Journal Essay

The Gaza War: Instrumental Civilian Suffering?

Andrew Flibbert

Spring 2011, Volume XVIII, Number 1

Dr. Flibbert is a professor of political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Israel’s stated aims in its military operation against Hamas in Gaza (December 2008-January 2009) included ending the rocket fire, halting weapons movements into the territory and reestablishing the broader credibility of Israeli deterrence. Why, then, did this use of force lead to thousands of Palestinian civilian casualties? Why were so many noncombatants harmed in the single most deadly episode in Palestinian-Israeli relations since 1948? It is puzzling when a democracy causes large-scale human suffering, for democracies are thought unlikely to fight one another in interstate war, and they are less likely to commit domestic human-rights violations. Was civilian suffering an accidental result of tactical military mistakes, an incidental by-product of close-quarters urban combat, or an instrumental aspect of the political-military strategies followed by the parties to the conflict? Does responsibility for civilian suffering rest with the soldiers, the generals or the politicians? And what are the theoretical and policy implications when democracies victimize civilians in significant numbers?

This article evaluates three arguments purporting to explain the civilian suffering produced by Operation Cast Lead. It seeks to categorize and elaborate the various explanations in order to discern their relative logic, merits and implications. It concludes that the evidence points in the direction of a political decision to permit civilian suffering for instrumental purposes. Israel’s democratic character did not preclude it from doing substantial harm to the civilian population of its national adversary, and the growing legalism in its security policy may have enhanced the extent of the damage it was willing to countenance by constructing a rationale for the casualties. The Hamas leadership, for its part, was willing to inflict suffering on Israeli civilians before, during and after the operation, and its provocations showed a marked willingness to sacrifice Palestinian civilian lives for potential political gain. Responsibility for civilian suffering lies primarily with political decision makers on both sides, albeit with heavily asymmetrical results that reflect differences in capabilities more than normative, institutional or international constraints.

Much is at stake with this issue, beyond explaining why democracies sometimes are responsible for significant civilian suffering. Most important, Operation Cast Lead may tell us something vital about the prospects for a bilaterally negotiated two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, along with the likely trajectory of relations without a profound change of course. Gaza was not just a particular set of events in and around the Gaza Strip. Israel and the Palestinians may be at a crossroads, as the prospects for a two-state solution fade rapidly and perhaps permanently.1 If both sides are harming each other’s noncombatants on an unprecedented scale, a negotiated settlement may soon be out of reach. When such acts are committed by a democracy or a political authority with considerable public support, they merit special attention.


The starting date for the conflict in Gaza is disputed but consequential, in that it frames and contextualizes the casualties and suffering on both sides.2 No doubt, all parties to the conflict felt security threats long before the start of Israel’s military operation on December 27, 2008. Israelis in villages and towns within 20 kilometers of Gaza had lived under a barrage of unguided rocket and mortar attacks that turned deadly in 2004 and expanded in 2006.3 Fatalities were limited, with two civilians killed in 2008 and a total of 15 from September 2000 to the start of Cast Lead, though not for lack of effort by Hamas and smaller organizations like Islamic Jihad.4 Together they fired 6,000-7,000 Qassam rockets into southern Israel after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.5 The political and psychological impact was no less important than the physical damage, as 15-second warnings from the Color Red alert system in towns like Sderot saved lives but frayed nerves.6 Worse yet, Israeli defense planners contended that Hamas, aided by Iran, was developing a more sophisticated rocket arsenal capable of striking larger cities like Ashkelon, Beer Sheva and Ashdod. Rocket ranges had increased from approximately 5 to 40 kilometers in a few short years, putting at risk nearly a million Israelis.7

For their part, the Palestinians in Gaza had suffered under a long and difficult blockade, instituted by Israel after Hamas won the elections of January 2006 and tightened after Hamas ousted the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in June 2007. Israel controlled Gaza’s borders and airspace, restricted its maritime activity, prohibited the use of its airport, and limited the movement of people in and out of the territory. The blockade exacted a high and widely shared price: Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants were deprived of adequate food, potable water, medicine and fuel, in addition to all manner of import and export opportunities.8 With the support of the United States and other international parties anxious about Hamas’s rise, the blockade created a political isolation and social fragility that exacerbated civilian suffering in the eventual war.

Israel and Hamas, via Egyptian intermediaries, had negotiated a six-month period of calm that started June 19, 2008, and was set to expire on December 19.9 No progress was made, however, in resolving the many outstanding issues, including the continued blockade, the two-year detention of abducted Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Gilad Shalit, Hamas’s ongoing effort to build a military capability, and uncertainty over wider international developments like the impact of the American presidential election and the growth of Iran’s nuclear program. Both sides prepared for further conflict, and conditions deteriorated on November 4, when the Israeli air force targeted six Hamas militants digging a tunnel near the border.10 Hamas responded by renewing rocket attacks, seemingly determined to break the blockade by coercive pressure and a demonstration of what Thomas Schelling called “the power to hurt.”11 With both domestic and international conditions conducive to a major offensive, Israel prepared to strike back in full and devastating form.

Operation Cast Lead began on December 27, 2008, achieving apparent tactical surprise with an opening aerial attack on a reported 100 targets in a four-minute period that left hundreds of casualties.12 The carefully planned campaign involved a complex combination of airstrikes, naval and artillery bombardment, and eventual ground fighting led by an armored incursion on January 3.13 From the air, the Israeli air force launched coordinated attacks using F-15 and F-16 aircraft, Apache helicopters and an array of drones firing precision munitions.14 Elements from the Golani, Givati and Paratrooper Brigades participated in ground operations, along with a reported five Armored Corps Brigades and numerous 62-ton unmanned D-9 armored bulldozers. The combined ground force of tens of thousands of troops moved from staging areas to the north and east of the territory, penetrating as far as the center of Gaza City.15 The scope and scale of the offensive made clear that it was not a surgical strike on specific targets so much as an unprecedented effort to change Israel’s strategic circumstances vis-à-vis its Gazan adversaries.

The results were exceptional in terms of civilian suffering, though disagreement clouded the exact number and nature of casualties. Palestinian sources claimed that 1,380 Gazans died in the three-week campaign, including hundreds of women and children, and that 5,380 were wounded.16 The IDF countered that 1,166 Palestinians were killed, identifying 709 of those as “Hamas terror operatives.”17 International and domestic NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem reported approximately 1,400 dead, a figure accepted by the high-profile, if vociferously contested, UN fact-finding mission led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone.18 By all accounts, three Israeli civilians were killed in the hostilities, along with 10 IDF personnel, four of the latter by friendly fire.19

The casualty figures were highly asymmetrical, leading one observer to describe the operation as “an eye for an eyelash.”20 Parts of Gaza lay in ruins, with damage and reconstruction costs in the billions. Some 3,000 homes reportedly were destroyed, and public infrastructure was damaged, including non-defense-related ministries, the Palestinian Legislative Council, schools, water-purification facilities and prisons. Several hundred businesses, factories and workshops were wrecked. Even 65,000 chickens on a farm reportedly were crushed in their coops by tanks and bulldozers, as agricultural land, orchards, fisheries and livestock were destroyed to facilitate the operation.21 Controversial deaths may have resulted from sniper and tank fire, the seemingly indiscriminate use of mortar rounds, the possible shooting of civilians waving white flags outside combat zones, and the use of white phosphorous artillery shells, DIME weapons, and anti-personnel “flechette” munitions in densely populated areas.22 There were documented cases of women, children and the elderly dying at home, in some cases while sleeping or seeking refuge from the fighting outside. Other purported noncombatant casualties included aid and medical workers tending to the wounded or collecting the dead, as well as deaths caused by delays in the treatment and transfer of the wounded.23

All told, Cast Lead’s civilian impact put the Israeli government on the defensive before the fighting ended. International critics called for an investigation into war crimes, amid forceful denials by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. While the outgoing Bush administration supported Israeli actions, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that she had spoken with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, “to convey, once again, our concern about the civilian deaths on both sides, but of course the numbers are huge on the Gaza side.”24 She referred to the casualties, however, as “collateral damage,” noted her sponsorship of U.S. House Resolution 34 supporting Israel, and echoed the argument that civilian suffering was unfortunate but incidental to a vital military response to an intolerable situation.25 This formulation became part of a hotly contested debate regarding the nature of Cast Lead and its fundamental purposes, with charges of genocide and anti-Semitism leveled by the opposing sides.


