In their latest effort to rebut war crimes allegations, Israel’s defenders are seizing on a surprising tool: a collection of maps assembled by the United Nations as a guide for reconstructing the homes, institutions and, to the extent possible, lives of surviving victims destroyed by the Gaza campaign.
The maps and aerial photographs provide a detailed analysis of the destruction inflicted by Israel on Gaza during the 50-day operation known as Protective Edge. They were issued in late August by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but were not analyzed in the general media until now.
According to Dan Smith, an Israeli geographical information analyst based in Jerusalem, the atlas — produced by an agency that is usually critical of Israel —“validates Israel’s version that it attacked only Hamas targets in Gaza and that the damage corresponds with the IDF targets.”
The maps may or may not be helpful to those defending Israel’s moral conduct during the summer. But the real relevance of Smith’s analysis may be if Israel faces formal legal charges of war crimes.
That legal case relies on principles of international law that make the indiscriminate or disproportionate use of violence a war crime. And judgments on those points, in turn, depend on the ability of a combatant to show that the sites it bombed were valid military targets and that the force it exercised was proportionate to the threat they posed. A combatant must also show that it sought to minimize harm to civilians while seeking to damage or destroy those military targets.
Smith and others who have worked with him to interpret the OCHA maps noticed, among other things, that they included special markings for hospitals and power plants, and showed that Israel had not hit these.
Furthermore, according to Smith’s analysis, 72% of all damaged buildings were within 2 miles of the Israeli border. This, he believes, indicates that Israeli forces carefully chose their targets, striking mainly points adjacent to the border, where tunnels could have been dug to infiltrate Israel. His analysis also showed clusters of damaged buildings corresponding with the areas in which Israel conducted ground operations, mostly in an attempt to locate and destroy Hamas tunnels.
Perhaps most important, Smith’s analysis compared OCHA’s findings with a map that was published by the Israel Defense Forces during the war. The IDF map purports to show “terror sites” in the Shuja’iya neighborhood — one of the hardest-hit areas in Gaza. Smith’s analysis found an “uncanny correlation” between these putative Hamas sites on the IDF map and the buildings that Israel in fact eventually hit according to OCHA’s maps.
This, Smith said, demonstrates that Israel was hitting the sites it believed in good faith to be valid military targets on the basis of its best intelligence, not just bombing recklessly with no regard for civilians.
“While it is indeed upsetting that many uninvolved have been killed,” declared the right-leaning pro-Israel blog site Israellycool, for which Smith writes, “the lopsided portrayal of the ‘IDF attacks on Gaza’ is disingenuous.” The attacks, the blog concludes, “are in no way ‘random’ or ‘indiscriminate.’”
Critics, however, look at OCHA’s estimate of 2,131 Palestinians killed during the war — among them 1,473 civilians, or 70% of the total, including 501 children — as proof that Israel’s use of force was disproportionate, even given the possible presence of military targets. Israel suffered 68 deaths during the war, including four civilians, one of them a 4-year-old child. Some 500,000 Palestinians have also lost their homes because of the Israeli attacks.
“The question is not where the damage was done,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for B’Tselem, an Israeli organization that monitors human rights in the occupied territories, but were the attacks legal?