Saletan criticizes Israel for retreating to its intentions to explain away the death and destruction in Gaza:
When you focus on intentions, it’s easy to lose sight of tactical decisions that endanger civilians as a side effect. High on this list is the IDF’s shift from guided missiles to artillery. Based on the U.N. review and its own reporting, the Times says the fatal hits in Jabaliya “were likely to have come from heavy artillery not designed for precision use.” Such artillery is “considered effective if it hits within 50 yards of its target.” That margin of error obviously increases the risk to civilians.
A human rights lawyer tells the Times that no matter how hard you try, “You just can’t aim that weapon precisely enough in that environment because it’s so destructive.” From the standpoint of good intentions, that’s an excuse. But morality isn’t just about where you aim. It’s also about the weapon you use. It’s easy to tell yourself that you aimed as well as you could, when the fatal decision was to use a weapon you couldn’t have aimed any better.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells suggests that Israel may not be as capable as it claims to be of launching “surgical strikes” after all:
Last week, the just war theorist and liberal Zionist Michael Walzer published a pained, moving defense and critique of Israel’s military actions in Gaza. He argued that Israel must be allowed to defend itself against disproportionate attacks, but that the IDF must also take more “positive efforts” to limit civilian casualties in Gaza, even if it means asking its own soldiers to take more risks. The State Department’s harshly worded statement after the Rafah attack followed a similar logical line.
But this all assumes that the Israeli military can in fact do better — that it can precisely control what its rocket strikes destroy in Gaza. The details of the attacks on U.N. shelters suggest this is somewhat less true than we often acknowledge. … Perhaps Israel’s military precision was always overhyped. Or perhaps this conflict is simply too messy, on the ground, to expect precision. Either way, it is impossible to describe the strikes in this conflict as surgical. They are everything but.
And as John Cassidy points out, the question of whether Israel has committed war crimes hinges on a bit more than the nobility of its intentions:
In an interview with Mike Huckabee on Fox News last week, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, said that Israel was guilty of war crimes, because it repeatedly launched attacks with the knowledge that the number of civilian casualties was likely to be disproportionate to the military gains. In a tweet on Monday, Roth said: “#Hamas still firing rockets indiscriminately at Israel. Those are war crimes. But they don’t justify #Israel’s own war crimes, killing many.”
Imposing collective punishment is also a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. The term refers to punitive sanctions of “any sort, administrative, by police action or otherwise,” that are imposed on targeted groups for actions which they themselves didn’t commit. Any postwar investigations are likely to focus on specific incidents and attacks that might fall under the collective-punishment rubric. For example, over the weekend, there were claims on social media that Israeli forces had shelled the marketplace in Rafah, causing numerous civilian casualties, after a Hamas attack in the city left two Israeli soldiers dead and one missing (and later declared dead). If such an attack did take place—and if it was intended to punish or terrorize the people of Rafah—it could be deemed a war crime.
(Photo: A Palestinian, injured by an Israeli military strike on a UN school, reacts as he lies on the ground, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on August 3, 2014. By Ali Hassan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)