The Dahiya Doctrine, Proportionality, and War Crimes

VOL. 44


No. 1
P. 5
Operation Protective Edge: From the Editor
The Dahiya Doctrine, Proportionality, and War Crimes


IN JULY 2014, Israel launched its third and most massive military assault in a period of less than six years on the 1.8 million people of the Gaza Strip. In so doing, it killed over twenty-one hundred Palestinians and wounded more than eleven thousand. The vast majority of the thirteen thousand casualties were civilians, and well over half of them were women, children, old people, and the disabled. This latest massacre of the innocents provides the occasion for the Journal of Palestine Studies (JPS) to offer a special dossier centered on Gaza.


Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza has been depicted as self-defense, with Israel as the primary victim, by Israeli and U.S. politicians and most of the mainstream American and Israeli media. It is therefore necessary to place this assault in context and to consider precisely what it consisted of, and how disproportionate it was, irrespective of any possible provocation by the Palestinians. This analysis will not consider the lead-up to Israel’s attack, and the likelihood that the aggressive actions by Israeli security forces against Hamas in the preceding weeks, first in the West Bank and then in the Gaza Strip, were deliberately meant to provoke this entire episode.


It is worth recalling that this was only the most recent and the most lethal of Israel’s wars on Gaza, going back even further than the two preceding ones. In his essay in this issue, the French historian Jean-Pierre Filiu calls it the twelfth Israeli “war” on Gaza since 1948. During its latest campaign, stretching over a period of fifty days in July and August of 2014, Israel’s air force launched more than six thousand air attacks, and its army and navy fired about fifty thousand artillery and tank shells. Together, they utilized what has been estimated as a total of twentyone kilotons, or twenty-one thousand tons, of high explosives. The attack from the air involved weapons ranging from drones and American Apache helicopters firing U.S.-made Hellfire missiles to American F-16’s carrying two-thousand-pound bombs. According to the commander of the Israeli Air Force, there were several hundred F-16 attacks on targets in Gaza, most of them using these powerful munitions. [1] A two-thousand-pound bomb creates a crater 15 meters wide by 11 meters deep and propels lethal fragments to a radius of 365 meters. One or two of these monsters can destroy a multistory building, and they were used at the conclusion of the Israeli air campaign toward the end of August to level several of Gaza City’s high-rises. [2] There is no public record of the exact number that dropped on the Gaza Strip, or whether even heavier ordnance was used.


In addition to aerial bombardment, according to a report issued by the Israeli logistical command in mid-August 2014, well before the final cease-fire took hold on 26 August, the Israeli military had already fired about forty-nine thousand artillery (and tank) projectiles into the Gaza Strip. [3] Projectiles fired from the U.S.-made M109A5 155mm howitzer used by Israel have a 50-meter radius kill zone and they inflict casualties within a radius of another 100 meters. Israel possesses 600 of these artillery pieces, and 175 of the heavier and longer-range American M107 175mm guns. It is worthwhile to examine in detail one example of the use of these lethal weapons during the Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip.


On 19–20 July 2014, elements of the elite Golani, Givati, and paratrooper brigades launched an assault along three axes into the Shuja‘iya district of Gaza City on the eastern side of the city center. The Golani brigade in particular met fierce and unexpected resistance that resulted in thirteen Israeli soldiers being killed and perhaps a hundred wounded. According to American military sources, over a period of twenty-four hours during this operation, eleven Israeli artillery battalions, employing at least 258 of these artillery pieces, fired over seven thousand shells into this single neighborhood. This included forty-eight hundred shells during one seven-hour period: nearly seven hundred shells an hour, or over eleven per minute. A senior Pentagon official “with access to the daily briefings” called this amount of firepower “massive” and “deadly.” He described this “huge” amount of firepower as that which would normally be used by the U.S. Army in support of two entire divisions comprising forty thousand troops. Another, a former American artillery commander, estimated that the U.S. military would employ that number of guns only in support of an army corps of several divisions. A retired American lieutenant general described the bombing frenzy as “absolutely disproportionate.” [4] It bears repeating that this enormous amount of firepower was used in the span of about twenty-four hours for an artillery bombardment of just one Gaza neighborhood that was simultaneously being pounded by massive air strikes.


