There’s no such thing as ‘precision’ when you’re bombing a city

Israel Palestine
Palestinians next to the remains of a 15-story building destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, May 13, 2021.

  • The recent fighting between Israel and Hamas put renewed attention on the destruction that Israeli attacks cause in Gaza.
  • Many states and armed groups use explosive violence in urban areas, and its effects are inherently indiscriminate.
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In the wake of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, Israel remains in the spotlight for the civilian casualties and widescale destruction of civilian areas caused by its attacks on Gaza.

Like most democracies whose air wars kill large numbers of civilians, Israel claims the moral high ground. Though acknowledging that the harm caused to civilians was regrettable, Israel argues that its armed forces took all feasible precautions to avoid it, while taking care to aim their strikes at Hamas military targets.

By contrast, according to Israel, Hamas was targeting Israeli civilians directly and intentionally.

But this kind of thinking misses an important point in the laws of war. The requirement to avoid indiscriminate attacks is more than just an injunction against targeting civilians directly.

It also prohibits attacks using weapons systems that would be incapable of being directed at a specific military objective in the particular context of their use, because their effects cannot be limited or are of a nature to strike military and civilian objects without distinction.

A woman whose home collapsed during between Israel and Hamas, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, May 21, 2021.

The rule prohibiting indiscriminate attacks, found in Article 51 of the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, was the basis for banning anti-personnel landmines, biological weapons and chemical weapons, among others.

But it is also a general principle meant to guide targeting practices even where specific weapons systems have not themselves been explicitly banned. And it is a rule worth considering as the international community assesses the actions of Israel in Gaza and the wider question of how to apply humanitarian law in urban spaces, in particular.

This conversation is already taking place in high-level forums. By coincidence, the Israel-Hamas conflict occurred just ahead of this week’s previously scheduled discussions at the United Nations on the organization’s Protection of Civilians mandate.

And as highlighted in a briefing to Security Council ambassadors on the issue by the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, Mark Lowcock, the choices of weapons systems and target contexts by belligerents have significant implications for protecting civilian lives during conflict.

What observers are rightly beginning to ask is whether it can ever be reasonably claimed that it is possible to use explosives discriminately in urban areas. That is because explosive weapons in densely populated urban areas simply cannot be used in a precision manner or be limited in the ways envisioned by the Geneva Conventions.

As Lowcock pointed out Tuesday, 90% of the people killed when explosive devices are used in urban settings are civilians, compared to 20% when they are used in rural areas. Even the most carefully conducted attacks using explosives have wide area effects.

Civilians are harmed by shrapnel, shock waves and fire. They are buried in rubble. Even if they survive, the destruction of civilian property and infrastructure claims lives.

Fire and smoke rise from buildings in Gaza City after strikes from Israel, May 18, 2021.

Israel and Hamas are hardly alone among states and nonstate actors in using or implicitly condoning the use of aerially delivered explosives as a weapon of war in ways that cause disproportionate civilian harm.

Russia’s BM-21 Grad is the most widely deployed multiple-rocket launch system in the world, capable of firing 40 rockets in 20 seconds over a wide area and designed to deliver fragmentation effects. The United States continues to reserve the right to use – and arm countries, like Saudi Arabia, that do use – cluster munitions, a form of weapon that releases bomblets over wide areas, causing numerous explosions in a way that cannot be aimed precisely at military targets.

On the other side, even among armed groups whose goal is to engage security forces rather than civilians, nonstate actors often use mortars and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in ways and under weather conditions that render them more inaccurate.

But even explosive weapons that are designed to be as precise as possible and are deployed with attention to minimizing casualties often harm nearby civilians or destroy infrastructure needed for civilian health and survival.

In Gaza, for example, hundreds of civilians were killed and over 1,000 injured by “precision” weapons Israel claimed were aimed solely at Hamas. Moreover, over 100,000 civilians were displaced, with massive damage to essential infrastructure including power-generating plants, water treatment facilities and hospitals.

As the Costs of War Project at Brown University documents, when one accounts for the civilian casualties from preventable disease, hunger, violence, displacement and loss of livelihoods, the toll becomes much higher than that reported during the initial conflict.

Palestinians carry the body of a child from the rubble of a house destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in a town in the northern Gaza Strip, May 13, 2021.

The inherently indiscriminate effects of explosive violence in urban areas, which is generally used by both sides of a conflict, has drawn attention in recent years from humanitarian disarmament NGOs.

According to the International Network on Explosive Weapons, a coalition of nearly 50 NGOs, the use of explosives in populated areas “causes broad, substantial and ongoing harm.” They base this observation on a decade of documentation of civilian war casualties in conflicts worldwide.

This week, Action on Armed Violence launched a new report that found, among other things, that 90% of the civilian casualties of explosive violence documented by the group were caused by airstrikes.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, is also seized of the dangers to civilians of explosives used in populated areas. In a recent blog symposium on urban warfare, the ICRC echoed these concerns and committed to “stepping up its engagement” in this area – a sign that the issue is becoming a more urgent priority on the international agenda.

With the UN Protection of Civilians discussions in New York coming to a close on May 28, humanitarian advocates hope that diplomats will continue to discuss measures to address this matter, including a Political Declaration committing to avoid using explosives in urban spaces.

These conversations are not happening because of Gaza. They are the result of normative currents that have been percolating in global civil society for a long time. But ironically, the timing of the Gaza conflict – coming just before the UN discussions began – may have become an illustrative impetus raising the salience of this issue on the global scene.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.

