Israel’s Justification for Killing Palestinians

by KATHLEEN CHRISTISON Former CIA Political Analyst

Any discussion of violence and non-violence in the Israeli-Palestinian context encounters a serious problem of definition of terms. First, each side apparently understands its use of violence as a reaction to the violence of the other. In this regard, while Israelis and Palestinians generally agree on a definition of Palestinian violence–from low level stone throwing to suicide bombings–Palestinians define Israeli “violence” in a unique way: occupation, settlement construction, closures, and curfews are “violence”, regardless of how and why they came about or whether bullets are fired or people injured. This brings us to the issue of moral equivalency. In Palestinian eyes, the inadvertent killing by Israeli forces of Palestinian civilians–usually in the course of shooting at Palestinian terrorists–is considered no different at the moral and ethical level than the deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians by Palestinian suicide bombers. While the shockingly high numbers of Palestinian civilians killed during the past two years undoubtedly, in some cases, reflect poor judgment or lax discipline on the part of some Israeli troops, in Palestinian eyes there is no grey area here: all violence is equivalent, whatever the motive and backdrop.

Yossi Alpher (former director, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University), “Violence and Non-Violence by Palestinians and Israelis: A Question of Definition,” bitterlemons.org, October 7, 2002


Dear Dr. Alpher:

I have just read your article on non-violence in the October 7 issue of bitterlemons.org, and I want to express my dismay at your attempt to exonerate Israel for its actions since the intifada began, as well as your display of a selective morality that devises alibis for Israeli violence while condemning Palestinian violence.

At the start, you label as “unique” the Palestinian view that the occupation itself and such actions as settlement construction and closures constitute Israeli violence. I would argue, on the contrary, that this Palestinian definition of violence is not at all unique but is entirely appropriate.

Land confiscation by military force is theft, which is violence. As you well know, Israel has confiscated approximately 60% of the land area of the West Bank for military use, for settlement construction, and for road-building. The theft (violence) has been unprovoked. None of this confiscation can be explained away as a response to Palestinian terrorism. Moreover, this violence takes land from Palestinians for the exclusive use of Jews–a vile form of ethnic/religious discrimination that compounds the violence.

House demolitions carried out by military force against civilians who have no recourse to the law clearly constitute violence. When the demolitions are carried out because Palestinians have built or expanded homes without a permit, in a situation where permits are consistently denied to Palestinians, the demolitions cannot be explained away as a response to Palestinian terrorism. When the demolitions are carried out against the families of suspected Palestinian terrorists, this violence is unprovoked by the victims of the Israeli action. This is collective punishment (violence), which is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The forcible confiscation of natural resources such as water by a military administration or by armed settlers is theft, which is violence. The indisputable fact that Israeli settlers use approximately ten times as much water per capita as the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza are allowed to use, and that Palestinians must often stand in line to obtain drinking water while Israeli settlers enjoy lush gardens and swimming pools, constitutes the worst kind of violence: a violence directed at a civilian population simply because of its ethnicity and/or its religion, or rather its lack of the right ethnic or religious identity–because it is not Jewish. The denial of the basic necessities of life and basic public services to a people because they are not Jewish is violence of such immorality that it takes one’s breath away.

You then proceed to compare Palestinian and Israeli violence and declare that there can be no moral equivalence between Israel’s “inadvertent killing” of Palestinian civilians, “usually in the course of shooting at Palestinian terrorists,” and the Palestinians’ “deliberate targeting” of Israeli civilians. Your construction assumes that all Israeli killing of civilians is inadvertent, whereas all Palestinian killing of civilians is deliberate. I wonder how you explain the following:

On September 29, 2000, seven Palestinian civilians throwing stones–not lethal weapons–to protest Sharon’s visit the previous day to the al-Aqsa Mosque were shot to death by Israeli soldiers and police. The shooting was not inadvertent; nor was it a response to Palestinian terrorism. The protestors were not terrorists and did not carry arms. Although Orthodox Jews in the Mea Shearim district of Jerusalem have for years thrown stones at anyone they consider a Sabbath violator, Israeli police and military have never once fired on them.

In the first few days of October 2000, 13 Israeli-Palestinian civilian protesters–some totally unarmed, some throwing stones, none carrying arms, none terrorists–were shot to death by Israeli police. The shooting was not inadvertent; nor was it a response to Palestinian terrorism. It bears repeating that, although Orthodox Jews have for years thrown stones at anyone they consider a Sabbath violator, Israeli police have never ever fired on them.