The U.S.-made 155mm and 175mm artillery pieces that were involved in the Shuja‘iya offensive are battlefield weapons, designed for lethal fire against dug-in troops wearing body armor and helmets, as well as fortifications and armored vehicles over a wide area. While they can fire precision-guided munitions, used as they were against a residential neighborhood, they are inherently imprecise. Similarly to air strikes involving two-thousand-pound bombs, the use of such ordnance in heavily built-up and crowded areas like Shuja‘iya and Bayt Hanun in July, and Khan Yunis and Rafah in August, necessarily and inevitably caused extremely heavy civilian casualties and massive, indiscriminate damage to property. [5]


This is especially true of a place as crowded as the Gaza Strip, a territory of 360 square kilometers, about 40 kilometers long by 9 kilometers wide, which includes some of the most heavily populated areas in the world. Gaza’s besieged people have nowhere to flee to when they are attacked with such deadly weapons, even when they are given prior notice by Israel. Beyond the horrific injuries they inflict on human flesh, air bombardment and artillery fire on this scale cause enormous destruction to property: as a result of this war, over 16,000 buildings were rendered uninhabitable, including entire neighborhoods in Shuja‘iya, Rafah, Bayt Lahiya, and Bayt Hanun. A total of 277 United Nations (UN) and government schools, 17 hospitals and clinics, and all 6 of Gaza’s universities were damaged, as were over 40,000 other buildings. Perhaps 450,000 Gazans, over a quarter of the population, were forced to leave their homes, and remain displaced as many of them no longer have homes to go back to.


Sinister Strategy


Random occurrences cannot explain such devastation, nor can this honestly be called regrettable “collateral damage.” To believe that is to willfully suspend belief and to ignore the nature of the weapons used—and, equally important, it is to ignore Israel’s established military doctrine. The wholesale killing and mangling of over thirteen thousand people, most of them defenseless civilians, and the wanton destruction of the homes and property of hundreds of thousands of people, are in fact fully intentional. They are the fruits of a sinister strategy implemented by the Israeli military at least since the 2006 assault on Lebanon, which goes by the name “Dahiya doctrine.” The doctrine was revealed publicly by Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who was head of the Northern Command in 2006, and who has been deputy chief of staff of the so-called Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Israeli army, since 2013. After an entire southern suburb of Beirut, known as the Dahiya, had been devastated from the air by troops under his command using two-thousand-pound bombs and other similar ordnance, Eizenkot explicitly laid out what this doctrine entailed in 2008. He stated: “What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. . . . We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. . . . This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.” [6]


Not only was the strategy precisely the one Israel used in Lebanon in 2006, it is the very same that has now been deployed against Gaza for the third time in the past six years. Israeli military correspondents and security analysts repeatedly reported that the Dahiya doctrine was Israel’s strategy throughout the war in Gaza this past summer. [7] Let us be frank: this is actually less of a strategic doctrine than it is an explicit outline of collective punishment and probable war crimes. Not surprisingly, one found little mention of the Dahiya doctrine whether in statements by U.S. politicians, or in the reporting of the war by most of the mainstream American media, which dwelt on the description of Israel’s actions as “self-defense.”


The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 specifies that U.S.-supplied weapons must be used “for legitimate self-defense.” [8] Given this provision of the law, when U.S. officials from the president on down describe Israel’s operations in Gaza as self-defense, they may be doing more than just parroting the line rigorously laid down by Israel and its supporters. They are perhaps also saying this in order to escape legal liability under U.S. law and to avoid potential prosecution for war crimes, alongside the Israeli officials responsible for giving the orders, and the officers and soldiers who actually pull the trigger.