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What the IDF’s past special-ops missions reveal about how Israel takes out Hamas’ rockets and tunnels

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Fire and smoke rise from buildings after Israeli strikes in Gaza.

  • Fighting between Israel and Hamas has killed scores of people in recent days.
  • Israel has a number of secretive special-operations forces that engage in such fighting.
  • Those forces’ past operations indicate what kind of missions they might be doing now.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian militant group Hamas have clashed in Gaza and Israel for almost two weeks, with the death toll on both sides rising.

The violence – from riots and airstrikes to lynchings and rocket volleys – has reignited despite the signing of the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries and were seen as potentially reducing tensions in the region.

Behind the headlines and the spotlight, it’s Israel’s special-operations units – among the world’s finest – that are moving the pieces and enabling the IDF’s operations against Hamas.

A mission gone awry

A rocket launched from Gaza city controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, is intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome aerial defence system, on May 11, 2021
A rocket launched from Gaza City is intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system, May 11, 2021.

For good reason, most Israeli special-operations in Gaza, the West Bank, or East Jerusalem go unreported.

Indeed, publicity usually means that a mission went south, as was the case in 2018, when a botched covert operation in Gaza offered a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of Israeli special-operations missions against Hamas.

Commandos from the elite Mista’arvim, an Israeli counterterrorism unit that conducts covert operations in denied or non-permissive areas, were compromised in Gaza during a highly sensitive intelligence operation.

The Israeli commandos had been operating inside Gaza for weeks when their cover was blown.

According to reports, the Israelis were trying to map out the location of mid- and senior-level Hamas leaders and plant tracking devices, presumably for follow-on strikes or another future contingency, such as the current conflict.

At some point, the Israeli team was compromised, leading to a shootout in which the Israeli commandos killed six Hamas terrorists, including a senior member of the organization’s military wing, but lost the mission commander to friendly fire.

Deception and special operations

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Undercover Israeli security personnel detain Palestinians protesting US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, December 13, 2017.

The IDF certainly knows how to play the game, and its deception tactics are remarkable.

As the Iron Dome air-defense system intercepted thousands of Hamas’ rockets, the Israeli government suggested that a ground invasion of Gaza was imminent.

The IDF called up thousands of reservists while several brigades and equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, moved to the border.

That was enough for Hamas’ military leadership to send its thousands of fighters into the very extensive and well-developed underground tunnel complex the terrorist organization has been building.

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Members of Hamas’ military wing in a tunnel in the Shujaya neighborhood of Gaza City, August 17, 2014.

However, instead of sending in the infantry and armor, the IDF commenced a heavy bombing campaign, with hundreds of airstrikes against the tunnel complex, where thousands of Hamas fighters were waiting to fight.

Not only did the Israelis avoid a protracted and bloody urban-warfare campaign – arguably one of the most difficult types of military operations, as battles from Stalingrad to Fallujah have shown – but they also put Hamas on the spot for hiding in populated areas and thus intentionally increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties.

Such an operation couldn’t have been successful without the necessary intelligence.

In the years and months prior, commandos from the Mista’arvim or from the Sayeret Matkal, which is also known as General Staff Reconnaissance Unit 269 and is the IDF’s equivalent to the US Army’s Delta Force, would have worked with Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, to create target packages for Hamas’ leadership and its infrastructure.

People inspect a damaged car after Israeli warplanes hit coastland in Gaza City, Gaza on May 17, 2021.
People around a damaged car after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, May 17, 2021.

Special operators serving in the Mista’arvim usually have an Arab background – much of the Israeli population is ethnically Arab – and can blend in to a hostile environment like that in Gaza, Lebanon, or Syria.

They would have been responsible for operating within the denied territory or for recruiting assets within Hamas who could provide intelligence to the IDF.

Details about safe houses, headquarters, and underground tunnel entrances, exits, and vents would be categorized for future use.

“The Israelis are top-notch, easily among the top five special-operations communities in the world. Although we work and have operated more closely with the Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, and Canadians, we do work with the Israelis quite often and have a reasonably close relationship with them,” a former Delta Force operator told Insider.

Underground fighting

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An Israeli soldier at the entrance to a tunnel built by Hamas from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, August 4, 2014.

The Israelis are certainly not the first ones to deal with complex underground tunnels that are meant to avoid enemy airpower.

During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong constructed hundreds of miles of tunnels alongside the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which snaked through North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to supply the insurgency in South Vietnam.

“The NVA had tunnels and underground facilities in Laos. We had teams that ran into air vents from underground structures. They could smell food cooking.” John Stryker Meyer, a former Special Forces operator who served in the covert Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), told Insider.

Eldon Bargewell, a highly regarded MACV-SOG and Delta Force operator, “chased an NVA into a tunnel that was an NVA underground structure of some sort and was shot in the chest by the enemy,” added Meyer, author of “Across the Fence,” which details covert operations during the Vietnam War.

“So the NVA/VC had tunnel structures, like at Marble Mountain, where SOG’s Command & Control North had caves under it,” which US special operators visited years later, Meyer said, referring an area near a US airfield south of Da Nang in South Vietnam.

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Israel’s Iron Dome has been put to the test in more ways than one amid intense fighting with Palestinian militants

israel iron dome gaza rockets
Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors, left, rise in response to rockets fired from northern Gaza, May 14, 2021.

