2009 Gaza conflict

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The 2009 Gaza conflict between Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian forces, generally associated with Hamas, involved an Israeli ground operation into the Gaza Strip. Ground operations, which Israel called Operation Cast Lead, began in January 2009, following air strikes that began on 27th December. Israel's stated military goal was to "limited to two objectives:

1. To stop the bombardment of Israeli civilians by destroying Hamas' mortar and rocket launching apparatus and infrastructure.
2. To reduce the ability of Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza to perpetrate future attacks against the civilian population in Israel."[1]

Before the operation, both candidates for the leadership of Israel, Tzipi Livni (Kadima) and Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud), had declared the elimination of Hamas as a strategic goal for Israel. They differed only in terms of urgency, with Netanyahu calling for [an] "active policy of attack", accusing the current government of being too "passive"; Livni called it a strategic objective. [2]

With international pressure growing, the two sides agreed on a temporary daily truce on 7th January, with hopes that this would lead to a permanent ceasefire.[3] Major hostilities ended on 18th January,[4] with talks opening in Cairo aimed at building a lasting truce.[5] Israel lifted a ban on international aid agencies entering the Gaza Strip on 23rd January; the United Nations' Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Sir John Holmes criticised Israel for the destruction in Gaza. Meanwhile, smugglers resumed moving supplies through tunnels from Egypt.[6]

Anthony Cordesman observed "Hamas has only provided a few details on its view of the fighting, other than ideological and propaganda statements," but assessed the situation, from primarily Israeli sources, as

it is far from certain that Israel‘s tactical successes achieved significant strategic and grand strategic benefits. In practice, they seem to have had only a marginal impact on Hamas, and their benefits may well have been offset by the mid and long-term strategic costs of the operation in terms of Arab and other regional reactions. Such conclusions are necessarily uncertain, but Israel does not seem to have been properly prepared for the political dimensions of war, or to have had any clear plan and cohesive leadership for achieving conflict termination. Moreover, it seems to have approached the fighting, and the Arab world, from a strategic perspective that will increase instability in the region and ultimately weaken Israel‘s security. [7]

Political goals

The Guardian reported Israel has a goal of removing Hamas from control of Gaza, and preferably destroying it as an organization. [8]

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in an interview with Der SPIEGEL, said "The operation was never about destroying Hamas -- rather our aim was to restore our deterrence capability. We took their leaders by surprise with our operation. They will think twice before they dare to fire the next rocket at Israel."[9] The late Michael Radu of the Foreign Policy Research Institute wrote "The Israeli government, through Prime Minister Olmert, foreign minister Livni, or defense minister Barak, seems to agree that Israel’s goal for the ongoing Cast Lead operation is to deter Hamas from continuing its campaign of regular missile bombings of southern and central Israel. If they mean it—and that is still unclear—they are dangerously misguided and misleading their public. Moreover, they are sending Israeli soldiers to their deaths for an illusory goal...The very concept of deterrence is based on a number of premises, none of which applies to Hamas or any other religion-based terror group. [10]

These attacks coincided with the entry to office of Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.[11]


Both sides' actions are complex to evaluate under just war theory. One Israeli philosopher, while agreeing to the complexity, believes that both must be investigated, but also that it appears to be the fault of Hamas.[12] Cordesman wrote that the situation was one in which where "one side can potentially be limited by international law where the other is not, and that effectively makes international law a potential weapon for the side that rejects and exploits it. It is also a situation that empowers and incentivizes extremists to use civilians as the equivalent of human shields by embedding their forces in civilian populations and areas, and using sensitive buildings like mosques and schools or collocating near them. There is nothing new about such tactics. ... Their impact, however, is far more apparent in a densely populated area like Gaza.[13]

Military operations

Tactics differed from those used in the 2006 Israeli campaign in Lebanon. [14]

Among the munitions used, some were alleged to have been used in an inhumane manner. The strongest arguments have been made for indiscriminate use of white phosphorus, with concerns for flechettes and dense inert metal explosive. None of these, however, is strictly banned by agreements to which Israel is party.