There remains the issue of proportionality. Together with establishing whether there was direct targeting of civilians, proportionality is central to determining whether certain acts of war rise to the level of war crimes. General Eizenkot’s own words would seem to establish intentional disproportionality on the part of Israel: after all, in outlining the Dahiya doctrine, the senior military officer brazenly referred to Israel’s application of “disproportionate force.”


What about Hamas’s responsibility in terms of potential war crimes? Let us leave aside entirely for the moment the vital distinction between force used by an occupying army and that used by groups among a population under occupation. While the two are very different, both are required to obey the laws of war and international law, including not targeting civilian populations. Israel claimed that during the war, Palestinian groups, led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, fired about four thousand rockets at Israel. Deadly although they certainly are, few of these rockets have sophisticated guidance systems, and none are precision guided munitions, meaning their use was generally indiscriminate, and they could certainly be seen as targeting civilians in a very large proportion of cases, thereby potentially violating the laws of war. However, none of these rockets had a warhead of the size or lethality of even one of the forty-nine thousand tank and artillery shells fired by Israel between 8 July and 14 August 2014. (The U.S.-made M109 155mm gun, for example, fires a fortythree- kilogram shell, while the Soviet-designed Grad rocket most commonly used by Hamas and its allies normally is mounted with a twenty-kilogram warhead, although many of them were fitted with smaller warheads in order to increase their range, and most of the homemade Qassams had considerably smaller warheads.) Taken together, the four thousand Qassam, Katyusha, Grad, and other rockets that were fired from the Gaza Strip and reached Israel (many of them were so imprecise that they fell short and landed within the Gaza Strip), probably had less explosive power than a dozen two-thousand-pound bombs.


The rockets fired by Hamas and its allies nevertheless had an undoubted and powerful psychological effect (which is paradoxically increased by their very high degree of inaccuracy). As we were relentlessly informed by the American media, their use obliged large segments of the Israeli population to spend long periods of time in bomb shelters. However, thanks to Israel’s excellent early warning system and its state of the art U.S.-supplied antimissile capabilities, these rockets were very rarely lethal. The forty-five hundred or so rockets [9] fired killed a total of four Israeli civilians, one of them a bedouin in the Naqab region where the Israeli government refused to build shelters for the Arab population, [10] and a Thai agricultural worker. [11] It is thus quite clear that as used by Hamas and its allies, although these weapons may have a major psychological effect, they are not particularly powerful; certainly not when compared to the crushing firepower employed by one of the most potent and best equipped armies in the world.


One would never guess that this is the case from the media and political hype that Israel and its apologists have managed to generate around rocket fire from Gaza. Focusing on the rockets has one inestimable virtue for Israel: it obscures so much of the crucial context without which it is all too easy to create absurd depictions wherein the victim is the victimizer and vice versa. This context includes the vital fact that Palestine is currently in the forty-eighth year of what has become a perpetual occupation of the West Bank and also of the Gaza Strip, completely controlled as it is from without by Israel. This occupation was declared to be permanent by Benjamin Netanyahu himself in July. [12]


The Gaza Strip is not an “enemy entity,” in the absurd legalese concocted by the Israel government to conceal what it is really doing. [13] The Gaza Strip, in the eyes of international law, the UN, and even the U.S. government, is an occupied territory, which Israel has subjected to periodic savage attacks as well as a blockade since 2007 (with intermittent Israeli closures blocking all population movement into or out of the Strip since 1993). Israel is doing these things in flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which enjoins the occupying power to protect the population under its control. Very simply put, the people of Gaza are being punished collectively by the occupier that is supposed to protect them. They are being punished for the crime of resisting an unending and violent occupation that has deprived them of their freedom for over two generations.


