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Civilian Casualties and War

If you haven’t already done so, please read today’s lead story by Adam LeBor on the definition of war crimes. Also recommended is Jeff Goldberg’s latest post on the legitimacy of using civilian casualties as an indicator of their commission. … Read More

By / January 13, 2009

If you haven’t already done so, please read today’s lead story by Adam LeBor on the definition of war crimes. Also recommended is Jeff Goldberg’s latest post on the legitimacy of using civilian casualties as an indicator of their commission. Noting that so far, according to Palestinian estimates, 900 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, with roughly half of them civilians, Goldberg quotes Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, who offers the following perspective drawn from the siege of Mogadishu, where 80% of the Somali deaths caused by clashes with the U.S. military were civilian:

"If you feel the need to go to war against an enemy that is not as powerful as you are, one of the tactics of the weaker party is to hide among civilians, and use the global media to advertise the horror of the onslaught. People on the receiving end of the bombs greatly exaggerate the casualties and get photographers to take the most gruesome of pictures, and at the same time, the people in charge of the stronger power try to minimize the number of casualties. If you live in a democracy, then public opinion really matters, and reports of dead children swells the criticism of the war. If you live in a dictatorship, then you don’t care what the people think. Israel is a democracy and it cares about the way the rest of the world feels.  It gets hurt by killing civilians, so for moral and practical reasons, they’re trying very hard to avoid it." "I believe that culpability for these casualties is very much with Hamas. Take this leader, Nizar Rayyan, who was killed with many of his children. He knew he was a target. If I knew that I was a target, I sure as hell wouldn’t have my children near me. It’s a horrible and cynical choice he made. But if your enemy is a sophisticated manipulator of public opinion, then this is one of the many downsides of choosing to go to war. Israel knows that." "The parallel with Mogadishu is that gunmen in that battle hid behind walls of civilians and were aware of the restraint of the (Army) Rangers. These gunmen literally shot over the heads of civilians, or between their legs. They used women and children for this. It’s mind-boggling. Some of the Rangers shot civilians, some of them inadvertently and some of them advertently. They made the choice to shoot at crowds. When a ten-year-old is running at your vehicle with an AK-47, do you shoot the kid? Yes, you shoot the kid. You have to survive. When push comes to shove, faced with the horrible dilemma with a gunman facing you, yes, you shoot. It’s not just a choice about your own life. If you don’t shoot, you’re saying that your mission isn’t important, and the lives of your fellow soldiers aren’t important."

Steven Erlanger of the New York Times drew attention last Sunday to Gaza as a maze of "boobytraps and trickery," designed to kill IDF soliders while also maximizing Palestinian deaths for precisely the propaganda value Bowden indicates.  Hamas militants, in clear violation of the Law of Armed Conflict, have removed their uniforms and masqueraded as civilians, conceding through cynical action a point not grasped by certain feverish critics of Israel’s rules of engagement: namely that IDF soldiers do not purposefully murder Arab civilians in cold blood.  Hamas has also fired on Israeli targets from schools, hospitals, mosques and other non-military sites, and it’s stationed noncombatants as deflections against IAF bombardment, a stratagem which has led to at least one notable innovation in the field of what might be called non-weapon weaponry:

A new Israeli weapon, meanwhile, is tailored to the Hamas tactic of asking civilians to stand on the roofs of buildings so Israeli pilots will not bomb. The Israelis are countering with a missile designed, paradoxically, not to explode. They aim the missiles at empty areas of the roofs to frighten residents into leaving the buildings, a tactic called “a knock on the roof.”

Michael Totten, who knows something about Islamist guerrilla warfare, having lived in Lebanon during the 2006 war (which he opposed, incidentally), also directs us to a YouTube showing how Hamas rigged a zoo and school in Gaza with explosives:

 

 

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