The general assumption many media outlets and international activists attempt to convey to the public is that when a state attacks civilian targets, the assailant state is inhumane, breaches international law, and disregards human rights. However, such statements are too abstract. In a conflict situation, states, as interest-driven entities, entitle themselves to take all necessary measures in order to ensure the achievement of their goals. Whether we like it or not, this may include targeting civilian targets.
The recent assault on the Gaza Strip has raised the issue of Israel’s military targeting Palestinian civilians and the morality of such actions. Regardless of debates on morality and legitimacy, attacking Palestinian civilians has political, economic, and social effects. This article will thus attempt analyse What could Israel’s political, social, and economic objectives and interests be in attacking Palestinian civilian targets?
Alongside various Israeli official statements on the aim of Operation Protective Edge, from "destroying tunnels used to conduct attacks on Israeli targets", to "preventing launch of rockets" and "restoring the quiet”, the true objectives of Israel can be predicted from the political outcomes which were pursued during the ceasefire negotiations in Cairo.
According to leaked information, Israel accepted the alleviation of the blockade imposed on Gaza, subject to the condition of the return of Palestinian Authority (PA) forces (mainly presidential guards who are Fateh affiliates) to control borders with Egypt, and the channelling of Hamas government employees’ salaries through the PA Ministry of Finance. Whereas in return to demands of establishing marine and air ports in Gaza, Israel demanded the complete dismantlement of Hamas arms and other militant groups, and a return to the Oslo Accords definitions whereby only the PA is entitled to possess arms for the purpose of maintaining civil order. Additionally, Israel's official statement stated that Israel did not intend to destroy Hamas completely, but rather to make it stops its military wing operations against Israeli targets. In other words, Israel’s declared aims are about containment and deterrence, not ending the conflict. With that in mind, how is targeting Palestinian civilians relevant in delivering such outcomes?
Politically, the Israeli Cabinet wants to send a message to Palestinians – people who are constantly differentiated by Israeli spokesmen from Hamas operatives – to the effect that supporting armed groups, especially Hamas, can only bring harm and damage to them. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of 22 August, the Palestinian death toll has seen 2,042 victims, of whom 1,444 have been identified as civilians. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has risen to 460,000 – more than a quarter of the entire Palestinian population of Gaza – 280,000 of which are taking shelter in UNRWA schools. A number of 10,224 Palestinians, including 3,106 children and 1,970 women and 368 elderly, have been injured. Over a thousand houses have been directly targeted by airstrikes and it is estimated that at least 17,200 housing units have been totally destroyed or severely damaged. These horrendous numbers reflect the extent to which the Israeli Cabinet wants the Palestinians of Gaza to believe that fighting back against Israeli control over Gaza will only make their lives worse. If they accept this, life can be easier for them.
More importantly, Israel’s current leadership wants Palestinians to be distracted from the core of the Palestine/ Israel conflict, which is its territorial core. By causing mass trauma and losses among civilians, they want Palestinians to be pre-occupied with survival in the present and short term future. As long as people are not able to patch together the broken pieces of their lives, they will not be able to address the major issues of the conflict. It is believed that through making Palestinians preoccupied with the reconstruction of Gaza, they will be deterred from the construction of Palestine. This will also aid Israel in diverting international attention from the mass land and property seizures through settlements and expulsions that are currently taking place in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Interestingly, the Israeli government wants to isolate the people from their political leadership. So far, no Palestinian political leader has been assassinated by Israel. It wants people to perceive that their suffering is much more severe than the suffering of their political leaders most of whom do not even reside in Gaza, but in safe havens like Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, and safe bunkers in Gaza. By doing so, Israel aims at creating a problem of representation within Palestinians many of whom will feel abandoned and having to endure great loss without any really tangible achievements.
Economically, and most significantly, Israel, as do many countries, benefits economically from conflict situations including this one.
First, it is a chance to look at the field effectiveness of Israeli military products. Every time Israel undertakes an assault on Gaza, many reports from Gaza disclose information about a new Israeli weapon or type of ammunition being used during the assault. Certainly, Israel’s military uses Gaza as a field to test its new arms and security technologies on live targets. This proves its efficiency to prospective buyers, which creates an industry for Israel worth over $7 billion annually.
Secondly, after reports of gas field discovery off-shore in Gaza, the Israeli government feels the need to secure those fields from any possible sabotage operations that might be undertaken by Hamas or other militant groups, because Israel is planning to start investing in these gas fields in the near future. By ‘disciplining’ Palestinians, no demands or attempts to disrupt the mining process shall take place, which ensures full security over these fields.
Thirdly, another rarely mentioned subject, Israel’s training programmes for counterinsurgency can utilise lessons learned from policing and forcing control for a long time on hostile areas such as Gaza. Israel's programmes to train foreign police forces have been reported on in America, and other countries. These training programmes have been held under the pretext of Israeli acquired experience in counter-terrorism tactics and are used to promote the reputation of the Israeli military industry, its relations and sales on a global level.
Socially, beyond changing public feelings and perception towards armed resistance, the Israeli government wants, at the minimal level, Palestinians in Gaza to go through severe social unrest during the aftermath of this operation where Hamas supporters (who brought Israeli destruction down on the heads of people in Gaza) are confronted by the other Palestinians in Gaza (who support either Fateh or are unaffiliated). In the long run, the Israeli government hopes that if its military operation does not succeed in enforcing desirable political outcomes, people will be unhappy with Hamas and its supporters.
Although this proved ineffective after the 2008/2009 and 2012 operations, the Israeli government now at least wants to prevent Hamas from having leverage over social cohesion, by putting it in the position of being constantly blamed for the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. Furthermore, during the 2014 operation, the Israeli government seems more determined to put an end to Hamas's ability to govern Gaza, after realizing that a containment policy of Hamas based on the idea of overwhelming it with government responsibilities had to a large extent failed. Hence, the blatant desire of Israel's Cabinet to re-install the Fateh regime in Gaza, which is relatively containable and more controllable for the Israelis.
This determination can also be interpreted through Israel's military new targeting of big industries and businesses in Gaza during the current conflict. The biggest private company in Gaza, the Alawda biscuit and ice cream factory, employing 400, was destroyed by a shelling barrage, other strikes have targeted a plastics factory, a sponge-making plant, the offices of Gaza's main fruit distribution network, the El Majd Industrial and Trading Corporation's factory for cardboard box, carton and plastic bag production, Gaza's biggest dairy product importer and distributor, Roward International. These very few industries and businesses in Gaza are mostly owned by wealthy families who have usually preserved good relations with Israeli businessmen (since mostly all its commodities and raw materials came through Israel).
They are generally not involved in armed resistance activities and were usually untargeted during such operations. Targeting this sector of Palestinian society aims to force businesses and industry-owning families in Gaza to rethink their silent support– or acceptance– for a Hamas government. This would put such wealthy families in a position to put pressure for a political outcome that secures their business interest with Israel and at the same time isolates Hamas even more from public support.
Unlike the belief that Israel is just a criminal-like state for targeting civilians, attacking Palestinian civilian targets should be seen broadly as part of their defined political, economic, and social objectives. Disregarding the moral and humanitarian debate is helpful to see beyond these atrocities of civilians. Expectedly, Israel will continue to attack Palestinian civilian targets in the future under false or legitimate pretexts, but of course with a broader vision for its utility.