The Gaza “Massacre”: Hold Your Fire

The death of seven Palestinians on a Gaza beach two days ago was clearly a tragedy. But at this point we don’t know who caused it. The Israeli Air Force initially apologized for a “mistake,” leading to worldwide condemnation led by (unsurprisingly) the French.

But let’s not move too fast.

Ha’aretz reports today that the IDF is launching an internal investigation of the matter, because some evidence indicates that the “internal Palestinian causes” may be responsible for the deaths.

“We still do not have an exact analysis of what happened there,” military sources told Haaretz on Saturday. “The most reasonable explanation that has been heard is that it was a firing of a shell which veered off its path, however all data relating to the pinpoint location of the shells’ landing are not consistent with this [theory].”

As James Fallows brilliantly documented three years ago in the Atlantic, the death of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura, which instantly became an iconic event in the Arab world, was most likely caused by Palestinian fire and even might have been intentionally caused for Arab propaganda purposes. In 2002, Palestinians accused the IDF of a “massacre” in Jenin–until it was discovered that only 26 civilians died there, and there was absolutely no evidence of any massacre. In fact the Israelis risked their own casualities rather than inflict too much civilian damage (no doubt in part because of the international condemnation that would have resulted if they had used bombing raids such as the US did in Afghanistan and Iraq.).

I am not saying that this possibility is correct. We just don’t know. And of course, even if the IDF investigation concludes that “internal Palestinian causes” were responsible, this conclusion itself may be propaganda. If as it turns out, this all resulted from an IDF screw-up, major operational changes are called for.

But we should not jump to conclusions here. The Hamas military wing has already announced that it will target Israeli civilians inside the Green Line in “response” to the killings, and Hamas is calling on Palestinians to boycott the PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ referendum (which I predicted a couple of days ago, before the killings). Meanwhile, the PA has refused Israeli requests for specific information concerning the Gaza killings. All of these very quick responses seem a little too convenient for me to trust any initial reports.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

23 thoughts on “The Gaza “Massacre”: Hold Your Fire”

  1. There can be no doubt that this latest incident is solely the responsibility of the Palestinians who died. In fact, they probably killed themselves for the propaganda value.
    As far as the death of the 12 yr old, why hell everybody knows the Palestinians have no compunction about murdering their own children much less their fellow countrymen's kids.
    And those 26 dead civilians, what's the big deal? If they weren't already terrorists, I'm sure they would have soon joined the ranks.
    What an absolute crock of s–t.
    Mark,I have to wonder what kind of moral universe you live in that allows you to so blithely dismiss the deaths of innocent human beings, whatever their ethnicity.
    How can someone with your education and knowledge not accept the moral equivalence of the deaths of both Israelis AND Palestinians?
    This is on par with your earlier post expressing your support for Israel's so-called "targeted killings".
    In your view it seems to be perfectly acceptable for the IDF to assassinate members of the Palestinian government, but if the duly elected leaders of the Palestinian goverment were to sanction the deaths of Israeli leaders, you would be screaming "terrorists" from the rooftops.
    Jesus, it is really depressing to read this kind of crap from someone whose intelligence and opinions I used to admire.

  2. Chris C: "There can be no doubt that this latest incident is solely the responsibility of the Palestinians who died."
    You're not interested in the truth of the matter, are you?
    Note that the carefully balanced post is under Jonathan Zasloff's signature, not Mark Kleiman's.

  3. Jonathan: Not a massacre because "only [sic] 26 civilians died there"? Read that again. Look into your heart while simultaneously using your mind. This is "reality-based"? Just the "same facts"? Revise?
    Mark: Do you approve of your colleague's reasoning or rhetoric?

