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Why has Israel attacked so many Palestinian civilian targets?

The general assumption that many media outlets and international activists attempt to convey to the public is that when a state attacks civilian targets it is inhumane, breaches international law and disregards human rights. However, such statements are abstract. In a conflict situation, states are interest-driven entities and 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 so-called civilian targets.

The recent assault on the Gaza Strip has raised the issue of Israel's targeting of Palestinian civilians. Regardless of the debates on morality and legitimacy, attacking Palestinian civilians has political, economic and social aims and effects.

Various official Israeli statements on the objectives of Operation Protective Edge have been issued, from "destroying tunnels used to conduct attacks on Israeli targets" to "preventing the launch of rockets" and "restoring the quiet". Israel's real objectives can be deduced from the political outcomes which were pursued during ceasefire negotiations in Cairo.

According to leaked information, Israel had accepted lifting the blockade imposed on Gaza subject to the return of Palestinian Authority (PA) forces (mainly presidential guards, who are Fatah affiliates) to control the border with Egypt, and the channelling of Hamas government employees' salaries through the PA Ministry of Finance. In response to demands for the establishment of marine and air ports in Gaza, Israel demanded the complete dismantlement of Hamas and other resistance groups, and a return to the Oslo Accords' understanding that only the PA is entitled to possess arms for the purpose of maintaining civil order.1 Additionally, Israel's official statement stated that it does not intend to destroy Hamas completely, but rather to make it stop its military operations against Israeli targets.2 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, who are different to Hamas operatives in Israeli eyes 3, 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 from Protective Edge was 2,042, 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. More than 10,200 Palestinians, including 3,106 children and 1,970 women, and 368 elderly, have been injured. Over a thousand houses have been targeted directly by airstrikes and it is estimated that at least 17,200 housing units have been totally destroyed or severely damaged.4 These horrendous statistics reflect the extent to which Israel wants Gaza's Palestinians to believe that fighting back against Israeli control over the territory will only make their life worse. If they accept occupation, life can be easier for them, relatively-speaking.

More importantly, the current coalition government in Israel wants Palestinians to be distracted from the core of the Palestine-Israel conflict, which revolves around land. By causing mass trauma and losses among civilians, Israel wants Palestinians to be pre-occupied with survival. As long as people are not able to put together the pieces of their shattered lives, they will not be able to address the major issues of the conflict. The Israeli government believes that through making Palestinians preoccupied with the reconstruction of Gaza, they will be deterred from the construction of Palestine as a whole. This will also aid Israel in diverting international attention from the mass seizures of land and properties by illegal settlements and the expulsion of the people that are currently taking place in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Interestingly, the Israeli government also wants to isolate the people from their political leadership. So far, no Palestinian political leader has been assassinated by Israel. The government wants people to perceive that their suffering is much more severe than the suffering of their political leaders, of whom most do not even live in Gaza; they're in safe havens like Jordan, Qatar and Turkey. Those who are in Gaza have bunkers deep underground for their safety. By doing this, Israel aims to create a problem of representation among Palestinians who will feel abandoned, having suffered great losses without any real achievements.

Israel benefits economically from conflict situations (as do many other states) including this one. For a start, its weapons industry is able to field test its new products; Gaza is the testing ground where new weapons and ammunition can be tried against live targets.5 This is attractive to potential buyers in the international arms market, which nets over $7 billion for Israel annually.6 Israel's military links with other countries increase after every attack on the Gaza Strip due to the increase in the number of arms deals. In March, Argentina made a deal with Israel to buy fighter jets worth millions of US dollars.7 In February 2012, Israel signed an arms contract with Azerbaijan worth $1.6 billion; it included the sale of drones as well as anti-aircraft and missile defence systems.8 Between 2002 and 2007, India bought $5 billion worth of defence equipment from Israel.9

After reports of gas fields discovered off the coast of Gaza, the Israeli government feels the need to secure the sites against possible sabotage by Hamas or other groups because it is planning to start investing in gas production in the near future.10 By "disciplining" the Palestinians, no demands or attempts to disrupt the process are likely to happen, which ensures the security of the gas fields.

A rarely-mentioned subject is Israel's counterinsurgency training programme that usually utilise lessons learnt from policing and fighting in hostile areas such as the Gaza Strip. Israel trains foreign police forces in America,11 Argentina, Chile, Ethiopia and other countries. This training is held under the pretext of Israel's experience in counter-terrorism tactics and is used to further the reputation of the Israeli military industry and sales on a global level.

Beyond changing public feelings and perceptions towards armed resistance, the Israeli government wants, at the very least, Palestinians in Gaza to go through severe social unrest during the aftermath of this operation to the extent that Hamas supporters (who are accused of having brought down Israeli destruction on the people of Gaza) are confronted by other Palestinians, who support either Fatah or are unaffiliated. In the long run, the Israelis hope that if their military operation does not succeed in enforcing desirable political outcomes, the Palestinians will at least be unhappy with Hamas and its supporters.12

Although this was ineffective after the 2008/2009 and 2012 operations, the Israeli government wants to prevent Hamas from having the leverage of social cohesion by putting it in the position of being blamed for the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. Furthermore, during the 2014 attack, Israel seemed more determined to put an end to Hamas's ability to govern Gaza after realising that efforts to contain Hamas, by making it overwhelmed by government responsibilities, have failed to a large extent. This is clear through the Israeli cabinet's desire to reinstall a Fatah regime in Gaza, which is relatively more containable and controllable.

This determination can also be seen in Israel's targeting of industry and businesses in Gaza during the current conflict. The biggest private company in Gaza, the Alawda biscuit and ice cream factory, employing 400 people, was destroyed by Israeli bombs; other strikes 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, as well as Gaza's biggest dairy product importer and distributor, Roward International.13 These few industries and businesses in Gaza are mostly owned by wealthy families who usually maintained good relations with Israeli businessmen; almost all of their raw materials were sourced through Israel.

Such businesses are generally not involved in armed resistance activities and have usually been ignored during Israel's military operations. Targeting this sector of Palestinian society aims to force businesses and industry-owning families in Gaza to rethink their tacit support for, or acceptance of, a Hamas government. This puts wealthy families in a position to lobby for a political outcome that secures their business interests with Israel and at the same time isolates Hamas even further from public support.

Instead of believing that Israel is just a criminal state for targeting civilians, the tactic should be seen broadly as part of a defined political, economic and social strategy. Disregarding the moral and humanitarian debate is helpful to see beyond the undoubted atrocities against civilians, which are expected to reoccur in the future.

The author is a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, Palestine. He is currently studying international politics in London, UK.

1 Palestinian and Israeli talks in Cairo lead to 24-hour ceasefire extension

2 Is Israel Facing a War of Attrition against Hamas?

Several statements in this regard were issued by Avichay Adraee, the Israeli Army Arabic Spokesman. Please refer to his Facebook page used for delivering such statements.

4 Gaza Emergency Situation Report (as of 22 August 2014, 08:00 hrs)

5 Gaza: a testing ground for Israeli military technology

Defense equipment and arms exports from Israel to reach $7 billion in 2012

7 Argentina buying 30-year-old Israeli fighter jets

8 Israel signs $1.6 billion arms deal with Azerbaijan

9 India-Israel Bilateral Relations: Current Status and Future Prospects

10 IDF's Gaza assault is to control Palestinian gas, avert Israeli energy crisis

11 U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation: Joint Police & Law Enforcement Training

12 Is Israel Facing a War of Attrition against Hamas?

13 'They want to make us dependent on aid' – Gaza's economy ruined by Israeli shelling' 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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