Telling the Truth about the 2014 Gaza War
Ambassador Dore Gold
The 2014 Gaza war began with an outright act of aggression by Hamas of escalating rocket attacks on Israel’s towns and cities. But over time, a completely different version of events emerged, based not on the truth of what happened but on a Palestinian narrative that seemed to capture the imagination of many observers in the West. In fact, at one point, the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, appeared to gloat over this development. On August 29, 2014, he appeared on the Qatari satellite channel Al-Jazeera and declared, “Our narrative has gained the upper hand.”1
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said on Aug. 29, 2014,
that the Hamas narrative gained the upper hand. (Al Jazeera)
The Hamas leader also explained how this had been accomplished: the Palestinian media and its supporters “constituted the river from which the global media quenched its thirst for information about what was happening.”
This version of the war reached beyond the mass media, affecting the perceptions of governments, international organizations, and NGOs alike. In short, the real truth about what transpired during the war was superseded by a highly subjective presentation that suited the Hamas interest, and which it skillfully sold to international opinion-makers.
The real truth about what transpired during the war was superseded by a highly subjective presentation that suited the Hamas interest, and which it skillfully sold to international opinion-makers.
It was entirely forgotten that Israel unilaterally withdrew from every square inch of the Gaza Strip in 2005. But rather than rocket fire diminishing with the removal of Israel’s military and civilian presence, the rate actually shot up dramatically by 500 percent the following year and would continue to spike upwards in the years that followed. By 2007, Hamas had violently overthrown the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. In the 2014 Gaza war, there was one fundamental truth that needed to be taken into account: If Hamas wanted to stop the war, all it had to do was stop firing on Israel. This was demonstrated by the fact that Israel agreed to eleven ceasefire proposals that Hamas refused.
Yet all this background, which should have shaped opinions about the Gaza war, found little or no expression in the international discourse about this latest round of armed conflict. What, then, emerged as the key elements of the narrative about the Gaza war that so many in the international community became convinced were correct? Those elements are outlined here and addressing them is the purpose of the chapters that follow:
Downplaying the Scale of the Threat to Israel
It came to be asserted that the scale of the threat Israel faced in the Gaza war was not serious. The Hamas missiles that rained upon its cities were dismissed by The Guardian, for example, as “useless fireworks.”2 But what might have happened if there had been no Iron Dome missile interception system, or had the Hamas network of attack tunnels been fully exploited? This was rarely considered in the international discourse about the war.
The tunnels presented an entirely new dimension of the conflict that analysts of the Gaza war barely absorbed. Did Hamas invest millions of dollars in the tunnel system so that a squad of three or five of its operatives could get behind Israeli lines? Or was something far more ominous afoot, involving hundreds, if not thousands, of Hamas operatives infiltrating Israel?
Wolf Blitzer goes into a Hamas tunnel that opened deep inside Israeli territory. (CNN/July 28, 2014)
Given that the Hamas tunnel project’s cost was estimated at about $90 million, it is hard to imagine that the complex of concrete-lined and accessorized tunnels was constructed for smuggling a small number of terrorists into Israel. For these reasons, a correct overview of the war, with which this study begins, is critical to gaining an understanding of exactly what was at stake.3
Finally, the downplaying of the threat to Israel emanated from the fact that a change had occurred in how Israel was perceived as compared with how it was seen historically. In its first decades, Israel could be correctly described as a small state surrounded by potential war coalitions of Arab countries capable of fielding quantitatively superior standing armies. But with the breakup of several Arab states to Israel’s east, like Iraq and Syria, for now those threats of the past no longer seemed relevant and Israel appeared to be largely facing a much smaller Palestinian military challenge.
Hamas was backed by the power of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey, and a global Muslim Brotherhood network financed by Qatari oil money.
With the Gaza war, the Israel Defense Forces appeared to have to defend themselves against a Hamas statelet, alone, that was smaller than Israel itself. That Hamas was backed by the power of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey, and a global Muslim Brotherhood network financed by Qatari oil money was not readily perceived. As a result, the imagery of the war had reversed who was David and who was Goliath in this conflict, affecting how international opinion judged the case for Israel as a whole and the seriousness of the residual threat to Israeli security from Hamas attacks alone.
Arguing that Hamas Had Become Moderate
Then there was the belief that Hamas had become more moderate and was emerging as a legitimate diplomatic partner, despite the fact that it had been designated as an international terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the European Union, and others. This raises two essential questions: First, what exactly was Hamas’ world view in 2014 and what were its strategic goals? Was it another Palestinian organization seeking to address well-known grievances, including the quest for Palestinian statehood? Or was Hamas, which by its own admission was part of the global Muslim Brotherhood, an integral part of a larger jihadist movement, linked to Iran, with goals that went far beyond the Gaza Strip?
