Beyond Images - Briefing 7  Perspectives on the Arab-Israeli Conflict 
London - published Wednesday 21 August 2002

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"Israel’s security forces deliberately kill Palestinian civilians"

Israel flatly denies that it deliberately targets civilians

  • Israel denies outright that it targets civilians. Israel does not wish to inflict suffering on the Palestinian people and has no conceivable purpose in doing so.

  • Israel has a self-interest in a stable, secure and prosperous Palestinian society.

  • Its conflict is with the violent, rejectionist terrorist groups who are organised in Palestinian towns and villages, and who have carried out thousands of attacks against Israel in the last two years.

  • Israel’s armed forces have sought to minimise civilian casualties on the Palestinian side during its efforts to quell these attacks.

  • According to a leading commentator on the left-leaning Ha’aretz newspaper, in more than 100 Israeli operations against the self-proclaimed leaders of Palestinian terrorist groups, Palestinian civilians have been harmed on six occasions. This is a tragic statistic, but a relatively low one.

  • For Israel deliberately to target civilians would be unethical, and illegal under international law. It would also be politically unacceptable in Israel, inflame Palestinian feeling, and incur ongoing international condemnation. The Israeli Government recognises this.

  • This commitment translates into Israeli operations on the ground. Israel’s rules of military engagement strictly prohibit attacks by its soldiers on civilians. Many reports by Israeli soldiers and journalists describe how strictly these rules have been complied with in difficult combat situations.

Israel's Terrible Dilemma

  • In exercising its right of self-defence, it is impossible for Israel to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties altogether. This is the “terrible dilemma” facing Israel (in the words of an Israeli spokesman).

  • At least five Palestinian terrorist groups operate with virtually complete freedom in the West Bank and in Gaza. They openly declare their intention to kill and maim Israelis in the future. These groups can hardly express surprise that the Israeli armed forces target them.

  • Furthermore they have adopted a method of operation which makes civilian casualties inevitable - bomb factories situated in built-up areas, the booby-trapping of civilian homes, the use of civilian areas as launchpads for attacks in the apparent hope of drawing Israeli retaliation (see Beyond Images Briefing 11 - Casualty Figures: The Context).


  • Israel’s military assault on Jenin was carried out by Israeli reservists on foot, because any other form of attack would, in Israel’s view, have endangered the lives of Palestinian non-combatants.

  • Israel lost 23 soldiers in Jenin in its efforts to minimise Palestinian civilian casualties.

  • When NATO attacked the regime in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, and the USA attacked the Taleban in Afghanistan in 2001, neither sent in ground troops to combat heavily armed fighters. They chose to bomb from the air, causing extensive loss of civilian life and massive loss of property. Israel has shown far greater concern for Palestinian civilian welfare than NATO or the USA did in those instances for the civilians affected by their operations.

The Death of Muhammed Al-Dura

  • The tragic death of 12 year old Palestinian boy Muhammed Al-Dura, televised around the world in October 2000, caused an outcry and a rapid escalation of violence by the Palestinians.

  • Israeli soldiers were accused of deliberately pinpointing him. In fact, he was caught in cross-fire - the victim of a gun-battle raging around him between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinian militias.

  • Not only was he not "deliberately killed", but the question has been raised whether it was Israeli or Palestinian fire which led to his death. A German TV investigation suggests that Palestinian gunfire killed Muhammed Al-Dura, not Israeli gunfire.

The attack on Salah Shehadeh

  • Israel’s attack on Saleh Shehadeh was called off eight times, according to Israel’s Defence Minister, because on each occasion planners considered that there was too high a risk of Israel harming Palestinian civilians. (see Beyond Images Briefing 9 – Attacking Hamas’ Mastermind: The Israeli strike on Saleh Shehadeh)

  • For this reason, Israel faced the risk of Shehadeh continuing to plan massive atrocities against its citizens. Far from being indifferent to Palestinian civilian life, Israel appeared willing to risk attacks to its own rather than being able to intercept the mastermind behind them, if the effect would be Palestinian civilian casualties.

  • When the attack was carried out, Israeli decision-makers were not aware of the extent of the risk to children and non-combatants.

The consequences of war

  • Palestinian civilians have been killed by stray Israeli tank fire, by over-hasty firing by Israeli soldiers (usually inexperienced, young and frightened, and sometimes inadequately trained), by stray sniper fire, and by cross-fire. These incidents are the tragic side-effects of a war perpetuated by Palestinian groups. They are not the result of calculated Israeli policy.

  • Israeli Arabs have died in premeditated attacks - but not at the hands of Israel. They have died in Palestinian suicide strikes - in Haifa, Safed, Gilo, Wadi Ara, Tel-Aviv, Megiddo and in many other locations.

Israel is a transparent, democratic society seeking to retain moral values while under ruthless attack

  • Israel’s media, its human rights groups, politicians and judiciary are constantly vigilant about the possibility of deliberate killings. Incidents are investigated.

  • Arab victims of the violence are treated in Israeli hospitals - even the perpetrators of failed suicide bombings.

  • During Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, Israel offered to make bloodbanks available for the treatment of Palestinians injured in the fighting, but the offer was rejected by the Palestinian Authority.

Beyond Images Conclusion

  • Israel is a democratic country in which its leaders are held accountable for their deeds, and which is struggling daily with the dilemmas of fighting a war against a type of terrorism which has never been inflicted on any other society.

  • Israel's critics make the false charge that Israel targets civilians. Yet at the same time they either ignore, understate, condone or express "understanding" for the murder of Israelis by Palestinian groups.

  • This stance encourages the terrorists to believe in the "justice" of their actions. It therefores contributes to perpetuating violence.


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