  • Israel’s primary defense against Hamas rockets is the Iron Dome system.
  • Around 4,000 rockets were fired at Israel over a period of just 10 days, according to the IDF.
  • In addition to rockets, Iron Dome has also intercepted drones in combat for the first time.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Israel’s skies are defended by Iron Dome, an air-defense system that has been put to the test in the current conflict with Palestinian militant groups by not only unusually heavy rocket fire but also other threats it has never faced in combat before.

The Israel Defense Force reports that over a period of just 10 days, Hamas and other Palestinian militant forces in Gaza have fired 4,000 Qassam rockets at Israel.

For comparison, over the course of the intense 50-day conflict in 2014, 4,881 rockets were fired, according to UN investigators.

The IDF says that Iron Dome has successfully intercepted roughly 90% of the incoming rockets considered potential threats.

In a first for the system, Iron Dome has also intercepted unmanned aerial vehicles in combat. Iron Dome has so far intercepted five Hamas drones since the fighting started earlier this month, the IDF told Insider.

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Iron Dome intercepts rockets from Gaza over the city of Ashkelon, Israel, May 5, 2019.

Israel’s Iron Dome is a short-range air-defense system designed to intercept rockets, artillery, and mortars. The system has been in use since 2011 and has helped reduce casualties from rocket attacks against Israeli cities.

The air-defense system was developed by Israeli defense firms Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries and is part of a tiered defense system including other assets like Arrow and Patriot batteries.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense announced in March the completion of upgrades to Iron Dome that would allow it to defend against a more diverse collection of aerial threats.

During the upgrade process, the defense system was tested against a variety of threats including rockets, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Iron Dome is designed to eliminate aerial threats at ranges out to a little over 40 miles in any weather conditions. Each Iron Dome battery consists of three to four launchers, each carrying 20 highly maneuverable Tamir interceptors, and a battlefield radar.

Israel has at least 10 batteries deployed around the country. There may be more, as there were plans to deploy 15 batteries.

While the system is extremely effective, “there is no hermetic solution,” Avi Mayer, a former IDF spokesman, told Insider recently.

“There may indeed be a situation in which these systems are overwhelmed,” he said. “We certainly hope we don’t reach that point, but I think that if we reach that point, it would be extraordinarily dangerous, not only for Israel, but for Palestinians as well.”

iron dome israel gaza palestine rockets
Streaks of light are seen Iron Dome intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, May 12, 2021

“What people don’t understand is that the Iron Dome system not only spares Israeli lives, but many Palestinian lives as well,” he said, suggesting that Israel can show more restraint because most incoming rockets are not making it through.

The IDF declined to comment on how Iron Dome affects the military’s strategic thinking, but IDF spokeswoman Capt. Libby Weiss told Insider that she thought that “we would be in a very different conflict” if Israel didn’t have Iron Dome.

“We are, of course, extremely grateful that it exists,” Mayer said. “We can only shudder to think about how many lives would have been lost if it didn’t.”

Iron Dome Israel
An Iron Dome launcher fires to intercept a rocket from Gaza Strip, in the coastal city of Ashkelon, July 5, 2014.

Ian Williams, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Insider that “the hope” with Iron Dome is that it will have a stabilizing affect.

“If you can alleviate the pressure from the rocket attacks through missile defense, it allows more space for diplomacy. It allows Israel to not send in troops so early. It slows the need for Israel to retaliate,” he said.

“The flip side of the coin is you can say that Iron Dome allows Israel to be much more aggressive because they can withstand Hamas rocket attacks,” Williams added, telling Insider that “it is hard to prove” which is the case.

Some of the rockets launched at Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have made it through Israel’s impressive defenses, with some rockets scoring direct hits on civilian centers.

In response to one recent strike on a neighborhood, the IDF stated that it “will not let this terror go unanswered.”

Fire and smoke rise over in Gaza City after Israeli strikes, May 18, 2021.

Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes on targets in Gaza since the fighting began, resulting in both combatant and civilian casualties.

Scenes of destruction within Gaza coupled with the reports of civilian casualties recall the horrors of the 2014 Gaza War in which more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed. More than half were civilians.

An IDF spokeswoman previously told Insider that “when it comes to our practices in the strip, we are obviously very concerned about the impact on the civilian population within Gaza.”

The challenge, she explained, is that Hamas and other Palestinian militant forces operate in and around civilian infrastructure in a densely populated area, making it difficult for Israeli forces to target Hamas and ensure its own defense without occasionally negatively affecting civilians.

Al-Sharouk tower is surrounded by fire and smoke as it collapses during an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, May 12, 2021.

International pressure is mounting as the death toll grows, with calls for a ceasefire becoming more frequent.

In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, President Joe Biden said that he “expected a significant de-escalation” and a move forward “on the path to a ceasefire,” according to a White House readout of the call.

In a subsequent statement, Netanyahu said that while he appreciates “the support of the American president,” but he is “determined to continue this operation until its aim is met,” with the aim being the return of “calm and security” to Israel.

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UN says at least 58,000 Palestinians have been internally displaced and made homeless in Gaza after a week of Israeli airstrikes

Palestinians inspect damaged building after airstrikes by Israeli army hit buildings in Gaza City, Gaza on May 17, 2021.
Palestinians inspect damaged building after airstrikes by Israeli army hit buildings in Gaza City, Gaza on May 17, 2021.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 58,000 Palestinians have been internally displaced within Gaza due to a week of Israeli airstrikes aimed at the Gaza Strip.