This question, in turn, affected international perceptions of the two sides in this struggle: Was the Hamas-led regime in the Gaza Strip a small political movement standing alone against a powerful Israel? Alternatively, and more correctly, was the Hamas regime the tip of an Islamist iceberg, backed by regional allies that sought to vanquish Israel and threaten the West as a whole? In the past, Israel had been perceived as a small state, only 44 miles wide (with the West Bank), facing a hostile group of neighbors whose land mass was nearly 600 times greater. Which image of Israel’s situation was correct?
Was the Hamas-led regime in the Gaza Strip a small political movement, or was it the tip of an Islamist iceberg, backed by regional allies that sought to vanquish Israel and threaten the West as a whole?
In reality, Hamas hosted a whole coalition of terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip, including groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, many of which were tied to Tehran. The regime in Gaza was not isolated. It received training and weaponry from Iran and Syria. Qatar, which had become a hub for global jihadist groups, provided huge amounts of financial assistance. And more recently, Hamas established an operations center in Turkey, which directed attacks in the West Bank.
Second, if Hamas had evolved into a pragmatic political movement, as some in the West contended, it could then be asked why a diplomatic option wasn’t attempted to address its concerns? Even prior to 2014, there had been prominent voices in the British House of Commons and among former officials in the U.S. foreign policy establishment who called for an open political dialogue with Hamas. Many of Israel’s critics wrongly assumed that there had been a missed opportunity for diplomacy.
Ironically, while the West debated whether Hamas had become more moderate, Egyptian intelligence circles became convinced that Hamas was colluding with Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the Sinai jihadist group that subsequently joined ISIS. And a host of Arab states, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), determined that the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas, was a terrorist organization, leading them to outlaw it in their countries.
When Hamas publicly executed 22 Gazan residents, including two women, for alleged collaboration with Israel (some of whom are believed to have been incarcerated in a Hamas prison with no contact with the outside world),4 commentators in leading Arabic newspapers began drawing comparisons between Hamas and ISIS.5
Misrepresenting the Percentage of Palestinian Civilians Killed
No other issue affected international perception of the war more than the reports on Palestinian casualties in the Gaza Strip. Most observers assumed that the reports from the UN on the situation in Gaza were accurate and could be relied upon. This included the contention by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, that “around 74 percent” of Palestinian fatalities were civilians – a number that was well beyond the proportion of civilian casualties in other recent wars fought by Israel in Gaza.6
Was this figure based on reliable information? It was irresponsible to make such claims about the percentage of civilian fatalities while the Gaza war was still raging and before the fog of ongoing combat cleared. Yet both BBC and CNN ran with Pillay’s numbers.7 Much of the network coverage of Palestinian casualties was based on sources from Hamas, who warned Palestinians not to divulge information about the death of terrorist operatives. The net result of this policy was to skew any data about the ratio of combatants to civilians killed in the Gaza war.8 Previous postwar studies checking Gaza casualties name by name have found that the casualty lists provided by Hamas include many combatants who were misidentified as civilians.9
By the end of the war, BBC’s head of statistics warned, “Caution Needed with Gaza Casualty Figures.” BBC cites an Israeli official who explained, “The UN numbers being reported are, by and by large, based on the Gaza health ministry, a Hamas-run organization.”10
Since Hamas’ known interest was to smear Israel and advance its “narrative,” one might have expected greater caution on the part of the media in releasing this kind of material, with at least some effort to consider such questions as whether casualties were civilian or military, and whether they were caused by Hamas’ policy of using the Palestinians as human shields or by extensive Hamas booby-trapping of residential areas. Completely under-reported were Israel’s efforts to limit civilian casualties and to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip through massive amounts of humanitarian aid that was provided even as the war raged and supply trucks were under fire.11
Yet, dramatic press releases about civilian losses accompanied the war all along. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published a situation report on July 22, 2014, claiming that “one child has been killed in Gaza every hour for the past two days.” If true, it was a horrible development that every Israeli would find deeply disturbing. But was this dependable data? In a footnote to its report, OCHA termed its data “preliminary information” and “subject to change based on further verifications.”12
As a result of the reports on Palestinian casualties, there was a worldwide rush to judgment about Palestinian losses in Gaza that put the blame squarely on Israel. International organizations should have exercised caution, given the history of how parties in armed conflicts have manipulated these figures in the past in order to mislead the international community: In 1992, Bosnian Muslim leaders spoke about 250,000 killed on their side, while subsequent investigations found the numbers to be much lower.13
It took years for an accurate picture of what exactly transpired on the ground in the Balkans during the 1990s to emerge, yet in 2014, 24-hour news agencies needed and released material on Gaza almost immediately, regardless of its veracity.