The literature on democracy and war addresses some of the issues raised by Cast Lead. Until recently, the conventional wisdom held that modern democracies are reluctant to inflict civilian casualties during armed conflict. International humanitarian law, by this logic, had come to prohibit the targeting of civilians, and violations of the norm of noncombatant immunity were presumed to be common only for non-democracies. In the post-Vietnam era, moreover, the political costs of civilian casualties appeared to be too high to ignore. Domestic democratic institutions made leaders more accountable, seemingly reducing the likelihood that democratically elected officials would inflict unnecessary casualties.26

Recent empirical work on civilian victimization, however, has contradicted these claims, presenting evidence that democracies are no more likely than other regime types to show self-restraint.27 Especially when engaged in asymmetric conflict, democracies appear to inflict as many civilian casualties as authoritarian regimes. What remains unclear, however, is precisely why this is so. Do democracies inflict civilian casualties because they tend to be more powerful militarily and economically, with greater technological capacity translating into more costly tactical accidents and errors? Are democracies in asymmetric conflicts more able to afford the political costs of military actions that result in unintended civilian suffering? Or do democracies sometimes create civilian suffering deliberately, as one element of broader strategic planning?

Operation Cast Lead is instructive for these and related questions. Foreign-policy analysts, military participants, public commentators and state officials have made three kinds of arguments regarding Israel’s use of force in Gaza. Summarized in Table One, these accounts might be called the accidental, the incidental and the instrumental. They make competing explanatory claims, each finding at least modest support in certain kinds of evidence. While the accidental and incidental accounts merit close attention and explain particular aspects of the operation and its results, the instrumental view is compelling in this case.


The first explanation focuses on the role of operational accidents and errors by IDF personnel in conducting the campaign, contending that a number of civilian noncombatants died in unfortunate circumstances that were regrettable to all. Accidental casualties might have been caused by many factors, including human error, intelligence failure, mechanical malfunction or even bad luck.28 Unauthorized, negligent acts by military personnel could be accommodated by this explanation, which situates primary responsibility at the level of the individual combatants, who could have legal or moral culpability if their negligence caused the outcome.29 Such an account is not without precedent in a world where military accidents and errors have cost lives in most other conflicts. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces in May 1999 is a prominent case, even if it remains disputed.30

Battle-related accidents and errors, moreover, tend to attract the attention of the media, NGOs and critical commentators. They acquire heightened significance because pointless, avoidable suffering and death can have an amplified political impact. From this perspective, while accidents may take lives unnecessarily and individuals might act inappropriately, no broader political purpose or meaning should be attributed to them because they are anomalous and unintended. Since it is hard to believe that any responsible military or political official would authorize, for example, the shooting or shelling of children, it is plausible to attribute their deaths to accident or error. As Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University and executive director of NGO Monitor declared in the Gaza case, “While tragic mistakes do happen, the evidence shows that the IDF is far from indifferent to civilian suffering.”31


In Operation Cast Lead, there is indeed strong evidence that at least some military errors occurred. As Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Dan Harel noted in April 2009 after an investigation into civilian casualties, the IDF “discovered a small number of mistakes, not many, among the dozens of incidents we investigated, and we have already examined them and learned lessons from them.”32 Firsthand testimony from one IDF soldier describes how an officer fired his weapon while leading a unit breaking into an enclosed yard, only to find that a family was hiding in the corner “out of sheer fear”; he had “mistakenly killed an innocent,” in this case an elderly man.33 The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit claims that Hamas’s strategy of drawing the IDF into urban warfare created conditions that were ripe for accidental casualties.34 Various human-rights reports detail the purportedly careless use of deadly force in Gaza, which might have caused inadvertent deaths, though whether these are best characterized as accidents is disputed.

It is undisputed, however, that four IDF soldiers were killed by “friendly fire” in the operation, lending credibility to the broader claim that accidents account for at least some portion of the noncombatant dead and wounded. Israel’s high-tech military operates in a closely integrated and complex system that is likely to generate accidental outcomes on occasion.35 Human error, moreover, is bound to occur in any armed conflict, no matter how well-trained or -equipped the belligerents. The circumstances facing individual soldiers in battle — fear, stress, sleep deprivation and other situational constraints on cognitive function — do not lend themselves to error-free action in any major military operation. This is especially so in a domain where the stakes are high and small actions like typing GPS coordinates or deciding whether to fire a weapon can have large consequences. More complicated still, the interactivity of human behavior can lead to the compounding of mistakes: noncombatants can run fearfully out of a safe hiding place, only to be shot by equally fearful troops mistaking them for attackers.

The central problem with this account, nonetheless, is that the number of likely accidental deaths is too low to explain the casualties and suffering in Cast Lead. At least 100 children died in Gaza, but no testimony, reporting or analysis contends that most of their deaths resulted from operational accident or error. The IDF itself does not claim that many accidental deaths occurred. The Spokesperson’s Unit has pointed to only a few instances when things went awry in the campaign, essentially eliminating this potential explanation for the larger outcome. The IDF takes pride in its skill and professionalism, making it difficult to admit mistakes, especially in a context where international recriminations might have led Israeli officials to refuse to acknowledge errors for fear of prosecution. But the numbers simply do not lend themselves to viewing accidents and errors as more than a residual explanation for a small percentage of deaths.


A second explanation is that the IDF could not have prevented all noncombatant civilian casualties, which were incidental to the successful completion of a critical military mission. Given the severity of the threat from Hamas, along with Gaza’s physical layout and population density, and the extent to which Hamas fighters were interspersed among the population, the operation’s core objectives were not achievable without air and ground action in close proximity to civilians. By this logic, civilian casualties were an unfortunate byproduct or a negative externality of the violent exchange between Hamas and Israeli military forces. They were regrettable but could not have been avoided. Both the government of Ehud Olmert and its successor under Benjamin Netanyahu took this position in responding to international criticism of the operation.36

Proponents of this argument begin with the prima facie assertion that the IDF does not intentionally target civilians. In Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s words after the war, “The IDF is the most moral army in the world, and it operated according to the highest ethical code.”37 Israeli military spokespersons describe the extraordinary efforts the IDF made to prevent civilian casualties. This included having Israel’s domestic security service make over 165,000 phone calls to the homes of targeted individuals to encourage noncombatants to leave, and dropping 2.25 million leaflets warning of imminent attacks.38 The IDF noted that it used innovative military tactics like “a knock on the roof” with low-explosive munitions to discourage noncombatants from remaining in or atop targeted buildings.39 Spokespersons asserted that to reduce civilian suffering, Israel permitted the regular movement of humanitarian relief supplies, instituted a “humanitarian pause” during the conflict, and made repeated tactical choices to forgo attacks that were certain to produce excessive civilian casualties, even if this endangered Israeli troops or undermined the operation’s strategic objectives.40

These efforts to minimize harm to noncombatants, however, could only do so much. To reconcile the fact of substantial civilian suffering in the campaign with the claim of great moral probity, Israeli officials tapped into a longstanding and powerful legal argument: that the human cost was justified by the military benefit. As a postwar White Paper from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs contends, “Where incidental damage to civilians or civilian property could not be avoided, the IDF made extraordinary efforts to ensure that it would not be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage in each instance and as a whole.”41 The White Paper delineated both the relevant general principles of international humanitarian law, including the obligations of discrimination and proportionality, and the IDF’s specific conduct of the war.42 It characterized the IDF’s rules of engagement as stringent constraints, while clarifying Israel’s position regarding the special circumstances its military faced in Gaza, i.e., the “complex” urban environment and “battlefield,” the unavoidable proximity of civilians, and Hamas’s “abuse of civilian sites as cover for military operations.”43

An integral part of the claim that the IDF abided by its international legal obligations was the contention that critics exaggerated the casualty figures for noncombatant civilians. Israeli officials maintained that many putative civilian casualties actually were Hamas paramilitary forces or police officers. As such, they were complicit in Hamas’s rule and part of its military mobilization structure, making them legitimate targets under Israel’s interpretation of international humanitarian law.44 Israeli spokespersons emphasized that the key international legal distinction is not between military personnel and civilians so much as between combatants and noncombatants. By recategorizing hundreds of civilians as combatants, they undermined the foundational assumption that excessive civilian casualties occurred in the first place.45 More broadly, this perspective notes that the Gaza operation targeted Hamas as a whole, including all associated individuals and institutions, even those not directly involved in military operations. As one senior military official declared, “There are many aspects of Hamas, and we are trying to hit the whole spectrum, because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel.”46 In this sense, the IDF treated all members of “the Hamas terror organization” as legitimate targets, including bureaucrats and political officials.

