitarian shelters. Israeli shells have now struck six U.N. shelters.

The United States, in response to a separate Israeli strike on a U.N. shelter in Rafah this weekend, issued a far harsher condemnation of Israel's conduct in the war than it had previously. America was "appalled" by the "disgraceful" attack, the State Department said, and noted that the coordinates of the school, "like all UN facilities in Gaza," had been "repeatedly communicated" to the Israeli military. The implication was that avoiding Palestinian casualties like this was a matter of Israeli will: "Israel must do more," the U.S. statement said. But the details of the incidents in Jabaliya and Rafah, along with several other deadly attacks on humanitarian installations, suggest a darker and more disturbing possibility. Perhaps the problem isn't simply that Israel won't do enough to avoid Palestinian casualties. Perhaps, in the chaotic reality of war, Israel's troops are often not capable of attacking military targets while avoiding civilian ones.

In last Wednesday's Jabaliya attack, as Hubbard and Rudoren recount, Israeli officials "have provided no explanation for the strike beyond saying that Palestinian militants were firing from 200 yards away." Within that vicinity, the scope of two football fields, civilians and refugees were subjected to a barrage that seemed to them indiscriminate. “It was clear that they were not aiming at a specific house, but fired lots and it fell where it fell,” the Times quoted a man named Abdel Latif al-Seifi, whose nearby home was struck, saying.

U.N. officials seemed to agree. A preliminary U.N. report on the shrapnel and unexploded shells that landed in the area suggested that this had likely been an artillery attack, not a precision strike. Weapons experts told the Times that munitions of this type would be considered effective if they hit "within 50 yards" of a target. Israeli military officials refused to confirm or deny that artillery was used in Jabaliya.

Israel has more precise munitions than this. But what matters is the kind of attacks that the IDF is actually launching against military targets in this chaotic war in a crowded place, not those that it theoretically has the capacity to launch. If Israel could have responded to rocket attacks from the vicinity of the shelter with precision weapons, surely it would have done so. Instead it used a spray of artillery.

The current campaign in Gaza, viewed through these reports from the ground, looks a great deal less precise and more scattershot than the IDF's reputation. It isn't simply the artillery attack that sprayed across Jabaliya — encompassing the area of the humanitarian shelter, a pharmacy, a mosque  — though that strike is alarming on its own. In Rafah, the IDF said it had been targeting three Palestinian militants riding past the school on a motorcycle. "A successful hit," the IDF spokesman said, but the shrapnel hit the motorcycle and then a crowd gathered outside the U.N. shelter — buying ice cream and food from vendors — and killed at least seven civilians, one of them a U.N. worker. On July 24, an Israeli mortar attack struck the yard of a U.N. shelter in a school in Beit Hanoun. The IDF said the yard was empty, but it knew the coordinates of the shelter, and 16 Palestinians civilians nearby died in the attack. There are other deadly incidents (explosions at Shifa Hospital and al-Shati refugee camp, among others) whose origins remain murkier.

Whether this military campaign can be plausibly defended hinges on these details, on whether Israel's soldiers can, in the moment of decision, meaningfully target militants without also killing civilians. Israel surely is not targeting the U.N. shelters. The political consequences (the United States, its great ally, is now taking a more harshly anti-Israel tone than it has in recent memory) are too great, especially given the benefits: Replying to one among thousands of rocket attacks, assassinating three Hamas militants. In Jabaliya, at least, and likely elsewhere, Israel seems to have been using weapons indiscriminately enough in locales crowded enough that when it is firing at militants it is by necessity firing into a civilian crowd.

Last week, the just war theorist and liberal Zionist Michael Walzer published a pained, moving defense and critique of Israel's military actions in Gaza. He argued that Israel must be allowed to defend itself against disproportionate attacks, but that the IDF must also take more "positive efforts" to limit civilian casualties in Gaza, even if it means asking its own soldiers to take more risks. The State Department's harshly worded statement after the Rafah attack followed a similar logical line.

But this all assumes that the Israeli military can in fact do better — that it can precisely control what its rocket strikes destroy in Gaza. The details of the attacks on U.N. shelters suggest this is somewhat less true than we often acknowledge.

The IDF are, in fact and in legend, one of the most adept militaries in modern history. For decades, Israel's supporters have burnished the image of a supremely competent IDF, and that image, more recently, has tended to focus on the precision with which Israel can make war. There was, for instance, the publicly released military footage of the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the military head of Hamas, who was killed by a pinpoint strike that took out his moving car. In another publicized incident, the Israeli navy destroyed a single floor of a building in Gaza, while leaving the rest of the building intact. Even in this conflict, the IDF has continued to promote itself as a surgical operator. But as the U.S. has learned at tragic cost over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, even the most modern and sophisticated militaries often can't adequately distinguish between combatants and civilians, and waging war on militants often means massacring innocents.

Perhaps Israel's military precision was always overhyped. Or perhaps this conflict is simply too messy, on the ground, to expect precision. Either way, it is impossible to describe the strikes in this conflict as surgical. They are everything but.

The moral consequences of this aren't simple. It certainly doesn't excuse Hamas from responsibility. Hamas's cynicism in this conflict about human life (both Israeli, in its explicit targeting of civilians, and Palestinian, in attacking Israel from places that expose many Gaza civilians to death from Israeli reprisals) has been vast, and startling to comprehend. But perhaps more consequential, the details of the IDF's strikes on the U.N. shelters may reveal that it is simply unrealistic to believe that Israel can fight this war in a manner that could be broadly called just — in which civilian deaths are not disproportionate. The State Department insisted Sunday, "Israel must do more." Of course they must. But what if Israel simply can't do enough?