Charging Israel with Disproportionate Use of Force
Every recent war in the Gaza Strip has been fought on the legal battlefield as well as the military one, with unfounded charges that Israel had committed “war crimes” against the Palestinian population. Ironically, even Hamas set up a legal department, al-Tawthiq (lit. documentation), in order to add credence to its claims.
In 2009, the UN Human Rights Council established a fact-finding commission in order to investigate this point under South African Supreme Court Justice Richard Goldstone. The Goldstone Report initially suggested that the Israel Defense Forces had deliberately killed innocent civilians in the 2009 war – Operation Cast Lead. Yet two years later, Goldstone retracted this central conclusion from his report in an op-ed in the Washington Post.14
Legal arguments sympathetic to the Hamas position played an important part in other parts of its narrative. The charge that Israel used disproportionate force became almost a refrain for all commentary about the 2014 Gaza war. At the heart of this accusation is the fact that casualty numbers on Israel’s side were lower than on the Palestinian side. These numbers led human rights organizations, like Amnesty International, to assert that the Israeli military showed a “callous indifference” to civilians in its airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.15
Many commentators who used the term “proportionality” assumed that there was a legal expectation that Israel would respond with weapons carrying the same amount of explosive force as those used in a Hamas rocket strike and the results of the Israeli counterstrike should be the same as the Hamas attack. According to this simplified understanding, if Hamas launched Qassam rockets, Israel should hit back with Qassam rockets.
But what if Israel heavily invested in wide-scale civil defense and Hamas only built shelters for its leaders? This affected the outcome of any military exchange dramatically. Moreover, what if Hamas consistently embedded its military capabilities within civilian areas, using its civilians as human shields? Wouldn’t that lead to a different outcome in the numbers of casualties on both sides? The fact is that a civilian residence in which Hamas intentionally stored locally and Iranian-manufactured Grad rockets became a legitimate military target. It was a war crime by Hamas to plant its military and weapons in civilian areas.
A civilian residence in which Hamas intentionally stored locally and Iranian-manufactured Grad rockets became a legitimate military target.
When Does a Civilian Structure Become a Legitimate Military Target?
According to the U.S. Naval Handbook in 2007, “misuse of protected places and objects for military purposes renders them subject to legitimate attack during periods of misuse.”16 Israel similarly saw “the hidden placement of a significant military asset within a civilian building or even the presence of enemy combatants can make the otherwise civilian site amenable to attack.”17 It was noteworthy that the Office of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement on July 23, 2014, in the midst of the Gaza war, indicating that it understood the storage of weapons in UN-administered schools would convert them into “potential military targets.”18
It was not surprising that Amnesty International published a report in November 2014 concluding that Israel had committed “war crimes” by attacking civilian structures and thereby advancing the narrative of Hamas which sought to slander Israel and tarnish the reputation of the IDF. It managed to get these harsh conclusions quoted in the New York Times. Certainly according to the common understanding of the law of armed conflict used by the U.S., Israel, and other Western armies, the misuse of civilian objects is not meant to be interpreted narrowly to situations in which they are being used for firing on one’s forces alone. There were a number of groups that sought to give a politicized reading of international law in this way. Israel’s conduct in eliminating storage sites of rockets, command centers, or significant military figures who were present in a civilian structure was fully legal, in contrast to the way its actions were often portrayed.
While Israel could justifiably strike at such a structure, it understood it had a problem with Hamas’ exploitation of the Palestinian civilian population. Far from being “callous” to that population, the IDF went far beyond what was legally required and undertook a whole system of warnings to contact Gaza’s civilian population.
The IDF went far beyond what was legally required and undertook a whole system of warnings to contact Gaza’s civilian population.
These warnings went beyond merely dropping leaflets, which were used in other conflicts but which might blow away. Israel used Arabic-speaking soldiers to transmit direct warnings to civilians whose houses were to be targeted, employing telephone and individual text messages.
On July 8, 2014, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri gave an interview on Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV, saying that the tactic of putting civilians on structures that were targeted by Israel had proved itself. He appealed to the Palestinians to follow this method in the future: “We call upon our people to adopt this policy, in order to protect Palestinian homes.”19 At the same time, the Hamas Interior Ministry called on civilians to ignore Israeli warnings to vacate their houses.