From the planning and implementation of Cast Lead to its aftermath, Israel’s civilian and military leaders were advised by a sophisticated legal division, the International Law Department of the Military Advocate General’s office, which had been given new powers and an enhanced role in operational matters after the deterioration of the peace process. It reportedly debated the legal merits and shortcomings of a range of controversial policies, though its purpose was to find creative and defensible ways for Israel to act as its leaders saw fit. Israel’s legal position enabled the IDF to claim to have killed and wounded mostly “terror operatives,” asserting a right — indeed, a duty — to target such individuals for their association with an organization that terrorizes Israeli civilians.47

The incidental characterization echoed international legal claims made by the United States and Israel itself in the previous decade, reframing civilian suffering in legally and politically defensible terms in relation to international humanitarian law and emerging arguments about terrorism. To do so, as Table One describes, this perspective located a majority of the casualties produced by Operation Cast Lead in Quadrant III. Sensitive to concerns about discrimination in international law, it asserted that many alleged noncombatants actually were combatants. In recognition of the obligation to take noncombatant lives only in proportion to the pursuit of essential military objectives, it asserted that the number of casualties was not as high as critics contended. Together these claims painted a different picture from what was found in characterizations of the operation that situated a majority of casualties in Quadrants I or II.

Flibbert Table One

Ultimately, the incidental position maintained that, even if noncombatant lives were lost at the hands of the IDF, moral and legal responsibility rested entirely with Hamas for provoking the conflict with its rocket attacks and for putting its own people in harm’s way. In light of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Hamas’s actions from this perspective all but relieved Israel of its obligations to Gazan noncombatants. In Michael Walzer’s rhetorical formulation, “Once the fighting begins, who is responsible for putting civilians in the line of fire?”48 And as Andy David, deputy spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted, “Hamas has taken the Gaza Strip population hostage. This is a hostage situation. They are firing at Israeli towns and cities, without any regard to any international law. By doing that, the whole responsibility for the humanitarian situation falls on Hamas.”49


Support for the incidental perspective is mixed. On the one hand, geography and power asymmetries did conspire to make civilian casualties likely in the event of war. Gaza is a densely populated territory, only twice the size of Washington, D.C.50 The initial air phase of the campaign included strikes against targets in urban areas containing most of the population, and this phase would have been difficult to complete without civilian bloodshed. In general, some degree of harm to civilians in wartime is common and legally defensible; other contemporary military conflicts have resulted in far greater damage to civilian populations caught in war zones. It is undisputed, moreover, that if Israel had wanted to inflict severe civilian casualties and suffering, it could have done so with vastly more loss of life than what occurred.

On the other hand, Israel’s efforts to limit noncombatant suffering appear measured and possibly even contrived. It is evident that Israel took formal steps to warn civilians of impending IDF strikes, including the leaflet drops, phone calls and “knock on the roof” tactic. Less clear is whether these actions were more than carefully constructed legal maneuvers designed primarily to deflect criticism after the war. Despite their vast numbers, the leaflets and calls reportedly were either too late or too vague to help many recipients.51 Even if they had been better executed, Defense Minister Ehud Barak could not have expected automated phone calls or air-dropped leaflets to fulfill Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law. Some noncombatants were sure to be unwilling or unable to leave their homes, and most Gazans had nowhere to go and no safe way to get anywhere.52 Leafleting itself has a checkered history in warfare: immediately after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in World War II, for example, the United States dropped warning leaflets over Nagasaki instructing Japanese civilians to evacuate, with no noticeable effect.53 If political and military planners devise an elaborate warning system that is unlikely to benefit its recipients much, the intended beneficiaries of the system may be the planners themselves.

Unintended or inadvertent casualties, moreover, are not the same as accidental ones, in the sense that not trying to kill civilians is not the same as trying to not kill them.54 The difference is crucial. Any reasonable military analysis would have predicted considerable civilian casualties if briefed in advance on the operational plans for Cast Lead. The use of air power, armor, artillery and heavy weapons to wage war in an urban area all but guarantees civilian casualties, especially in the absence of careful plans to minimize them. Such plans need to be devised, communicated and implemented from brigade and battalion levels downward. In this instance, there is little evidence of serious upper-echelon attention to minimizing dangers to noncombatants. The fact that no safe havens were available to most Gazans undermines the assertion that civilians had ample opportunity to get out of harm’s way.55 This constitutes evidence that the political decision to attack Hamas in Gaza was accompanied by an operational decision to use military means that would produce, entirely predictably, substantial noncombatant casualties and suffering.

While the legal arguments favoring an incidental interpretation are not wholly without merit, they are open to challenge. In terms of the war decision, it is not sufficient for a belligerent to declare that a war is just and vital, since both sides presumably can make such claims. Most international ethicists accept the right of states to national self-defense, as found in Article 51 of the UN Charter, but Israel did not declare war or refer to Cast Lead as such.56 Throughout history, moreover, states have invoked exigent circumstances and the imperatives of self-defense to rationalize military operations. A justified war might permit killing hundreds of noncombatants as a byproduct of hostilities if doing so were the cost of saving a country from imminent invasion, destruction or even foreign domination, but harming noncombatants for less than major national considerations is more difficult to justify. While Israel’s assertion of a sovereign right to collective self-defense is beyond question as a general principle, the specific application in this case may be problematic. The danger was not grave enough on a national level, even if it was growing and becoming politically intolerable. Israelis on the Gaza periphery certainly were being terrorized, but they were not being injured or dying in significant numbers. Israel’s citizens had a right to demand a response, but the response itself may have been disproportionate to the threat when measured in noncombatant lives and suffering.

Even if one accepts the war’s necessity, justified declarations of war are not the same as just conduct in war.57 As a long international legal tradition has established, the laws of war do not forbid killing noncombatants. Such killing, however, must be essential to the pursuit of important military objectives that cannot otherwise be achieved. More to the point, noncombatant casualties must be minimized, and this entails costs that are measurable (in combatant lives) and risks that are calculable (in approximations of probable losses). Combatants must take active measures to protect noncombatants as much as possible, regardless of the nationality or political loyalty of noncombatants or their proximity to combatants. In the case of Cast Lead, Israeli political and military planners appear to have been exceptionally unwilling to risk IDF personnel to protect Palestinian noncombatants.58 There is no evidence, for example, that they ordered regular scouting to determine if civilian areas had been evacuated, while there is evidence that they permitted direct fire at civilian objects, sometimes on the assumption that noncombatants had lost their protected status.59 Pro forma actions like telephone warnings or leaflets cannot substitute for risk in war, just as the use of precision-guided munitions does not relieve ethical obligations. No doubt, IDF personnel operating in Gaza would have been in serious danger, especially moving from house to house or in urban spaces. But this danger is inherent in the decision to use military force to address a security threat.

Finally, and relatedly, the evidence does not support the claim that high Palestinian noncombatant casualties and suffering are explained by low Israeli tolerance for sacrificing IDF lives in Gaza.60 Israel’s cultural preference for the sanctity of life, the personnel costs of its 2006 intervention in Lebanon, and the political difficulty of risking military lives in Gaza may have made force protection a high priority. Holding force protection to be paramount, however, is at odds with repeated Israeli statements of the grave and intolerable nature of the threat from Hamas rockets. Truly intolerable threats generate military casualty tolerance on the part of armed forces. Commanders in democracies are sensitive to spending troop lives gratuitously, but publics are more likely to accept military losses if the threat is severe and the prospects for success are high.61 If the threat were so extreme in this case, it would have been acceptable to risk, and even lose, IDF personnel in pursuit of a remedy — a calculation that Israel has made in the past. Either the danger Israel faced did not warrant large-scale military intervention (in which case, any casualties were unjustified because the operation itself was ill-conceived), or the danger did indeed require a concerted military response (in which case, a near-zero-casualty preference was inconsistent with the severity of the threat). Either way, force protection preferences do little to explain the outcome in Cast Lead.


