The Cleanser

Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading military analyst from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has published a “strategic analysis” of the Gaza massacre.(1) He reaches the remarkable conclusion that “Israel did not violate the laws of war.”  The report is based on “briefings in Israeli [sic] during and immediately after the fighting made possible by a visit sponsored by Project Interchange, and using day-to-day reporting issued by the Israeli Defense Spokesman.”  Cordesman omits mention that Project Interchange is funded by the American Jewish Committee.

Cordesman’s faith in the pronouncements of Israeli notwithstanding, respected Israeli analysts exhibit less confidence.  “The state authorities, including the defense establishment and its branches,” Uzi Benziman observed in Haaretz, “have acquired for themselves a shady reputation when it comes to their credibility.”  The “official communiqués published by the IDF have progressively liberated themselves from the constraints of truth,” B. Michael wrote in Yediot Ahronot, and the “heart of the power structure”—police, army, intelligence—has been infected by a “culture of lying.”(2)  During the Gaza massacre Israel was repeatedly caught lying among many other things about its use of white phosphorus.(3)  Recalling Israel’s train of lies during both the 2006 Lebanon war and the Gaza massacre, Human Rights Watch senior military analyst Marc Garlasco rhetorically asked, “How can anyone trust the Israeli military?”(4)

A chunk of Cordesman’s “strategic analysis” consists of recycling verbatim the daily press releases of the Israeli air force and army spokesmen, which he then dubs “chronologies” of the war.  He asserts that these statements provide “considerable insight” and “important insights” into what happened.  Some of these statements provide so much insight that he reproduces them multiple times.  For example he reiterates over and over again versions of each of these statements: “The IDF will continue operating against terror operatives and anyone involved, including those sponsoring and hosting terrorists, in addition to those that send innocent women and children to be used as human shields”; “The IDF will not hesitate to strike those involved  both directly and indirectly in attacks against the citizens of the State of Israel”; “The IDF will continue to operate against Hamas terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip according to plans in order to reduce the rocket fire on the south of Israel”; “IDF Infantry Corps, Armored Corps, Engineering Corps, Artillery Corps and Intelligence Corps forces continued to operate during the night against Hamas terrorist infrastructure throughout the Gaza Strip.”

Cordesman reproduces without comment the  December 30, 2008 Israeli press release claiming that Israel hit “a vehicle transporting a stockpile of Grad missiles,” although a B’Tselem investigation found that they were almost certainly oxygen canisters.(5) Cordesman alleges that official Israeli data are “far more credible” than non-Israeli data such as from U.N. sources, one reason being that “many Israelis feel that such UN sources are strongly biased in favor of the Palestinians.”  So, if Israel claims that two-thirds of those killed in Gaza were Hamas fighters,(6) who can doubt the figure’s veracity—just as who can doubt the veracity of Israel’s claim that sixty percent of those killed in the 2006 Lebanon war were Hezbollah fighters,(7)even if all independent sources put the figure at closer to twenty percent?(8)

Although exculpating Israel of any wrongdoing, Cordesman also enters the “key caveat” that he is not passing a “legal or moral” judgment on Israel’s conduct and that “analysts without training in the complex laws of war” (presumably including himself) should not render such judgments.  Cordesman’s exculpation and caveat do not sit well together.  Again, although he avers that neither the “laws of war” nor “historical precedents” barred “Israel’s use of massive amounts of force,” Cordesman also cautions that he will not pass legal or moral judgment on the “issue of proportionality.”  How can both statements be true?  Cordesman is sharply critical of the laws of war.  He alleges that they are “often difficult or impossible to apply.”  Perhaps so but, then, whence his certainty that Israel did not violate them?  He also alleges that the laws of war are biased because in practice they “do not bind or restrain non-state actors like Hamas.”  It is not readily apparent that they have bound or restrained Israel either.

