Israel’s collateral damage problem

So far, the death toll is 47, most of them children. There is great anger in Egypt.

This death toll is not from Israel’s air attacks on Hamas’ weapons facilities, rocket launching pads and offices. It is instead the toll from a horrific collision Saturday between a schoolbus filled with children ages 4 to 6 and a speeding train that may have carried the bus for as much as a kilometer after the crash.

For more than a year, the civil war raging in Syria has resulted in over 30,000 deaths, with many thousands of them civilian deaths. On several days, the death count in the Syrian fighting (much of it from the Syrian air force bombing its own people) exceeded 100 in 24 hours.

Of course, neither the train accident in Egypt nor the savagery in Syria generates large photos on page one of The Washington Post showing a distraught father holding his dead infant in Gaza. Certain Arab deaths matter much more than others — and the ones that matter most are the civilian casualties that the media sees fit to blame on Israeli attacks. These Arab deaths, and the human rights messaging that goes with them, can be used to pressure Western governments to lean on Israel to accept a cease-fire before Israel has achieved its military goals.

Just as in 2006. at the start of the war with Hezbollah, and in 2008, in the initial days of Israel’s effort against Hamas in Gaza, now, in the early days of the current conflict, Israel is winning support from the U.S., and from major Western nations as it responds to the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza aimed at killing and terrorizing its civilian population, first only in the south but now a broader area that includes Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

In the two prior efforts, the calls for a cease-fire grew as Israel’s military effort grew stronger. After weeks of airstrikes in Lebanon, the eventual ground invasion began to shift the strategic landscape. It was at this point that the clarion calls about the wanton destruction of southern Lebanon and civilian casualties grew much stronger. The reality was that in the in first days of the ground invasion Israel killed hundreds of Hezbollah fighters and dealt a tough blow to the organization. But media reports did not distinguish between Hezbollah and others killed, they merely emphasized the total body count.

So too in Operation Cast Lead, in 2008-9, the great majority of those killed in Gaza were Hamas fighters, but the total death toll was the news story, with the perception left by the international media that most of the dead were civilians. Due to the callous nature in which both Hezbollah and Hamas fight — effectively welcoming civilian casualties by locating their rocket launching operations in populated areas — it is inevitable that regardless of the precision of Israel’s air strikes, there will be collateral damage. Israeli efforts to warn civilians of coming attacks are disregarded by its critics, as are the instances when Israel passes on a bombing target due to the likelihood of significant civilian casualties. One such “pass” on a Fajr 5 rocket led to its subsequent launch directed at Tel Aviv this week.

Of course, the rockets fired by Hamas at Israel’s cities are designed to kill Israeli civilians. But this does not matter in the public relations arena, since most of the rockets miss their targets (or are destroyed by interceptors fired from the Iron Dome batteries). What matters is that many more Palestinians are killed by Israel in these conflicts than Israelis are killed by Hamas (or Hezbollah). This “disproportionality” in the body count causes great anguish in the international community and with its media voices. A greater number of Jewish dead would be more “fair,” to use the vernacular. For the first time in history, a nation at war is told to pull its punches, and is condemned because it has been successful in keeping its own side safe, and for doing a good job of destroying enemy combatants. Wars tend to produce fewer civilian casualties when they are won quickly and decisively.

There is now word that U.S. President Barack Obama has warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against launching a ground invasion of Gaza. The advice centers around the concern that a protracted conflict will benefit Hamas, put more pressure on the leaders of both Egypt and Jordan to separate from Israel, and, of course, create greater numbers of civilian casualties.

For Israel, the problem is that if the rocket issue is not addressed, then inevitably it will continue and become a bigger strategic threat, as Hamas’ strategic capabilities improve. Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Israel’s confidence that Egypt will make some effort to control the border region with Gaza and maintain security in Sinai, have been eliminated.

Hamas used to be a novice in the rocket and missile department compared to Hezbollah. But this is no longer the case. And while Hezbollah has some checks on its freedom to operate against Israel, as a political party (albeit a dominant one) in Lebanon, Hamas has no such constraints. Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, now the governing party in Egypt, are tied at the hip. Egypt is now closer to Hamas than it is to the Palestinian Authority. The visit by Qatar’s leader to Gaza broke the ice, and has been followed by visits from Egyptian officials. More will follow from other Arab countries. Hamas is no longer politically isolated — it is now part of the mainstream as a result of the dislocations created during the “Arab Spring.”

Israel has its objectives in the current Gaza campaign. Short of the removal of Hamas from control, which would likely mean a new military occupation, Israel will inevitably have to rely on promises from Hamas and its partners to see an end to the rocket fire on its cities and towns. Given the importance of dignity in the Arab world, and the need for Hamas to avoid the appearance of having succumbed to Israel, it is hard to see how any such promise will be made, or if made, be kept.

More likely will be some announced cease-fire, with no explicit public promises about future activity. And of course, since the only real industrial activity in Gaza is rocket making, it will continue. So too, will the smuggling of more sophisticated Iranian weaponry into the Gaza Strip.

For the real problem is that Hamas exists to see Israel destroyed. That may well be the real motivation for the Palestinian Authority as well, though at times it puts on a more ambiguous face in international forums. As long as Hamas is in control of Gaza, Israel will have a growing problem. If Israel launches a major ground operation and does not seek to dislodge Hamas, it is not clear what long-term relief Israel would receive from the intermittent and now more powerful long-range rocket fire.

It is also certain that such a ground operation, even if it did not seek the overthrow of Hamas but was part of an effort to destroy more of Hamas’ rocketing capability, would result in significant civilian casualties and the increased likelihood of the war expanding to a second front.

My guess is that Israel will not take this step. It has bigger fish to fry in coming months, and dealing directly with Iran, rather than with its surrogates, may be the place where Israel will need greater reservoirs of international support, support that may not be there if the Gaza operation becomes uglier.

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