  4. For those who don't recall what happened at Jenin – two dozen Israeli soldiers died, and four dozen Palestinian fighters and civilians died. There were originally claims of high death tolls and mass graves, and some hysterics from the UN representative, but in the end even strong critics of Israel admitted there had been no massacre:

  5. Peter G–
    You are literally right but realistically wrong. Don't deconstruct the argument: even Human Rights Watch, which interviewed only Palestinians (thus ignoring the Israeli side of the story) and did not employ a military adviser in its investigation of the events at Jenin (thus giving them little credibility in assessing claims of Israeli military necessity), concluded that there was no deliberate or even reckless killing of civilians by Israeli troops.
    True enough, you can have a massacre with 26 dead civilians, but it just didn't happen in Jenin.
    The Palestinians initially claimed that thousands were deliberately killed by the IDF in Jenin. You can therefore see why I want to withhold judgment as to the causes of the 7 Palestinian deaths in Gaza until more facts are in. And that IS reality-based.

  6. I agree with Jonathan that we should reserve judgment until the truth actually comes out. What is most striking to me, however, is the drastic difference in reaction that the Israeli government has had compared to what the Palestinian government has regarding the killing of innocent civilians. If this was not a mistake, the person responsible should face justice and actually can considering the existence of a court system which has tried and convicted soldiers in the past (I don't blame the Palestinians for not having a court system, their government is extremely hampered by the Israeli occupation in a number of ways, but this difference is important). The Israeli government has immediately come out against these killings, opening up an investigation and making it absolutely clear, with no mincing of words that it is not the policy of the Israeli government to target civilians. If only the Palestinian leadership would do that, rather than turn a blind eye (Fatah) or actively encourage the targeting of innocents (Hamas). If they need to respond, which I disagree with but can understand, maybe they should target the Israeli military rather than sending suicide bombers into crowded Tel Aviv nightclubs INTENTIONALLY TARGETING Israeli teens. There are many many horrible things that the Israeli government does, but in this case, I think the responses show the drastic difference between the current governments of the two peoples. I will take Hamas's criticisms seriously when they renounce the use of tactics TARGETING innocents. Until then, this just seems like an (absolutely tragic) excuse for them to go back to what they're good at (killing Israelis) in order to divert attention from what they are not (governing).

  7. The IDF has killed 1,000s of innocent Palestinians.
    Now, perhaps it is important, at this time, not to upset anything, but do what planet has a military officer apologizing for something they never did in the first place? Do you _really_ think the IDF is ignorant of the repercussions of the impact of totally needless deaths of Palestinians?
    Similarly, it hasn't been a "good time" to talk about bad news any time since 1967, when the entire rest of the world abandoned Israel, leaving America as its sole protector.
    Why did the entire rest of the world do this? For laughs? Or for the rules of the very United Nations which created Israel in the first place?
    Standing up for Israel is standing up for the UN, and I am willing to do this. But standing up for the land they took since 1949 is standing up for the same type of territorial aggression that would have netted Kuwait for Saddam or North Korea for Rhee.

  8. Chris C: Your lunatic tone obstructs whatever argument you may be attempting to advance.
    Mr. Narins: Had Kuwait invaded Iraq with the stated intention of driving every last Iraqi into the sea, I wouldn't have much cared had the Iraqis, after winning the ensuing war, claimed a big chunk of Kuwait besides. Such an outcome might even seem just.
    I'm a fairly conventional liberal, but on the issue of Israel I part company with much of the left. Since really smart people hang out here, I'll lay out, briefly, my understanding of the situation in hopes that my more egregious errors will be swiftly corrected.
    In or around 1948, fed up with a process that isn't moving as quickly as they'd like, the would-be Israelis unilaterally declare their independence. Many arabs are driven out or flee. Many leave, expecting to return quickly on the heels of conquering arab armies. Many Jews from around the middle east are driven out or flee to Israel.
    A bunch of surrounding nations attack Israel, aiming to wipe it off the map and create a Judenrein Palestine. Israel soundly defeats them, and takes more territory in the bargain, some of which they give back, and some of which they don't. This happens again in 1967.
    My primitive and possibly childish feeling about this is that when you invade your neighbor, all of his land is on the table, and so it's only just that some of yours is too. Had the Arab armies won, there would be no Israel. The Israelis were all-in, and the Arabs get to call without actually putting anything in the pot? Doesn't seem right.
    And why should one expect that a return to the 1967 borders will satisfy the Arabs? They had the 1967 borders in 1967, and it wasn't good enough. They had the 1949 borders in 1949 and it wasn't good enough.
    Anyway, that's where I'm at. If anyone cares to correct major factual errors in my understanding, I'll be grateful.

