Palestinians carry a body into the Shifa Hospital morgue, Gaza City, July 20, 2014.
Palestinians carry a body into the Shifa Hospital morgue, Gaza City, July 20, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

Why Obama Wants Israel to 'Do More' About Civilian Deaths

Jul 23, 2014

As the death toll in Gaza escalates, so does the pressure from Washington on Israel to limit the killing. President Obama has conveyed his "concern" about Palestinian civilian casualties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Hell of a pinpoint operation," John Kerry sardonically cracked on Sunday. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told CNN Tuesday that Israel appears to be "over doing it," and is hurting its "moral authority."

But while the U.S. is clearly distressed about the rising civilian death toll in Gaza, now at around 650 Palestinian dead, the Obama administration won't say what it wants Israel to do about it.

"I think probably they could take some greater steps, maybe could do a little bit more," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Tuesday.

But when pressed to explain what "do more" actually means, Harf demurred. "I don’t have any specifics for you. It’s a conversation we’ll continue having with them."

Harf wasn't going off message. Later in the day, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes also said that Israel "can do more" to curtail the death of innocents. But Rhodes did not elaborate either.

So it's not quite clear just what the Obama team is trying to say. There are a few ways Israel could "do more" to limit Palestinian casualties, but we have to guess at what Washington means.

One would be for Israel to hold its fire entirely. But that's clearly not the U.S. position. Obama wants Israel to agree to a ceasefire, but not a unilateral one. U.S. officials repeat over and over that Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas's rocket attacks.

Is it Israel's ground invasion that America opposes? It is true that the U.S. sought to dissuade it. "Nobody wants to see a ground invasion because that would put more civilians at risk," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on July 14, days before Israeli troops crossed Gaza's border. But the U.S. has not appealed for an Israeli ground withdrawal.

That leaves the question of specific targeting decisions. Israel says it is extremely careful in this regard, noting that it takes steps to warn innocents about impending attacks, including evacuation notices, cell phone calls and low-explosive warning "knocks." But it has still killed numerous Palestinians in their homes. Two weeks ago it killed several young boys playing on a beach. This week, its tanks shelled a Palestinian hospital that Israel said Palestinian militants were using as a base. Both tragic and damaging to Israel's reputation, these are probably the sorts of incidents the U.S. would like to prevent.

Israeli officials say that of course they don't want to bomb hospitals—but that they're in an impossible position. Hamas fighters operate in civilian areas, and store weapons or plan battles from places like homes and hospitals, they say. The Israelis even argue that Hamas actually welcomes and facilitates the death of its people. Hamas has urged Gazans to ignore Israeli evacuation orders. In recent footage from Hamas's television network shown to TIME by an Israeli official, a Hamas leader says: "We, Hamas, call on our people to adopt this practice" of "sacrificing themselves to defend their homes."

In this challenging environment, Israeli officials say they analyze every strike, consulting military lawyers as they run a calculation that involves a kind of moral mathematics. As Israel's ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer told reporters yesterday, that means weighing the civilian toll of a strike against the potential future harm to Israeli soldiers and civilians that might come from inaction.

That's obviously an extremely difficult—and highly subjective—calculation. Dermer says Israel would never kill fifty children in a classroom to destroy one Hamas rocket; whereas he says one civilian death would be an acceptable price for destroying 200 rockets. But where's the line? Would Israel accept the death of one child to destroy a dozen rockets? A dozen children for 500 rockets? Bear in mind that those rockets almost never land with lethal results; two Israelis have been killed by the roughly 2000 Hamas rockets fired this summer. That's a 0.1 percent fatality rate per rocket. And yet any given rocket could destroy a school bus or nursing home and render that figure tragically obsolete.

Nor are fatalities the only relevant metric. Israel is also trying to measure the impact of those rockets on its society, economy, and tourism industry. And how to weigh the economic and psychological cost of cancelled flights into Israel's Ben Gurion international airport? Then there's the additional matter of Hamas's underground tunnels, meant to enable terrorism and kidnapping within Israel, and the stated reason for Israel's ground invasion.

When Obama officials ask Israel to "do more," they seem to be encouraging a revised moral equation. Of course, the U.S. can never micromanage individual targeting decisions. But Obama may want Israel to conduct fewer strikes, perhaps omitting targets like hospitals, even that if it means accepting more risk to its soldiers and civilians. Some philosophers contend that demonstrably accepting more risk to protect civilians is the grim duty of a just combatant against an enemy using civilian shields.

Beyond the humanitarian and philosophical argument for that, there's also a strategic one. Israel must weigh the Hamas threat against a more intangible threat to its international reputation. The United Nations' top human rights official is suggesting that Israel (along with Hamas) may be guilty of war crimes. Yes, we've been here before: a 2009 U.N. report charged Israel with targeting civilians during its 2006 offensive in Lebanon. Its chief author later recanted that conclusion—but not before real damage was done to Israel's image.

Which brings us back to Obama. The president doesn't want to appear indifferent to Palestinian suffering—one senior official recalls how his standing in the Muslim world plunged after he seemed to condone Israel's December 2008 Gaza incursion—even if he sympathizes with Israel, and might even respond in much the same way. Obama has accepted plenty of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and from U.S. drone strikes elsewhere, after all. But he evidently feels he needs to say something, even if it's not very clear what he means.

