When Stated ‘Intentions’ Don’t Matter

Israel knows that its assault on Gaza is inflicting mass civilian death and starvation but claims that these outcomes are not its ‘intention.’ But when you know the consequences of your actions, what difference do intentions make?

This week in the Gaza Strip, seven workers for the World Central Kitchen, a renowned humanitarian aid organization, were killed when the Israeli military launched at least three airstrikes upon a convoy of aid vehicles. 

The WCK has provided humanitarian aid to war and disaster zones around the world since 2010 and has delivered more than 32 million meals to the people of Gaza, who face starvation as the result of the Israeli military’s blocking of humanitarian aid. According to a new Oxfam analysis, just 41 percent of the food necessary to feed the population has been allowed to enter the Strip since October, with people in the North of Gaza living on just 245 calories a day.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the strike “tragic” but insisted that it was unintentional. Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi blamed a “misidentification” even though the convoy was clearly marked with the emblem of the aid organization. The WCK had also coordinated its route with the Israel Defense Force in advance. In an internal probe published April 5, the IDF said that “those who approved the strike were convinced that they were targeting armed Hamas operatives and not WCK employees.”

WCK founder José Andrés was unconvinced by Israel’s denials, noting in an interview with Reuters that, “They were targeting us in a deconflicting zone, in an area controlled by IDF.” He later added, “The airstrikes on our convoy I don’t think were an unfortunate mistake. It was really a direct attack on clearly marked vehicles whose movements were known by everybody at the IDF.”

This certainly seems probable. More than 200 aid workers have been killed in Gaza since October 7, making it the deadliest conflict zone in the world for humanitarians. This is also far from the first time Israel’s military has fired on humanitarian aid deliveries. In late February, Israeli troops fired upon Palestinians collecting flour from an aid truck, killing at least 112 and wounding more than 700, an atrocity dubbed the “Flour Massacre.”

According to The Guardian, that attack was far from an anomaly:

There have been at least 14 similar reported incidents between mid-January and the end of February of the shooting, shelling and attacking of Palestinians who had gathered to receive humanitarian aid from trucks or airdrops.

This pattern of attacking aid deliveries, as well as Israel’s aggressive attempts to undermine other aid agencies like UNRWA with bogus claims that a minuscule number of their employees were involved in attacks on Israel, serves as strong evidence of the United Nations’ suggestion that they are using starvation as a weapon of war. This newest attack appears to be furthering that goal, as the WCK has suspended its aid operations in Gaza, along with the group American Near East Refugee Aid, which has operated in the region for the last 55 years. Likewise, the United Arab Emirates, one of the two largest providers of aid to Gaza, has halted its aid operations, citing concerns for the safety of its workers. 

But even if you accept Israel’s contention that every strike they conduct is intended to kill Hamas militants, new reporting from +972 Magazine shows that the Israeli military, at best, often targets militants with either callous disregard for civilian bloodshed, and at worst takes measures that maximize civilian casualties. 

The report unearthed the IDF’s use of an artificial intelligence system known as “Lavender” to identify the locations of militants. According to the six Israeli intelligence officials who spoke with the magazine, “[D]uring the first weeks of the war, the army almost completely relied on Lavender, which clocked as many as 37,000 Palestinians as suspected militants—and their homes—for possible air strikes.”

The targets the machine identified were hardly vetted by human intelligence officers, who usually gave them only “20 seconds” of scrutiny before authorizing a bombing. According to the report,

This was despite knowing that the system makes what are regarded as ‘errors’ in approximately 10 percent of cases, and is known to occasionally mark individuals who have merely a loose connection to militant groups, or no connection at all.

Even worse, the report continued, the IDF relied on another automated system known as “Where’s Daddy?” that was meant to identify when militants would be in their family residences because “from […] an intelligence standpoint, it was easier to locate the individuals in their private houses.” As a result, “the Israeli army systematically attacked the targeted individuals while they were in their homes—usually at night while their whole families were present—rather than during the course of military activity.” The sources testify that thousands of people, most of them innocent women and children, were killed as a result of this program. Like with the attack on aid workers, Israel has justified the number of civilians killed during the war by saying that none of the carnage is “intentional.” 

While doing damage control following the attack on the World Central Kitchen, Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser, Ophir Falk, dismissed any possibility that the attack on the aid convoy was deliberate. “That’s absurd,” he said. “The last thing we would want in the world is to endanger civilian lives.” White House spokesman John Kirby, astonishingly, claimed that Israel had never violated international law over the last six months (something that is obviously untrue) and dismissed the idea that the attack on the WCK was a deliberate strike. It’s obviously not irrelevant whether Israel knew they were striking an aid convoy. But we are now at the point where more than 2 percent of the children in the Gaza Strip have been killed or injured, nearly 2 million people are displaced from their homes, and the territory nears famine. If this is the consequence of a war where attacks on civilians are supposedly not intentional, sussing out Israel’s motives starts to feel trivial. 

As Noam Chomsky has pointed out ad nauseam over his career, every state actor claims to have good intentions, even when they are perpetrating heinous atrocities. “The image of righteous exceptionalism appears to be close to universal,” he wrote in a 2005 essay titled “The Doctrine of Good Intentions.” He notes that Hirohito described his imperial conquests of Asia as acts “to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilisation of East Asia.” In 1935, at the dawn of Nazi rule, Hitler cheerleader Martin Heidegger described Germany as being on a “historic mission” to save the world from “annihilation.” Whatever their intentions, both regimes were responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people. Likewise, America’s war in Iraq, which killed nearly half a million people, had its own high-minded justifications. A mission that began with the stated goal of stopping a dictator with “weapons of mass destruction” morphed into one about so-called democracy promotion when those weapons turned out not to exist. 

The perpetrators of those wars did not come out and tell everyone their goals were to inflict mass death. They probably even believed that their destructive conquests were serving the greater good of humanity. That didn’t stop the bodies from piling up. The same is true in Gaza. Israel’s leaders have made numerous statements describing their total willingness to destroy all of Gaza and kill civilians; they are often intertwined with statements about their noble intentions to rescue hostages and eliminate Hamas from power. Netanyahu has said his goal is nothing short of “total victory,” and in practice that has meant disregarding anything that stands in the way of that goal. To use an analogy that Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson used when he recently debated the livestreamer Destiny about this subject: If you fire a gun into a classroom full of children, you may not intend to hit them, but that is the predictable result. Trying to make a moral distinction between the person who claims they “unintentionally” fired into a room of kids and one who “intentionally” did so is not necessary for us to agree that shooting into a room of kids is horrific and that we should do everything we can to keep it from happening.

Regardless of whether civilian carnage is intentional or just a byproduct of war, that doesn’t change the obvious fact that Israel’s war is inflicting mass death and starvation. After six months, it should be obvious that leveling civilian infrastructure will kill tons of civilians and that cutting off and bombing aid trucks will starve them. Continuing the war when the consequences are known is simply a choice to fund death and starvation and should be condemned as atrocity.

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