Gazan civilians increasingly at risk in assault on Hamas
Israel may consider a 48-hour cease-fire with Hamas, but threatened a ground invasion if militant rockets didn't stop during a temporary truce.
On the fourth day of airstrikes in Gaza Tuesday, one of Israel's many targets was a Hamas military commander's home within the teeming Jabaliya refugee camp. He wasn't there, but seven civilians died as a result of that attack.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Until now Israel has targeted mainly Hamas offices, ministries, and centers of power in a bid to limit collateral damage while still crippling the Islamists' ability to fire rockets across the border. But as the conflict stretches on and Israeli warplanes and drones seek out Hamas commanders and other militant leaders hiding in neighborhoods in the densely packed coastal strip, it will be harder to contain civilian deaths.
So far Israel has been relatively successful at zeroing in on targets and avoiding civilian casualties. It has run 400 sorties since the start of the conflict Saturday in an enclave about twice the size of Washington, D.C. Of the more than 370 Palestinians killed, at least 64 have been civilians, according to the United Nations.
Israeli military tacticians are all too aware that if civilian casualties climb too high, international pressure can end an otherwise carefully executed attack. It happened in the 2006 Lebanon war when Israel's allies could no longer tolerate the loss of innocent life. It's a metric that is callous yet at the forefront of modern Middle Eastern warfare.
"The more Israel's enemies are non state actors like Hamas, the more warfare has changed. The name of the game in warfare now is how to win the urban war, and that creates a whole new set of challenges," says David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute.
"Israel is always going to try to thread the needle, to hit those that hit them, but to try to avoid the loss of civilian life," he says.
Military experts dryly call it "collateral damage," a term referring to injured bystanders or property uninvolved in combat. Human rights advocates counter that the concept sanitizes the unavoidable costs of war.
Because Israel no longer faces conventional forces but smaller guerrilla armies in civilian areas, the mismatched fight has altered the nature of battle. The challenges are similar to those faced by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Tuesday morning, Palestinians reported that two young sisters from the Gazan farming village of Beit Hanoun were killed in one of the Israel air attacks – an example of just the kind of "collateral damage" that can turn the tables on the military and shorten a campaign.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said that the military is looking into the report, noting that the army tries to avoid civilian casualties.