Sometimes what the international press does not cover reveals as much about its biases as what it does cover. When Israel was engaged in a campaign of targeted killings against Gaza terrorists during the height of the Palestinian Intifada, the press eagerly reported on every civilian casualty. Human rights organizations had a field day criticizing Israel for its failure to pinpoint legitimate military targets and the large number of collateral deaths its campaign of targeted killings was producing. In those days, especially in 2002-2003, approximately half of the people killed by Israeli missiles were civilians. The other half were terrorists who were engaged in trying to kill as many civilians as possible. Sometimes the civilian casualties exceeded the legitimate military killings. The most notorious such case was the targeted killing of Salah Shehadeh, a terrorist commander who was responsible for hundreds of Israeli deaths and who was actively involved in planning hundreds, perhaps thousands, more. After several failed attempts, a targeted rocket attack managed to kill him and few tears were shed over his well deserved demise. But in the process of killing him, his wife and daughter were also killed along with 13 other civilians. This caused an enormous outcry, not only in the international press, but among Israelis as well. Even though Shehadeh’s death may well have prevented the deaths of many more Israeli civilians, still the cost in Palestinian civilian casualties was too high for most Israelis to accept and for the international media to tolerate.
Since the Shehadeh tragedy, the Israeli air force has undertaken a major effort to reduce civilian casualties, while continuing to target enemy combatants who are planning terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. By using smaller bombs, they kill fewer civilians, but they also miss many legitimate military targets, as they did when they used a small bomb and failed to kill several Hamas terrorist leaders who were assembled in one place.
Under the leadership of Eliezer Shkedi, the current head of the Israeli air force, Israel has dramatically reduced the number of civilian deaths, by developing greater technical proficiency and by forgoing attacks when the risk of civilian deaths is too high. This is the way this improvement was recently reported in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper known for its criticism of targeted killings:
Lately, the thwartings have indeed become more worthy of the title "pinpointed." In all the attacks of recent weeks, only gunmen were hurt, as confirmed by Palestinians. The rate of civilians hurt in these attacks in 2007 was 2-3 percent. The IDF has come a long way since the dark days of 2002-2003, when half the casualties in air assaults on the Gaza Strip were innocent bystanders. The attacks fall into three main categories: targeting specific known terrorists; targeting Qassam rocket-launching cells en-route or in action; and punitive bombardments of Hamas outposts, in response to rocket or mortar fire into Israel.
Reducing the number of civilian casualties in the attacks on Gaza was one of the first tasks…IAF chief, Eliezer Shkedi, marked out for himself. The data improved commensurately. From a 1:1 ratio between killed terrorists and civilians in 2003 to a 1:28 ratio in late 2005. Several IAF mishaps in 2006 lowered the ratio to 1:10, but the current ratio is at its lowest ever -- more than 1:30.
In other words for every 30 legitimate combatants killed by the Israeli air force’s campaign of targeted killings, only one civilian is killed. Even this figure may be misleading because some of the civilians are anything but innocent bystanders, while others, such as young children, surely are. Every death of a civilian is a tragedy to be avoided whenever possible, but civilian deaths are an inevitable consequence of warfare. This is especially so when terrorists deliberately hide among civilians and fire rockets from civilian areas, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad frequently do.
No army in history has ever had a better ratio of combatants to civilians killed in a comparable setting. Israel’s ratio is far better than that of the United States, Great Britain, Russia or any other country combating terrorism. Yet this remarkable improvement has hardly been reported by the international press. Neither have human rights organizations taken appropriate note of it, especially considering the extraordinary and disproportionate criticism directed against Israel when the ratio was worse. Nor have these organizations noted that the selective employment of targeted killings in 2007, coupled with other defensive actions, have resulted in the lowest number of Israeli civilian deaths and the lowest number of Palestinian civilian deaths in recent times.
This is a story that should be widely reported and carefully analyzed. Silence in the face of this improvement is misleading, since it leads many to believe that there have been no improvements since the dark days of the Intifada. Misleading by silence is as grievous a journalistic sin as misleading by mistake. The time has come to correct this sin and set the record straight.