OCHA has said many of those now-homeless Palestinians are seeking refuge in United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East schools, and called on Israel to open Gaza’s crossings to allow humanitarian aid and basic resources into the area.

Israel’s weeklong bombardment of Gaza has killed at least 212 Palestinians, including at least 63 children, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Twelve Israelis, including two children, have been killed by rockets launched by the militant group Hamas that controls Gaza.

Israel says it is targeting Hamas militant leaders in the Gaza Strip. However, human rights groups have said that the bombing campaign has destroyed homes and hospitals. On Monday, Amnesty International said the Israeli attacks on residential buildings “may amount to war crimes.”

Hamas, over recent weeks, has launched thousands of rockets into southern Israel, at least 90% of which have been intercepted by its Iron Dome defense system.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signaled the Israeli Defense Forces will continue their current campaign in Gaza, despite urgent calls for a ceasefire.

One Israeli airstrike on Sunday destroyed a building that housed the offices of media organizations like the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. The Israeli military claimed there was a Hamas presence inside the building, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken confirmed the US was given intel about the building but asked Israel for further information.

The Associated Press pushed back against the assertion, asking Israel to offer evidence and saying staff, “narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life.”

The US President Joe Biden spoke in Dearborn, Michigan, on Tuesday, the hometown of Democratic, Palestinian-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and offered prayers for her family in the West Bank.

Tlaib and top Democrats in the US have continued to pressure the Biden administration to forcefully call for a ceasefire, as he finds himself at odds with many in his own party who are pushing for him to take a more forceful approach to end the conflict.

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Biden’s refusal to criticize Israel killing civilians undermines his pledge to prioritize human rights

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden arrives at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Detroit, Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

  • Progressives and rights groups are calling out Biden over his response to Israel.
  • Biden has refrained from criticizing Israel over its approach to renewed fighting with Hamas.
  • Critics say Biden’s approach undermines his pledge to prioritize human rights.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

President Joe Biden has refused to explicitly criticize Israel as it’s pummeled Gaza with airstrikes over the past week – killing dozens of Palestinian civilians in the process – and rights groups and some Democrats in Congress say it undermines his pledge to have a foreign policy centered on human rights.

Biden’s approach to the renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas over the past week has not marked a major departure from how past US presidents responded to flare ups in the Middle East conflict. The president has repeatedly touted Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas attacks, while ripping into the Palestinian militant group for firing rockets toward civilian areas in Israel. Twelve people in Israel, including two children, have been killed by the rocket attacks, per CBS News.

But Biden hasn’t publicly criticized Israel over its tactics in the fighting or the mounting number of civilian deaths in Gaza amid the offensive, which has included at least 61 children, according to Gaza Health Ministry. The death toll in Gaza has risen to at least 212 people.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International on Monday said Israel’s strikes exhibit “shocking disregard” for Palestinian civilians and “may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity.”

Palestinians carry the body of a child found in the rubble of a house belonging to the Al-Tanani family, that was destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in town of Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, May 13, 2021.

Biden has also refrained from addressing the central, underlying causes of the violence – Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, the economy-crippling blockade on Gaza, and efforts to push Palestinians out of East Jerusalem. Top rights groups have characterized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a form of apartheid.

As Biden maintains the status quo, the conversation on Israel in Washington has changed. Democratic lawmakers are increasingly calling for a more nuanced approach to US-Israel relations. And critics are pushing Biden break from the tradition of unwavering support and call out Israel when it oversteps.

“That’s what’s missing in the statements coming from President Biden: You don’t hear the words ‘Palestinians deserve human rights, that Palestinians deserve to exist, that Palestinians deserve to live freely, that children need to be safe and secure,'” Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib said during an MSNBC interview on Monday.

“It’s shocking, the hypocrisy of us saying that we need to be stewards of human rights, except for Palestinians,” Tlaib went on to say. “I hope that my president, our president, speaks up and speaks truth about what exactly is happening, because I know they know.”

Tlaib accused Biden of “taking orders” from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stating that the president’s “passive language” is “enabling” Israel’s government. She urged Biden to “speak out against this violence in a very aggressive way that holds Netanyahu and his leadership accountable.”

After an Israeli airstrike on Saturday leveled a Gaza building that housed offices for media outlets like Associated Press and Al Jazeera, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unloaded on Biden. The New York Democrat excoriated the Biden administration for delaying the push a ceasefire and blocking the UN Security Council from releasing a statement that would condemn Israel over the Gaza offensive.

“This is happening with the support of the United States. I don’t care how any spokesperson tries to spin this. The US vetoed the UN call for ceasefire,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet. “If the Biden admin can’t stand up to an ally, who can it stand up to? How can they credibly claim to stand for human rights?”

Louis Charbonneau, the UN representative for Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy that the Biden administration “undermines its credibility” by not holding Israel to “the same international standard as everyone else.”

“U.S. credibility depends on an even-handed application of human rights rules and international law for everyone, allies and enemies alike,” Charbonneau said.

Human rights groups are also raising concerns about Biden’s uncritical approach, particularly due to the fact the US gives Israel roughly $3.8 billion in military aid per year.

“Hard for the Biden administration to claim a foreign policy grounded in human rights if it makes no effort to monitor how Israeli security forces are using US weapons and assistance,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet last week.