Cordesman repeatedly trumpets Israel’s extraordinary care to limit civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.  For example he asserts that “every aspect” of the Israeli air force’s targeting plan “was based on a detailed target analysis that explicitly evaluated the risk to civilians and the location of sensitive sites like schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, and other holy sites,” while the “smallest possible weapon” coupled with precision intelligence and guidance systems were used to “deconflict military targeting from damage to civilian facilities.”  And again: “Israel did plan its air and air-land campaigns in ways that clearly discriminated between military and civilian targets and that were intended to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage.”  He knows these things because that is what his Israeli hosts told him and that is what the Israeli press releases repeatedly stated.  He also knows that “many Hamas targets were so deeply embedded in densely populated areas and located so close to civilian buildings that it was impossible to avoid collateral damage” because that is what he saw on “the IDF Spokesman’s web site.”  He also knows that “IDF forces almost certainly were correct in reporting that Hamas used mosques and other sensitive site[s] in combat” because that is what his “chronologies” based on IDF press releases state.  (It seems telling that although the initial Israeli press releases allege secondary explosions after mosques were hit, later ones did not even bother to make this claim.)

Israel destroyed or damaged 15,000 homes (50,000 Gazans were left homeless), 160 schools, 1,500 factories and workshops, and 80 percent of agricultural crops.(9)  If, as Cordesman says, Israel used precision intelligence and weaponry, then the massive destruction must overwhelmingly have been intentional.(10) In fact such destruction was critical and integral to the success of Operation Cast Lead.  The operation’s goal, according to Cordesman, was to “restore Israeli deterrence, and show the Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria that it was too dangerous to challenge Israel.”  But Israel could not restore its deterrence by inflicting a narrowly military defeat because Hamas was manifestly not a military power.  To quote Cordesman, “It…is not clear that any opponent of Israel felt Hamas was really strong enough to be a serious test of Israeli ground forces.”  Thus Israel could only restore its deterrence by demonstrating the amount of sheer destruction it was ready and willing to inflict.  Again, in Cordesman’s words, Israel “had [to] make its enemies feel it was ‘crazy,’” and was prepared to inflict destruction on a “scale [that] is unpredictable” and heedless of “world opinion.”  In all fairness it is also possible that Israel targeted so many homes because, according to the IDF spokesman Cordesman uncritically quotes, “Hamas is booby-trapping every home that is abandoned by its residents.”  Shouldn’t Hamas then be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for “most homes booby-trapped in the heat of battle”?  As it happens, after the massacre was over the IDF itself conceded that the “scale of destruction” was legally indefensible.(11)

Cordesman also plays up Israel’s humanitarian relief efforts during the massacre.  Lest there be doubt about the genuineness of Israeli concerns, he repeatedly cites Israeli press statements as well as “Israeli Ministry of Defense claims” affirming it.  He also includes an unimpeachable statement from none other than Defense Minister Ehud Barak, “We are well aware of the humanitarian concerns; we are doing and will continue to do everything possible to provide all humanitarian needs to the residents of Gaza.”  The reality on the ground looked rather different, however.  “UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs continued to carry out operations despite extreme insecurity,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) observed.

In the course of the three weeks of hostilities, five UNRWA staff and three of its contractors were killed while on duty, and another 11 staff and four contractors were injured; four incidents of aid convoys being shot at have been reported; at least 53 United Nations buildings sustained damage….In one of the gravest incidents, which occurred on the morning of 15 January, the main UNRWA compound in Gaza City was directly hit several times by Israeli shells.  As a result, the warehouse of the building was set ablaze destroying hundreds of tonnes of food and medicine, some of which was scheduled for distribution that day….Approximately 700 Palestinians taking refuge in the building had to be evacuated.  According to UNRWA’s Director of Operations, John Ging, the shells hitting the building contained white phosphorus.  This incident occurred despite explicit assurances given by the IDF to UNRWA prior to the attack, according to which the building would not be hit.

Following a visit to the UNRWA building, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said, “I am just appalled…it is an outrageous and totally unacceptable attack against the United Nations.” (12) The normally discreet International Committee of the Red Cross issued a public rebuke to Israel after the “shocking incident” when Israeli soldiers turned back an ICRC rescue team dispatched to aid injured Palestinians, leaving them to die.(13) Although entering some generic caveats acknowledging Israel’s “delays and mistakes,” Cordesman could not find the space amidst his numberless Israeli press releases to quote these or any other critical statements by the relief organizations and U.N. officials.  Although asserting as fact the highly dubious Israeli accusation that Hamas “prevent[ed] medical evacuation of Palestinians to Israel” during the war, he also could not find the space to mention that because of the Israeli blockade only 34 patients with permits to get medical treatment abroad out of 113 who applied for permits were able to leave in January 2009.(14) Cordesman highlights that Israel “coordinated the movement” of ambulances, but he does not report that “even where coordination was arranged soldiers reportedly fired at ambulances” (B’Tselem).(15) He asserts without evidence and apparently basing himself on Israeli press releases that Hamas made “use of ambulances to mobilize terrorists,” despite the fact that “the argument that Palestinians abused ambulances has been raised numerous times by Israeli officials…, although Israel has almost never presented evidence to prove it” (B’Tselem).(16)During the 2006 Lebanon war Israel also targeted clearly marked Lebanese ambulances with missile fire, even though according to Human Rights Watch there was “no basis for concluding that Hezbollah was making use of the ambulances for a military purpose.”(17) Cordesman might also have mentioned that the Israeli bombardment damaged or destroyed 29 ambulances and nearly half of 122 health facilities (including 15 hospitals and 43 clinics), and that 16 medical personnel were killed and 26 injured while on duty.(18)After the massacre ended, Israel continued to block humanitarian assistance, including shipments of chickpeas, dates, tea bags, macaroni, children’s puzzles, paper needed to print schoolchildren’s textbooks, and plastic bags to distribute food.(19)

