First of all, we should be clear; the IDF never deliberately targets civilians. In fact, every non combatant casualty is not only a tragedy, but also tactically counterproductive, as it has the potential to restrict Israeli action and prevent it from reaching its goals. Hamas famously operates on the inverse principle, absorbing casualties at home to strengthen its 'resistance' campaign whilst deliberately targeting Israeli civilians.
The group has fired over 2,800 rockets (as of time of writing) during the current campaign indiscriminately into Israeli communities. It is also worth reminding oneself of the Hamas charter; every Jew is an enemy.
From an ethical perspective, the IDF, as a conscript army, made up of Israel's sons and daughters, would not and could not countenance orders that did not aim to minimise these fatalities as much as possible. The sanctity of 'human life' is enshrined in the values of the IDF. Other principles, such as 'purity of arms', acknowledges the responsibility, when in charge of lethal weapons, of ensuring they are only discharged according to strict rules of engagement.
I know from my own experience serving inside Gaza that when confronted with a gunman shooting at us in a building opposite, we would only return fire when we could see the shooter itself. We were not permitted to shoot at the window from where he appeared as we did not know who else was in the room.
From a political perspective, Israel is acutely aware that it operates within the framework of international law. In a region where thousands of people are dying in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, Israel measures itself to a higher standard that her neighbours, and rightly so. The Jewish State should be judged in comparison to the conduct of other Western states and/or NATO operations. However it is worth remembering a significant difference; the proximity of the theatre of war and the concurrent threat to the home front.
With regard to incidents that seem to run contrary to this value system, where significant numbers of civilians have been killed, we should reserve judgement till the fog of war clears a little. There is much to clarify once the fighting is over. In some cases the IDF have produced evidence that Hamas rockets fell short, damaging the al-Shifa hospital. In addition it is known that Hamas bases a significant part of its command structure deliberately underneath schools, hospitals and mosques. In other cases, they have been deliberately used to store and fire weapons.
A major actor is missing
The images, as horrific as they are, only portray one aspect of the conflict. The major actor that is missing from your TV screens is Hamas and other terror organisations. As well as the offensive tunnels they have built into Israeli territory – the destruction of which is the IDF's main objective - there are an additional set of tunnels - a labyrinth deep under Gaza where the Hamas commanders and leaders remain, sending instructions to their fighters and civilian population from the safety of their bunkers.
So far, the IDF has yet to penetrate these bunkers. It remains to be seen how the Gazan population react to their leaders when or if they emerge from hiding. Also invisible from the TV coverage are the ambushes and booby-trapped houses that Hamas has put in place to kill and capture Israeli soldiers. Some of the destruction in the civilian neighbourhoods in Gaza is caused by these Hamas munitions.
Why are so many of the victims male?
One other potential distortion to the coverage is the precise figures of fatalities. At the moment the only source is the Palestinian health ministry, which is of course controlled by Hamas. They have a clear agenda to push up civilian casualties and downplay combatants. While the precise figures will take some time to verify it is worth remembering: not all Hamas terrorists wear combat uniform. Among Hamas's definition of 'children' could be young men in the late teens – combatants.
If the killing was completely arbitrary you would expect an equal number of men and women. As it is a strong majority have been males aged between 18-50. There have been reports based on Israeli intelligence that suggest around a third of those killed are terrorists whilst a further third are still to be determined.
Amid so much death and destruction, it is difficult to find anything positive. One possible silver lining could ironically be found in the Palestinian reconciliation government, established just three months ago.
Though initially criticised by the Israeli government, precisely because it legitimised Hamas, this could now provide the mechanism to allow Palestinian Authority forces back into Gaza (Hamas brutally kicked them out 2007). If that happens, Israel, along with her moderate Arab allies – the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan – can begin to rebuild Gaza for the sake of her citizens. The catchphrase to look out for is 'demilitarisation for reconstruction'.
Richard Pater is a political analyst based in Jerusalem. Originally from London, he has served in the IDF reserves for the last ten years. Richard is the Director of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) in Israel.