Does harm to community property indicate either side’s intentions in the current IDF-Hamas conflict?

As I’ve shown with research into targeting and destruction of cultural and community property in the Cyprus Conflict, analysis of the buildings that were targeted by rioters in Greece and querying of the official narrative of those riots, documentation of the Israeli state domicide of the Bedouin village of Al-Araqib, etc., as Christopher Jones has shown with his collations of attacks on historic sites in Iraq (which identified prioritisation of first Shia then Sunni targets), information on political violence against objects and buildings can help to demonstrate and predict strategies of violence. Does it reveal anything about the intentions of Hamas or the IDF in their current struggle?

Civilian losses

Obviously, the most significant and devastating figures are the human losses: so far, 1,062 Palestinians, of whom at most 250 (23.54%) were combatants (according to the Israeli government), and 45 Israelis, of whom 43 (95.56%) were combatants. But information on material destruction might help us to understand the conflict in which the civilians are trapped.

[Update (31st July 2014): Abraham (@UAS_SAR) queried my statement that, at that point, at most 250 of the Palestinian dead had been combatants, because he’d seen a study where a ‘[v]ery high percentage of casualties fit [the] Male combat age group‘. Even he did not claim that they were combatants, only that they were males who had been old enough to fight when they were killed. Male civilians are still civilians.

Personally, this is why I object to the rhetoric of “women and children”, which helps some people to imply that men are never truly, definitively non-combatants with the right not to be subjected to violence. As can be seen in the link that I’ve added above, even the Israeli government had only claimed to have killed 250 fighters.]

I am not arguing that Hamas is a moral force. Nonetheless, it had stopped making rocket attacks nearly two years ago and had suppressed jihadist groups who had continued since then. It is practically impossible to compare intended or accepted civilian harm from military action, because of Palestinian armed groups’ relatively weak arms and Israel’s hi-tech early warning and defence systems; and the anguish of pain and death is the same for everyone; but it is impossible not to acknowledge that there is far more fear, pain and death in the Palestinian community than there is in the Israeli community.

Regardless, as Paul Mason has pointed out on the spot, the toppling of Hamas is ‘a fantasy – and a sick one because, to make it happen, you would have to fill these streets with civilian corpses‘.


This is an extremely quick and crude review, but the imprecision in counts will affect each side, and the sources have been compiled in the same way, so the counts should still characterise the armed groups’ targeting strategies. I’ve tried to exclude strikes “near” buildings so that the counts only include hits on buildings. The counts do include mass strikes as singular events, and I’ve tried to exclude references to sites in discussions of casualties in order to avoid double-counting them, so they will be under-estimates.

The counts are nowhere near as complete as some of the records of the effects of the Israeli assault on Gaza, so they will produce extremely cautious under-estimates of total Israeli military harm to Palestinian civilian life; and Israel’s Iron Dome military defence system prevents some Palestinian attempts to strike Israel, so the counts will produce an under-estimate of Palestinian paramilitaries’ intended harm to Israeli civilian life; but they will enable a comparison between the targets.


In a list of Palestinian paramilitaries’ rocket attacks on Israel, there were: 9 hits on houses/homes; no hits on hospitals or other medical services; no hits on schools or other educational facilities; no hits on synagogues or other religious architecture; and no hits on energy infrastructure.

In a list of Israeli military bombardments of Palestine, there were: more than 200 hits on houses/homes; at least 2 hits on hospitals or other medical services; at least 1 hit on a school and at least 1 hit on a university; at least 4 mosques; and no hits on energy infrastructure. But that list had not been updated to include the destruction of Gaza’s only power plant (and the targeting of another mosque and even more casualties).

Moreover, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has calculated that 750 residential buildings (including many multi-household apartment blocks) have been ‘totally destroyed or severely damaged‘; the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recorded that at least 8 hospitals and 12 clinics have been damaged (the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) claimed that at least one had been militarised, but it did not cooperate with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and it thereby prevented the evacuation of the civilians before the attack); and, though arms have been found in 2 [3] schools, the UN OCHA has recorded that at least 133 schools have been damaged.

[Update (30th July 2014): I used the data/events as they stood on the 29th of July, and won’t be updating and recalculating this with every attack. However, Abraham @UAS_SAR was kind enough to point out that the UNRWA had just found rockets in another school. So, 133 schools have been shelled by the IDF; 3 of those had been militarised by Hamas. Readers can decide whether that is a reflection of military necessity or collective punishment.]


