The Horrific Results of Israel’s Good Intentions

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 4 2014 5:00 PM

The Horrific Results of Israel’s Good Intentions

How a civilized nation can descend into war crimes.

UN School.
A Palestinian man collects human remains from a classroom inside a U.N. school in the Jabaliya refugee camp after the area was hit by shelling on July 30, 2014.

Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

This morning, the New York Times published an investigative report on the deaths of 21 people at a United Nations school in Gaza on Wednesday. The school, located in the Jabaliya refugee camp, was serving as a shelter for more than 3,000 Palestinians who had fled their homes. The evidence so far indicates that Israeli artillery fire killed the victims.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

If you see Israel as a bully, the Jabaliya incident looks like a massacre, one of many deliberate strikes on civilian targets. If you see Israel as inherently moral—the world’s only Jewish state, democratic, besieged, and acting in self-defense—the natural inference is that somebody else, no doubt Hamas, must be responsible for the error. But the evidence suggests that the truth may lie in between: Any civilized country could commit such an atrocity. That doesn't make it any less an atrocity. In fact, it makes the atrocity even more disturbing.

Here’s the evidence, as compiled by U.N. investigators and the Times. The U.N. operates many shelters in Gaza and regularly sends their GPS coordinates to the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF had the coordinates of this facility. Like other such facilities, it had a U.N. flag. Based on the munitions, shrapnel, calculated trajectories, and testimony from two dozen witnesses, U.N. investigators concluded that three shells hit houses across from the school, two hit a classroom where refugees were sleeping, and one hit a courtyard where men were praying. According to Times reporters Ben Hubbard and Jodi Rudoren:

… the number, trajectory and blast marks of the shells all point to artillery. United Nations officials said shrapnel from the site had codes matching unexploded shells recovered from other schools that munitions experts identified as 155-millimeter artillery shells. Damage indicated the shells came from the northeast—where Israeli artillery units are stationed on the hills outside Gaza’s border.
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Israel received extensive photographic evidence of the destruction from the U.N. on Wednesday. At that point, an IDF spokeswoman said militants had “opened fire at Israeli soldiers from the vicinity” of the school and that Israeli troops had “responded by firing toward the origins of the fire.” The Times says it emailed a map of the shelled locations to the IDF’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, and “asked him to point out where Israeli forces were operating, and from where in the 200-yard radius around the school they saw enemy fire; he did not respond.” When the Times contacted the Israeli general whose committee investigates such incidents, he “said that he did not know the details of what happened in Jabaliya because the troops involved were still fighting and therefore had not been interviewed.” Both the general and the IDF spokesman “refused to say what ordnance was deployed.” The Times also asked to speak with representatives of Israel’s Coordination and Liaison Administration, which manages communications between the IDF and international organizations. These requests “were not granted, and detailed written questions about the Jabaliya episode were not answered.”

If the IDF caused these deaths, how does that culpability square with its stated commitment to spare civilians? How could this have happened? Here are four answers.

1. Good intentions. After the Gaza war of 2009, a U.N. report accused Israel of deliberately killing civilians in a strike at another school. Israel insisted that the civilian deaths were accidental and that its forces had aimed at militants firing a mortar from a site 80 meters away. The official in charge of the report, Richard Goldstone, later renounced the accusation that the strike was deliberate. Israel treated this as exoneration. But deliberateness isn’t everything. As the Times points out, Goldstone never retracted the report’s conclusion that the 2009 strike “cannot meet the test of what a reasonable commander would have determined to be an acceptable loss of civilian life for the military advantage sought.”

The same mentality is at work today. By the Times’ count, six U.N. shelters have been hit during the current war. IDF officials insist that none of them was targeted. But at some point, you’ve accumulated so many accidents and deaths that your good intentions are no longer a sufficient excuse. In fact, your fixation on good intentions is blinding you to your recklessness.

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