Finally, we should not forget the refugee origins of over two-thirds of the population of the Gaza Strip, which has now been attacked three times over the past six years, and has perhaps been more brutally treated by Israel since 1948 than any other segment of the entire Palestinian people (with the possible exception of the Palestinians living in Lebanon from the late 1960s until 1982). The more than one million refugees of the Gaza Strip originated in villages in the southern parts of historic Palestine that were depopulated by Zionist and later Israeli forces in 1948–49. This ethnic cleansing of the country was an absolutely necessary precondition for carving a majority-Jewish state out of the greater part of a country that in 1948 was over 65 per cent Arab. The bulk of Gaza’s population is thus made up of refugees from the very areas where most of the Gaza-launched rockets have been falling. Many of them have now been made refugees yet again, an experience sadly all too familiar to Palestinian refugee populations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.


Pivotal Moment


Any historian with an ounce of sense knows that it is best to leave the determination of historical turning points until well after the event. But as this introduction is being written in October 2014, what has been happening in the Palestinian arena for the past several months, culminating in the Israeli assault on Gaza in July and August, certainly appears as if it might constitute such a decisive shift.


Several things appear to have happened in the months leading up to and culminating in this assault. One is that the center of gravity of Palestinian political action has moved back to gritty and poor Gaza and away from the gilded cage of the Ramallah Green Zone. It has thus gone from the unreality and artificiality of one of the few slivers of Arab Palestine where, for a select number of Palestinians and resident foreigners at least, life went on with a semblance of “normality,” back to the part of Palestine most synonymous with deprivation and resistance. Historically, Gaza has been one of the main cradles, if not the main cradle, of the different phases/faces (to use Helga Baumgarten’s useful categorization) [14] of post-1948 Palestinian nationalism and resistance: it was from the Gaza Strip that emerged most of the founding leaders of Fatah and of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) itself; it was there that the deepest implantation of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the occupied territories occurred; and it is the birthplace of Islamic Jihad and Hamas.


This shift of the focus of Palestinian politics and national consciousness is linked to a second phenomenon: the end of the diplomatic phase inaugurated by the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 and associated with the Oslo accords. Diplomacy of some sort will undoubtedly continue. It is an absolute necessity since American hegemony in the Arab world depends on the illusion of concern for a resolution of the Palestine question, as it has since April 1945 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the first of many unkept American promises in this regard. [15] But the era of Palestinian belief in the entire framework constructed over the past two decades by Israel with astute American support in order to contain the conflict and enable the continuation and expansion of Israel’s occupation and settlement project, giving the Palestinians “autonomy” shorn of sovereignty, real jurisdiction, and control over territory, or dignity, is over. How long the relic of this framework, a Palestinian Authority with no real authority, will survive in its present form, is impossible to discern. It represents too many vested interests, Palestinian, regional, and international, to disappear entirely or quickly. But it has perhaps already done most of its destructive work in extinguishing Palestinian rights and aspirations, and it may well be obliged to change drastically in keeping with the profound ongoing shifts in Palestinian politics as well as in the regional and world situation. One sign of this change was President Mahmud Abbas’s speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2014, in which he did not even mention the term “peace process,” a term now widely despised and discredited among his own people and many others.


A third notable phenomenon has been a return to the idea of resistance to Israel as a necessary precondition for a change in the status quo that has long been highly unfavorable to the Palestinians. The Oslo period and, indeed, the last stages of the first intifada in the early 1990s were marked by the idea that resistance had done its work, and that peaceful diplomatic action could now be relied upon to achieve Palestinian national goals. The spectacular failure of what appears to have been a delusional approach is now apparent to all but a very few dedicated Palestinian partisans of the bankrupt Oslo formula.