A final explanation for civilian casualties and suffering in Gaza emphasizes their instrumentality. It holds that Israel’s political leaders authorized a major military campaign against Hamas, knowing that conducting it as conceptualized and planned would inflict a measured degree of harm on Palestinian noncombatants. This harm was designed to help achieve broader Israeli objectives that included weakening, destabilizing or even ending Hamas’s rule in the territory. Concern about rocket and mortar fire from Gaza was genuine, but secondary to unease about Hamas’s rising popularity and the eventual security challenge it might pose. Since Hamas had few allies and the international community already had tolerated a blockade of Gaza, the world was expected to accept the carefully constructed legal rationale for Cast Lead and acquiesce to a limited but still damaging military campaign.62

The instrumental perspective does not claim that the sole purpose of Operation Cast Lead was to harm civilians, or to do so with a callous indifference to human life. Nor does it presume that civilian suffering yielded political or strategic benefits to Israel after the war. It accepts the official Israeli claim that the IDF was instructed to target Hamas in order to reduce the number of attacks on southern Israel. But it interprets harm to Palestinian civilians as more purposefully inflicted than not. It holds that civilian suffering was integrated into the operation in carefully considered ways. And it contends that Israeli strategic thinking followed a Clausewitzian conception of war — and civilian suffering — as “not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.”63

The instrumental perspective takes seriously those expressions of Israeli political-military thinking that emphasize the value of disproportionate force in responding to threats and that legitimize the targeting of civilian objects as a means of influencing political leaders. Such thinking is found in the Dahiya doctrine, for example, invoked in October 2008 by Northern Command head Major General Gadi Eisenkot, and named after the Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut destroyed in the 2006 Lebanon war. As Eisenkot declared, in the context of renewed tensions with Hezbollah, “What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on…. We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there…. This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.”64 Other Israeli analysts and military figures have elaborated the doctrine and applied it prescriptively to Gaza.65

In the Gazan case, this argument starts from the assumption that Israeli leaders were concerned that a considerable portion of the Palestinian population had come to embrace a political organization bent on Israel’s destruction and allied with its most implacable regional adversaries. In Maoist guerrilla terms, officials were as worried about the sea as the fish swimming in it.66 For this reason, an important, if publicly unstated, objective of Cast Lead was to change the political environment in which Hamas operated by making it less welcoming and supportive. From this perspective, Israeli leaders expected at least some Palestinians to blame Hamas for their woes, with the operation further delegitimizing the Islamists. Israel’s public emphasis on Hamas’s having taken Gaza hostage reflected its frustration with the Gaza blockade’s failure to turn the population more fully against the organization.

Aside from affecting Gazan politics, the instrumental account also holds that civilian suffering was integrated into Cast Lead to help reestablish Israel’s deterrent capacity. With claims that the 2006 Lebanon war had undermined Israeli deterrence, Israel sought to convince its adversaries of its willingness to respond forcefully to serious challenges.67 In this sense, civilian suffering was designed to demonstrate to Hamas, among others, that Israel would not always confine itself to limited strikes against a handful of targets. The IDF did not want to reoccupy Gaza, given the cost and difficulty of doing so. Nor did it want to engage in a halting, ill-defined campaign like the Lebanon war.68 Punishing the Gazan population while striking at Hamas was a way of advancing this strategic objective, because attacks on the organization alone would not have had the desired political effect. Killing rocket squads and militants would not have created sufficient fear on the part of the Hamas leadership, and fear is the essential ingredient in deterrence.

Regional considerations are integral to the place of civilian suffering in this perspective. In recent years, especially since the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Israel’s strategic concern has shifted toward Iran and its growing capabilities and influence, whether through its nuclear program or through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas among the Palestinians. Cast Lead’s civilian suffering was expected to provoke Palestinian outrage, not with Israel alone but with the organization that had incurred Israel’s wrath and precipitated the offensive.69 Israeli decision makers may have calculated that, while Gazans would remain disaffected with Israel, a punishing attack would push them toward rejecting Hamas in favor of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, which has weaker ties to Iran. This punishment might have been deemed an acceptable human price for improving Israel’s position, both in Gaza and in relation to Iran.

Accordingly, as casualty-sensitive as Israel is, the instrumental account holds that the operation and its heavy civilian toll were not motivated solely or even centrally by the relatively limited number of casualties in the small Israeli towns and villages near Gaza. Hamas rockets were increasing in range, but they remained unguided and were only capable of doing damage as indiscriminate weapons of terror.70 The offensive could not have been designed to stop the rockets entirely because many of them were made in small workshops from locally available materials like metal lamp posts, cut into segments.71 Destroying these workshops could not have been expected to eliminate Hamas’s production capacity. Merely diminishing the number of attacks would not end the public sense of vulnerability because terrorism entails the threat, as much as the use, of violence. Israeli officials could not have expected to eliminate all rocket and mortar attacks, for even extraordinary efforts to prevent the smuggling of rocket-making material by sealing off Gaza had not succeeded. Military analysts after the war pointed to the ongoing “conundrum” of the threat and the “futility” of the operation in this regard.72

Unlike the suicide attacks in Israel from the 1990s onward, Hamas’s rockets were not amenable to unilateral defensive measures like a separation barrier or missile defense.73 The rockets did not threaten Israel’s national existence, but they emanated from an intractable political problem and demanded a response, not least because of the difficulty of tolerating attacks from a territory evacuated three years earlier amidst national acrimony. From the instrumental perspective, Gaza’s densely populated environment facilitated a response that would not have been available against a conventional military adversary. In this regard, the presence of noncombatants in Gaza’s urban areas proved as grimly beneficial to Israel as it was unavoidable, even welcome, to Hamas. If Israel and Hamas had fought in the open desert on Gaza’s periphery, Hamas paramilitaries would have been annihilated, but Israeli forces would not have been able to impose a cost on the civilian population. Given Hamas’s capacity to replenish its rocket-launching squads — over 19,000 Gazan males reach “militarily significant age” each year — Cast Lead in the desert would have been of little value to Israel as a strategic instrument of state policy.74


Evidence for the instrumental account is substantial if indirect. Since harming civilians intentionally and without justification can constitute a direct violation of international humanitarian law and would be politically problematic for Israel’s leadership, one cannot expect to find written or oral declarations of government plans to do so. Such plans may not have existed. Expressions of intent are difficult to evaluate, especially regarding actions that have multiple objectives. Ideational factors like strategic thought are even harder to assess, though the methodological challenges they create are irrelevant to their potential explanatory power. In fact, just as the Cold War had material, ideological and even personal dimensions, Gaza’s civilian suffering may have been overdetermined on multiple levels. Much of this account therefore hangs on an assessment of the relative weight of hard-to-measure intangibles like ideational variables and their impact on operational planning.

On balance, however, the instrumental case is more compelling than accounts portraying civilian casualties as largely accidental or incidental. In short, civilian suffering appears to have been more intended than not, more permitted than prevented, and more integrated into Israeli strategic plans than unexpected or undesired. Cast Lead seems to have delivered precisely what its planners and implementers wanted in operational terms. It is unlikely that Israeli leaders did not have a good sense for what would result from an IDF engagement with Hamas in Gaza. There is no evidence that the operation unfolded in ways that surprised or displeased its military architects or political authorizers. Unlike Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006, there are no indications of strong dissent at the cabinet level, even if opposition party members contended that the offensive did not go far enough and there was reported disagreement on an exit strategy.75 Cast Lead had overwhelming public support in Israel from start to finish, leaving the Olmert government fairly unconstrained in how it conducted it.76 The war’s aftermath saw few public Israeli expressions of regret for the damage done in Gaza or the lives lost, and approval remains high to this day.77 This supports the notion that Cast Lead achieved precisely what was intended.

There is at least anecdotal evidence, moreover, that the rules of engagement were sufficiently unconstrained to suggest intentionality regarding civilian suffering. Reports of encouragement to use massive firepower and to “go heavy” in the conflict, along with high-level decisions about what military assets to use, are consistent with a politically calculated impact on noncombatants.78 The earlier example of the elderly man killed by an IDF unit’s “wet entry” into a civilian area is minor but potentially instructive. Only the most permissive rules of engagement would allow combat units to fire their weapons while breaking into civilian residences, not at confirmed threats but at the possibility of such threats. This tactical approach appears to have been followed throughout the operation, making it more like a strategic choice.79 Since rules of engagement are supposed to be consistent with political intentions, when military forces are instructed to be aggressive with civilian populations, there likely is an underlying purpose for this aggressiveness, aside from force protection.80 For democracies, inadvertent noncombatant casualties extract a political cost, the minimization of which should be apparent in operational plans.81 Some of the noncombatant suffering in Cast Lead appears therefore to have resulted from permissive rules of engagement and standing orders, established in advance by Israel’s political leadership.

