The Wrong House in Gaza
“What happened to your face, sweetheart?” a man said at a morgue in Gaza on Monday. He was a member of the Dalu family—one of those who were left—and, according to Reuters, had just been asked to identify his wife; he did, and cried. She had been in the family’s house on Sunday, when a bomb fell on it and, under its force, it crumbled into a hole in the ground. Neighbors ran to the hole and started digging, but they needed a bulldozer to help. First they found three grownups, and then “they began to find the children one after the other,” as the Los Angeles Times described it—four of them, all under the age of ten. Their bodies were dusty, and some would-be rescuers rushed them to ambulances that couldn’t help them any more. There were differing reports on the identities of the dead adults, but they seem to have included the children’s mother, father, and grandmother; two aunts, or maybe an aunt and a great-grandmother; and two of their neighbors: an eighteen year-old and an older woman.
None of the dead was the person the Israeli Defense Force said it was trying to kill when it struck the Dalu family house. It’s not clear that they had anything to do with him.
According to the Times, “Lt. Gen. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces, said it was ‘still looking into’ the Sunday afternoon strike… which she described as an accident. She said the target had been a man ‘in charge of rocket launching’ from the neighborhood…but it was unclear whether that man even lived nearby.” It was a mistake—the wrong house.
One hopes that the I.D.F. is indeed looking into what happened to the Dalu house, and that the looking is hard and introspective. There need to be questions not only about how good its information was, but about what, in these circumstances, the right house would or could be. If four small children had died on one floor, and a man whose name was on the Israeli government’s list on another, would anyone have called it a success? This was not some little bomb slipped in between the windows; according to the L.A. Times, “the force of the blast blew out windows blocks away and sent a charred mattress flying into the street.” (See Wasseem El Sarraj on the sounds of the bombs.) It is hard to see how, even if the bomb found who it was looking for, indiscriminancy wasn’t built in. The replies are that Hamas’s rockets don’t discriminate either, that war is always messy, and that the problem and the blame is with men who fire rockets and choose to live among children. But attempting to construct equivalencies is no way to feel better about the death of children; and the point about messiness is why one gets angry at wars, not why one shrugs at them. And it should be all the more jarring, given that the messaging of this war—at times boastingly via Twitter, and in stories about drones taking out motorcycle riders—has been about its supposed precision.
And that is where the Dalu family story must be especially troubling for Americans—not just because of our support for the Netanyahu government and its policies, whatever they are (which is an issue of its own), and not just because it’s particularly hard to see how this campaign ends in anything other than a tragedy and a prelude for the next conflict—but because the illusion of surgical war has become our illusion, too, in Afghanistan and Pakistani border regions and elsewhere. It may be more of an illusion for us: the Israelis and Gazans are so close together and, in their own way, familiar, and Gaza is full of cameras and cellphones. There was a crowd around the Dalu house immediately, and we know the name of little Jamal Al Dalu, who was carried in a funeral march dressed in white pants and a purple, magenta, and yellow striped shirt, with bare feet, and his younger brother Mohammed, who was eleven months old. We saw, too, the anger of the people carrying their bodies.
Increasingly, though, the United States has carried out not only “targeted assassinations” but “signature strikes”—where we don’t even pretend to know the names of the people we are hitting, but instead guess, based on behavior like where they meet or what they drive, that we would consider them enemies. How much do we care about how right we are, and about the enemies we make when someone comes to identify the body of a relative, or someone who is loved? If we hit the wrong house, would we even know it?