Civilian Casualties and Operation Protective Edge

11 July 2015, 1842 EDT

Waking up the other day to discover that I was a duck was a rather disconcerting experience. They say the condition is only temporary, but there is a danger that I will forever be seen as a bit of a quack. Nevertheless, the opportunity to blog at the Duck of Minerva is a great privilege and a great honour… and I am nervous as hell!

I have spent much of my time over the past few weeks trying to digest the United Nations report on Operation Protective Edge, which accuses both the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and Hamas of committing war crimes during the conflict in Gaza last summer. Much of the media coverage has focused on the large numbers of civilians who were killed. Palestinian groups stand accused of firing approximately 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars at Israel, killing six civilians and injuring more than 1,600 people in the process. The report also expresses particular concern at the high casualty rate in Gaza, confirming that 2,251 Palestinians – including 1,462 civilians, 551 children – were killed in just 51 days of conflict. What has been overlooked in most of the coverage, however, is what the report has to say about the way in which the IDF sought to reclassify civilians as combatants by creating ‘sterile combat zones’ through the use of warnings. The assumption being that anyone who remained within a specific area after receiving a warning would qualify as a legitimate target.  

Not surprisingly, the report has already generated a great deal of controversy. Although the Palestinian Authority welcomed most of its findings, Hamas rejected accusations that it deliberately targeted civilians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the people behind the report were ‘notoriously biased’, whilst a spokesperson for Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that ‘the entire process… was politically motivated and morally flawed’. The Obama administration has adopted a similar stance, with one spokesperson telling reporters that ‘we reject the basis under which this particular commission of inquiry was established because of the very clear bias against Israel in it’. Given their reaction to previous reports, few commentators were surprised at the response of all those concerned.

What struck me about the report, however, was the detailed discussion about civilian casualties and, in particular, how warnings were used by the IDF to blur the boundary between combatants and noncombatants. These warnings, which include the distribution of leaflets, loudspeaker announcements, telephone calls, text messages and radio advertisements, have been hailed as a clear example of just how far the IDF is prepared to go to protect innocent civilians. An internal report published earlier this year, for example, argued that the IDF ‘employed a comprehensive advance warnings system, with multiple, overlapping notification procedures’, whilst an article by Willy Stern claimed that ‘IDF commanders had gone beyond any mandates that international law requires to avoid civilian casualties’.

It is worth noting, of course, that the use of warnings is not an added extra or benevolent gesture on the part of the IDF but a legal requirement in most circumstances, so the suggestion that the IDF is going above and beyond its legal duties is misleading. However, it is the use of these warnings to transform noncombatants into combatants on the basis that they have refused to heed these warnings and leave the area that interests me. Although the UN report accepts that these warnings may have saved lives and recognises that Hamas did not replicate this gesture, it raises some important objections to what Eyal Weizman has described as ‘technologies of warning’. On a practical note it argues that the restriction of movement and the destructiveness of war renders these warnings redundant.

In Shuja’iya, for example, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that the majority of the 92,000 residents remain in the neighbourhood despite the repeated warnings. Their decision to remain was not due to pressure from Hamas or as a desire to act as human shields but because they had nowhere safe to go. It was either too dangerous to travel to the designated safe zones or those safe zones were already overcrowded. Indeed, the report suggests that as much as 44 per cent of Gaza was a no-go area or subject to an evacuation warning at the height of hostilities. As Amnesty International warned at the time, ‘a consistent pattern has emerged that their [the IDF] actions do not constitute an “effective warning” under international humanitarian law’.

The most controversial of these warnings are the so-called ‘roof knocks’, where a smaller missile is fired at a residential building before a full-scale attack is unleashed to scare off any civilians inside or nearby. In practice, however, investigators found that civilians were either unaware that they were supposed to flee, preferring instead to hide amongst the wreckage, or were simply not given enough time to evacuate the area. In one incident, the report describes how one family were given just a few minutes to flee their house after a “roof knock” in the early hours of the morning, resulting in the deaths of 19 people out of 22 inhabitants. Not surprisingly, it concludes that this policy ‘cannot be considered an effective warning given the confusion they often cause to building residents and the short time allowed to evacuate before the actual strike’ and criticised the IDF for failing to adjust its policies in light of its obvious shortcomings (see also).

These technologies of warning also raise important moral and legal questions about the distinction between combatants and noncombatants. On the surface it seems like these warnings represent a genuine attempt to shield civilians from the worst excesses of war, but there is also a performative dimension to the way in which they have been used. Rather than simply alerting civilians to an impending attack, investigators found that they were being used to reclassify them as unlawful combatants. As Major Amitai Karanik explains, ‘soldiers were briefed by their commanders to fire at every person they identified in a combat zone, since the working assumption was that every person in the field was an enemy’. The testimony of former soldiers seems to confirm that these warnings were crucial to the creation of specific geographies of killing, in which the distinction between combatants and noncombatants was considered to be irrelevant. As one former First Sergeant explained, ‘this is combat in an urban area, we’re in a war zone… There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved’. Another former soldier was given similar advice by his commanding officer:

Anything still there is as good as dead. Anything you see moving in the neighbourhoods you’re in is not supposed to be there. The [Palestinian] civilians know they are not supposed to be there. Therefore whoever you see there, you kill.

It is also apparent from the comments above that there is a distinctly geographical dimension to this policy. By issuing warnings, the IDF sought to construct what it described as a ‘sterile combat zone’ in which all civilians were assumed to be lawful targets. It is simply assumed that any civilians remaining in the area are combatants irrespective of their actual status. As Major Karanik explains:

We try to create a situation whereby the area where we are fighting is sterile, so any person seen there is suspected of engaging in terrorist activity. At the same time, we make the utmost effort to remove the population, whether this means dropping flyers or shelling […] We don’t want to confuse the troops […] In peacetime security, soldiers stand facing a civilian population, but in wartime, there is no civilian population, just an enemy.

The purpose of these warnings, therefore, was not to alert civilians to an impending attack but to designate particular areas as hostile and the people that lived there hostile. Civilians were reclassified as combatants on the basis of their location. No authorisation was required to target an individual within this area, one former soldier explained, because ‘no sane civilian who isn’t a terrorist has any business being within 200 metres of a tank’.

These spatial practices are not without precedent and have been widely condemned illegal. Human Rights Watch, for example, argues that ‘while the laws of armed conflict encourage the use of effective advance warnings of attacks to minimize civilian casualties, providing warnings does not make an otherwise unlawful attack lawful’. Likewise, the United Nations report is adamant that the protected status enjoyed by noncombatants is not contingent upon their geographical location or adherence to these specific warnings, stating that ‘civilians choosing not to heed a warning do not lose the protection granted by their status’. The only way that a civilian can surrender their status as civilians and leave themselves vulnerable to attack is by taking a direct part in hostile activities. But these attempts to transform noncombatants into combatants to legitimise the deaths of others reinforces concerns that the principle of noncombatant immunity is coming under sustained attack. One cannot help but share Derek Gregory’s concerns that we are not only witnessing the deaths of thousands of civilians ‘but also the death of the idea of the civilian’.