Heavy smoke and fire surround Al-Sharouk tower as it collapses during an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City on May 12, 2021.

Democratic lawmakers and rights groups have also raised alarm about the Biden administration’s plans to move forward with a $735 million sale of smart bombs (precision-guided weapons) to Israel.

“Biden’s approval of a $735 million offensive arms sale to Israel in the midst of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law perpetrated by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups directly undermines his commitment to upholding human rights around the world,” Philippe Nassif, the advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. “By supplying weapons that could be used to commit war crimes, the U.S. government is taking the risk of further fueling attacks against civilians and seeing more people killed or injured by U.S.-made weapons.”

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in a statement on Monday said it would be “appalling” for Biden to move ahead with the sale. “We should be standing unequivocally and consistently on the side of human rights,” Omar said.

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Israel and Hamas aren’t trying to end their war. They’re trying to look strong.

israel hamas palestine fighting
Israeli soldiers fire a 155 mm self-propelled howitzer toward the Gaza Strip, May 17, 2021.

  • Every few years, violence briefly erupts between Israel and Hamas and ends with a return the to the status quo.
  • Neither side has a vision of military resolution or a diplomatic solution, but they keep escalating in order to be seen as tougher than the other.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Israel and Hamas are locked in ever-escalating rounds of violence.

This is not new. Every few years, large-scale violence erupts for a few days or weeks and ends with a temporary ceasefire that essentially returns the situation to the same depressing status quo: The Gaza Strip besieged and devastated and the adjacent Israeli population in a constant fear of the next attack as well.

Though this is far from a symmetric conflict – Israel has vastly more military resources than Hamas – it is traumatic on both sides.

And neither side has a vision of either actual military resolution or a diplomatic solution to the impasse.

Israeli leaders know that pressing the offensive in Gaza will prolong the missile barrage on its towns and cities, including even Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, which in the past has not endured such ferocious rocket attacks. Hamas leaders know that the price the people of Gaza pay for their continued rocket launches is disproportionately high and rising.

So why keep escalating? Because the prize for each side is to be seen as tougher than the other. And there is no end to that contest.

Making the other side suffer

Palestinians carry the body of a child from the rubble of a house that was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on the town of Beit Lahiya, May 13, 2021.

The Gaza Strip is a tiny and densely populated strip of land by the Mediterranean Sea. Since 2007, Hamas, which Israel defines as a terrorist organization but most Palestinians regard as a legitimate political party, has been the de facto ruler of the area.

Also since that year, Israel has been blockading the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza, aimed across the border at Israel. The result has been an increasingly severe economic crisis, hunger and desperation in Gaza. Repeated rounds of violence did not fundamentally change this situation, and the current one is looking no different.

Israel’s main goal is to be seen as tough against its enemies, including Hamas. This isn’t done to achieve better lives for its Israeli citizens or even to advance national interests, but as a goal in and of itself, as demonstrated in a book Wendy Pearlman and I authored on the subject.

Despite the asymmetry of their forces, the mode of thinking is quite similar in the leadership of Hamas. That’s evident from the repeated rounds of violence that it initiates that result in no strategic achievement, but which enhance the prestige of Hamas as standing up to Israeli oppression.

And for both sides, reputation is not defined as showing resolve, resilience or perseverance. That could be accomplished by defensive means.

This boils down to a deadly calculus: The more the other side suffers, the better your reputation, no matter how much your side suffers as well.

Here’s how that works: An Israeli child is killed in a Hamas rocket attack on Sderot, just east of the Gaza Strip. Israeli rockets then pulverize a building in Beit Lahia a few miles away, killing four children from one family in the process.

Israel flattens a residential tower in the Gaza Strip. Hamas then increases the range and quantity of missiles launched toward central Israel.

And so it continues in a fatal tit-for-tat, with Israeli violence responding many times more intensely to each instance of Hamas violence.

Not rational

iron dome israel gaza palestine rockets
Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, seen from Ashkelon, Israel, May 12, 2021.

Scholars generally see a country’s attempts to establish a reputation for resolve as part of a rational action to deter attacks by its enemy.

So, if either Israel’s leaders or those of Hamas think that their action would prevent future attacks by the enemy, this ferocity might make sense – regardless of its morality. But, as is obvious, neither sides’ actions do.

When actual victory is impossible and when the two sides are reluctant to engage in meaningful negotiation, the escalation is meant, instead, to create “a picture of victory,” as Zvi Bar’el, a news analyst for Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described it on May 12, 2021.

On May 11, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared that the organization “achieved victory in the battle of Jerusalem,” referring to the conflict over eviction of Palestinians from their homes that started this round of conflagration. He said the organization has “set a new balance of power” against Israel.

Yet clearly, as Gaza is crumbling under the ferocity of Israel’s bombardments and Jerusalem remains firmly controlled by Israel, Hamas made no such achievements.

Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that the Israeli leadership’s goals were “to bring long-term peace, strengthen the moderate forces in the region and deprive Hamas of strategic capabilities.”

Yet Israel’s actions, like previous rounds of violence, only strengthen the political and military power of Hamas, as evidenced by its ability to target more of Israel’s territory than ever before, and over a longer time period than before.

Israel’s citizens, in cities from Beer-Sheva in the south to Tel Aviv, farther north, continue to face a barrage of missiles from Gaza. And as the carnage in Gaza increases, the diplomatic damage to Israel is increasing as well.