Cordesman endeavors to depict the Gaza massacre as a genuine military contest.  He delineates in ominous detail enhanced by tables, graphs and figures (courtesy of “IDF Defense Spokesman”) the vast arsenal of rockets, mortars, air defense missiles and other weapons that Hamas allegedly manufactured and smuggled in through tunnels (including “Iranian-made rockets” that could “strike at much of Southern Israel” and “hit key infrastructure”), and the “spider web of prepared strong points, underground and hidden shelters, and ambush points” Hamas allegedly constructed.  He reports that according to “Israeli senior officials” Hamas had 6,000-10,000 “core fighters.”  He juxtaposes the “Gaza war” with the June 1967 war, the October 1973 war and the 2006 war.  He expatiates on Israel’s complex war plans and preparations, and he proposes that Israel’s victory was partly owing to its “high levels of secrecy”—as if the outcome would have been different if Israel had not benefited from the element of surprise.

Nonetheless Cordesman is forced to concede, if only by indirection, that what Israel fought was scarcely a war.  He says that Hamas was a “weak non-state actor” whereas Israel possessed a massive armory of state-of-the-art weaponry; that the Israeli air force “faced limited threats from Hamas’s primitive land-based air defense”; that “sustained ground fighting was limited”; that the Israeli army avoided engagements where it “would be likely to suffer” significant casualties; that “the IDF used night warfare for most combat operations because Hamas did not have the technology or training to fight at night.”  In the final tally 1,300-1,400 Palestinians were killed, between one-quarter and one-third children,(20) while total Israeli casualties came to 10 combatants (four killed by friendly fire) and three civilians.  The ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed was 100:1.  These figures attest not to a war but a massacre.

Cordesman asserts that Israel had shown “it could fight an air campaign successfully in crowded urban areas” and “could fight an extended land battle against a non-state actor.”  But its air campaign was not a “fight” anymore than shooting fish in a barrel is a fight.  As if to bring home this analogy, he quotes a senior Israeli air force officer, “the IAF had flown some 3,000 successful sorties over a small dense area during three weeks of fighting without a single accident or loss.”  Neither did it “fight” a land battle if the other side was poorly armed and engaged only when it could not fight back.

Cordesman asserts that except for hitting possibly without justification “some” civilian targets “including important United Nations targets like an UNRWA school where 42 Palestinians died”—these civilian targetings rate a two-sentence mention in his 92-page report—“There is no evidence that any abuses of the other narrow limits imposed by [the] laws of war occurred, aside from a few limited cases,” and that “the only significant incident that had as yet emerged was the possible misuse of 20 phosphorus shells in builtup areas in Beit Lahiya.”  Leaving aside that Israel reportedly used white phosphorus in other built up areas of the Gaza Strip, and leaving aside that it reportedly also used flechette shells in built up areas, Cordesman so exhausted himself perusing the Israeli press releases that he missed credible reports of human rights organizations and journalists that, apart from the massive violations of the laws of war already cited, Israeli soldiers were “intentionally aiming gunfire directly at civilians who were not involved in the hostilities and who did not endanger the soldiers’ lives in any way….In some of the cases, they fired even though the civilians were waving white cloth,” and Israeli soldiers were using Palestinians as human shields.  (B’Tselem; Los Angeles Times) (21)