According to international war reporters, there is ‘no evidence‘ that Hamas use civilians as human shields.

Human shields [update (31st July 2014)]

Abraham (@UAS_SAR) insisted that it was an ‘undisputable fact‘ that Hamas calls for civilians to act as human shields, but did not provide any evidence. When I updated this post in the middle of the night, I hadn’t considered Abraham’s phrasing, so I initially provided Channel 4 News reporter Paul Mason’s eyewitness testimony in response. Had he seen any evidence of Hamas use of human shields? ‘None. I think it is basically a piece of propaganda.’

Yet, making a manoeuvre even more subtle than his presentation of males who are adult civilians as males who are old enough to be combatants, Abraham had focused on Hamas’s call for human shields. I’m not going to waste even more of my time by addressing every single one of his attempts to quibble with the evidence, in particular because it’s already off-topic, but a couple of examples enable me to clarify the evidence and show how evidence is used to advance a political position.

On the 29th of February 2008, a Hamas member of the Palestinian legislative council, Fathi Hamad, stated: ‘For the Palestinian people, death has become an industry’ at which they ‘excel’. (I’ve corrected the grammar of the subtitles.)

‘Accordingly, [Palestinians] have created a human shield of women, children, the elderly and the Jihad fighters against the Zionist bombing machine, as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: We desire Death, as you desire Life.’ That may glorify the sacrifice, but that does not call for it, let alone impose it.

On the 8th of July 2014, a reporter on the scene of a bombed-out building told Al-Aqsa TV that people continued to go to one family house ‘in order to prevent the Zionist occupation’s warplanes from targeting it’. In the following interview, Hamas Spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri observed that the ‘policy of people confronting the Israeli warplanes with their bare chests in order to protect their homes has proven effective against the occupation…. We in Hamas call upon our people to adopt this policy, in order to protect Palestinian homes.’ (I’ve corrected the spelling and grammar of the subtitles.)

Clearly, that “policy” was the civilian population’s “policy” to try to discourage the destruction of homes, it was (somewhat) effective (though not wholly effective, because bombing continued), and Hamas supported it. Even if it was a tactic developed by Hamas, it was a tactic adopted by the civilian Palestinian community because it was the least ineffective way for them to defend their homes (without engaging in armed resistance, which would convert them into combatants, whom it would then be legal for the Israel Defence Forces to kill).

To reiterate in the most precise terms… BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen stated: ‘I saw no evidence during my week in Gaza… that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.’ Independent defence correspondent Kim Sengupta noted: ‘Some Gazans have admitted that they were afraid of criticizing Hamas, but none have said they had been forced by the organisation to stay in places of danger and become unwilling human-shields.’ Likewise, Guardian Jerusalem correspondent Peter Beaumont observed ‘no evidence that Hamas had compelled them to stay’.

Moreover, Beaumont explained that, when Israel had warned border zone civilians to evacuate, Hamas had advised them that ‘they should remain in their homes’ because the Israeli warnings were ‘psychological warfare‘. Is Israel’s best defence that its warnings to civilian communities were not merely psychological warfare?

To return to Paul Mason’s testimony: ‘People time and again go back to homes that have been shelled – so it’s not Hamas pressure that makes them stay. It’s the conviction that Israel wants to steal their home or destroy it, and they believe the best way of stopping that is to live in it.’

As civilians, who had already been displaced once and who were deciding whether to become displaced again, explained to Beaumont: ‘It’s still not safe even here. There are strikes everywhere.‘ And as the crimes at local hospitals and supposedly international safe zones show, it’s not safe anywhere.

‘Nowhere safe to go’

In the Israel-guarded, open-air prison of the Gaza Strip, the civilian Palestinian community simply has ‘nowhere safe to go‘, yet Israel bombs them nonetheless. The IDF’s extreme targeting and extremely disproportionate toll has informed the United Nations Human Rights Council’s judgement that Israel is responsible for ‘widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms’ and may be guilty of war crimes.

International safe zones [update (31st July 2014)]

As I had only used information on “standard” civilian sites that existed in both Israel and Palestine, I had excluded attacks on shelters and refugee camps (although there is some implicit overlap, as at least some UNRWA schools are being used as UNRWA shelters).