Playing to their audience

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A man is pulled from a destroyed house after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, May 16, 2021.

What could be the purpose of the Israeli and Hamas leaders’ actions?

Their picture of victory is targeted solely at domestic audiences. Both Israel and Hamas frequently use the term “deterrence” when justifying their action against each other.

But their practice is not actually a rational attempt to sway the opponent’s action. It is not a rational attempt to make their own public more secure. It does not, therefore, serve to enhance deterrence. Convincing your own public that you have been victorious does not affect the degree to which your enemy is deterred.

For Israel, such distortion of the understanding of dynamics of deterrence is not new. Israel’s retaliation policy started in the 1950s as a fairly rational attempt at deterring enemies from threatening Israeli interests.

But then it became a “strategic culture,” or a habitual reaction to any attack on Israeli soil, whether that retaliation is likely to yield positive results or not.

Israeli bombing of Lebanese infrastructure during the 2006 war serves as a good example. As in that war, Israel attempts today in Gaza to achieve a picture of victory rather than concrete aims. And Hamas wants to achieve the same goal.

So long as the two sides are each aiming to convince their own public of their superiority, military ingenuity and resolve, and as long as the leaders on both sides do not care about the consequences of their actions, their citizens and the rest of the world – watching in horror – should expect no progress.

[Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.]

Boaz Atzili, Associate Professor of International Relations, American University School of International Service

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Blinken says he hasn’t seen evidence to back up Israel’s justification for bombing Gaza building that housed AP and Al Jazeera offices

Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

  • Blinken said he hasn’t seen evidence to back up Israel’s bombing of a Gaza building housing AP and Al Jazeera offices.
  • “I have not seen any information provided,” Blinken said on Monday.
  • Israel said Hamas operated out of the building, making it a legitimate target.
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Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday said he hasn’t seen any evidence to bolster Israel’s justification for leveling a Gaza building that housed offices for prominent media outlets like the Associated Press and Al Jazeera.

The Israeli government said Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, was operating out of the building that was destroyed on Saturday.

“I have not seen any information provided,” Blinken said at a press conference in Denmark.

“Shortly after the strike we did request additional details regarding the justification for it,” Blinken said, adding that he “will leave it to others to characterize if any information has been shared and our assessment of that information.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday was asked on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” whether it had shared intelligence with the US to back up the government’s claims. “Well, we pass it through the intelligence services to our people, to those people,” Netanyahu said.

“We share with our American friends all that intelligence and here’s the intelligence we had, it’s about Palestinian terrorist – an intelligence office for the Palestinian terrorist organization housed in that building that plots and organizes the terror attacks against Israeli civilians. So it’s a perfectly legitimate target,” Netanyahu said. “And I can tell you that we took every precaution to make sure that there were no civilian injuries. In fact, no deaths, no injuries whatsoever.”

Netanyahu made these remarks in response to a question on a Jerusalem Post story that citing anonymous officials in Jerusalem stating that the US had been shown a “smoking gun” proving Hamas worked out of the building.

The Israeli leader underscored that Hamas has fired “thousands of rockets and missiles on our cities.”

Israel has responded to the rocket attacks by pummeling Gaza with airstrikes. The Israeli military has also said that its Iron Dome defense system has intercepted a majority of the rockets fired at Israel.

Since the fighting began last week, at least 200 people in Gaza have been killed, including 59 children and 35 women, BBC News reported, citing Gaza’s health ministry. At least 10 people in Israel, including two children, have been killed by the rocket attacks.

Amid the escalating violence, Israel has leveled multiple large buildings with strikes – including the tower housing AP and Al Jazeera offices on Saturday. Human rights groups have warned that Israel’s tactic of leveling buildings where civilians are located could constitute war crimes.

AP and Al Jazeera denounced Israel over the strike and called for an independent investigation.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt in a statement said the publication was “shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP’s bureau and other news organizations in Gaza.”

Pruitt added, “The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today.”

Sally Buzbee, AP’s executive editor, on Sunday told CNN that AP never had an indication that Hamas was operating out of the building.

“We are in a conflict situation,” said Buzbee. “We do not take sides in that conflict. We heard Israelis say they have evidence; we don’t know what that evidence is.”

“We think it’s appropriate at this point for there to be an independent look at what happened yesterday – an independent investigation,” she added.

Dr Mostefa Souag, acting director general of Al Jazeera Media Network, in a statement called on the international community to “hold Israel accountable for its deliberate targeting of journalists and the media institutions.”

“The aim of this heinous crime is to silence the media and to hide the untold carnage and suffering of the people of Gaza,” Souag went on to say.

Joel Simon, executive director of Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement said Saturday’s strike “on a building long known by Israel to house international media raises the specter that the Israel Defense Forces is deliberately targeting media facilities in order to disrupt coverage of the human suffering in Gaza.”

“We demand that the Israeli government provide a detailed and documented justification for this military attack on a civilian facility given the possible violation of international humanitarian law,” Simon added. “Journalists have an obligation and duty to cover unfolding events in Gaza and it would be illegal for the IDF to use military means to prevent it.”

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Israel’s bombing of Gaza apartment buildings could be a war crime, human rights groups warn

Heavy smoke and fire surround Al-Sharouk tower as it collapses during an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City on May 12, 2021.