Resistance has many meanings of course. In much of the discourse and in the macho videos of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, it means only one thing: armed struggle and the use of violence. But in the eyes of many, perhaps most Palestinians, the drawbacks of armed struggle and the use of violence against one of the biggest, most sophisticated militaries in the world are manifest. These drawbacks have again been temporarily obscured by the Israeli assault on Gaza, which produced a stubborn pride in the military accomplishments of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, in spite of the horrendous price paid in civilian suffering. This is combined with the understandable desire to make the oppressor suffer even a little for the agony it is inflicting on the Palestinian civilian population as part of the by now standard Israeli policy of collective punishment that is beautifully summed up in the Dahiya doctrine.


But in Palestinian political discourse, resistance is increasingly understood as much more than simply the use of violence, in spite of the adamant insistence of some of the advocates of violence that it is the only acceptable means of resisting occupation and oppression. The two-month-long prisoners’ hunger strike from late April through late June of 2014, which sparked a broad movement of sympathy in Palestinian society, may have been the first sign of this renewed spirit of resistance. It was accompanied in April 2014 by another such sign, in the form of the tentative and incomplete moves towards national unity between Fatah and Hamas. This represented a departure, however small, from the high degree of subservience to the occupier practiced by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. These moves have certainly been inconclusive: six months on, the Palestinian “national unity” government has yet to take charge of the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, any form of national unity represents a serious Palestinian challenge to the policy of the Israeli occupier and its American and European patrons, all of which have been single-mindedly committed since at least 2006 to keeping the Palestinian national movement as disunited politically and physically, and thus as weak, as possible.


Several contributions in this issue of JPS explore aspects of the lead-up to the events of the summer of 2014 in the Gaza Strip, including the kidnapping and killing of three young Israeli settlers, which served as a convenient pretext for Israel to launch a massive campaign of search operations, arrests, and harassment initially directed against Hamas. This was designed to reverse the trends just mentioned leading away from diplomacy and towards resistance to occupation. It was also meant to counter the growing popular sentiment among Palestinians in favor of greater unification at the level of their national movement. Israel then escalated this campaign into a war on Gaza to achieve the same aims. This has been seen universally among Palestinians as a war on their entire people, not on Hamas. Thus, in spite of the stark political differences between Hamas and Fatah, it has brought the West Bank and Gaza Strip closer together, serving to further cement national unity and to foil the primary Israeli objective of keeping the Palestinians divided. It remains to be seen whether any of this means that Israel’s model for the pacification of Palestinians as it pursues its project of colonization and occupation of their land has broken down fully. It is also not clear whether the Palestinians can any longer be contained within the fraying Oslo framework, whereby they police themselves and provide security for the occupier while negotiations, carefully designed to be fruitless, pointless, and aimless, go on and on. But whether resistance is expressed through growing post-Gaza boycotts of Israeli products in West Bank grocery stores, demonstrations, or via more active means, it does seem to be the case that the popular passivity that characterized the Palestinians during the Oslo era has come to an end.


The Dossier


This issue of the Journal is centered on a dossier that approaches the war on Gaza from various perspectives, bringing together background information on the lead-up to the war and its course. In its extensive coverage of the 2014 assault on Gaza, this is a companion issue to JPS 151, which focused on the war of 2008–9, so-called Operation Cast Lead. Because of the immediacy of the events of the past summer, we have commissioned an unusually large number of essays. Some of them chart the course of the conflict, others analyze how it was dealt with in the media, and yet others examine its ramifications for the Palestinians, as well as in Israel and in the United States. The issue also offers accounts of the human toll of the fighting on the populace of Gaza. The authors range from well-known journalists such as Chris Hedges and Max Blumenthal, to distinguished academics like Robin Kelley and Jean-Pierre Filiu. They include four prominent Palestinian writers, three of them experts on legal and diplomatic affairs: Diana Buttu, Noura Erakat, and Victor Kattan, as well as the political analyst Yousef Munayyer. To illustrate the human drama that unfolded over the summer of 2014, there are personal accounts by Dr. Basil Baker, the head of neurosurgery at al-Shifa hospital, the Gaza Strip’s major medical facility, and by Gazan author Laila El-Haddad, whose extended family lost nine of its members during the assault, as well as a reprint of the response by Sara Roy to the views of Elie Wiesel on the Gaza war. Rounding out the coverage is an interview with Hanan Ashrawi, the head of the PLO Information and Culture Department and a member of the PLO Executive Committee, in which she reflects on some of the possible consequences of the war, and developments since then.