  9. Further support for Prof. Zasloff's suggestion to hold off from conclusions from the Israeli military: "Shortly after we stopped defensive firing at Hamas rocket launch pads which were deployed behind Palestinian human shields, members of Hamas scrambled to fire more rockets at our positions," said Col. M. "We have eyes on every meter of Gaza, from the sky, from the ground and from the sea. One of their rocket tripods collapsed inadvertently setting off an explosion of a stockpile of Qassam rockets. The Palestinians killed their own children. And this was not the first time."
    "Israel Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant said today that the Israel Defense Forces has additional evidence that it wasn't Israel artillery that hit the beach in Gaza. Galant, who commands Israel's southern command, said Israel stopped firing 15 minutes before the explosion. It's all on secure videotape from both sides of the conflict."

  10. Laertes,
    Your understanding of the history around 1948 is pretty good. Some would argue that ignoring Irgun terrorism is unacceptable. Begin, at the time, declared that no partition was acceptable, and it all belonged to the Jews. Thereby, in effect, declaring his intent to wipe Palestine off the map.
    I think the timing of May 16th, the British pull out, May 17th the Israelis declare independence, May 18th, the war begins is important enough to merit mention.
    Past that, however, we have a few problems. Most of the world's non-Arab powers sided with Israel in that period. I do not believe there any but a few people who argue that the original UN partition plan (almost 50/50, with Gaza, the West Bank and an area west of "Galilee" to the Palis) is supposed to be enforced.
    The world turned against Israel's current situation after 1967. The entire world. Since you missed so much essential material in 1948, please don't begin for an instant you have anything to teach me about 1967 (five years after the blockade of Cuba, I'd have you remember, ten years after the attempt by Israel, UK and France to fake-start a war over Suez (thank Goodness for Eisenhower, that one time)).
    Your "primitive" view of the matter is just that, "primitive." At least, it does not follow UN law. If you want Israel to declare it doesn't care about international law, then surely you can't expect other people to honor its place in the international system, and terrorism and attack become completely legal.
    And, by the way, there is no God. You've wasted so much of your life believing there was that I pity you.

  11. Didn't Isreal attack in '67? I know it was largely becuase they expected an attack and so went first, but still, they did go first and that shouldn't be forgotten. That they so massively destroyed the Arab armies and air forces also probably makes it less obvious that there was as much of a threat as might have been thought, though of course it might have been reasonable to think there was a real threat at the time.

  12. Matt, in a sense, surely, you are right, they attacked.
    But one could argue, similarly, that Egypt's blockade of the Straits of Tiran (eerily reminscent of the radical pre-emptive action, first in American history, of the blockde of Cuba by foreign policy neo-phyte JFK) was, combined with the massing of foreign troops, more that a tad provocative.
    If it had just been troops near the border, that would be one thing, but back then Israel got most of its oil from West-Friendly Iran through the port of Elat. The blockade cut that off.
    It doesn't even matter, according to UN rules.
    It certainly doesn't matter to anyone who thinks GOD gave that land to the Jews.
    I like the pre-67 borders better than what we have, and I sorely wish the original UN partition was still workable.

  13. "that they so massively destroyed the Arab armies and air forces"
    Note that an air attack was, given the tech of the time and the proximity of the opponents, likely to lead to the destruction of grounded planes (though I think the Egyptian planes were parked in the best configuration for strafing) – the effectiveness of the attack was very surprising to all concerned. And note that the battles were in large part very hard-fought – and the Israelis couldn't have counted on the lack of coordination between their opponents.
    Also, jftr, note that Oren's book on the war shows that Israel offered the territories to the Palestinians after the war, but found no one able to hold them; and that the current govt is giving up a large majority of the land voluntarily.
    Anyway, that's all rather off-topic.

  14. Avi wrote, "…I think the responses show the drastic difference between the current governments of the two peoples."
    But the Palestinians don't have a government. The signature feature of a government is that it is sovereign over a particular piece of land.

