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Translation: Why Did The Killing Ratio Increase?

[ Middle East News Service comments: Both Gideon Levy (yesterday) and David Grossman (today) have no doubt had access to the ample material in the Hebrew media in regard to the Israeli military’s tactics in Gaza. Essentially the theme applied was that one Israeli soldier is worth more than any number of Palestinian civilians. One report even referred to two different approached being used during Operation Defensive Shield on the West Bank in 2002. The higher casualties suffered by those taking greater care with innocent Palestinians meant that tough approach is now universally applied.

But there is more to it than meet the eye. Yagil Levy provides a different perspective he looks at the killing ratios in various campaigns and provides political and sociological tool in which to analyse the figures. Whatever one thinks, the notion of the “most moral army in the world” is certainly thrown into question although, if fairness, Levy actually suggests the Israeli military is no different than any others - Sol Salbe.]

Open Stage

Why did the killing ratio increase?

Yagil Levy

Operation Cast Lead highlights one of the paradoxes of market-driven democracies: how to deal with declining motivation to sacrifice one’s life in war. The resulting sensitivity is expressed in political pressure which reduces countries’abilities to apply military force. So in response, states opt to intensify their use of advanced technology, which increases the dimensions of the loss of life and property on the adversaries while reducing the risk to their own troops. That is the way the US behaved in the shadow of its Vietnam trauma, and the same applies to Israel. This is the broader context of operation Cast Lead. In order to comprehend this context it is necessary to examine the changing ratio between IDF fatalities to those of Palestinian civilians. We will confine ourselves to the Gaza sector.

The ratio between IDF fatalities to those of Palestinian non-combatants has increased from 1:6 in the first Intifada to 1:48 in Cast Lead (As of 15 January, based mainly on B’Tselem figures.) [Translator’s note: as of 20 January it appears to be close to 1:60 if not higher.] In other words, the risk faced by IDF soldiers has constantly been reduced at the cost of an increased rate of Palestinian civilian casualties. Superficially, the use of Israeli firepower is a response to Palestinian escalation – from violent demonstrations in the first Intifada, to suicide bombing in the Al Aqsa Intifada and the firing of the Qassams following the Disengagement. But what is involved is not just the use of firepower, but also a change in the mode of controlling the population. This in turn changes the firepower-use mode. Therefore it is necessary to attribute the changes in firepower use to the legitimacy of the sacrifice of life and the use of force.

In the first Intifada, which was viewed as a popular uprising, there was only a low legitimacy for the use of force. This was partly a consequence of Israel’s responsibility of care for the Palestinian population under its formal control. In addition, in those days there was an equilibrium between soldiers of the Left and the Right. Too much force could have crumbled the military’s cohesion. The legitimacy of sacrificing one’s life to the cause has begun to fade away following the precedent-setting dissident discourse of the First Lebanon War. But that was at such a low level that the tendency to reduce the risk to soldiers did not increase. The consequence was a relatively limited use of force at the cost to exposing soldiers to risk because of the high degree of friction within the disaffected civilian population.

Two factors reduced the subsequent likelihood of dissent within the ranks during the use of too much force. A change in the social composition of the field units increased the presence of religious groups and groups from outlying areas, which overwhelmingly hold hawkish views and decreased the presence of the secular middle class. In addition the army has tended to rely less and less on reservists [who are older and more socially aware –tr].

The use of force has allowed the army to reduce its direct contact with the Palestinian population, certainly in Gaza, where the army never returned to city centres. Nevertheless, it continued to risk its troops through direct contact with the Palestinian militias. This is reflected in the ratio of those killed, which is similar to the first Intifada at 1:9.

These cracks in legitimacy and other considerations were the reasons for the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Since then, the army has used “remote control” with sophisticated technological weaponry and efficient intelligence, to stand over Gaza. That withdrawal and the rise of Hamas further legitimised the use of force every time the Gazans fired a Qassam rocket. The increased sensitivity to casualties gave priority to the use of lethal weapons that do not involve any risk to the troops. The result was a steep rise (approximately 3.5 times) in the ratio of the two sides’casualties to 1:33. The casualty ratio increased further in operation Cast Lead to 1:48.

The fear of incurring casualties and the consequent curtailing of the army operation ahead of optimal timing led to massive barrages of fire whenever there was a fear of suspected Hamas fighters. This policy increased the extent of civilian casualties. At the same time, this approach benefited from the high degree of legitimacy gained by the escalation in the firing of Qassams.

This is the way in which a market economy society operates; it deals with internal sensitivities through the use of lethal power externally. There is nothing beneficial for democracy, in its substantive sense, in this kind of behaviour. But Israel does not differ in this respect from many other democracies.

[The writer is a member of the academic staff of the Open University and author of the book From army of the people to army of peripheries. Translated by Sol Salbe from Haaretz. Hebrew original:].


[The independent Middle East News Service concentrates on providing alternative information chiefly from Israeli sources. It is sponsored by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the AJDS. These are expressed in its own statements
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