from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Sick Math of the Gaza War

July 11, 2014

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Israeli prime minister Netanyahu is clearly reluctant to order a ground incursion into Gaza. This has disappointed some of his critics, who think it’s a sign of lack of courage, or of excessive wavering and hedging, or of thinking about domestic politics.

It is not; instead, it’s prudence. For one thing, Netanyahu knows he would be sending some Israeli soldiers to their deaths. But he also knows that in the sick math of the Gaza war, Israel would be blamed for "disproportionate" killing.

What that means is simple: too many Palestinians would die, and "not enough" Israelis--in the view of much of "world opinion." You would read that calculation in the New York Times and see it on the BBC. In "Operation Cast Lead" in 2008, about 1000-1400 Palestinians died, and 13 Israelis. In "Operation Pillar of Defense" in 2012 it was something like 150 to 6. As of now, in the current conflict there are no Israeli deaths and about 100 Palestinian deaths. Here’s how Time Magazine started its story:

The death toll among Palestinians scrambling under a relentless Israeli air assault in the Gaza Strip passed 80 Thursday and edged close to 100 Friday, including at least 14 children....Meanwhile, the barrage of rockets Gaza militants launched toward Israeli cities failed to produce a significant casualty on the third day of Israel’s offensive Thursday....The Israeli military said it destroyed more buildings in the first 36 hours of the current campaign than in all of Pillar of Defense. More people are dying too: the 80 fatalities reported so far is, once again, more than half the reported death toll from the longer bombing two years earlier.

Time then discussed exactly this phenomenon: when what "world opinion" sees as "too many" Palestinians dying and the balance is "too great" in Israel’s favor--that is, too many Palestinians and not enough Israelis being killed--the calls for a cease-fire will escalate. Moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas will be the order of the day--except for those who elevate Hamas, since after all it is killing fewer people!

Netanyahu knows this, because Israel has lived through it in all its past wars with the Palestinians. So does Hamas know it, and Hamas is brutal and vicious enough to hide behind civilians and seek civilian deaths. After all, this was the central theory of the Goldstone report: that Israel was killing civilians and was morally culpable--guilty of war crimes.  No doubt we’ll see the same arguments made this time, especially if Israel goes in on the ground.

As I write, the Hamas rockets are still flying--unguided missiles aimed toward populated areas in the hope of killing civilians. How long Israel can put off a ground incursion is anyone’s guess. But if that happens, here’s something you can count on: the twisted moralists will be back, comparing the numbers of casualties on both sides and accusing Israel of war crimes for the "disproportionate" use of force.

Remember this: in the Second World War, the United States suffered 416,000 combat deaths, or about 0.32 percent of the population. Germany suffered 4-5 million combat deaths, or about 5 percent of the population. The death ratio was 10 to 1. Did that make the war unjust? Does that mean the United States inflicted "disproportionate" numbers of casualties? Unfortunately the Israelis know "world opinion" will never be on their side in these arguments. Let’s just hope the United States is.

UPDATE: UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay has already proved this analysis right, even before an Israeli ground incursion. She said this today:

For its part, the Government of Israel must take all possible measures to ensure full respect for the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack, during the conduct of hostilities, as required by international humanitarian law. In all circumstances, they must avoid targeting civilians. However, we have received deeply disturbing reports that many of the civilian casualties, including of children, occurred as a result of strikes on homes. Such reports raise serious doubt about whether the Israeli strikes have been in accordance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

So, she is already accusing Israel of breaking international humanitarian law and human rights law. Perhaps since Goldstone has retired, she is filling in.