Gaza in perspective

The ground troops never moved in and the ceasefire looks as though it will hold. I had thought that the casualties would have been higher, and that Operation Pillar of Cloud would have gone on for longer. Thankfully, I was wrong. In the coming days I will be broadening my blog to encompass issues and places other than Gaza, but I before I do I think it is worth making a series of reflections about what happened in Gaza.

One of the inevitable things that follows war is the counting of the dead. It is a hallmark of asymmetric war that casualties on one side be much higher than casualties on the other; indeed, the infliction of disproportionate death and suffering is surely part of the very definition of war that is asymmetric. The basic figures are telling: on the Palestinian side there were 160 fatalities, including 105 civilians, 34 of whom were children, according to PCHR (Gaza Under Attack puts the total figure higher at 170). On the Israeli side, and I expect that this will surprise many – because it certainly surprised me – 5 Israelis died, 3 of whom were civilians.

The maths of casualty-counts is a messy and sordid affair but I want to ask two questions of it, one obvious and one quite perverse, if you’ll forgive me. I’ll pose the first question here and save the second for my next post.  My first question is this: Why are Israeli casualties so low? I am not alone in thinking that the Israeli casualty-count is low; the Israeli state, for example, also agrees. In fact, last week the IDF Spookesperson posed this very question on its blog. The tri-fold answer that the IDF provide to their own question is bewildering and goes a long way in undermining Israel’s stated reason for launching Operation Pillar of Cloud. The number one reason why the casualties are so low is because of the highly efficient Iron Dome System. Here the IDF boasts:

“A crucial defense since its deployment, the Iron Dome system is proving invaluable when countering the rocket threat. Its goal: to shoot down rockets about to hit major population centers. Some rockets land in open areas and pose little threat, but many others hit cities and towns. It’s these rockets that the Iron Dome system intercepts, calculating their trajectory and neutralizing them before they cause damage.”

Israel’s Iron Dome System

The implication of which is that very few Hamas rockets actually pose any real danger to Israelis. In his brilliant deconstruction of the rocket attacks, Phan Nguyen at Mondoweiss demonstrates that Hamas rockets have a kill rate of less than 0.217% (or about 500 rockets per death). The second reason for the low-casualties, according to the IDF, is that the Israeli air-strikes on weapon-manufacturing sites are so good that terror attacks are thwarted preemptively:

“Since the start of the operation, the IDF has targeted more than 1,300 terror sites in the Gaza Strip, thwarting tens of rocket-launching attempts and targeting countless rocket launching sites. These strikes caused severe damage to terror groups’ arsenal and drastically reduced the threat posed to Israeli civilians, by simple elimination.”

Pre-emptive attacks serve as the bedrock justification for Israeli incursions into Gaza, but when we consider that, in fact, zero Israeli civilians died in the year leading up to the November operation, it does raise some questions about exactly what Israel was trying to prevent and why it needed to ‘prevent’ them just now. Matters are complicated further because the amount of rockets fired by Hamas increased (rather than decreased) during the operation. If the war was only about preventing rocket fire from Gaza then Israel clearly did not succeed, but given reason#1 above, this might not matter as much as we have been lead to believe. The third and final reason, claim the IDF, is due to the readiness of the homefront including factors such as an advanced warning system, bunker network and general readiness to respond to emergency situations.

All of these seem plausible enough reasons to explain why so few Israelis lose their lives from rocket fire. But it seems to me that making this claim does negate another: namely the claim that Israel is at constant and high danger and must defend itself or die at the hand of Hamas. Put the three considerations together and the impression one gets from the IDF that the reason why so few Israelis die is because, when all is said and done, the threat is not actually that high. The IDF have a ‘rocket counter’ widget on their blog, but do not have casualty-count widget for this very reason. So when Michael Oren wrote of Hamas rockets as expressing a “genocidal intent“, it might pay to look at the numbers and (as Foucault would have it) the effects. Returning to Nguyen then, it is worth pointing out that since June 2004, 26 Israelis have been killed by Hamas rocket fire. Exactly parallel statistics are difficult to find, but suffice it to say that since September 2000, over 6500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces, and this does not include those killed in the recent conflict.

It’s time to put the casualties in perspective – and more on this very soon.

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