We also include in this issue the text of the inaugural annual lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies’ Center for Palestine Studies, which was delivered by Professor Walid Khalidi. In his talk, entitled “Palestine and Palestine Studies: One Century after World War I and the Balfour Declaration,” the renowned scholar and observer of events in Palestine for more than seven decades provides insights into some major turning points in the history and historiography of Palestine: the genesis of the Balfour Declaration, little-known aspects of the 1948 war, UN Security Council Resolution 242, and the ongoing standoff between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama.


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- Rashid I. Khalidi

1 Barbara Opall-Rome, “Gaza War Leaned Heavily on F-16 Close-Air Support,” Defense News, 15 September 2014,

2 Jodi Rudoren and Fares Akram, “Lost Homes and Dreams at Tower Israel Leveled,” New York Times, 15 September 2014, pp. A4, A6.

3 Yoav Zitun,“Protective Edge, in Numbers,” Ynet, 14 August 2014,,7340,L-4558916,00.html.

4 Mark Perry, “Why Israel’s Bombardment of Gaza Neighborhood Left US Officers ‘Stunned,’” Al Jazeera America, 27 August 2014,

5 Idan Barir, “Why It’s Hard to Believe Israel’s Claim that It Did Its Best to Minimize Civilian Casualties,” World Post, 21 August 2014, Idan Barir, a former crew commander in the Israeli artillery corps, notes that “the truth is artillery shells cannot be aimed precisely and are not meant to hit specific targets. A standard 40 kilogram shell is nothing but a large fragmentation grenade. When it explodes, it is meant to kill anyone within a 50-meter radius and to wound anyone within a further 100 meters,” and that Israel’s “use of artillery fire is a deadly game of Russian roulette. The statistics, on which such firepower relies, mean that in densely populated areas such as Gaza, civilians will inevitably be hit as well.”

6 “Israel Warns Hizballah War Would Invite Destruction,” Ynet, 3 October 2008,,7340,L-3604893,00.html. See also Yaron London, “The Dahiya Strategy,” Ynet, 6 October 2008,,7340,L-3605863,00.html.

7 See, for example, Amos Harel, “A RealWar Is UnderWay in Gaza,” Haaretz, 26 July 2014,

8 Arms Export Control Act of 1976, 22 U.S.C. § 2754 - Purposes forWhich Military Sales or Leases by the United States Are Authorized; Report to Congress (1976).

9 Ben Hartman, “50 Days of Israel’s Gaza Operation, Protective Edge—by the Numbers,” Jerusalem Post, 28 August 2014,

10 “Equal Shelter for All: Israel’s Government Must Recognize that All Its Citizens, the Bedouin Included, Have Equal Rights,” Haaretz, 20 August 2014,

11 “The Gaza Conflict by Numbers,” AFP, 2 August 2014, See also “Gaza Crisis,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), updated 15 October 2014,

12 Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, “The Occupation Will Last Forever, Netanyahu Clarifies,” +972 Magazine, 11 July 2014, Netanyahu stated: “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

13 Mark Tran, “Israel Declares Gaza ‘Enemy Entity,’” 19 September 2007, Guardian, See also “Security Cabinet Declares Gaza ‘Enemy Entity,’” Jerusalem Post,

14 Helga Baumgarten, “The Three Faces/Phases of Palestinian Nationalism,” JPS 34, no. 4 (Summer 2005), pp. 25–48.

15 Rashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Boston: Beacon, 2013), pp. xx–xxi.