Immediate effects

The operation led to 1,166 Palestinian deaths (including 89 children) by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) estimates, but 1,434 (288 children) according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR)[15] and 1,387 according to the Israseli human rights group B'Tselem (September 2009 figures).[16] Israel maintains that the majority of fatalities were Palestinian fighters, rather than the 235 minority reported by the PCHR, and has rejected Israeli soldiers' accounts of abuses and unlawful killings, reported in the Israeli press,[17] as "hearsay".[18]

Radu, who criticized Israel if it intended to deter, also questioned the significance of these figures. "Hamas also understands, as the UN people in Gaza (not to mention the emotional and irrational crowds demonstrating in London, San Francisco, or Paris) do not, that the very concept of 'civilians' is largely meaningless."Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag

The United Nations Development Programme network estimated that 14,000 Gazan homes, 219 factories and 240 schools had been destroyed in the conflict. [19] Clearing the rubble would cost $12 million.[20] Rebuilding efforts would be made under restrictions on imports into Gaza,and an early estimate put costs at over $2 billion over up to five years.[21]

Limited humanitarian assistance was permitted, and many areas were devastated; over 50,000 people were left homeless.[22] Infrastructure was also severely damaged, with sewage flooding streets and buildings levelled over wide areas.[23]

The Israeli civilian death toll was three, with 10 soldiers also killed (four by 'friendly fire').

Military aftermath

Occasional rocket launches from Gaza, again with no injury or loss of life, continued after the end of major hostilities, and an Israeli soldier was killed by a roadside bomb; Israel issued a warning that it would use "disproportionate" force in response.[24] By late March, rocket attacks were still occurring; a launch that led to no injury or deaths was followed by Israeli retaliation with air strikes that killed two Palestinians. In an exchange of ground fire, one Israeli soldier was slightly injured.

Political aftermath

Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beytenu — YB) and other right-wing Israeli political actors may have been the beneficiaries in Israel. While his YB party only placed third, it developed great leverage in the new government, already dominated by Likud and Kadima. The Labor Party (Israel) essentially is out of government. "As fiercely as he denounces the Palestinian militants of Hamas and Hizbullah, his No. 1 target is Israel's Arab minority, which he has called a worse threat than Hamas." [25]

External analysis

A United Nations report on Israeli activities with regard to UN installations in Gaza was released in May 2009. The report, commissioned by Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-moon, detailed the conclusions of a four-member board led by the United Kingdom's Ian Martin, a human rights activist and Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Nepal. The board examined the circumstances behind several incidents at UN premises, including the deaths of up to 40 civilians at a UN school on 15th January, and referred to the Israeli military as

involved in varying degrees of negligence or recklessness with regard to United Nations premises and to the safety of United Nations staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries, and extensive physical damage and loss of property".[26]

At the time, Ban Ki-moon ruled out further inquiries, with his covering letter attached to the report emphasising that the report was not legally binding and that rockets attacks against Israel had occurred.[27] Nevertheless, the Goldstone Report was the result of a subsequent investigation.

NGO investigations

July 2009 saw a report by the human rights organisation Amnesty International label both IDF and Palestinian armed groups' activities "war crimes".[28] In September 2009, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem released its own casualty figures for the conflict, which it had cross-checked with various sources. The group noted that its figure of 773 Palestinian civilians killed (320 children) contrasted sharply with the IDF's own figure of 295 civilians. B'Tselem's total Palestinian casualty figure was 1,387 dead over the three-week invasion.[29]

Goldstone Report

For more information, see: Goldstone Report.

The UN Human Rights Council from the Secretary General's statement in May, conducted a major and controversial additional investigation, led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, which found evidence of war crimes on both sides. [30] Goldstone is former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to head the Mission. The other three appointed members were:

  • Christine Chinkin, Professor of International Law at the London School of Economics, who was a member of the high-level fact-finding mission to Beit Hanoun (2008)
  • Hina Jilani, Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and former Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders, who was a member of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (2004)
  • Desmond Travers, a former Officer in Ireland’s Defence Forces and member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations.

As directed by the UNHCR resolution S-9/1, titled "The grave violations of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly due to the recent Israeli military attacks against the occupied Gaza Strip," suggesting a focus on Israeli actions. It had been introduced by Cuba and Egypt on behalf of the Arab and African Groups, and by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.[31] Goldstone, however, expanded the mandate to look at both sides. This conflict of mandate versus report has persisted in acceptance and criticism of the report.

The Government of Israel did not work with the Mission. "The Mission repeatedly sought to obtain the cooperation of the Government of Israel. After numerous attempts had failed, the Mission sought and obtained the assistance of the Government of Egypt to enable it to enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing." The 575-page report[32] was presented to the UN Human Rights Council on September 29. Israel's initial response was

The Report of the Fact-Finding Mission established pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution S-9/1 was instigated as part of a political campaign, and itself represents a political assault directed against Israel and against every State forced to confront terrorist threats.