  • Israel’s deliberate leveling of apartment buildings could amount to war crimes, rights groups say.
  • “Israel has a deplorable record of carrying out unlawful attacks,” Amnesty International said.
  • These groups say Hamas rocket attacks on civilian areas in Israel could also constitute war crimes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Israeli airstrikes have targeted and leveled multiple apartment buildings in Gaza amid escalating violence in the region this week, and top human rights groups have warned these actions could amount to war crimes.

“Deliberate targeting of civilian objects and extensive, unjustified destruction of property are war crimes. Destroying entire multi-storey homes making tens of families homeless amounts to collective punishment of the Palestinian population and is a breach of international law,” Saleh Higazi, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

“Even if part of a building is being used for military purposes Israeli authorities have an obligation to choose means and methods of attack that would minimize risks posed to civilians and their property,” Higazi added.

Similarly, B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, in a tweet said, “Bombing apartment towers, which are not a military target and leaving dozens of families homeless, is a war crime.”

Israel has said it’s targeting buildings where Hamas stores weapons or has offices, and the Israeli military said it warned civilians to evacuate before the strikes.

Israel Palestine
Palestinians walk next to the remains of a destroyed 15 story building after being hit by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Thursday, May 13, 2021.

As the Israeli military has pummeled Gaza with airstrikes, Hamas has fired rockets toward civilian areas in Israel. Rights groups also say this can qualify as a war crime.

“Firing rockets which cannot be accurately aimed into populated areas can amount to a war crime and endangers civilian lives on both sides of the Israel/Gaza border,” Higazi said.

Higazi said the recent escalation of violence is “reminiscent of horrific hostilities from 2008, 2012, and 2014 where civilians bore the brunt of the suffering, with massive death and destruction in Gaza, which has been under an illegal blockade amounting to collective punishment since 2007.” She added that both Israeli and Palestinian forces have “carried out war crimes and other violations with impunity.”

“Israel has a deplorable record of carrying out unlawful attacks in Gaza killing and injuring civilians including war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Higazi said. “Palestinian armed groups have also committed violations of international humanitarian law with impunity.”

Human Rights Watch, which has referred to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a form of apartheid, has also condemned Hamas for firing rockets at areas populated by civilians.

“Such attacks, which are inherently indiscriminate and endanger the lives, homes, and properties of tens of thousands of Israeli civilians, are war crimes,” Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Tuesday. Shakir also warned that Israel’s targeting of residential buildings in Gaza, where more than 2 million Palestinians live in a relatively small strip of territory, is “likely to harm civilians.”

Human Rights Watch has documented the “regular use of excessive and vastly disproportionate force by Israeli authorities,” including “deliberately targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure,” over the past decade and even before, Shakir said.

The International Criminal Court’s top prosecutor has warned that she’s monitoring the fighting for potential war crimes, on top of continuing investigations into possible violations from previous flare-ups in the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militant groups.

As of Thursday evening, the death toll from this week’s fighting has risen to 103 Palestinians, including 27 children and 11 women, Gaza’s health ministry said, per the Associated Press. Seven Israelis have been killed, including a soldier and child.

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The Gaza Strip will run out of fuel for its electric generators by Sunday, an Israeli official told the Times of Israel

Palestinians walk near destroyed building in Gaza
Palestinians walk next to the remains of a destroyed 15 story building after being hit by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Thursday, May 13, 2021.

The Gaza Strip will soon go without electricity as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues to escalate, an Israeli defense official told reporters.

Gaza is expected to run out of fuel to power its electric generators by Sunday, the official – speaking anonymously – told The Times of Israel.

The area is down to only 5 hours of electricity per day since fighting began this week. Gaza had about 16 hours of electricity per day before the violence, the Times reported.

The fuel shortage is due in part to Israel shutting down the border crossing at Kerem Shalom. Hamas militants also struck electrical lines heading into Gaza during one of its rocket attacks, the Israeli official said.

Violence between Israelis and Palestinians was reignited last week amid religious tensions in Jerusalem and efforts to remove Palestinians from parts of the city. Hamas started firing rockets from Gaza on Monday, and Israel has responded with airstrikes of their own.

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Israeli airstrikes killed 26 people in Gaza as rocket attacks left 2 dead in Israel. Tensions have been rising over violent clashes in Jerusalem.

Smoke rises after an Israeli forces strike in Gaza in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 11, 2021.
Smoke rises after an Israeli forces strike in Gaza in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

  • Israeli airstrikes killed 26 people in Gaza as rocket attacks left 2 dead in Israel this week.
  • Rockets and air strikes were preceded by clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces.
  • Clashes included confrontations at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza early Tuesday, hitting a pair of high-rise buildings believed to be housing militants, as Hamas and other armed groups bombarded southern Israel with hundreds of rockets. The escalation was sparked by weeks of tensions in contested Jerusalem.

Since sundown Monday, 26 Palestinians – including nine children and a woman- were killed in Gaza, most by airstrikes, Gaza health officials said. The Israeli military said at least 16 of the dead were militants.

During the same period, Gaza militants fired hundreds of rockets toward Israel, killing two Israeli civilians and wounding 10 others.

In a further sign of rising tensions, Israel signaled it is widening its military campaign. The military said it is sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border and the defense minister ordered the mobilization of 5,000 reserve soldiers.

But, in a potentially positive sign, officials said Egypt was working on brokering a cease-fire.