Further evidence relates to target selection in Cast Lead. Given its past successes with “targeted killings” directed at the Hamas leadership, and the High Court of Justice’s December 2006 ruling in favor of their legality, why did the operation target the entire organization throughout Gaza, including Hamas’s social-support network?82 Such wide-ranging attacks on social services suggest an effort to undermine Palestinian political support for Hamas. If Israeli decision makers had been motivated primarily by narrow military threats and concerns (rockets, militants, tunnels, training camps), they would have selected narrow military targets. If their definition of the problem were broader and included political elements (ideological contagion, votes for Hamas, acquiescence to Hamas rule, alliance with Iran), it might have seemed necessary to use military force to shape the political environment in Gaza. If decision makers believed that Gazan noncombatants played a major role in supporting Hamas, one might have expected civilians to be targeted in the absence of normative, political or military constraints. Normative constraints were undone by Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians; political constraints were minimized by the operation’s domestic popularity and international acquiescence; military constraints were essentially nonexistent.

More generally, the instrumental account is consistent with established patterns in Israel’s foreign policy, which informed observers have described as inclined toward “disproportionate responses to provocations.”83 Even the operation’s military code name, “Cast Lead,” evokes purposely general and indiscriminate targeting more than pinpoint strikes against a narrowly defined military adversary. To contemplate a revealing thought experiment, one might ask the counterfactual: If deadly force could have been used in Operation Cast Lead with (unachievable) precision — with no noncombatant casualties or suffering at all — would it have had the same strategic value to Israel? That is, if the IDF could have caused the instant demise of the 709 “terror operatives” it claims to have killed in the operation, would this have been preferable to the broadly destructive real-world outcome, given the foreseeable costs?84 Or would Israel have lost a perceived strategic advantage by not having been able to batter the Gazan civilian population while aiming at Hamas?

The instrumental view is also consistent with Israel’s longstanding collectively oriented approach to the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank. Its unquestionably serious efforts at a peaceful resolution to the conflict notwithstanding, Israel has used instruments of collective influence on the Palestinian population as a whole since 1967, including restrictive building and land-ownership laws, constraints on water access and rights, national-scale road and school closures, broadly directed economic leverage, and limits on political mobilization and expression.85 This is not surprising in the context of the dueling nationalisms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel does not face a subversive or revolutionary minority that can be controlled by standard law-enforcement methods. It faces a national adversary claiming, by the zero-sum logic of competitive state-building and nationalist contention, much the same physical and political space. While Israel for years has had a declaratory policy of non-negotiation with terrorists, it has long engaged in strategic interaction with its adversary through its treatment of Palestinian civilians. In this sense, the instrumental use of force against noncombatants represents a fairly modest extension of actions from a well-established repertoire of responses to Palestinian activism and militancy, more than a wholly novel approach.86

In fact, two weeks after the unilateral ceasefires that ended Cast Lead on January 18, 2009, Prime Minister Olmert threatened to use “disproportionate” force if Hamas rocket attacks continued.87 But with serious international accusations leveled against Israel, the Olmert government and its successor under Benjamin Netanyahu also followed a multi-pronged legal strategy to defend Israeli rights and actions. They invoked national-security imperatives to justify the war and its outcome. They deployed lawyers and diplomats to make plausible legal and political arguments explaining the operation and its results. They pointed to the specific measures taken before and during the hostilities to limit the number of civilian casualties. They took steps to shield their military personnel from possible international prosecution. And they issued statement after statement blaming Hamas for virtually every unfortunate outcome of the war.88

Indeed, there is a discomfiting symmetry in some of the rhetorical and operational moves made by Hamas and Israel in this episode. The actions of both lend themselves to instrumental interpretations, even if claims of moral equivalency are more problematic. It is entirely unlikely that the Israeli civilian casualties inflicted by Hamas in Cast Lead or beforehand were accidental. Hamas claimed that its rocket squads were attempting to target Israeli military forces, sometimes injuring civilians accidentally, but its weapons were too crude for any purely military use, and there is no reason to believe Hamas leaders did not know this. Likewise, an incidental account of Hamas actions is unconvincing, given the extent to which weapons of terror like unguided missiles have little effective military use. Hamas was not engaged in a conventional military struggle that produced unfortunate side effects, and it had no capacity to compel Israel in any direct sense.

Like its adversary, the Hamas leadership appears to have taken an instrumental approach to civilian suffering, using attacks on Israelis as a means of political leverage more than as an irrational and vindictive form of political expression. It calibrated and calculated and adjusted its efforts, deploying indiscriminate violence in fits and starts as part of a strategic effort to use what it had to get what it wanted.89 It launched offensives, declared ceasefires and lulls, escalated and de-escalated, and attempted both prisoner exchanges and high-stakes brinkmanship — going over the edge once or twice in seeming miscalculation of the Israeli response. Its rockets angered, polarized and demoralized Israelis, mobilized its own supporters, and publicized its claims worldwide. It had a few successes in its terror campaign against its nemesis, using violence and the threat of violence against noncombatants as a psychological strategy to pursue otherwise unattainable political ends. It experienced serious failure, too, quite literally bringing the house down on its head — and others’ — while building domestic support and attempting to remain relevant internationally. None of this strategic interaction is surprising, though the implications are significant.90


Recent empirical studies have challenged the claim that democracies are especially reluctant to inflict high civilian casualties in war, as earlier normative and institutional accounts suggested. A close analysis of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead provides detailed, case-specific support for this challenge, also illustrating how various kinds of evidence can shed light on the issue. Focusing the inquiry on civilian suffering rather than casualties alone, moreover, helps to shift attention from narrow partisan debates over the precise number of dead and wounded, and toward a broader consideration of the political dynamics of democracy and nationalist rivalry. While civilian suffering is antithetical to democratic principles and the evolving norms of war, democracies might be exceptional only in their efforts to deflect blame and minimize accountability by dismissing suffering as accidental or incidental. Assuring the legal defensibility of state actions might not constrain the instrumental use of force so much as help democratic leaders to plan military operations that do not put them at political risk. State responsibility under international law, after all, depends partly on intentionality, which must be established to trigger accountability.

In this particular case, while each of the major accounts of civilian suffering in Gaza has some validity, the evidence supports the instrumental explanation most fully. Accidents almost certainly took lives in Cast Lead. Incidental deaths due to the fog of war and the ambiguities of urban conflict likely did even greater damage. The question, in the end, is whether Israeli decision makers sought to make all Gazans suffer while targeting Hamas. The incidental and instrumental answers to this question differ in their respective characterizations of civilian suffering: “It can’t be helped,” and “It might be helpful.” Direct evidence for the latter claim is not abundant, but it appears that a heavy civilian toll could have been helped (at least somewhat, at a cost) and may have been seen as helpful (in the short term, politically, strategically). For this reason, the instrumental account is persuasive because it explains a complex array of facts, including the accidental and incidental casualties, with a simple but powerful contention: civilians suffered because Israeli leaders saw potential political value in it and therefore allowed it to happen.

Few would disagree that Israel’s decision makers set in motion military forces that they knew would make at least some mistakes and would have to operate in a “complex” urban environment. The larger result was predictable and, through foresight and legal creativity, partly if not entirely defensible, because accidents happen and incidental casualties are hard to avoid. More controversially, however, decision makers issued standing orders, deployed military assets, and established rules of engagement that minimized risks to an extraordinary degree for Israeli troops, doing great damage and taking Palestinian noncombatant lives in the process. This amounted to a decision to impose almost all of the war’s human costs on the other side, a position with which most Israelis were comfortable.91 As Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit declared in responding to a BBC interviewer’s emphasis on the disproportionate casualties, “That’s the idea of the operation. What do you think?”92

This particular “idea” — the strategic logic connecting the use of force in Cast Lead with Israel’s political objectives — is inconsistent, however, with international norms and Israeli commitments in this area. Targeting an adversary’s war fighters is expected, but the cornerstone of international humanitarian law remains the distinction between those who accept the burden of fighting and those who must be spared as much as possible.93 Israelis may feel understandable resentment at the obligation to sacrifice military lives to abide by their international commitments. They are free to renege on them, or to invoke the uniqueness of their circumstances to justify normative non-compliance, as they have in other security domains.94 But they cannot have it both ways. The norm of noncombatant immunity is partly what makes Hamas rocket attacks on Israel so reprehensible. Lamenting one set of civilian victims while creating another is defensible only in old-fashioned nationalist terms, an area where the hard shell of state sovereignty has been cracking for years in the face of a new international normative consensus.