In the eyes of the authors of the Report, Israel's operation in Gaza had nothing to do with the 12,000 rockets and mortars fired by Hamas over eight years on towns and villages inside Israel, nor with the fact that close to one million Israeli citizens had to live their lives within seconds of bomb-shelters because they were in range of Hamas attacks. Nor, in their view, did it have anything to do with the smuggling of weapons and ammunition to terrorist groups through hundreds of tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. Indeed, neither the right to self defense nor the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip are even mentioned in the Report. [33]

The report, indeed, does not specifically address self-defense or justification, but focuses on the events in the operation, as well as blockade following the period of intense combat. In the text of the report, "the Mission determined that it was required to consider any actions by all parties that might have constituted violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law. The mandate also required it to review related actions in the entire Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel."


Columbia University law professor George Fletcher opposes ICC jurisdiction in this case. He brings up the point that the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC)assumes good-faith investigation by nations, as opposed to non-state actors such as the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. From this, he argues that it would be double jeopardy for an external tribunal to try individuals cleared of wrongdoing by their own national investigation.[34] John Dugard, a South African law professor who headed the Arab League fact-finding mission, argues the opposite position. [35]


  1. Gaza Facts: the Israeli Position, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  2. "Israel's Livni, Netanyahu vow to topple Hamas rule", Reuters, 21 December 2008
  3. BBC News: 'Israel accepts truce 'principles''. 7th January 2009.
  4. "Hamas announces ceasefire in Gaza", BBC, 18th January 2009
  5. Cairo talks on ceasefire in Gaza, BBC, 22 January 2009
  6. Gaza tunnels resume smuggling'], BBC, 22 January 2009
  7. Anthony Cordesman, The "Gaza War": A Strategic Analysis, Center for Strategic and International Studies, p. ii
  8. "Israel looks to drive out Hamas", Guardian, 6th January 2009
  9. "SPIEGEL Interview with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni: 'No Negotiations' with Hamas", Der SPIEGEL, 13 January 2009
  10. Michael Radu (January 2009), E-Notes: Gaza Conflict: Deterrence and the Other Missed Points, Foreign Policy Research Institute
  11. "Netanyahu poised to take office", BBC, 31 March 2009
  12. Asa Kasher (Summer 2009), "Operation Cast Lead and the Ethics of Just War: Was Israel's conduct in its campaign against Hamas morally justified?", Azure (journal)
  13. Cordesman, p. 2
  14. Scott C. Farquhar, ed., Back to Basics: A Study of the Second Lebanon War and Operation CAST LEAD, Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command
  15. BBC: 'Gaza soldier accounts 'hearsay''. 30th March 2009.
  16. B'Tselem publishes complete fatality figures from Operation Cast Lead, B'Tselem, 9 September 2009
  17. "'Shooting and crying'", Haaretz, 26 March 2009
  18. BBC: 'Gaza soldier accounts 'hearsay''. 30th March 2009.
  19. BBC: 'What gets into the Gaza Strip'. 2nd March 2009.
  20. UNDP begins removing rubble in the Gaza Strip, United Nations Development Programme, 9 July 2009
  21. BBC: 'Who will rebuild Gaza?' 28th January 2009.
  22. BBC: 'Gaza rebuild 'to cost billions''. 20th January 2009.
  23. BBC: 'UN 'shocked' by Gaza destruction'. 23rd January 2009.
  24. "Israel vows 'disproportionate' response to Gaza rocket attacks", Daily Telegraph, 1st February 2009
  25. Fareed Zakaria (14 February 2009), "Israel’s Biggest Danger: Today they're 20 percent of the country's population. Demographers predict they'll be 25 percent by 2025.", Newsweek
  26. Independent: 'UN retreats after Israel hits out at Gaza report'. 6th May 2009.
  27. UN News Centre: 'Ban sends report of UN probe into Gaza incidents to Security Council'. 5th May 2009.
  28. Amnesty International: 'Impunity for war crimes in Gaza and southern Israel a recipe for further civilian suffering'. 2nd July 2009. See also the organisation's report, 'Operation 'Cast Lead': 22 days of death and destruction'. .pdf file also downloadable via the BBC.
  29. B'Tselem: 'B'Tselem publishes complete fatality figures from Operation Cast Lead'. 9th September 2009. See also BBC: 'Israel 'understated' Gaza deaths'. 9th September 2009.
  30. UN mission finds evidence of war crimes by both sides in Gaza conflict, UN News Service, 15 September 2009
  31. Cuba, Egypt (on behalf of the Arab and African Groups), Pakistan (on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference) to UN Human Rights Council (12 January 2009), The grave violations of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly due to the recent Israeli military attacks against the occupied Gaza Strip, A/HRC/S-9/L.1
  32. Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (15 September 2009), Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories, p. 6
  33. Initial Response to Report of the Fact Finding Mission on Gaza, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 24 September 2009
  34. George Fletcher (23 July 2009), "Don't Go There", New York Times
  35. John Dugard (23 July 2009), "Take the Case", New York Times