I do not deny that Palestinian misfires have happened and have contributed to cuts to power lines, etc. However, bizarrely, in an attempt to equivocate the overwhelming evidence of deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure, Abraham @UAS_SAR cited Gabriele Barbati’s second-hand claim @gabrielebarbati that al-Shati refugee camp had been hit by a misfired Hamas rocket. NBC News’ eyewitness reporter Ayman Mohyeldin @AymanM stated that the strikes on Shifa hospital and al-Shati refugee camp were Israeli strikes.

On the 29th of July, Spokesperson Chris Gunness counted that 97 UNRWA installations had been damaged, ‘many of them on multiple occasions’. Based on fragments, craters and other evidence, the IDF (first instructed Palestinian civilians to leave their homes, then knowingly) landed four artillery shells on Jabalia Elementary girls’ school/Beit Hanoun shelter.

Readers can judge for themselves which of Abraham and me has decided that, ‘now that they’re sadly dead you can post whatever you want about them’.

‘Humanitarian and environmental catastrophe’

All of that harm is being done to a place that already labours under a blockade and endures inadequate food, water, shelter, sanitation, medicine… A ‘humanitarian and environmental catastrophe‘ is looming ever closer. And Israel wants to create a buffer zone within the Gaza Strip that will consume 44% of the strip and ghettoise Gazans into an even further concentrated humanitarian nightmare.

intended Israeli buffer zone map (c) UN OCHA, BBC News, 29th July 2014

intended Israeli buffer zone map
(c) UN OCHA, BBC News, 29th July 2014

As the Guardian observed, ‘Israel is finding it harder to deny targeting Gaza infrastructure’:

If the power station attack was deliberate it may signal the application of the so-called “Dahiya doctrine” – the idea that Israel will use its overwhelming technology and firepower to destroy far more than strictly military targets [‘to use disproportionate force to damage civilian property and infrastructure in the hope of undermining popular support for the armed group in control of the area’]. If it was accidental it will likely raise new questions about Israel’s claims to be accurate in its targeting.

Indeed, while Hamas and other local paramilitaries have reverted to launching indiscriminate attacks, Israel appears to have launched a methodical campaign to cripple the infrastructure that minimises the difficulties of life in Gaza, to cripple Gazan society, not to enable coexistence through a two-state solution, but to consolidate occupation and settlement.

[Update (31st July 2014)]

Christopher Jones, who has studied and taught about air power, has written a long comment, which reviews historic targeting strategies. Some of his observations on this specific case are that:

All the videos of airstrikes from Gaza I have seen seem to show specific buildings targeted with precision-guided weapons, which shows area bombing (in which bombs are unloaded over grid squares without aiming for specific targets) is not being conducted.

It seems to me that the IDF’s list of targets, including the community property listed above, seem to indicate that the Israeli government is trying to destabilize Hamas and thereby avoid block-to-block urban combat deep inside Gaza City that would entail heavy casualties for the IDF ground forces.

While I don’t disagree, I think that the strategy, especially the shelling of civilian communities in international safe zones and the clearance of land through buffer zoning, goes beyond the (anyway backfiring) destabilisation of a regime into an attempt to further concentrate and cripple a vulnerable community for the sake of land and power itself.

6 Comments to “Does harm to community property indicate either side’s intentions in the current IDF-Hamas conflict?”

  1. As someone who has studied and lectured about air power, I offer the following as some commentary on airstrike targeting and the intentions of combatants:

    Throughout its history the Israeli Air Force has generally adopted the air power doctrine of Billy Mitchell. Mitchell (in his role as a 1920’s American general) argued that each nation’s economy and war effort had certain nodes that were vital to its continued function. If these nodes were destroyed, the nation’s economy would collapse and with it their war effort.

    The United States Air Force has adopted this doctrine since its inception. Further innovations, such as the doctrine of Effects-Based Operations made famous during the 2003 Iraq War, are merely further refinements of Mitchell’s doctrine. During World War II, the United States tried to put Mitchell’s doctrine into practice by flying daylight bombing sorties against targets identified as critical nodes to the German war effort. The ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt were one such node – without ball bearings German factories couldn’t make tank turrets or motor vehicles. Other such nodes included the oil industry, railroad yards, airplane factories, etc. Rather than trying to hit every factory idea was to find something singular and irreplaceable that everything else needed in order to work.

    The RAF on the other hand (along with the US in the air war against Japan) embraced the theories of Hugh Trenchard and Giulio Douhet, who argued that the enemy population was its center of gravity and the source of its industry and therefore the best way to apply air power was to indiscriminately level entire cities and kill as many people as possible.

