Although we at Rabbis for Human Rights are not experts in security, we believe the need for public discussion around complicated, challenging security questions is of the utmost importance, especially now when lives could be at stake. “Proportionality” is one of these difficult grey areas, and the loss of civilian life during the targeting of hidden rockets — when those rockets may quickly be replaced — is one example of a moral quandary we believe must be addressed within public discourse.
Israeli artillery attacking Gaza, Israel-Gaza Border, 21.7.2014 PHOTO: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org
Even though we are not security experts, we are not exempt from asking questions about what is being done in our names. As a country we justify bombing civilian buildings in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, claiming that Hamas is hiding underneath them. But preliminary data implies that Air Force’s “hunt” for hidden rockets (which are not ready for immediate launch) will not stop rocket fire on Israeli civilians, while it continues to kill many innocents in Gaza.
The Hamas rocket stockpile hidden underneath bombarded civilian buildings is quickly replenished after each military operation, and is not substantially depleted, while masses of innocent Gazan civilians are killed during the hunt for the rockets, which has doubtful security value.
Strikes on hidden rocket sites make up a large proportion of total Air Force strikes in Gaza and are apparently responsible for a significant portion of the injury (and death) of noncombatant Gazans.
The size of the rocket inventory does not influence the number of rockets fired – a partial decrease in the inventory will not decrease the number of rocket launches in the short term, and in the long term the stockpile will be replenished, because only a miniscule portion of it is launched each day in a given time.
The principle of proportionality:
It is clear that during war, forces are permitted to strike military targets, and forbidden from intentionally attacking noncombatants. The difficulty arises, both according to international law and our moral code, when there is danger of harming civilians while attempting to strike a legitimate military target. Here, international law is a bit tangled with vague definitions of “proportionality” – does military benefit justify possible harm to noncombatants? The definition of benefit is quite relative, and we sometimes feel helpless and voiceless in the face of generals and security experts. However, nobody is exempt from asking these critical questions – with the necessary modesty – because, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a democratic society, there are a handful of guilty people, but we are all responsible.” This is the reason that the human rights organizations sent a letter to the Attorney General and the Military Advocate General asking them to examine in real time, while the current military operation is still taking place, those incidents that raised our concern that disproportionate harm is being caused. We are hopeful that, if it becomes clear that these concerns hold water, it will be possible during the current operation to change military conduct and save lives while the fighting continues.
The hunt for hidden rockets – a very partial solution for the very short term:
On the matter of hunting for rockets: A significant portion of the strikes in Gaza are against what the IDF Spokesperson calls “hidden launchers” or “hidden rockets” – rockets not ready for immediate launch towards Israel. For the most part, these actions strike residential buildings, which, according to intelligence information (which occasionally turns out to not be true – link in Hebrew), have rocket launchers in the building or beneath it. Despite Israeli claims of significant damage to Hamas’s rocket inventory, military and intelligence estimates claim that it is impossible to eliminate Hamas’s rocket launching capabilities with these kinds of strikes. Even according to the most optimistic scenarios, at the most, the goal is “severely harming their rocket launch and production capabilities,” according to Major General (res.) Amos Yadlin. Our history of similar operations, which is repeating itself once again, teaches that the rocket stockpile of terror organizations is quickly replenished [link in Hebrew], despite Israeli claims of success in reducing it. This is of course even more now that Hamas has the ability to produce rockets on its own [link in Hebrew]. Even Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin’s ambitious goals are to decrease Hamas’s abilities to rehabilitate their rocket system after the conclusion of the operation.
Here is another quote which makes this point clear: “I estimate that despite the closure of tunnels, they are somehow managing to transport things from Iran, but they also have not insignificant independent production capabilities,” explains Yiftah Shafir, from the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and head of the Middle Eastern Military Balance project, who also served for many years in Intelligence and in the Air Force, from which he was discharged as a Lieutenant Colonel. “It’s true that many of their factories have been destroyed, but they have significant independent production capabilities” (quoted in Shay Levi and Shimon Ifergan’s July 9, 2014 article in Mako – link in Hebrew).
During past operations, the IDF claimed that it eliminated the majority of Hamas or Hezbollah’s rocket inventory, but this inventory was replaced within a short time. For example, the military analyst Amir Rapaport wrote during Operation Pillar of Defense that the Fajr missiles had been “exhausted almost completely. Maybe completely” [link in Hebrew]. Apparently this was incorrect information, or if it was correct, the stock was easily replenished. Uri Dekel, also from the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), talks of, at the most, “limiting the process of rehabilitating and replenishing the rocket stockpile,” with Egyptian assistance.
From this we learn that bombarding buildings suspected of hiding rockets and launchers will not significantly harm the rocket inventory (or will do so only in the short term), but it will without a doubt kill many innocent residents of the Gaza Strip.
The high proportion of strikes on hidden rockets out of total IDF Air Force strikes:
It appears that most of the airstrikes, at least until the Shuja’iya incident, were against buildings suspected of storing “hidden launchers.” For example, the relatively detailed announcement by the IDF Spokesperson from the morning of July 10, states that, “Since the start of the operation, 785 terror targets in Gaza have been attacked, including 19 weapons production and storage warehouses, 24 military compounds, 100 terror tunnels, seven means of visual observation, 513 hidden launchers, two war rooms and 79 senior officials.” (emphasis ours).
IDF soldiers search for terror tunnels. PHOTO: IDF Spokesperson unit CC-Wikipedia
What could be a more legitimate and proper target than launchers for rockets that are falling on Israeli civilians, launchers which severely violate international law? However, even if there is nothing more just than destroying weapons directed at civilians, the doctrine of proportionality obligates us also to question the security benefit of destroying launchers which will reappear within a short period of time. This does not decrease the legitimacy of destroying the rockets themselves, but does decrease the justification of harming so many noncombatants in the process. Even if we tell ourselves that the injured noncombatants were not the target, and even if placing launchers within the civilian population in Gaza is itself a severe violation by Hamas of international law, we know in advance that bombing buildings which are suspected of containing hidden launchers (which is often only a suspicion) has a high likelihood of killing noncombatants.
The “knock on the roof” procedure and other alerts, according to many reports, amount to a five-minute warning, which is not always sufficient to evacuate people from buildings; Hamas also pressures and threatens residents to not leave their homes. In this situation, examination of the military-security benefit to Israel vs. the killing of innocent civilians leads to the conclusion that it is very difficult to justify this kind of strike. International humanitarian law also allows strikes only on military targets or targets serving the other side for military purposes, and only in accordance with the principle of proportionality. Here, we cannot uncritically accept statements which assuage the conscience that the launchers turn the homes into legitimate targets.
In conclusion, the main question being asked is: Is it morally acceptable that dozens and even hundreds of innocent men, women and children are being killed in the Gaza Strip for the purposes of decreasing the Hamas’s rocket inventory for a very short period of time, after which it will be quickly replaced? There is significant doubt that these processes contribute as much to our security as is claimed by the IDF Spokesperson.
Even if we are not security experts, we are obligated to demand from those experts answers to the difficult questions about the true ratio of costs and benefits, and about what alternatives exist. We should not underappreciate the knowledge of security experts and perhaps they have answers to some of our questions. But when we are talking about very complex moral questions of the highest order, and when there are good reasons to ask whether security experts made the right decisions, security experts are obligated to release all unclassified information, including the information on costs, benefits and alternatives, from the basement of the IDF compound in Tel Aviv to the public in order to allow public discourse on what is being done in our names.
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