Oddly enough, any ethical shortcoming in Operation Cast Lead may be heightened by Israel’s democratic political form. One cannot hold accountable only the soldiers, generals and politicians for choices made in a democracy, since voters bear ultimate responsibility for their government’s actions. Unlike Gazans, who had no opportunity to escape their circumstances, the Israeli voting public was deeply influential in shaping Cast Lead. National electoral politics appear to have affected the operation’s timing and aggressive form. Southern Israel’s rocket problem had become a political liability for the Kadima-led government, which, despite its seemingly successful prosecution of the war, lost power to a resurgent Likud party in postwar parliamentary elections on February 10.95 Most Israelis were understandably dismayed by the continued rocket fire on their country from Gaza, but by supporting a military response to an irreducibly political problem, they bear some responsibility for the results.

One might counter that Hamas’s success in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections implicated the Gazan population in its leaders’ decisions: Palestinians must take responsibility for their choices. Hamas won the PLC elections in Gaza by a narrow margin, however, defeating a divided Fatah opposition that was widely perceived as corrupt.96 As a political body, moreover, the PLC is responsible for public services, not foreign policy, and a majority of Palestinians remain open to a negotiated settlement.97 To hold all Gazans accountable so as to justify military intervention is untenable; they did not have remotely the same influence over Hamas as their Israeli counterparts do over their own government. Israeli strategic thinking here resembles the American approach to Iraq in the 1990s, which targeted the entire country with sanctions and punished the Iraqi people in the hope that they would overthrow Saddam. It was never clear how a population living under both dire economic circumstances and a brutal authoritarian regime was supposed to accomplish such a task.

What are the policy implications of this grim assessment? They depend entirely on whether one accepts the accidental, incidental or instrumental interpretation of Cast Lead. If civilians suffered unavoidably in a narrow and necessary military strike to defend a nation, this suffering might be the price of protecting an imperfect status quo until something better can be achieved. Echoing this view, the accidental and incidental accounts have few consequences that extend beyond Gaza and the operation itself. If, on the other hand, both Israelis and Palestinians are now using instrumental violence against each other’s civilian noncombatants — whether in the name of national defense or national liberation — intervening to avoid a downward spiral may be necessary. Even if the dynamic is not best described as “an eye for an eyelash,” reciprocity with noncombatant lives is not likely to lead in a constructive direction. A tit-for-tat strategy may help induce cooperation under some circumstances, but when the interaction leads to great suffering and resentment, cooperative possibilities are undermined.98 This is especially so if Israelis and Palestinians are unable to calibrate their strategic interaction to achieve a modus vivendi on the road to peace. Cast Lead may tell us that any such calibration has become untenable; too many red lines have been crossed.

The irony is that after nearly a century of conflict, dominant if diminishing majorities on both sides have worked out many of the details of a potential peace agreement. Despite the seeming intractability of final-status issues like Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and Jerusalem, a genuine two-state solution remains the only decent and remotely achievable resolution. The Gaza operation, however, is the first reliable indication that another outcome is more likely than not. It suggests that some uncertain combination of leadership failures, unfortunate timing, powerful veto players, domestic constraints, international indifference and ideological intransigence has undone the two parties’ capacities to achieve what otherwise might have been possible. Gaza may mark the true beginning of the end of the peace process, more than all the terrible violence of the post-Oslo era.

The prospects for peace today seem especially dim in light of other transformative developments, including the increasingly irreversible nature of West Bank settlement expansion, growing internal divisions in Israel, the fracturing of the Palestinian national movement between Hamas- and Fatah-led factions, and the crumbling of the Palestinian Authority itself. Together they suggest a sea change in the nature of the conflict, a shift from what, in another context, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called a tragedy of possibility to a tragedy of necessity.99 It is a move from missed opportunities and poor choices to impossible circumstances that can yield nothing but bitterness. Under such conditions, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could become all but irresolvable, as the possibilities of choice diminish in the face of overwhelming constraints. Unlike some structural conflicts in the world, however, Palestinians and Israelis retain the capacity to do each other great harm, as only two comparably sized, closely connected national populations can. With no viable military strategy available for either party to conquer and dominate the other on a permanent basis, each side is left with pointless assaults that mostly harm defenseless noncombatants. There is a seeming strategic rationale for doling out such punishment, but no permanent victory can be achieved.

It might therefore be time for a new approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one no longer dependent on incrementalism, trust-building and phased, legalistic efforts to improve relations and achieve peace.100 With both sides so indifferent to the suffering of the other, it may not be realistic to expect them to resolve this matter together over time, even with engaged mediation. Rejectionist and irredentist minorities are growing in the absence of progress toward peace, already having moved from occasional veto-power to a more central role in decision making that cannot easily be overcome by domestic majorities in the current circumstances. As it stands, significant Palestinian support for Hamas and its terror rockets has been matched by substantial Israeli support for Cast Lead and its civilian casualties. This tells us that national majorities on both sides are unwilling and, increasingly, unable to take the last steps toward peace on their own.

For this reason, the two national parties might need others to help disentangle them with greater insistence. Such an effort is within the capacity of an American-led international community that has an abiding interest in ending this longstanding struggle. As essential as it is for both sides to agree to the outcome, larger interests — regional stability, weapons-proliferation incentives, democratic development, human-rights protections — are at stake. This may be the last opportunity for the United States to step in and push the matter toward resolution before it is more permanently intractable. While the U.S.-brokered peace process has produced startlingly little, both sides now appear willing to use the most despicable weapons of warfare against each other, including terror rockets, suicide bombs, cluster munitions and today’s equivalent of napalm. In the absence of an initiative, we can expect further bloodshed and more use of force against noncombatants. Democracy itself is no real constraint.

1 See Giora Eiland, “Rethinking the Two-State Solution,” Policy Focus, No. 88, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 2008; and Efraim Inbar, “The Rise and Demise of the Two-State Paradigm,” Mideast Security and Policy Studies, No. 79, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, January 2009.

2 Civilian suffering includes inter alia casualties (dead, wounded), internal displacement, home destruction, and medical non-treatment.

3 Human Rights Watch, Rockets from Gaza: Harm to Civilians from Palestinian Armed Groups’ Rocket Attacks, August 2009; and Anthony Cordesman, “The ‘Gaza War’: A Strategic Analysis,” p. 20,

4 Israel, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Victims of Palestinian Violence and Terrorism since September 2000,” Palestinian+Violence+and+Terrorism+sinc.htm.

5 Cordesman, “The ‘Gaza War,’” op. cit., p. 13.

6 Mijal Grinberg and Yuval Azoulay, “5 Hurt in Ashkelon,” Haaretz, March 4, 2008.

7 “Statement to the UN Security Council by Ambassador Gabriela Shalev,” January 6, 2009; and Jim Zanotti, Carol Migdalovitz, et al., “Israel and Hamas: Conflict in Gaza (2008-2009),” Congressional Research Service, February 19, 2009, pp. 6-7.

8 See Sara Roy, “If Gaza falls…,” London Review of Books, January 1, 2009.

9 Hamas used the word tahdiyya (calming), not waqf itlaq al-nar (ceasefire) or hudna (truce).

10 Ethan Bronner, “Gaza Truce May be Revived by Necessity,” The New York Times, December 20, 2008; and “Statement to the United Nations Security Council by Ambassador Gabriela Shalev,” January 6, 2009.

11 Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (Yale University Press, 1966).

12 Barbara Opall-Rome, “In Gaza, Both Sides Reveal New Gear,” DefenseNews, January 5, 2009; and

13 Barak Ravid, “How the Gaza Offensive Came About,” Haaretz, February 6, 2009; and Sergio Catignani, “Variation on a Theme: Israel’s Operation Cast Lead and the Gaza Strip Missile Conundrum,” RUSI Journal (Royal United Services Institute), Vol. 154, No. 4, August 2009, pp. 66-73.

