“The narrative around civilian casualties takes on a bigger importance than normal, perhaps even bigger than the numbers, because it goes to the moral legitimacy of the two sides,” said Dapo Akande, a professor of public international law at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.
The calculus of the war is brutal.
Although Hamas fires unguided missiles at Israeli cities at a blistering rate, sometimes over 100 at once, the vast majority are either intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system or fall short inside Gaza, resulting in a relatively low death toll.
Israel sometimes warns Gaza residents to evacuate before an airstrike, and it says it has called off strikes to avoid civilian casualties. But its use of artillery and airstrikes to pound such a confined area, packed with poorly protected people, has led to a death toll 20 times as high as that caused by Hamas, and wounded 1,235 more.
Israeli warplanes have also destroyed four high-rise buildings in Gaza that it said were used by Hamas. But those buildings also contained homes and the offices of local and international news media organizations, inflicting enormous economic damage.
It may not look it, but there are rules to govern the carnage.
The laws of war — a collection of international treaties and unwritten laws, also known as international humanitarian law — govern the behavior of combatants. The killing of civilians is not, of itself, illegal. But combatants must abide by widely accepted principles, Professor Akande said.
Most important, they must discriminate between civilian and military targets, he said. After that, they must weigh the military advantage gained from any potential strike against the damage to civilians that it will cause.