  15. Laertes wrote, "Anyway, that's where I'm at. If anyone cares to correct major factual errors in my understanding, I'll be grateful."
    Not a factual error, but an apparent lack of understanding of the fact that expelling people from land acquired by conquest, whether you were attacked or not, is called "ethnic cleansing," and is a war crime.

  16. This is absurd; The PA is, and has been for some time, in a state of war with Israel. The relatively minor amount of collateral damage that occurs as a result of Israel's rather restrained response to Palestinian bombardment of Israeli territory is just one of the usual incidents of war. If Hamas doesn't like it, they can stop the shelling.
    And I expect that they can, if they WANT to.

  17. Laertes,
    My lunatic tone?
    I'll take that as a compliment coming from someone whose understanding of the history of the Middle East rivals that of a nine-year-old.
    Perhaps you can obtain a copy of "My Pet Goat" and come back here to entertain us with your discerning review.
    Duly noted. My apologies to Mr. Kleiman.

  18. Chris C: Look, I don't want to get all Kum-Bay-Yah here, but I'm ready to be persuaded.
    I don't imagine myself to be an expert on this stuff. I laid out my very simple understanding of this situation not to lecture anyone, but to make it as easy as possible for people better-informed than I to drop a little knowledge on me.
    I get that you're angry. I expect that if you respond at all, you'll demonstrate further, but believe me when I tell you that it's crystal-clear already.
    I don't have a dog in that fight. I don't have a big investment of ego in maintaining my current point of view. I've shown you what I know and what I don't. I'm the easiest target you'll ever find. If you can't convince me, brother, you can't convince anybody.

  19. Laertes,
    Here's a suggestion.
    Google Menachem Begin + Irgun.
    Be sure to note the references to the bombing of King David Hotel and the massacre in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin in April 1948.
    Additionally you might want to also Google Ariel Sharon and the Sabra and Shatila Massacre in September 1982.
    Finally, try taking a look at
    Be sure to read the footnotes.
    My point in suggesting this material is NOT in support of Palestinian/Arab terrorism.
    In my humble opinion, a balanced objective view of the Israeli/Palestinian history and the ongoing conflict leads me to conclude that there is, and has been, ample evidence of atrocities on both sides.
    What I find particularly objectionable is the lack of balance our country brings to the conflict, which negates our ability to act as an honorable peace-broker.
    What I find totally egregious is Prof. Zasloff's attempt to minimize the deaths of Palestinian civilians, whether they be 1 or 100. I also equally condemn the killing of Israeli civilians.

  20. Many years ago we were visiting Wisconsin and saw a tzotchke shop shaped like a teepee, and my then-young child asked me "What's that?" I said it was a gift shop in the shape of a teepee. He asked, "What's a teepee?" I told him it was the dwelling of the native Americans, kind of like a tent. He asked, "Who were the native Americans?" I told him that they used to live here before the Europeans came. He asked me, "What happened to them?" I told him, "We killed them and stole their land." After a long pause, he asked me, "How did they feel about that?" I responded, "How would you feel about it?" He said, "Not very good." I told him, "I don't think they feel very good about it."
    So, yes, liberal, the Palestinians used to live there. They were driven out, whether by fear or at the point of a gun. They don't feel very good about it. I wouldn't. But 5 million Jews live there now, and they're not going anywhere, and you know, the Jews too have rights to national self-determination (unless you happen to be of the belief that all peoples except the Jews have those rights, and there's a name for that kind of belief).
    The Palestinians deserve a homeland of their own. They deserve restitution for what they've lost. It isn't remotely clear what any of this tragic history has to do with the fact that the Palestinians slandered the IDF by claiming there had been a massacre of thousands of civilians at Jenin when there hadn't. And that there's now some evidence that the explosion which horribly and sadly killed a family on a picnic at the beach was caused, not by an errant Israeli shell, but by an errant Palestinian bomb. It certainly doesn't matter to the family. But it does matter if Hamas claims this was a deliberate Israeli attack aimed at civilians, and uses that to justify renewing their campaign of suicide bombings of civilians inside Israel.
    And for the purpose, really, of internal Palestinian politics, to derail Abbas's referendum.

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