Bernie Sanders Got It Right. Israel Did Use Disproportionate Force in Gaza

Sanders and Clinton have been quarreling over the facts of 2014’s Gaza war. Whose version of events do the numbers support?

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a rally at the Bronx Community College in New York, April 8, 2016.
Kena Betancur, AFP

It seemed like it might never happen, but after months of being sidelined by “trivial” concerns like income inequality and terrorism, Israel has finally become an issue in the US presidential election. The world makes sense again.

Following Bernie Sanders’ instantly notorious interview with the New York Daily News, the Vermont senator and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton have been quarreling over their allegiance to Israel. Clinton emphasizes her (significant) pro-Israel credentials, while Sanders promotes a “balanced" approach that’s more critical of Israel.

Much of their wrangling revolves around the facts of 2014’s Gaza war, with Sanders accusing Israel of reacting disproportionately to rocket attacks carried out by Hamas during its 50-day military campaign. Sanders said the offensive, officially known as Operation Protective Edge, bombed “hospitals, schools and refugee camps,” killing nearly 1,500 civilians (he earlier got slammed for erroneously inflating this number in his Daily News interview) and wounding thousands while leaving Gaza “largely in ruins.”  

Clinton, on the other hand, rejected Sanders’ version of events, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper: “Hamas provokes Israel. They often pretend to have people in civilian garb acting as though they are civilians who are Hamas fighters. It’s a very different undertaking for Israel to target those who are targeting them.”

So, who's right? Was Israel simply exercising its right to defend itself, or did it respond disproportionately to Hamas attacks, indiscriminately utilizing military force against civilians? 

What really happened in Gaza

There is no question that Israel was provoked by Hamas in 2014. In the weeks leading up to the 50-day conflict between Israel and Hamas, terrorists from the group kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Israel responded with a widespread military operation, Operation Brother’s Keeper, during which IDF soldiers arrested hundreds of top-ranking Hamas officials — including the speaker of the Palestinian parliament — in an effort to eliminate what remained of Hamas’ power in the West Bank. Hamas retaliated with a barrage of rockets against Israel from Gaza, forcing hundreds of thousands to hide in shelters. On July 8, Israel officially launched Operation Protective Edge, a massive campaign that included aerial bombings and a ground invasion.

Nearly 1,500 citizens in Gaza were killed during Protective Edge, with the UN reporting that many were children. According to this tally, civilian fatalities accounted for roughly two thirds of all Palestinians killed during the war. Israel has contested these numbers, arguing that most of the casualties were Hamas combatants. On the Israeli side, 72 were killed. Five of them were civilians.

Was Israel acting in its own defense, as Clinton asserts? Yes. The question is whether it did so, as Sanders claims, with too little regard for civilian casualties.

According to the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA), a coordination body of over 80 international NGOs, Protective Edge "caused the most acute humanitarian crisis in Gaza in at least the past 50 years.” In 2015, the Associated Press looked into 247 Israeli airstrikes that hit residential compounds during the war, and found that over 60 percent of those killed during the attacks were children, women and older men, all of them most likely civilians. The airstrikes devastated Gaza to such a degree that in September a UN report warned that by 2020 Gaza could become “uninhabitable.” 

A number of hospitals were indeed bombed during the war, as Sanders points out. Israel claims they served as Hamas strongholds, and were used as launch sites for rocket attacks. Schools were also hit, as were refugee camps. (Gaza itself, crumbling under the weight of a suffocating eight-year blockade and three devastating wars and 50 years of occupation, is arguably the world’s largest refugee camp.)

Israel has put the blame for civilian casualties on Hamas for launching rocket attacks from within its civilian population. That is true. But we must remember that Gaza is also one the most densely populated places on earth. When Israel opted to use force during Protective Edge, it had every reason to expect a high number of civilian casualties, given the considerable death tolls of its previous Gaza excursions.

Furthermore, in 2015, Breaking the Silence, an organization that collects accounts of IDF veterans who served in the occupied territories, published testimonies by dozens of soldiers and officers who served during the war. They described extremely permissive rules of engagement during the operation that aimed to protect the lives of IDF soldiers even if the cost was a greater loss of civilian lives. One soldier described it thus: “There isn’t a person there that’s uninvolved.” (“Uninvolved”, in IDF speak, means civilians.) 

Hamas, of course, launched rocket attacks against schools, hospitals and houses. It did so deliberately, with the intent of inflicting death and suffering. The majority of the rockets launched at Israel either failed to hit their mark of were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system — otherwise the damage on the Israeli side would have been far greater.

Israel, like all countries, has a right to defend itself when it is being attacked. Any Israeli in their right mind who has been sent running for shelter from rockets launched by Hamas will tell you that. Yet Sanders is right in challenging Israel's conduct in Gaza: Protective Edge saw Israel use an unprecedented level of force against Hamas, within a highly concentrated civilian population. The large number of civilian casualties, the magnitude of the damage, and the testimonies of IDF veterans point to a policy that made too little an effort to discriminate between combatants and civilians.