According to an Israeli journalist, a check by Israeli army intelligence three weeks into the intifada revealed that “the IDF had shot, in the first few days of the Intifada, about 700,000 different shells and bullets in the West Bank and 300,000 more in Gaza. All together about a million shells and bullets. Someone in the Central Region Command later termed the project ‘a bullet for every child.’ An astronomic number that provides evidence as to what happened on the ground . The IDF had been preparing for this Intifada for years, and when it broke out, it unloaded its prolonged frustration on the Palestinians . In the [Israeli] political as well as military systems there is a view that it was perhaps the IDF destructive reaction and the blow the Palestinians took in the first weeks that made the situation deteriorate and escalated it . In the beginning of October, the balance was 75 Palestinians dead with only four Israeli victims.” [“The Intifada’s Second Anniversary,” by Ben Kaspit, Maariv, September 6, 2002]

During the first month of the intifada, through the end of October 2000, 117 Palestinian civilians were killed, including 32 kids under the age of 18 (18 under the age of 16). The killing of these 117 Palestinians was not inadvertent, and it was not a response to Palestinian terrorism. Except for the horrible lynching of two Israeli soldiers (whose perpetrators were arrested and were not among the Palestinians killed during this first month), there was no Palestinian terrorism in this period.

An American reporter watching a Palestinian funeral procession in Nablus in October 2000 watched as Palestinian teenagers broke away from the funeral near an Israeli checkpoint and took slingshots out of their pockets. “Stones were fired from slingshots, none coming close to the Israelis sitting inside a jeep with wire mesh over the windows. … [After half an hour] the first shot rang out–a loud crack coming from the direction of the Israeli checkpoint. Another crack of weapons fire was heard, then another. Then the scattered pops became a burst, this time coming from the tree line on the hill. One young Palestinian went down, blood gushing from behind his ear. But he was alive, grazed by a ricochet. A young man shouted and pointed to a rooftop on the hill. Four small figures, Israeli soldiers, had taken positions behind the parapet and were seen taking aim. The crack-crack-crack of automatic weapons fire cut through the air, and two young men went down. One was shot in the thigh. The other was shot in the forehead, between the eyes he was the day’s first fatality. [Four teenagers made molotov cocktails, without lighting them, and tried to sneak up on the Israeli checkpoint.] Suddenly from the far right, in the hills, came a burst of automatic weapons fire that sent the young men into temporary retreat. Some pointed to the hilltop, warning that Israeli sharpshooters were there. Then came a rapid burst of what sounded like heavy machine-gun fire. One long burst, then another. Two more young men fell, one shot in the head. The automatic weapons fire came closer, and from all directions–from the Israeli checkpoint, from the concrete house on the hill and from the tree line. No fire had been heard coming from the Palestinian side. But other reporters said they saw young Palestinians shooting from behind a wall–and that their shots had started the gunfire. Then the ambulances brought in a young boy with the back of his head missing. Behind him, friends ran in, shouting and carrying a piece of cardboard. On the cardboard were pieces of the boy’s brains they had scooped off a wall. [The 14-year-old boy had been trying to pry a bullet out of a wall when he was shot.] ‘His brains got stuck on the wall. He got stuck on the wall’ [said two witnesses]. The final count in Nablus was at least five dead, perhaps six, and dozens injured.” [“Death in the Afternoon,” by Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, October 21, 2000]

An Israeli journalist conducted a lengthy interview with an Israeli sharpshooter in November 2000, who described himself as very careful about when he fired and described IDF orders for opening fire as “moderate”–meaning “sharpshooters are given precise orders to open fire. On people who throw firebombs, you aim for the legs, but people who pull out weapons can be shot straight on.” They discussed the permissible age of Palestinian targets. “You haven’t shot children? All the sharpshooters haven’t shot children. If they were children, they were mistakes. They forbid us to shoot at children. How do they say this? You don’t shoot a child who is 12 or younger. That is, a child of 12 or older is allowed? Twelve and up is allowed. He’s not a child any more, he’s already after his bar mitzvah. Something like that. Thirteen is bar mitzvah age. Twelve and up, you’re allowed to shoot. That’s what they tell us. Again: twelve and up you’re allowed to shoot children. Because this already doesn’t look to me like a child by definition. So, according to the IDF, it is 12? According to what the IDF says to its soldiers. I don’t know if this is what the IDF says to the media. In the 10 seconds that I have, I have to estimate how old he is. And in what the direction the wind is blowing, and the deviation here and there, and which way he’ll jump the next moment. Yes, but there are hardly any mistakes by sharpshooters. The mistakes are made by people who aren’t sharpshooters. And it turns out that they happen to hit the children’s heads, and all this is just by chance? If you say you have seen children that have been hit in the head a lot, then it is sharpshooters.” [“Don’t Shoot Till You Can See They’re Over the Age of 12,” by Amira Hass, Ha’aretz, November 20, 2000]

