Collateral Damage as Consolation Prize

Something does not quite add up about the current Israeli campaign in Gaza.  After being caught flat-footed in a series of low-tech, high-concept terrorist raids, Israeli leadership quite understandably vowed revenge. After the October 7 attacks, sympathy for Israel reached a high-water mark.  World leaders expressed their condolences.  The country soon mobilized thousands of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and prepared for an incursion into Gaza.

But then the IDF sat and waited.  Desultory bombing of Syria and Lebanon ensued.  We were told without evidence that Iran was responsible for the attacks.  It then appeared Israel might, like the American neocons, ignore the source of immediate danger and pursue a target of choice, Iran’s proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah.

At the same time, the Israeli authorities demanded millions of civilians in Gaza move south.  This was a laughably unrealistic form of damage mitigation.  Then the bombs began to hit, as the Israeli Air Force (IAF) began to pound the highly urbanized Gaza Strip.

Gaza Destruction Appears Indiscriminate and Disproportionate

Video released from the Israeli Air Force showed residential buildings of five to fifteen stories being leveled.  The resulting devastation looked as if nuclear bombs went off.  Along the way, Israel lost the support of Wolf Blitzer, a former AIPAC Lobbyist, when it tried defended the bombing of an entire refugee camp to reach a single Hamas commander.

Although a big dispute took place in the media about the provenance of a particular hospital bombing, there could be no dispute that many civilian residences and other infrastructure have been destroyed by aerial bombing, and that many Palestinian civilians are being killed.  At the moment, Palestinian casualties are more than double those Israel sustained in the Hamas raid.

The IAF promises that they are only targeting terrorists, but residential buildings house a lot of people.  Most Americans and many around the world approved of IDF efforts to destroy Hamas and its fighters.  In this pursuit, a certain amount of collateral damage would also be forgiven, but now that sympathy, even in the philosemitic United States, has declined significantly.

The reasons are plain.  Leveling entire buildings, even if one or ten terrorists are inside, is grossly disproportionate to any potential military objective when thousands of noncombatants are also necessarily killed by such actions.  While the mainstream media shields Americans from this reality, there are countless, horrific videos and photos on nontraditional media of dead and dismembered Palestinian children being pulled from the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Does Israel Have Any Idea Where the Bad Guys Are?

This is where something does not quite add up.  If Israel’s intelligence is so good that it only targets specific buildings because they have Hamas fighters inside, how come these intelligence guys did not detect and thwart the October 7 attacks?  Why is their intelligence so specific now and so nonexistent then?

Similarly, if the information is so precise, why can’t they attack these groups with special forces raids, like the many raids the American military undertook in Iraq against terrorist cells?

If we are being honest, aerial bombings here function as a type of collective punishment, where imposing pain on Palestinian civilians is supposed to do two things at once.  First, it appeases the Israeli public’s desire for revenge.  Second, it is supposed to dissuade Hamas from further attacks because of pressure from the civilian victims of the bombings.  These goals are obvious not only from the bombings’ effects, but are also evidenced by the rhetoric of the Israeli leadership.  The talk of Palestinians being “animals” and “destroying Gaza” suggests a complete rejection of the IDF’s stated principle of “purity of arms.”

Terrible as the resulting deaths are, these actions may be a case of Israel making a virtue of necessity.  After their departure from Gaza in 2006, presumably many of the IDF’s intelligence contacts, informants, and other sources of human intelligence have dried up or become stale.

The wall around Gaza protected Israel from most Hamas attacks, but also rendered the people and factions within Gaza a cipher.  Israel had fewer means of knowing what was going on after its withdrawal and cordon of Gaza.  Hamas’ use of low-tech communications, including face to face meetings and runners, further widened the intelligence gap and neutralized Israel’s significant signals intelligence ability.

Even if this is not an entirely accurate assessment of what is going on, something clearly failed on the side of Israel’s intelligence.  They either foolishly ignored warnings or didn’t have the intelligence about the impending attacks.  Hundreds of armed men do not attack a country and murder its civilians when the defending party has rock-solid intelligence.  But now we are supposed to believe that same intelligence can tell us which buildings house members of Hamas.

Activity Versus Productive Activity

Unable to reach the terrorists without a significant loss of its own soldiers’ lives, Israel and its leadership felt nearly irresistible domestic pressure to “do something” after the October 7 attacks.   So they are doing something, even though that something is counter-productive and at times immoral.

Israel’s actions have a historical parallel in the ex post rationalizations for allied “Strategic Bombing” in World War II. Initially aimed at industrial facilities producing war-related materiel, the inherent inaccuracy of dumb bombs dropped from 20,000 feet made their initial use-case impossible to achieve.  Yet the bombing continued.

As Paul Fussell observes in Wartime, his sardonic account of the war’s culture of dishonesty and propaganda, “It was the grave inaccuracy of the bombers that led finally to the practice of ‘area bombing,’ whose effect was, in Churchill’s memorable euphemism, to ‘dehouse’ the enemy population.  And area bombing led inevitably, as intensification overrode scruples, to Hiroshima and Nagazski.  And yet it was not until the war was half over that the presumed accuracy of the bombers was abandoned as a propaganda ploy.”

Unlike World War II Flying Fortresses, Israel has near-complete control over where its bombs land, as its air force uses laser and GPS-guided smart bombs.  Thus, the IAF can drop bombs through ventilation shafts and on particular corners of a building, sometimes dropping bombs on opposite corners to bring the whole building down.

In other words, the constraint Israel faces is not a technological one, but rather something that has always bedeviled military operations:  the lack of necessary intelligence.  The IAF knows which buildings it is hitting, but there is little evidence it has any idea who or what will be in any particular building and, more important, zero evidence that it refrains from leveling a building because the ratio of civilians to terrorists is 100 or 1,000 to one.  As everyone who has studied terrorism knows, such indiscriminate collective punishment feeds into the terrorists’ narrative and furthers their long-term strategic goals.

The real work of effective counterterrorism is difficult, manpower-intensive, requiring exquisite intelligence, and also a parallel “hearts and minds” campaign.  Combined, such a strategy channels the hostile population’s energies away from violent resistance.  Israel’s strategy has none of these features.

For the last 20 years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a frozen conflict.  Israeli governments have had little appetite to further the two-state solution through empowering the Palestinian Authority, but there has also been no will—and likely no support—within Israel for something extreme that might cut through the Gordian Knot, such as wholesale ethnic cleaning of the Palestinians in pursuit of a one-state solution.

Instead, both sides muddle through, responding to the other side’s provocations, leading to a familiar cycle of retaliation and overreaction until both sides agree again to some kind of ceasefire.  There is little current hope for the conflict being resolved, because both sides make a maximalist claim to the entirety of the region and think of themselves as victims of the other.

Israel acquired a lot of good will and political capital after the October 7 attacks.  But it did not acquire an absolute blank check, and it certainly did not acquire a mandate to commit terror bombing in response to Hamas’ terrorism.

The IDF is engaged in activity, but it is not useful activity likely to defuse the terrorist threat in a meaningful way, nor is it calibrated to maintain the support of the civilized world.  Strategy requires tailoring means and ends towards a goal, not emotional lashing out against random civilians because of the evil actions of a discrete number of Hamas terrorists.

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: GAZA STRIP, GAZA - NOVEMBER 02: A woman covered in blood and dust being taken to a hospital amid destruction caused by Israeli attacks at Al Bureij Refugee Camp as Israeli attacks continue on the 27th day in Gaza City, Gaza on November 02, 2023. (Photo by Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu via Getty Images)