Upon his return from a visit to Gaza after the massacre, the U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs stated, “The destruction I saw was devastating—both in human and material terms.”(22)   But according to Cordesman, the problem was not what Israel perpetrated in Gaza but that it did not properly manage the “war of perceptions”: it “did little to explain the steps it was taking to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage on the world stage”; it “certainly could—and should—have done far more to show its level of military restraint and make it credible.”  In fact Israel began its hasbara (propaganda) preparations six months before the massacre and a centralized body in the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Information Directorate, was specifically tasked with coordinating Israeli hasbara. (23)

If the carefully orchestrated p.r. blitz ultimately did not convince, the problem was perhaps not that the whole world misperceived what happened or that Israel failed to convey adequately its humanitarian mission but rather that the scope of the massacre was so appalling that no amount of propaganda could disguise it, especially after the massacre was over and foreign reporters could no longer be barred on spurious pretexts.  Alas, this preposterous, barely literate “analysis” Cordesman cobbled together after his junket is unlikely to fool anyone, although in fairness to camp follower Cordesman it must be said that he plainly did his best to please and the American Jewish Committee plainly got its money’s worth from him.


1.      Anthony H. Cordesman, The “Gaza War”: A strategic analysis (Washington, DC: 2 February 2009).

2. Uzi Benziman, “Until Proved Otherwise,” Haaretz (18 June 2006).  B. Michael, “Of Liars and Hunters,” Yediot  Ahronot (3 September 2005); B. Michael,  “Stop the Lying!,” Yediot Ahronot (5 September 2008).

3. Kenneth Roth, “The Incendiary IDF,” Human Rights Watch (22 January 2009;

4. Amira Hass, “In the Rockets’ Red Glare,” Haaretz (15 January 2009).

5. B’Tselem (Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), “Suspicion: bombed truck carried oxygen tanks and not grad rockets” (31 December 2008);

6. Cordesman, p. 58; see also Amos Harel, “Israel: Two-thirds of Palestinians killed in Gaza fighting were terrorists,” Haaretz (13 February 2009), Yaakov Katz, “IDF: World duped by Hamas’s false civilian death toll figures,” Jerusalem Post (15 February 2009).

7. William Arkin, Divining Victory: Airpower in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: 2007), p. 74.

8. Human Rights Watch, Why They Died: Civilian casualties in Lebanon during the 2006 war (New York: 2007), pp. 76, 79; Mitchell Prothero, “Hizbollah Builds Up Covert Army for a New Assault against Israel,” Observer (27 April 2008); Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry, “How Hezbollah Defeated Israel; Part 2, Winning the Ground War,” Asia Times (13 October 2006).

9. Margaret Coker, “Gaza’s Isolation Slows Rebuilding Efforts,” Wall Street Journal (5 February 2009); United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, The Humanitarian Monitor (January 2009).

10. Cordesman reports that based on U.S. experience “5-10% of precision weapons might hit the wrong target in a closely packed urban environment.”

11. Amos Harel, “IDF Probe: Cannot defend destruction of Gaza homes,” Haaretz (15 February 2009).

12. Humanitarian Monitor.

13. “Gaza: ICRC demands urgent access to wounded as Israeli army fails to assist wounded Palestinians” (8 January 2009;

14. Humanitarian Monitor.

15. B’Tselem (Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), Guidelines for Israel’s Investigation into Operation Cast Lead, 27 December 2008-18 January 2009 (Jerusalem: 8 February 2009).

16. Ibid.  See also Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (Berkeley: 2005; expanded paperback edition 2008), pp. 128-130.

17. Human Rights Watch, Why They Died, p. 160.

18. Humanitarian Monitor.

19. Human Rights Watch, Israel/Egypt: Choking Gaza Harms Civilians (18 February 2009).

20. B’Tselem, Guidelines; Defense for Children International (7 February 2009;; Humanitarian Monitor.

21. B’Tselem, Guidelines; Ashraf Khalil, “In Gaza Town, A Bitter Aftermath,” Los Angeles Times (15 February 2009).

22. Humanitarian Monitor.

23. Anshel Pfeffer, “Israel Claims Success in the PR War,” Jewish Chronicle (31 December 2008); Hirsh Goodman, “Analysis: The effective public diplomacy ended with Operation Cast Lead,” Jerusalem Post (5 February 2009).

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN is author of five books, including Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Beyond Chutzpah and The Holocaust Industry, which have been translated into more than 40 foreign editions. He is the son of Holocaust survivors. His website is