The Israel Defense Forces accused Gaza’s Hamas terror group of building up military infrastructure in civilian areas and adjacent to schools, mosques and businesses Wednesday, in an apparent bid to pre-emptively justify collateral damage from any future strikes in the densely populated enclave.
The efforts come following harsh international scrutiny over Israel’s actions during last year’s war with Gaza, which included dozens of civilian deaths and a major airstrike on a building used by international media outlets.
Officials at the IDF’s Southern Command, briefed members of the foreign press corps in Israel on a series of sites where the army says Hamas has placed military infrastructure near civilian areas.
These included a tunnel that runs next to a Pepsi soft drink factory and a United Nations-funded school in Gaza City. The IDF said the tunnel was used by Hamas to both store weaponry and mobilize fighters.
Several other Hamas weapon manufacturing and storage sites and tunnels situated near schools, universities, mosques, and other civilian sites were also presented to the reporters, including an arms factory close to Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital. The military also published the identities of several Hamas fighters who live in buildings above tunnel entrances.
Israel argues that Hamas’s use of civilian areas for military activity, including launching rockets at Israel, amounts to a war crime.
“The whole world should be exposed to the crimes committed by Hamas, and a heavy price should be exacted from it today,” said Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who also toured the Gaza border on Wednesday.
But military officials admitted that attempting to explain each Israeli action to the world while also fighting a war has been a difficult task.
In the immediate aftermath of last year’s war, the military began working to better coordinate its public advocacy efforts with its operational actions. Wednesday’s briefing was part of a new military effort to maintain its freedom of action in Gaza, which officials said heavily relies on international legitimacy.
The timing of the briefing was of no major significance, according to IDF officials, as the Southern Command has plans to regularly update foreign media on Hamas’s activity in Gaza throughout the year, not just during a war.
Israel has fought four major wars and numerous shorter rounds of fighting in the Gaza Strip since the Hamas terror group took over in a violent coup in 2007.
In the most recent conflict in May 2021, the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said at least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and teens, with 1,910 people wounded in the violence. It did not differentiate between terror group members and civilians, and the Israeli military maintained that it killed some 225 terrorist operatives.
The civilian death toll has drawn heavy international criticism, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened an investigation into Israel’s battlefield tactics, dating back to the events leading up to the previous major Gaza conflict in 2014, which it says may amount to war crimes.
Israel rejects the criticism, saying it takes numerous precautions to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties.
It says its targets are based on sophisticated intelligence and cleared by legal advisers and other experts, and that it often warns inhabitants to evacuate before their homes are struck. It says it has fine-tuned its guided missiles, delivering small payloads that minimize damage beyond the precise target.
Israel argues that civilian casualties are inevitable in Gaza’s densely populated urban environment. Terrorists often fire rockets from crowded residential areas, drawing Israeli retaliatory strikes, and Israel accuses the terrorists of using civilians, including their own families, as human shields.
“Hamas fires from within the civilian population, and at the [Israeli] civilian population. As Israel is determined to bring peace and stability, we will also be determined to hit every military target of Hamas and [other] terrorist organizations that threaten the citizens of Israel,” Gantz said Wednesday.
Despite the rhetoric, Israel has often struggled to justify its actions to the world in real time during war.
During the May 2021 conflict, the IDF destroyed a 12-story building housing media organizations including The Associated Press and Al Jazeera. The Israeli military, which gave AP journalists and other tenants about an hour to evacuate, claimed only months later that the tower was used by Hamas to set up equipment to block GPS signals in order to interfere with the Iron Dome missile defense system, which Israel was using to intercept the rockets, mortar shells, and drones being launched from Gaza.
A former Israeli general said the bombing amounted to an “own goal,” causing more damage to Israel’s image than it provided operational benefit.
Though IDF officials have since acknowledged that the military should have better explained its reasons for striking the building, none has publicly said that the bombing was a mistake.