Another American reporter described the following incident in Gaza in June 2001: “It is still. The camp waits, as if holding its breath. And then, out of the dry furnace air, a disembodied voice crackles over a loudspeaker. ‘Come on, dogs,’ the voice booms in Arabic. ‘Where are all the dogs of Khan Younis? Come! Come!’ I stand up. I walk outside the hut. The invective continues to spew: ‘Son of a bitch!’ ‘Son of a whore!’ ‘Your mother’s cunt!’ The boys dart in small packs up the sloping dunes to the electric fence that separates the camp from the Jewish settlement. They lob rocks toward two armored jeeps parked on top of the dune and mounted with loudspeakers. A percussion grenade explodes. The boys, most no more than ten or eleven years old, scatter, running clumsily across the heavy sand. There are no sounds of gunfire. The soldiers shoot with silencers. The bullets from the M-16 rifles tumble end over end through the children’s slight bodies. Later, in the hospital, I will see the destruction: the stomachs ripped out, the gaping holes in limbs and torsos. Yesterday at this spot the Israelis shot eight young men, six of whom were under the age of eighteen. One was twelve. This afternoon they kill an eleven-year-old boy, Ali Murad, and seriously wound four more, three of whom are under eighteen. Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered–death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo–but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.” [“A Gaza Diary: Scenes from the Palestinian Uprising,” by Chris Hedges, Harper’s magazine, October 2001]

On November 22, 2001, five Palestinian boys, aged six through 13, on the way to school were killed when they kicked an Israeli bomb deliberately planted at a crossroads. The boys’ bodies were so badly mangled that doctors could not determine for some time whether four or five children were involved. This killing was not inadvertent, and it was not a response to Palestinian terrorism. In fact, there is very little difference between a bomb deliberately planted at a crossroads used by civilians and a suicide bombing deliberately aimed at civilians, except that in the first case the perpetrator survives and gets away with his crime. (I had occasion to discuss this incident at the time with an American supporter of Israel who prided himself on being “a liberal.” I was disconcerted to hear him justify and defend Israel’s action in planting a booby trap in a civilian area. Palestinian parents, he said, shouldn’t let their children out on the streets.)

The number of cases of Israeli tanks, helicopter gunships, and fighter jets firing into civilian marketplaces to punish curfew violators, or firing into civilian homes, or firing into crowds of adults and children known to be unarmed are myriad-too numerous and frequent to be recounted here. Israeli and international human rights organizations have remarked repeatedly on Israel’s disproportionate use of firepower against civilians. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem reports that fully80% of Palestinians killed by IDF troops enforcing curfew are children. Need I repeat: this killing is not inadvertent, and it is not a response to terrorism. Moreover, Israel doesn’t care about the killings. An Israeli correspondent reported in November 2001 that, despite the fact that 700 Palestinians had been killed to that point in the intifada, the IDF had conducted only ten investigations into shootings by soldiers, and only one had led to a court martial. These 700 killings up to a year ago, and the nearly 2000 up to the present, cannot possibly all have been inadvertent, and they were clearly not all a response to Palestinian terrorism.

None of what I have recounted is, or is intended to be, an excuse or justification for Palestinian suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism. These acts, which do indeed deliberately target civilians, are indefensible. The Israeli actions described above are also instances in which civilians have been deliberately targeted, and they are also indefensible. These are not isolated incidents or aberrations or mistakes; they do not, as you put it, simply represent occasional instances of “poor judgment or lax discipline”; they are not inadvertent.

The effort to cast this struggle in moral terms, painting Israel as always an exemplar of high moral values and the Palestinians as unable to maintain those values, is extremely hypocritical and sanctimonious. It leads, moreover, to moral distortions such as the one described above in which an otherwise liberal person can be so blinded by his mental image of an ever-moral Israel populated by ever-moral Jews that he can actually defend Israel for a clear terrorist action and blame the victims for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. How the suffering and death and oppression caused by Israel’s month-long siege of the West Bank in April 2002, or by the round-the-clock curfews imposed for the last four months on a civilian population–to name just a few of Israel’s actions in the last 35 years of occupation–can be justified as moral and non-violent beggars the imagination.

The Israeli actions I have recounted here are the deliberate, calculated, and quite frequent actions of a military establishment and government that are, all things considered, no more moral in their wartime conduct–or indeed in their peacetime conduct–than any other nation or people, including the Palestinians. The campaign conducted since the intifada began to demonstrate that Israel is morally superior to Palestinians is part of the decades-long effort to portray Israel as superior in all ways to its Arab neighbors. As one thoughtful Jewish-American scholar has put it, the effort is meant to demonstrate that ultimately “Palestinian history and destiny are secondary to Jewish history and destiny.” This moral selectivity impedes justice, justifies Israeli violence, and ultimately perpetuates the conflict year after year.

Kathleen Christison worked for 16 years as a political analyst with the CIA, dealing first with Vietnam and then with the Middle East for her last seven years with the Agency before resigning in 1979. Since leaving the CIA, she has been a free-lance writer, dealing primarily with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her book, “Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy,” was published by the University of California Press and reissued in paperback with an update in October 2001. A second book, “The Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story,” was published in March 2002. Both Kathy and her husband Bill, also a former CIA analyst, are regular contributors to the CounterPunch website.

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