Ever since Israel began its latest Gaza operation in an effort to stop the rocket fire directed against its civilians, calls for Israel to “show restraint” have become a mantra for both the Obama administration and the international community at large. Quite what would constitute both a “restrained” and an effective response goes completely unspecified by those making these calls. Failing any useful suggestions from the outside, Israel’s current strategy has actually shown a great deal of restraint in its effort to balance meeting military objectives with attempting to avoid civilians. So restrained, in fact, that it has inevitably placed limits on Israel’s ability to definitively prevent either rockets or the infiltration of terrorists by sea and tunnel. And this restraint comes with another still greater price for Israelis, a price that is being paid by the young men of Israel’s armed forces.
“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation! It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation!” an exasperated John Kerry was caught saying over an open mic this weekend. But the Secretary of State knows full well from America’s own military operations just how difficult it is to target guerrilla fighters operating in urban areas without also endangering civilians. What more is it that Kerry thinks Israel should be doing? Should Israel be dropping more warning leaflets and making more phone calls encouraging Gazans to flee the conflict zone? Should Israel be making more last-minute cancellations of strikes when it becomes apparent that civilians might be in the line of fire? Should Israel simply rule out altogether any target that Hamas has embedded in an urban area no matter how crucial hitting it is for stopping Hamas’s terror activities? It is meaningless for outsiders to talk of Israel’s right to defend its people in theory, only to then lambaste Israel’s every effort to do so in practice.
During Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead similar measures were taken to avoid civilian casualties and yet the use of airstrikes was evidently much heavier. This had two results. The first was that casualty figures among Gazans were significantly higher than has so far been the case this time around. And the second was that when the IDF undertook its ground operation in Gaza the number of Israeli soldiers killed by Palestinian militants was limited to six. This time, just a few days into the ground operation, the IDF casualty figure stands at twenty-eight. This is in part because Hamas is now armed with far more advanced (Iranian supplied) weaponry than ever before, as seen with its use of anti-tank mortars. Yet when it comes to fighting in such densely built-up areas as Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood, the Israelis have an impossibly difficult calculus to make between risking a greater loss of civilian life by using heavier airpower, or carrying out fewer airstrikes and putting Israeli troops in considerably greater danger.
This was the same moral conundrum that Israel faced in Jenin in 2002 during the Second Intifada. Israel could have spared losses on its own side by using heavy shelling of the areas militants were operating within. Yet the Israeli army prioritized sparing civilian lives and obliged its men to undergo the nightmare of house-to-house combat against the jihadists. They faced ambushes and booby-trapped buildings. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers lost their lives and seventy were wounded. Despite this concerted effort to show full regard for the highest humanitarian principles, Israel was defamed and accused of carrying out a massacre that under later investigation turned out to be a total fiction.
During the course of the current ground operation in Gaza, Israel has brought injured Islamist militants to Israel for medical treatment and has now established a field hospital for Palestinians in Gaza itself. In recent weeks Israel has agreed to every humanitarian cease-fire requested, always in the knowledge that it won’t be upheld by the other side. To suggest that Israel has some malicious disregard for civilian life, to suggest that it is perhaps “accidentally-on-purpose” choosing to kill a few extra Gazans here and there, is simply obscene. If Israel had some means of sparing every civilian and only striking combatants, do the John Kerrys of this world seriously imagine that they would withhold it? Yet some of Israel’s critics seem to operate under the impression that Israelis have almost magical powers in warfare and that, if only the mood took them, they could defeat Hamas without causing any significant harm to the surrounding population.
Under the circumstances Israel shows incredible restraint. The result is that it cannot stop the rockets or the terror tunnels by airstrikes alone. Instead it has to send in its young men. And because the Israelis insist on showing a concern for Gazan civilians—the like of which is an utter anathema to Hamas—they also withhold the kind of shelling that would make the work of their ground troops much easier. That comes at a most terrible price for the Israeli soldiers and their families.