When Death Knocks: 7 Things To Know About Israel’s Missile Warning Strategy

Photo courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Receiving a warning that your home is about to be obliterated is certainly better than having no notice at all, but it’s by no means a preferable situation.

In Israel’s Gaza Strip, preferable situations are few and far between, as the ongoing conflict between the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and militant organization Hamas over contested land has been marked by violence and airstrikes in the latest iteration of a recurring war.

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF)’s tactic of warning Palestinian civilians about impending airstrikes dates to at least 2006 as part of a larger military strategy. Here’s what you should know about Israel’s controversial warning tactics, and how they fit into the larger conflict.

1. Airstrike warnings come in the form of phone calls, texts, and drone-fired warning rockets, which are known as “roof knockers.”

According to IDF’s official blog, the military does everything possible to limit civilian casualties in Gaza.

By calling and texting civilians, residents are warned of impending strikes, while roof knockers, loud but non-lethal bombs, also alert civilians that they are in the vicinity of a target.

2. Leaflets were dropped throughout Gaza warning civilians to evacuate areas around Hamas operatives, for their safety, and as a “moral obligation.”

Residents of Shuja’iya were recently advised to evacuate to Gaza City, but due to the dense population of Gaza, such an evacuation would require over a quarter of a million people to leave their homes. Options for relocation are sparse.

The IDF Twitter quotes their chief of staff as saying that protecting civilians via missile warnings is a moral obligation.

3. Warning missiles prevent residential bombings from violating international law.

Missile warnings may also be a legal obligation, as much as they are moral.

According to the IDF, their warning strategy, which allegedly targets homes used for weapon storage, is legitimate and falls within the boundaries of international law: in 2009, the army held deliberations regarding the legality of home strikes and found it to be legitimate, so long as sufficient warnings were provided to residents.

But human rights groups like Amnesty International say that firing a missile at a civilian home is far from an effective warning; others, that their strikes have violated the Geneva Convention.

4. Hamas has urged Palestinian civilians to stay indoors, despite IDF warnings, allegedly encouraging “human shield” defense approach.

In spite of IDF warnings, Hamas has allegedly ordered civilians to stay indoors. The IDF claims Hamas threatened Gazans with retaliation if they left their homes; though there is no evidence to support this, interviewees claimed they didn’t feel free to criticize the group.

The IDF has also claimed that Hamas puts their civilians in the line of fire in the face of warning, as evidenced by an image posted to Twitter of civilians and children on the roof of a building.

A Hamas spokesperson affirmed this tactic in a video.

5. Roof knockers and other missile warnings have allegedly saved many lives, but aren’t always completely effective.

A video posted by the IDF shows a roof knocker in action: in this case, civilians fled to the roof, and the airstrike was called off, as per their policy. Another video, below, shows what it looks like from below: much more forceful than a knock.

The amount of casualties is the same as that of the 2012 conflict by twice as many missiles.

But with over 500 Gazans dead, 75% civilians, many have wondered how effective prevention strategies truly are. There have been incidents in which bombings are not preceded by missile warnings and in which warning missiles have injured and killed unintended targets.

In August 2014, two high-rise apartment buildings were bombed following pamphlet warnings, just minutes after a warning missile. An entire tower–and the 44 apartments comprising–were brought down in the targeting of one room housing Hamas operations.

6. According to Palestinians, such warnings amount to psychological warfare, in which Israel’s reach and power is displayed.

Raji Serrani, the director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), called the warning tactic “psychological warfare” used to inflict panic and minimize responsibility for collateral damage.

As an article in the London Review of Books notes, such warnings are an example of how easily Israeli forces can penetrate Gaza’s communication networks, since their lines are routed through Israeli servers.

7. Regardless, it’s a lose-lose situation for Gazan civilians until the bombing stops.

Hamas militants are reportedly reserving tunnel protection for their use only; there are no bomb shelters for civilians.

Gazans in threatened areas have only two options: risk their lives at home at the advice of Hamas, with which many agree politically and religiously, or flee to overcrowded UN relief centers, forfeiting their livelihood and homes.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?

Updated. Originally published 7.23.2014 

Jennifer Markert