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Collateral Damage

Israel Update – Week of May 28, 2023

Collateral Damage: The New York Times (NYT) is one of the world’s most-read newspapers but because most of its internet feed requires a paid subscription, I usually get my information elsewhere. Last week, in the Emirates Lounge in Dubai, copies of the day’s NYT were there for the taking, and so I took one to read at home over the weekend. The NYT is sometimes accused of having an anti-Israel bias. One particular article in Friday’s paper proved, at least to this reader, that there is a large amount of truth to that accusation.

The article in question was titled, “When Israel’s ‘Precision Strikes’ Hit Civilians,” by Raja Abdulrahim. According to the NYT website, “Raja Abdulrahim is a correspondent in Jerusalem for The New York Times, writing about the occupied West Bank, Gaza and Israel with a special focus on Palestinian affairs.” The potential for an article favorable to Israel was decidedly low. (While this particular article was only available in the printed version of the newspaper, a similar article is available online for those with a paid subscription.) The article begins with the following words: “As the Khoswan family slept, the Israeli military dropped three GBU-39 bombs into their sixth-floor apartment.” In the next paragraph, Abdulrahim explains why three bombs were dropped into specifically that apartment: “The Israeli military had dropped the bombs into their home to assassinate the commander of the Palestinian armed group Islamic Jihad who lived in the apartment below.” The article then reverts back to the Khoswan family, leaving the identity of the “commander” out of the article. A few paragraphs later, Abdulrahim adds, “Six senior leaders of the armed group that Israel said had been responsible for rocket attacks on Israel were killed before a cease fire was reached on May 13.” The rest of the article describes an array of Israeli bombings that resulted in collateral damage, both in human life and in property. The article is written with pathos, describing the Khoswan family in very human terms and describing their death, and the deaths of families like them, at the hands of very inhuman Israelis who show no mercy and do not value human life. The article culminates with a quote from Amnesty International excoriating Israel for her drawing innocent bystanders into the conflict.

Some facts are in order. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. At 2:00 am on the night of May 9th, 2023, Israel conducted a series of airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, called “Operation Shield and Arrow.” Within twenty seconds, Israel assassinated three leaders of the PIJ. All of them were asleep in their homes. While all of them were bona fide terrorist leaders, one of them, Jihad Ghanem, was particularly nefarious. In his last position, he was entrusted with coordinating weapons and money transfers between the Hamas terrorist organization and the PIJ. On May 2, 2004, Ghanem orchestrated the murder of Tali Hatuel and her daughters. Tali had picked up her three oldest daughters from school near the town of Katif, in the Gaza Strip, where they lived, and drove with them and their 2-year-old sister in the family station wagon towards her husband's workplace in Ashkelon. Two PIJ terrorists, who had prepared an ambush near the highway, opened fire at the car, causing it to spin off the road. The attackers, who were armed with automatic rifles, then approached the vehicle and fired at each and every one of its passengers at point blank range. Tali was 34 and her daughters were aged 2-11. If there was anyone who warranted targeted assassination, it was Ghanem.

In the early 1980s, Israel made a decision to essentially bet the house on developing a new family of weapons. These weapons, called “Precision Guided Munitions (PGM),” would be able to impact a target within three feet of where it was aimed. Israel’s wager was met with success. Israel simultaneously developed the AGM-142 POPEYE and the SPIKE-NLOS missiles, leading the world into a new era. PGMs have changed the way that wars are fought. If in World War II, three squadrons of B-17 bombers were required to take out one German power plant and about a third of the bombers would not return from the mission, today one F-16 fighter aircraft can destroy sixteen targets in a radius of 100 kilometers. PGMs are not only deadly, they also save lives of noncombatants. Because PGMs are so precise, the amount of explosives needed to destroy a target is significantly lower than for a “dumb” bomb, reducing the amount of collateral damage. Further, certain PGMs, such as AGM-142 and SPIKE-NLOS, have a “mission abort” capability: if civilians unexpectedly enter the target area these weapons can be destroyed before impact.