14 Barbara Opall-Rome, “Gaza War Is Battle Lab for Joint Combat Ops,” DefenseNews, May 11, 2009.

15 UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (Goldstone Report), September 15, 2009, p. 10.

16 Palestinian Ministry of Health, conveyed to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,

17 IDF Spokesperson, “Majority of Palestinians Killed in Operation Cast Lead: Terror Operatives,” March 26, 2009.

18 Goldstone Report, op. cit., September 15, 2009, p. 10.

19 B’Tselem (Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), More generally, see B’Tselem,; and Uppsala Conflict Data Program, UCDP Database:

20 Avi Shlaim, “How Israel Brought Gaza to the Brink of Humanitarian Catastrophe,” The Guardian, January 7, 2009.

21 Figures are from the Goldstone Report and Amnesty International, Operation “Cast Lead”: 22 Days of Death and Destruction (July 2009). Cf. Military Advocate General (MAG), State of Israel, Gaza Operation Investigations: Second Update (July 2010), “Investigations Concerning Damage to Private Property,” pp. 26-31, which refutes certain claims and invokes military necessity while acknowledging that “despite [IDF] efforts, the Gaza Operation resulted in numerous deaths and injuries to Palestinian civilians and considerable damage to private property” (p. 32).

22 Amnesty International, Fueling Conflict: Foreign Arms Suppliers to Israel/Gaza, February 23, 2009, pp. 15-16. Confirmation of white phosphorous and flechettes is from MAG report, pp. 21, 25-26.

23 Amnesty International, Operation “Cast Lead,” op. cit. p. 28; Al-Haq, Palestinian human rights NGO,; and Human Rights Watch, White Flag Deaths: Killings of Palestinian Civilians during Operation Cast Lead (August 2009).

24 “Transcript of Today’s Speaker Pelosi News Conference,” Reuters, January 15, 2009.

25 See; also Stephen Zunes, “The Gaza War, Congress and International Humanitarian Law,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 2010, pp. 68-81.

26 Prominent normative and institutional arguments include Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 4th ed. (Basic Books, 2006).

27 See, for example, Benjamin Valentino, Paul Huth and Sarah Croco, “Covenants without the Sword: International Law and the Protection of Civilians in Times of War,” World Politics, Vol. 58, No. 3, April 2006, pp. 339-77; Alexander B. Downes, Targeting Civilians in War (Cornell University Press, 2008); and Alexander B. Downes and Kathryn McNabb Cochran, “Targeting Civilians to Win? Assessing the Military Effectiveness of Civilian Victimization in Interstate War,” in Adria Lawrence and Erica Chenoweth, eds., Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict (MIT Press, 2010).

28 On accidents in complex systems, see Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents (Princeton University Press, 1999).

29 E.g., Isabel Kershner, “Israel Charges 2 Soldiers in Gaza War Case,” The New York Times, March 11, 2010.

30 The United States called the bombing a “tragic mistake” and “major error,”

31 Quoted in Nathan Jeffay, “Israeli Rights Groups Detail Allegations of Army Abuse in Gaza,” The Forward, January 15, 2009.

32 Isabel Kershner, “Israeli Military Says Actions Did Not Violate Laws of War,” The New York Times, April 22, 2009.

33 Breaking the Silence: Soldiers’ Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009 (Jerusalem: n.p., 2009).

34 See

35 On the integrated “air-land battle” doctrine in Gaza, see Barbara Opall-Rome’s interview, “Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, Commander, Israel Air & Space Force,” DefenseNews, August 3, 2009. In general, see Robert Jervis, System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life (Princeton University Press, 1997).

36 State of Israel, The Operation in Gaza: Factual and Legal Aspects (July 2009); and State of Israel, Gaza Operation Investigations: Second Update (July 2010).

37 15_Jul_2009.htm.

38 State of Israel, The Operation in Gaza, op. cit.; and Barbara Opall-Rome, “Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan,” op. cit.

39 IDF Spokesperson, “Conclusion of Investigations into Central Claims and Issues in Operation Cast Lead,” April 22, 2009.

40 “Statement to the UN Security Council by Ambassador Gabriela Shalev,” January 6, 2009. Details on the humanitarian “pause,” “corridor,” “respite” and “recess” are at


41 Emphasis added. State of Israel, The Operation in Gaza, op. cit.

42 Ibid. esp. pp. 82-85. On discrimination and proportionality, see Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (2006); Richard J. Regan, Just War: Principles and Cases (Catholic University Press, 1996); and Judith Gail Gardam, “Proportionality and Force in International Law,” American Journal of International Law, Vol. 87, No. 3, July 1993, pp. 391-413.

43 State of Israel, The Operation in Gaza, op. cit., pp. 55-76.

44 Yotam Feldman and Uri Blau, “Operation ‘Cast Lead’: How the Military Prosecution Gave the IDF Victory,” January 23, 2009; and Yoram Cohen and Jeffrey White, “Hamas in Combat: The Military Performance of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement,” Policy Focus (WINEP), No. 97, October 2009. Cohen was a deputy director of the Israel Security Agency.

45 See Avishai Margalit and Michael Walzer, “Israel: Civilians and Combatants,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 8, May 14, 2009, with rebuttals and surrebuttals: Mehahem Yaari, “Israel: The Code of Conduct,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 15, October 8, 2009; Asa Kasher and Major General Amos Yadlin, “Israel and the Rules of War: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 10, June 11, 2009; and Shlomo Avineri and Zeev Sternhell, “Israel: Civilians and Combatants: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 13, August 13, 2009.

46 Griff Witte and Sudarsan Raghavan, “‘All-Out War’ Declared on Hamas: Israel Expands List of Targets to Include Group’s Vast Support Network in Gaza,” The Washington Post, December 30, 2008.

47; and Feldman and Blau, “Operation ‘Cast Lead,’” op. cit.

48 Michael Walzer, “The Gaza War and Proportionality,” Dissent (online), January 8, 2009.

49 Quoted in Nathan Jeffay, “Israeli Rights Groups Detail Allegations of Army Abuse in Gaza,” The Forward, January 15, 2009.


51 Amnesty International, Operation “Cast Lead,” op. cit., p. 3.

52 Amnesty International, “No Safe Haven,” in Operation “Cast Lead,” ibid., pp. 47-53. On the “largely ineffective” civilian warnings in 2006 Lebanon, see William M. Arkin, Divining Victory: Airpower in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2007), p. 110.

53 The State Department’s Office of War Information oversaw the operation.

54 Margalit and Walzer (op. cit., p. 5) similarly claim, “But merely ‘not intending’ the civilian deaths, while knowing that they will occur, is not a position that can be vindicated by Israel’s condemnation of terrorism…. Its soldiers must… intend not to kill civilians, and that active intention can be made manifest only through the risks the soldiers themselves accept in order to reduce the risks to civilians.”

55 One IDF testimony mentioned “safe areas,” meaning areas free of IDF troops and therefore “safe” for targeting. The same soldier indicated that warnings had been issued to civilians to leave their homes, and this constituted the extent of their safe areas (Breaking the Silence, op. cit., Testimony 6, p. 19). The MAG report (op. cit., pp. 32-33) acknowledges this problem, claiming that “[t]he IDF has adopted important new written procedures and doctrine designed to enhance the protection of civilians in urban warfare… [including] safe havens for civilians to take refuge; evacuation routes for civilians to safely escape combat areas; medical treatment for civilians; methods for effectively communicating with and instructing the population; and provisions for humanitarian access during curfews, closures and limitations on movements.”

56 The IAF chief claimed, “…remember that Cast Lead was not a war. It was an operation with limited goals for a specific scenario.” See Barbara Opall-Rome, “Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan,” op. cit.

57 Jus ad bellum and jus in bello are discussed in Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, op. cit.

58 Margalit and Walzer reveal differences between the international consensus and some Israeli thinking about military ethics. For a critique of Israeli philosopher Asa Kasher’s “unjust threats,” see Israeli political scientist Michael L. Gross, Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 261-263.

59 Human Rights Watch, “Laws-of-War Violations by Israel,” in Turning a Blind Eye: Impunity for Laws-of-War Violations during the Gaza War, April 2010, pp. 17-21. The MAG response (op. cit., pp. 13-22) has a legalistic, alternative-pleadings quality, claiming that a) noncombatants actually were combatants; b) IDF forces were unaware of the presence of noncombatants; c) attacks did not violate discrimination and proportionality principles; d) inappropriate actions have been identified, with commanders “disciplined or sanctioned”; and e) new procedures have been created to prevent future “errors.”

