Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, went against the Obama administration’s own line when he said Thursday that the Israeli military acted “responsibly” and went to “extraordinary lengths” to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties during Operation Protective Edge last summer.
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki confirmed Friday during a daily press briefing in Washington that the administration still believes “Israel could have done more to prevent civilian casualties” during the offensive on the Gaza Strip.
She made the remarks in direct response to a question that referenced both the general’s declaration and the State Department’s condemnation of Israel’s Aug. 3 shelling of a United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency school in Rafah. Psaki issued a statement after that attack, saying that the US was “appalled.” She described it as “disgraceful.”
“The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israeli Defense Forces,” she said. “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians. We call for a full and prompt investigation of this incident as well as the recent shelling of other UNRWA schools.”
Dempsey made the remarks at a Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs conference in New York. He praised widely-criticized tactics, claiming that Israel’s dropping of leaflets and its “roof-knocking” sufficiently warned civilians of impending attacks.
“They did some extraordinary things to try to limit civilian casualties, to include calling out, making it known that they were going to destroy a particular structure,” Dempsey said.
“It’s an incredibly difficult environment, but I can say to you with confidence that I think that they acted responsibly,” he added.
Roof-knocking, which refers to the firing of a blank shell at the roof of a targeted structure to allegedly warn of an impending attack, has been panned by human rights groups.
“There is no way that firing a missile at a civilian home can constitute an effective ‘warning’,” Phillip Luther, Amnesty International’s Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program said in July, at the start of the assault. “Amnesty International has documented cases of civilians killed or injured by such missiles in previous Israeli military operations on the Gaza Strip.”
In November, Luther elaborated, saying that the possible presence of militants in civilian homes “would not absolve Israel of its obligation to take every feasible precaution to protect the lives of civilians caught up in the fighting.”
“The repeated, disproportionate attacks on homes indicate that Israel’s current military tactics are deeply flawed and fundamentally at odds with the principles of international humanitarian law,” he added.
Mahmoud Abu Rahma, coordinator for the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, echoed Luther’s July condemnation when he told CNN that the warnings are meaningless.
“Imagine you are in Gaza and there are airstrikes everywhere, and many families are in the bottom floor of their home,” he said. “Families miss the sound of the ‘warning’ missile because it sounds like just another explosion.”
The network noted that homes which weren’t targeted were severely damaged in strikes on neighboring homes that received “roof knocks”, and that some civilian homes were targeted and destroyed without receiving any warning.
Abu Rahma also told CNN that leaflets warning of attacks were meaningless when all infrastructure in Gaza, including UNRWA structures, were targeted by the Israeli military without evidence they were being actively used to shelter Palestinian militants.
“These are more threats than warnings,” he said.
The entire premise of the Israelis avoiding civilian casualties through warnings is questionable considering the alleged defensive aims of Protective Edge and the flimsy casus belli at the heart of the justification for the operation. Before tensions flared, the Israeli government had launched aggressive operations against Palestinians after accusing Hamas officials of orchestrating the kidnapping and murder of three teenage Israeli settlers in the West Bank. The New York Times reported on Sept. 4 that the Israeli investigation into the triple murder tendered “no evidence that the top leaders of Hamas directed or had prior knowledge of the plot to abduct the three Israeli youths.”
On Sept. 1, the United Nations said that 2,104 Palestinians, including at least 1,462 civilians, were killed in Israel’s assault on Gaza, and that 66 Israeli soldiers and 7 civilians were killed in Palestinians’ response.
Among the dead Palestinian civilians were scores killed after an indiscriminate assault on the Shujaiyah neighborhood of Gaza City. According to Al-Jazeera, the assault was described by an unnamed US military official as being designed to “kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible.”