The barrage of rockets and airstrikes was preceded by hours of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, including dramatic confrontations at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a sacred site to both Jews and Muslims.

The current violence, like previous rounds, including the last intifada, or uprising, has been fueled by conflicting claims over Jerusalem, which is at the emotional core of the long conflict.

In a sign of widening unrest, hundreds of residents of Arab communities across Israel staged overnight demonstrations – denouncing the recent actions of Israeli security forces against Palestinians. It was one of the largest protests by Palestinian citizens in Israel in recent years.

Egypt is trying to broker a truce, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says fighting could “continue for some time.”

Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, have fought three wars and numerous skirmishes since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Recent rounds of fighting have usually ended after a few days, often helped by behind-the-scenes mediation by Qatar, Egypt and others.

An Egyptian official confirmed that the country was trying to broker a truce. But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive diplomacy, said Israeli actions in Jerusalem had complicated those efforts. A Palestinian security official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the cease-fire efforts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has warned that fighting could “continue for some time.”

A Palestinian man inspects the rubble of a mechanic garage destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 11, 2021.
A Palestinian man inspects the rubble of a mechanic garage destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters Tuesday that the military was in “the early stages” of strikes against Gaza targets that it had planned well in advance.

Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes, including two that targeted high-rise buildings where militants were believed to be hiding.

At midday, an airstrike hit an apartment building in central Gaza City. Local media said an unknown number of militants had been killed. But the force of the blast sent terrified residents, including women and children who were barefoot, running into the streets.

An earlier airstrike struck a high-rise elsewhere in Gaza City as people were conducting dawn prayers, residents said. Health officials said two men and a woman were killed. The woman’s 19-year-old disabled son was among the dead, residents said.

Ashraf al-Kidra, spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry, said a total of 26 people were killed and 122 people were wounded. He said Israel’s “relentless assault” was overwhelming the health care system, which has been struggling with a COVID-19 outbreak.

Mourners chant Islamic slogans while they carry the body of Amira Soboh, and her 19-year-old disabled son Abdelrahman, who were killed in Israeli airstrikes at their apartment building, during their funeral at the Shati refugee camp, in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 11, 2021.
Mourners chant Islamic slogans while they carry the body of Amira Soboh, and her 19-year-old disabled son Abdelrahman, who were killed in Israeli airstrikes at their apartment building, during their funeral at the Shati refugee camp, in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.

Netanyahu has been acting as a caretaker prime minister since an inconclusive parliamentary election in March. He tried and failed to form a coalition government with his hard-line and ultra-Orthodox allies, and the task was handed to his political rivals last week.

One of those rivals is Israel’s defense minister, who is overseeing the Gaza campaign. It was not clear whether the toxic political atmosphere is spilling over into military decision-making, though the rival camps have unanimously expressed support for striking Hamas hard.

The support of an Arab-backed party with Islamist roots is key for the anti-Netanyahu bloc’s efforts. But the current tensions might deter the party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, from joining a coalition for now. The sides have three more weeks to reach a deal.

The violence has coincided with Ramadan

The current round of violence in Jerusalem coincided with the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in mid-April.

Critics say heavy-handed police measures helped stoke nightly unrest, including a decision to temporarily seal off a popular gathering spot where Palestinian residents would meet after evening prayers. Another flashpoint was the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians are under treat of eviction by Jewish settlers.

Over the weekend, confrontations erupted at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is the third holiest site of Islam and the holiest site in Judaism.

Rockets are launched by Palestinian militants into Israel, in Gaza May 10, 2021
Rockets are launched by Palestinian militants into Israel, in Gaza May 10, 2021.

Over several days, Israel police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs. At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque.

On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza, setting off air raid sirens as far as Jerusalem. From there on, the escalation was rapid.

Conricus, the army spokesman, said Gaza militants fired more than 250 rockets at Israel, with about one-third falling short and landing in Gaza.

The army said that a rocket landed a direct hit on a seven-story apartment block in the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon. Israeli paramedic service Magen David Adom said it treated six people injured in the rocket strike. Two were hospitalized in moderate condition.

Later, a second building in the city of Ashdod was hit, lightly wounding four people, Israeli police said.

Conricus said the military hit 130 targets in Gaza, including two tunnels militants were digging under the border with Israel. He said Israel’s new system of concrete barriers and electronic sensors, intended to thwart tunnel digging, has proven effective.

He did not address Gaza Health Ministry reports about the dead children.

In Gaza, most of the deaths were attributed to airstrikes. However, seven of the deaths were members of a single family, including three children, who died in an explosion in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. It was not clear if the blast was caused by an Israeli airstrike or errant rocket.

Dozens of mourners took part in the funeral of Hussein Hamad, an 11-year-old boy who was among the dead.

More than 100 Gazans were wounded in the airstrikes, the Health Ministry said.

Israel struck scores of Gaza homes in its 2014 war with Hamas, arguing it was aiming at militants, but also killing many civilians. The practice drew broad international condemnation at the time.

Israel’s tactics in Jerusalem have drawn angry reactions from the Muslim world.

Regional power house Saudi Arabia on Monday condemned in the strongest terms what it said were attacks by Israeli forces against the sanctity of Al-Aqsa and the safety of its worshippers. The Saudi Foreign Ministry called Tuesday on the international community to hold Israeli forces responsible for any escalation.


Laub reported from the West Bank. Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed from Jerusalem.

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