A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.
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A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.Oliver Weiken—EPA
A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in Gaza City, July 27, 2014.
Palestinian men gather things they found in the rubble of destroyed buildings on July 27, 2014 in the Shejaiya residential district of Gaza City as families returned to find their homes ground into rubble by relentless Israeli tank fire and air strikes.
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A Palestinian man walks past destroyed houses in Beit Hanoun northern Gaza Strip, July 26 2014.
Palestinian women react amid the destruction in the northern district of Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip during an humanitarian truce on July 26, 2014.
Destruction in Gaza City
Palestinian girls peers from inside a UN school in Jabalia, north Gaza Strip, on July 25, 2014, where they found shelter after escaping from their home.
Smoke from an Israeli strike rises over the Gaza Strip, July 25, 2014.
Israeli APCs drive near the Israeli border with Gaza as the come out of the Gaza Strip July 25, 2014.
Mortar cases are piled at a military staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
A Palestinian man holds a girl injured during shelling at a U.N.-run school sheltering Palestinians, at a hospital in the northern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014.
Blood stains of displaced Palestinians are seen inside the UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun after it has been hit, Gaza Strip, July 24, 2014.
A Palestinian woman stands in front of buildings damaged by Israeli bombardment in the Jabalia district of the northern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014.
Relatives hold the bodies of Palestinian children Hadi Abdel Nabi, 3, and one and a-half-year-old Abdel Rahman Abdel Nabi, at the cemetery in Jebaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, during their funeral, July 24, 2014.
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Displaced Palestinians from Beit Hanoun sleep inside the UNRWA school in Jabalia, July 23, 2014.
Wounded Israeli soldiers are brought to a helicopter on July 23, 2014 near Kafar Aza, Israel.
Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Comrades of slain Sgt. Max Steinberg are comforting each other at Mt. Herzl cemetery, Jerusalem, July 23,2014.
Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border
Palestinians take cover as warning Israeli air strikes are fired at a nearby building in Gaza City, July 22, 2014.
Women grieve during the funeral of Islamic Brigades fighter Abdalla Ismail al Buheisi, in Deir Al Balah, on the Gaza Strip.
Gaza Strip, Gaza Street: A Palestinian man looks through the window of his house at the buildings damaged  overnight by an airstrike in Gaza City.. ALESSIO ROMENZI for TIME
A mosque destroyed overnight in attacks in Rafah, Gaza.
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Israeli soldiers evacuate their wounded comrades at an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, on July 20, 2014.
Israeli soldiers stand near their tank while smoke due to airstrikes and shelling rises from Gaza on July 22, 2014 near Sderot, Israel.
Conflict in Gaza
Palestinian men bury the bodies of a family who was killed after airstrike in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian refugees unload mattresses at a United Nations shelter in Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 19, 2014.
Palestinian refugees unload mattresses at a United Nations shelter in Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 19, 2014.
Palestinians flee the Shujayeh neighborhood during heavy shelling in Gaza City. July 20, 2014.
Palestinian woman gestures as she stands amidst the rubble of her house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
A damaged house in Shujaya district in Gaza, seen during a humanitarian cease-fire, July 20, 2014.
Palestinian man holds the hand of a woman, who medics said was wounded in an Israeli air strike, in the northern Gaza Strip
Relatives of three Palestinians from Abu Muamar family, who medics said were killed in an Israeli air strike, mourn during their funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians flee east Gaza neighbourhood
Palestinians carry a body inside the Shifa Hospital morgue, in Gaza City. July 20, 2014.
Casualties mount in Gaza City, Israel expands ground operation
A Palestinian woman wearing clothes stained with the blood of other relatives, who medics said were wounded in Israeli shelling, cries at a hospital in Gaza City
Palestinians, who medics said were wounded during heavy Israeli shelling, sit at a hospital in Gaza City
Rescue workers enter Shuja'iyya to retrieve dead and wounded
A Palestinian girl sits in a minibus after fleeing her family's house during heavy Israeli shelling, in Gaza City
Palestinian woman, who fled her house following an Israeli ground offensive, stays at a United Nations-run school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Israeli soldiers fire their weapons during the funeral of their comrade Bnaya Rubel in Holon
Funeral of Israeli soldier Amotz Greenberg
Smoke rises during what witnesses said were heavy Israeli shelling at the Shejaia neighbourhood in Gaza City
A Palestinian family who fled their homes is en route to seek shelter in a UN school in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
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Death toll rises in Gaza
Israeli tanks maneuver outside the Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli soldiers put on their gear on the side of a road across from the Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli soldiers rest inside an armoured personnel carrier outside central Gaza Strip
APTOPIX Mideast Israel Palestinians
Multiple rocket launches from a site inside the Gaza Strip firing towards Israel as seen from a lookout point in southern Israel on July 17, 2014.
A Palestinian salvages rubble of their destroyed homes after their apartment building was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City on July 18, 2014.
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Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family, during their funeral in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Mideast Israel Palestinians Photo Gallery
Netream Netzleam holds the body of her daughter Razel, 1, who died in an Israeli air strike on Thursday afternoon, at her funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli troops move into Gaza
A Palestinian Christian man from Gaza tries to push the coffin of Jalila Ayad in her grave during her funeral on the small and overcrowded cemetery of the St. Porfirius church in G
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Oliver Weiken—EPA
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