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Why Bomb Civilians?

NEW YORK – The time before last that Israel was fighting a war in Gaza, in 2009, Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister at the time, compared the conflict to America’s war with Japan. There was no need for a costly ground invasion; the enemy could be bombed into submission from the air.

The comparison, seemingly outrageous, was not entirely wrong. Nor is it today. Inflicting maximum damage from the air was and remains Israel’s strategy toward Hamas-ruled Gaza. Even if we accept that Israel has a legitimate reason to shut down tunnels that are used to infiltrate Palestinian commandos into Israel, this does not explain why it is necessary to bomb schools, power plants, hospitals, mosques, and densely packed civilian areas.

The official explanation is that Palestinian missiles are hidden in civilian areas. This may well be true. But Israeli leaders also appear to believe that by smashing Gaza and its people with bombs, Palestinians’ morale can be destroyed. At some point, they will have had enough and give up – and perhaps even turn against their rulers.

This is what used to be called “strategic bombing,” or sometimes “terror bombing,” a method of warfare designed to break the will of a people by destroying its “vital centers.” The main advocates of the idea, developed in the 1920s, were the Italian Giulio Douhet, the American William Mitchell, and the Englishman Hugh Trenchard.