60 This claim is implicit in Kasher and Yadlin’s response to Margalit and Walzer in “‘Israel and the Rules of War,’” New York Review of Books, op. cit.

61 In the American context, see Christopher Gelpi, Peter D. Feaver and Jason Reiflier, Paying the Human Costs of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflict (Princeton University Press, 2009).

62 Airpower’s limitations are addressed in Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Cornell University Press, 1996); and Downes and Cochran, “Targeting Civilians to Win?” in Lawrence and Chenoweth, eds., Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict (MIT Press, 2010).

63 Emphasis added. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, ed. and trans. (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), p. 99.

64 Quoted originally in Yedioth Ahronoth; the English-language version was in its affiliate, Ynetnews,,7340,L-3604893,00.html.

65 E.g., IDF Colonel (Res.) Gabriel Siboni writes, “This approach is applicable to the Gaza Strip as well…. The IDF’s primary goal must… [include leaving] the enemy floundering in expensive, long-term processes of reconstruction.” Siboni, “Disproportionate Force: Israel’s Concept of Response in Light of the Second Lebanon War,” INSS Insight No. 74 (October 2, 2008). On the other end of the political spectrum, see Uri Avnery, “The Boss Has Gone Mad,” Counterpunch, January 19, 2009. He describes, “a deadly doctrine that often appears in Israeli public discourse: in order to deter our enemies, we must behave like madmen, go on the rampage, kill and destroy mercilessly. In this war, this has become political and military dogma: only if we kill ‘them’ disproportionately… will they understand that it’s not worth it to mess with us.” See also the discussion of Eisenkot, Siboni and IDF Major General (Ret.) Giora Eiland in the Goldstone Report, op. cit., pp. 253-255. Eiland, head of Israel’s National Security Council from 2004-06, claimed Israel should inflict suffering on civilians in the next Lebanon war so that, “There will be no recurrence of the situation where Beirut residents… go to the beach and the cafes while Haifa residents sit in bomb shelters…. Serious damage to the Republic of Lebanon… and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people are consequences that can influence Hezbollah’s behavior more than anything else.” Emphasis added. Eiland, “The Third Lebanon War: Target Lebanon,” Strategic Assessment, Vol. 11, No. 2, November 2008, p. 16. See also the Israeli NGO, The Public Committee against Torture in Israel, No Second Thoughts: The Changes in the Israeli Defense Forces’ Combat Doctrine in Light of Operation ‘Cast Lead’” (November 2009).

66 Mao Tsetung, “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War,” December 1936, in Six Essays on Military Affairs (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1972). See also, David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency (Oxford University Press, 2010).


68 As retired Brigadier General Shlomo Brom said, “If you decided to take a military step, it should be a crushing one with massive force, and that was the air campaign.” Sudarsan Raghavan and Griff White, “Invasion Offers Benefits But Also Risks to Both Sides,” The Washington Post, January 4, 2009, p. A1.

69 As Major General Eiland declared after Cast Lead, “It is clear that another violent round bringing about another wave of destruction may make the population rise up against Hamas….” Eiland, “Operation Cast Lead: Civil-Military Processes and Results of the Campaign,” Strategic Assessment, Vol. 11, No. 4, February 2009, p. 2.

70 Congressional Research Service, “Israel and Hamas,” op. cit., pp. 8-12.

71 Personal observation, Sderot police station, July 2009.

72 Sergio Catignani, “Variation on a Theme,” pp. 66-73; Stuart A. Cohen, “The Futility of Operation Cast Lead,” BESA Center Perspectives Papers, No. 68, February 16, 2009.

73 Martin Sieff, “What’s Wrong with Israel’s Iron Dome ABM Defense System?” UPI, June 12, 2009,


75 Amos Harel and Aluf Benn, “Barak, Livni and Olmert at Loggerheads over Exit Strategy of Gaza Operation,” Haaretz, January 8, 2009.

76 Ethan Bronner, “Israelis United on Gaza War As Censure Rises Abroad,” The New York Times, January 13, 2009.

77 Prime Minister Olmert did address “the citizens of Gaza,” saying, “Your suffering is terrible.... I wish to convey my regret for the harming of uninvolved civilians, for the pain we caused them, for the suffering they and their families suffered as a result of the intolerable situation created by Hamas.” Quoted in State of Israel, The Operation in Gaza, January 17, 2009, para. 18.

78 Congressional Research Service, “Israel and Hamas,” op. cit., pp. 6-7; Breaking the Silence, ibid. Testimony 18, p. 46.

79 In another example, an IDF soldier testified, “We weren’t told outright to shoot anything we saw moving, but that was the implication. I asked, ‘What if I see a girl outside?’ She has no business being outside. ‘So what do I do?’ Check if she’s armed — then shoot her. I should shoot anyone who’s armed, but if I engage at close range then I understood from that briefing that it’s better to shoot first and ask questions later.” Breaking the Silence, Testimony 31, p. 72.

80 Maj. John Rawcliffe, Operational Law Handbook 2007,

81 American forces in Iraq operated under lax guidelines early on, leading to civilian casualties that may have worsened the insurgency. Human Rights Watch, Hearts and Minds: Post-War Civilian Deaths in Baghdad Caused by U.S. Forces, October 2003; and Colin H. Kahl, “In the Crossfire or the Crosshairs? Norms, Civilian Casualties, and U.S. Conduct in Iraq,” International Security, Vol. 32, No. 1, Summer 2007, pp. 7-46.

82 See HCJ 769/02 The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel v. The State of Israel,

83 Zeev Maoz, Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security and Foreign Policy (University of Michigan Press, 2006), p. 232.

84 IDF Spokesperson, Israel Defense Forces, “Majority of Palestinians Killed in Operation Cast Lead: Terror Operatives,” March 26, 2009.

85 Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 2nd ed. (Indiana University Press, 2009). For Gaza, see Amnesty International, “Gaza Blockade — Collective Punishment,” July 4, 2008.

86 Revisionist Zionist founder Zeev Jabotinsky sought “to erect an iron wall of Jewish military force.” Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (W.W. Norton, 2000), p. 14.

87 Isabel Kershner, “Israel Threatens ‘Disproportionate’ Response to Rockets,” The New York Times, February 1, 2009.

88 Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense websites: and

89 For a strategic approach to terrorism, see Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005). More broadly, see Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (Yale University Press, 1966), esp. Ch. 1, “The Diplomacy of Violence,” pp. 1-34.

90 For a critique of Hamas and Israeli responses to allegations of laws-of-war violations in Gaza, see Human Rights Watch, Turning a Blind Eye, April 2010.

91 As Uri Avnery wrote, “The smoke from Lebanon War II is hanging over the Gaza war. Everybody in Israel swore to learn its lessons. And the main lesson was: not to risk the life of even one single soldier. A war without casualties (on our side).” Avnery, “The Boss Has Gone Mad,” op. cit.

92 The interview with Jeremy Bowen is at

93 The most relevant treaties, including Geneva IV (1949) and Additional Protocol I (1977), are at

94 E.g., as a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) non-signatory.

95 Alliance politics also constrained Cast Lead, which Israel launched on December 27 (two days after an American holiday) and terminated on January 18 (two days before the end of the Bush administration).

96 Central Elections Commission – Palestine, “2006 PLC Elections Results,”

97 For current Palestinian views, see PSR Survey Research Unit, Poll No. 37, October 24, 2010,

98 As Robert Axelrod notes, “The trouble with TIT FOR TAT is that once a feud gets started, it can continue indefinitely…. For example, in Albania and the Middle East, a feud between families sometimes goes on for decades as one injury is repaid by another, and each retaliation is the start of the next cycle.” As he continues, “A better strategy might be to return only nine-tenths of a tit for a tat. This would help dampen the echoing of conflict and still provide an incentive to the other player not to try any gratuitous defections.” Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic Books, 1984), p. 138.

99 Citing Hegel and W.H. Auden, Schlesinger describes Christian tragedies of possibility and Greek tragedies of necessity, which evoke the feelings, respectively, of “What a pity it was this way, when it might have been otherwise” and “What a pity it had to be this way.” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “Origins of the Cold War,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 46, No. 1, October 1967, p. 52.

100 On the traditional American approach, see William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967, 3rd edition (University of California Press, 2005).