Both sides adapt as they try to minimise civilian casualties in latest Gaza conflict

Palestinian militants are firing longer-range rockets at Israel, which is using drones and new weapons to try to minimise civilian casualties

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 8:51am

With pinpoint airstrikes on militant targets in the Gaza Strip and Iranian-made rockets flying deep into Israel, the current conflagration between Israel and Hamas reflects the vast changes that have taken place on the battlefield in just four years.

Israel, armed with precise intelligence and newly developed munitions, has carried out hundreds of surgical airstrikes in a campaign meant to hit militants while avoiding the civilian casualties that have marred previous offensives.

Hamas, meanwhile, has not been stopped from firing its new longer-range rockets that shocked Israelis by reaching the areas around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time, and has revealed a variety of new weapons.

This battle zone is the result of meticulous efforts by both sides to beef up their abilities since a three-week Israeli offensive in Gaza that ended in January 2009.

At that time, Israel inflicted heavy damage on Hamas. But the operation caused widespread damage to the civilian infrastructure and killed hundreds of civilians. The toll drew heavy international criticism and war crimes accusations. Thirteen Israelis were also killed in the fighting.

In four days of fighting, Israel has sought to hit clear militant targets - relying on painstaking intelligence gathered through a network of informers, aerial surveillance and other high-tech measures.

Other technological means used to avoid killing civilians include specially designed munitions with smaller blowback, a system of sending text messages and automated phone calls to warn residents to vacate areas ahead of strikes and stun explosives that are deployed to create large explosive sounds - to scare off civilians before the real payload is deployed against militants.

However, the room for error is small. Of the 46 Palestinians killed in the current offensive, 15 have been civilians, according to Palestinian medical officials. In addition, more than 400 civilians have been wounded, the officials say. Israel knows that a single misfire resulting in high numbers of civilian deaths could quickly turn international opinion against it.

The results of the new Israeli tactics were illustrated at the outset of the offensive, when Israel assassinated Hamas' military chief, Ahmed Jabari, in an airstrike in Gaza City.

In a black and white video released by the military, a car carrying Jabari moves slowly along a narrow road before exploding into flames, sending a large chunk of the vehicle flying skyward without injuring bystanders.

Since then, the Israelis have carried out hundreds of surgical airstrikes against weapon depots, launching pads and other targets.

"Many of the targets that we targeted from the air were in very densely populated areas, sometimes they were even near UN facilities or schools or recreation centres," said Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman. "This leads us to develop and use very precise ammunition in order to minimise casualties. They know Israel has a soft spot for civilian casualties. We have improved significantly in the area."

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that thanks to its intelligence, Israel immediately destroyed most of the long-range missile threat against it. Still, Israel has been hit by more than 400 rockets in four days of fighting, including attacks against the Tel Aviv heartland and Jerusalem, some 80 kilometres away.

In several attacks, Hamas said it had unleashed for the first time the most powerful weapons in its arsenal - Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets.

Israel's inability to halt the rocket attacks, after days of intense aerial bombardments, reflects its limitations. Just as Israel has raced to improve its military tactics, Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza have built up their arsenals.

Once limited to crude projectiles manufactured in Gaza, Hamas has used smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt to bring in sophisticated, longer-range rockets from Iran and Libya, which has been flush with weapons since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted last year.

Israel appeared stunned by the attack on Jerusalem, though officials later said they were aware of the weapon. Hamas said the M-75 missile was made in Gaza, with Iranian assistance.

In turn, Israel's "Iron Dome" rocket-defence system has provided the country a defensive boost. The military says the system has intercepted nearly 250 rockets. The only Israeli deaths so far have been three civilians.