What does Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi mean when he says “minimal collateral damage?” A partial answer can be found in the testimonies of members of the al-Sawarka family from the Gaza Strip, whose nine relatives were unintentionally killed during the last round of military escalation in the enclave in November.
“I found my brother Salem and my sister Lama next to my mother, who recited the Shahada prayer [the statement of Muslim faith], and then was silent. I tried to wake her up, I said, ‘Get up, mother, get up,’ but she didn’t hear me. I realized that she was dead.” That is the testimony of Noor al-Sawarka, an 11-year-old girl who spoke last week with field researchers from B’Tselem in Gaza (Gideon Levy, December 13).
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Noor lost both of her parents and her two brothers, an uncle, an aunt and their three children. Noor’s grandmother, Salmiya al-Sawarka, a 76-year-old widow who lost two sons and two of her grandchildren in the bombing, recalled: “I felt like I was going to pass out. I didn’t know what was going on around me. I started to knock on the neighbors’ doors and to scream: ‘My children are gone!’”
Nine members of the same family – five of them children – were killed through no fault of their own, because the IDF did not bother to check its old “target bank” before giving the order to bomb the home of the al-Sawarka family – and not during the previous year, either.
Haaretz’s investigation, which revealed this troubling fact, also contained the testimony of a senior defense official, who explained that most of the terrorist infrastructure is bombed using the “fire and forget” method, in which the pilot does not even see the target (Yaniv Kubovich, November 28).
Kochavi was not moved by the disaster. In the document summing up the operation, written by the IDF’s operations directorate at his request, which asked, “Did the latest round of fighting end successfully in the IDF’s view?,” a clear answer was given: “Definitely.” The success, as the document states, resulted from “the fact that the Air Force attacks were carried out in an intense and precise surgical manner while causing minimal collateral damage.” As long as the army continues to view such tragedies as “minimal collateral damage,” it will not be possible to carry out the essential changes to prevent their reoccurrence.
If the death of uninvolved civilians – including women and children – in their homes does not prevent an army from declaring that in general, the operation in which they were killed was a success, something has gone fundamentally wrong with that army’s ability to distinguish between soldiers and civilians when it comes to Palestinians. Why should this be a surprise when the IDF “fires and forgets” without checking if there are civilians in the buildings it marked as targets?
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An internal investigation is not enough. There is a need for an extreme shift in the attitude toward Palestinians. Such a shift is not a private matter for the army. It must be spearheaded by a political leadership completely different from the one that has led Israel over the past decade, one that has viewed the Palestinians as “predators.”
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.