    Israel appears to be applying the Mitchell doctrine in Gaza, both in 2009 and today. Nodes Israel sees as vital to Hamas include command centers, their leadership, their police force, their electrical grid, and rocket storage and manufacturing sites in order to bring about a collapse of the Hamas war effort and the collapse of their government.

    (Of course, a major criticism by the British of the American strategy during WW2 was that the net result from all the bombs that missed, planes that went off target, people who lived near the targets, etc probably added up to as many civilian casualties as were caused by the RAF. As far as I know no one has gathered precise statistics on this).

    The “Dahiya Doctrine” proposed by Gen. Gadi Eizenkot does seem to be more in like with the Douhet/Trenchard school, albeit aimed at the specific goal of counterforce strikes against Hezbollah rocket launchers rather than Hezbollah’s general warfighting capability. However the strategic situation in the Lebanon border is much different with 100,000 or more rockets pointed directly at Israel. Eizenkot was sending a message that in the event of another war with Hezbollah, there will be no time to precisely target rocket launchers – both sides will be locked in a battle for survival and bombing anything that moves.

    So what does this mean for indicating the IDF’s goals in Gaza? All the videos of airstrikes from Gaza I have seen seem to show specific buildings targeted with precision-guided weapons, which shows area bombing (in which bombs are unloaded over grid squares without aiming for specific targets) is not being conducted.

    It seems to me that the IDF’s list of targets, including the community property listed above, seem to indicate that the Israeli government is trying to destabilize Hamas and thereby avoid block-to-block urban combat deep inside Gaza City that would entail heavy casualties for the IDF ground forces. Whether this will actually work is certainly open to question, after all, the US military dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than on Germany and never came close to breaking the Vietnamese war effort.

    Knocking out the power plant (which the IDF denied targeting, although I’m not convinced: only took out 30% of Gaza’s electricity ( 8% comes from Egypt, and 62% comes from Israel. Hamas rockets that fell short already took down several of the lines bringing power into the strip ( cutting power by an additional 20%. So the end result could be to make Gaza more dependent on Israeli electrical generation, thereby giving the Israeli government more leverage over Gaza’s population in future negotiations.


    • Thanks for this. I didn’t want to comment on the arms themselves, because I have no grounding in the accuracy of weaponry (and I’d just seen claims regarding Iron Dome range from 90% effective to 90% ineffective). But the hit list made inaccuracy implausible and, after the attack on Beit Hanoun shelter, unbelievable.


  2. It seems that the strikes on UNRWA facilities have all been from artillery. Artillery strikes would be called in on a tactical level, not as part of a strategic bombing plan, so nothing I wrote above really applies to them.


    • I mean, at least the Beit Hanoun attack was a very slow process that involved decisions at a very high level, so it may not have been part of a pre-existing plan, but it was not an act of self-defence or rogue aggression. So, put together, the air strikes and deliberative artillery strikes conclusively demonstrate targeting of civilian life.


  3. The location was given 17 times, so someone either screwed up by not disseminating that information to tactical level officers, or by calling in the fire mission using the wrong grid coordinates, or they knew it was there and just didn’t care. The use of three or four shells indicates the artillery was firing for effect (they already had range and bearing firmly established). But I haven’t seen anything that indicates the normal chain of command was overridden to order a strike on the Beit Hanoun school. Have you?


    • I find it impossible to believe that the information was not disseminated on any of those seventeen occasions, particularly considering the negotiations for safe passage of civilians were between Israel and the United Nations.

      Alongside the strikes on five other UNRWA school-shelters and everything else, I find it distinctly unlikely that it was misdirected fire.

      I haven’t seen anything that suggests that the normal chain of command was overridden, no. That’s part of the problem, isn’t it? They must have been informed that it was an international safe zone. And they must not have been ordered not to attack the international safe zone.

      I’m not suggesting that someone overrode military command to launch an extrajudicial assault on the UN shelter, I’m suggesting that the assault on the UN shelter was a standard operation. The civilian administration knew what that building was. The military administration knew what that building was. The decision-making level of military command knew what that building was.

      Even if every single one of these attacks on civilians was reduced to the decision of a low-level officer, each would still indict a military strategy that very deliberately enabled those low-level officers to attack civilians. And considering the air strikes and artillery shelling of all of the other demonstrably civilian sites, it seems impossible to understand it as anything other than standard policy.


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