PGMs were first used in battle in the First Gulf War in 1991. Since then, they have become progressively more precise and more prevalent, leading to a corresponding progressive reduction in the amount of civilians killed in combat. In Operation “Guardian of the Walls,” May 10-21, 2021, extensive Israeli use of PGMs led to the lowest percentage of civilian casualties in history. During that operation, Palestinian terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip indiscriminately launched 4,360 rockets at Israeli cities and towns in a systematic attempt to harm as many civilians as possible. Twelve Israelis, two of them children, were killed by rocket fire, and one Israeli soldier was killed by an anti-tank missile. 680 of the rockets fell inside the Gaza Strip, killing at least 21 people, 10 men, two women and nine children. During the operation the IDF attacked about 1,500 terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip, the overwhelming majority with precision weaponry. An analysis by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center of names of the 236 Palestinians killed in the attacks indicated that at least 114 of them (nearly half) belonged to terrorist organizations, most to the military-terrorist wings of Hamas and the PIJ: Eleven of the men between the ages of 17 and 40 were killed in IDF attacks on terrorist targets, but no information can be found linking them to terrorist organizations (one of them was a driver for a terrorist squad). This means that nearly 20% of the civilians killed in Gaza during “Guardian of the Walls” were killed by their own rockets.

Another NYT story tells an even more damning tale than Abdulrahim. Written in December 2021, an article titled “Hidden Pentagon Records Reveal Patterns of Failure in Deadly Airstrikes” reveals documents that “show flawed intelligence, faulty targeting, years of civilian deaths – and scant accountability” in American use of PGMs over the years. Here are two examples: [1] Shortly before 3 a.m. on July 19, 2016, American Special Operations forces bombed what they believed were three ISIS “staging areas” on the outskirts of Tokhar, a riverside hamlet in northern Syria. They reported 85 fighters killed. In fact, they hit houses far from the front line, where farmers, their families and other local people sought nighttime sanctuary from bombing and gunfire. More than 120 villagers were killed. [2] In early 2017 in Iraq, an American war plane struck a dark-colored vehicle, believed to be a car bomb, stopped at an intersection in the Wadi Hajar neighborhood of West Mosul. Actually, the car had been bearing not a bomb but a man named Majid Mahmoud Ahmed, his wife and their two children, who were fleeing the fighting nearby. They and three other civilians were killed. The article shows that PGMs are far from error-proof. They will hit exactly where they are aimed, regardless of who happens to be standing on their intended target and are thus highly dependent upon quality intelligence. If the intelligence is faulty, innocent people are going to die.

But this is not what happened to the Khoswan family. The IDF did not accidentally drop a bomb “into their home.” IDF intelligence had unequivocally pinpointed the locations of three PIJ senior terrorist leaders. The IDF did not want to destroy the buildings in which they were located. In cases that they do destroy buildings, the IDF first drops leaflets telling the residents to evacuate the building, then they drop an empty bomb on the roof of the building (called “knocking on the door”), and only then do they destroy the building. In “Operation Shield and Arrow”, the IDF wanted to kill the terrorists and leave the buildings standing. The apartments of the PIJ operatives were hit by American GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs (SDB). Each of these bombs carried only 40 pounds of high explosives (Compare with the MK83 bomb carried by the B-52, weapon of choice until 1991, carries 1000 pounds of explosive). The bombs went precisely where they were aimed. Only the target – the apartment that housed the terrorist leader – and immediately adjacent apartments – like the one in which the Khoswan family lived – were damaged. The death of the Khoswan family was nothing less than a tragedy. But to portray the IDF as cold-blooded killers is disingenuous. The killing of the PIJ terrorists, each with blood on his hands, decapitated the organization in one fell swoop, saving lives of not only Israelis but of countless Gazans who stood to die in a ground incursion that did not occur. While the PIJ subsequently fired 1500 rockets at Israeli population centers, Iron Dome rendered them a mere nuisance. When the PIJ finally got their pound of flesh – the death of an Israeli civilian by a direct hit in the town of Rehovot – they called for a cease fire.

It is telling that the story immediately above the Abdulrahim story described how Ukrainian Air Defense was coping with Russian missiles being fired at Kiev. Needless to say that Russian missiles were not being aimed at military targets, but rather at apartment buildings. Needless to say that the NYT did not take Russia for its ruthless behavior.

Israel will continue to do all that it can do to protect her citizens. At the same time, Israel will continue to do all that it can do to reduce collateral damage as much as humanly possible. Make no mistake: the lives of her citizens come first.

Wishing you a quiet week,

Ari Sacher

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