However, these announcements did not find their way into the Western media. Rather, there was a reluctance to accept Israel’s argument that the Palestinians’ situation in Gaza was being affected by the Hamas policy of deliberately using its population as human shields. For example, on July 23, 2014, CNN quoted Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as saying: “It would be impossible at this point to say how much truth there is to the human shield argument.”20
In short, the IDF was neither callous nor oblivious to the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian population in Gaza; it was a moral army that was forced to fight an immoral terrorist organization that sought to endanger Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives. But that did not stop Hamas’ claims. We know that prior to the arrival of the Goldstone team to the Gaza Strip in 2009, in order to magnify allegations of “Israeli war crimes,” there was evidence that Hamas tampered with the “crime scene,” planting munitions that had not been used. Senior British and American officers, who understood such manipulations from other theaters of war such as Afghanistan, understood what Israel faced and publicly praised how the IDF conducted itself. Indeed, the challenges Israel faced in Gaza sounded familiar to what other Western armies were discovering in their conflict with other militant Islamist movements.
The War Against the Islamic State: The Challenge of Civilian Casualties
– Anthony H. Cordesman, 2015
Alleging that Israel Is Starving the Gaza Population
A central contention of Hamas throughout the Gaza war was that even after the Israeli withdrawal of every last Israeli soldier in 2005, the Gaza Strip was still under military occupation because Israel maintained a naval blockade of the territory in order to prevent weapons ships from delivering more munitions to Hamas and other Palestinian terror organizations. The general impression that they sought to convey was that the civilian population was starving, causing countries such as Turkey to sponsor an unnecessary humanitarian relief flotilla in 2010.
During the 2014 Gaza war, the image of a starving Gaza was also spread by academics appearing in the mass media. Writing on July 19, 2014, in the Boston Globe, Sara Roy of Harvard University wrote about the “destructive economic blockade” by Israel and “the profound deprivation that has long defined life in Gaza.” This situation, according to her analysis, was “deliberate and planned by Israel.” Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics appeared on BBC on July 22, 2014, and declared that “Hamas is basically forced to choose between death by starvation…or basically a fight to the end.”22
However, there were reporters who painted a different picture in recent years, based on their own on-the-ground observations. Thus, Janine Zacharia of the Washington Post actually visited Gaza in 2010 and conveyed that the infrastructure was in deep disrepair, but added:
Yet if you walk down Gaza City’s main thoroughfare – Salah al-Din Street – grocery stores are stocked wall-to-wall with everything from fresh Israeli yogurts and hummus to Cocoa Puffs smuggled in from Egypt. Pharmacies look as well-supplied as a typical Rite Aid in the United States.23
Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza was necessary, for without it, Iranian weapons ships would have massively reinforced the long-range missile forces of Hamas and its partners in the Gaza Strip. Naval blockades form a legitimate instrument of self-defense and had been used by the UN against Saddam Hussein and by NATO against Yugoslavia. In Israel’s case, the IDF let some 6,000 trucks with humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip even while the war raged. A policy of keeping out weapons but letting in foodstuffs was fully legal and moral, despite the efforts of Israel’s adversaries to characterize it otherwise.
Naval blockades form a legitimate instrument of self-defense. Nevertheless, Israel allowed ample supplies for Gaza’s civilians, letting 6,000 trucks with humanitarian aid into Gaza even as the war raged.
Despite Hamas’ incessant rocket fire on Israel during Operation Protective Edge, the IDF ensured that vital humanitarian aid reached Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip. In this video from Aug. 3, 2014, an IDF officer at the Kerem Shalom crossing explains how trucks enter Gaza. (IDF/YouTube)
Let there be no mistake: the war imposed by Hamas created hardships for the Palestinians, who faced a difficult reality because of Hamas policy. That policy also posed an enormous challenge for the IDF and presented difficult choices. Israel could have responded to Palestinian rocket fire by unleashing indiscriminate attacks, like the Russian army in Chechnya during the 1990s, but Israel refused to follow that option. It could have thrown up its hands and announced that it could not do anything because of the presence of Palestinian civilians in the areas where the rockets were stored and launched. But that choice would be granting Hamas a license to kill Israelis and no Israeli government would acquiesce to such a situation.
The third option, which Israel eventually adopted, was the opposite of the Hamas tactic of embedding its military capabilities in the heart of its civilian population. The IDF actively sought to separate Palestinian civilians from the areas in which Hamas was operating. It then sought to destroy both the rocket infrastructure that was being used against Israeli civilians and the underground tunnel network that Hamas was waiting to employ to infiltrate Israel’s towns and cities. Ironically, when Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh proclaimed on Al-Jazeera, ”We waged a war in the realm of moral values as well,” he was partially right, for the Gaza war pitted an immoral movement that targeted civilians against a state that, despite all the difficulties, sought to protect them. But this fundamental distinction is something that many in the West did not understand.