From the voices proliferating in the media, it would seem that the political will for protecting civilians in the latest Israel-Hamas war is widespread. This week, President Biden said that Israel must do "everything in its power” to protect civilians. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged that protecting civilians “is paramount.” And representatives of Israel repeatedly argue that “Israel does not target civilians.”

Decades of experience analyzing wartime civilian casualties by CNA has shown, however, that civilian harm mitigation is not just a matter of political will. Merely wanting to protect civilians does not help a military achieve that goal. Rather, civilian protection requires specific capabilities and processes, incorporated into an adaptive, learning approach. These practical actions are rooted in the recent concept of “civilian harm mitigation and response.” Israel could systemically incorporate civilian harm mitigation into its current operations by identifying risk factors to civilians, developing and implementing operational adaptations that reduce harm, and assessing their effectiveness. And the US government, with its unique experience built up in recent wars, could take concrete actions to support this effort. In recognition of these needs, the United States this week took an important step by sending forward military advisors whose mandate includes advising the Israeli Defense Forces on mitigating civilian casualties during urban warfare.

Gaza is an extremely challenging environment for mitigating civilian harm. In addition to hostages held there, hundreds of thousands of civilians are unable or unwilling to move to southern Gaza. Northern Gaza is densely populated. The adversary can blend in with the civilian population, and a land invasion involves urban operations, which tend to be decentralized, small-unit operations with delegated authorities. Even experienced militaries dedicated to complying with international law still face enormous challenges to mitigate civilian harm during hostilities.

The good news is that these challenges can be at least partly overcome. Evidence strongly suggests that improving tactics and operational approaches could make a significant difference. The United States has successfully demonstrated this in its own operations. In Afghanistan, US and international forces reduced harm to civilians by 20 percent in the first year. And analysis by CNA showed that US advising on civilian harm mitigation to the Saudi-led coalition during operations in Yemen led to a 30 percent reduction in civilian casualties.

What can Israel do to protect civilians in Gaza?

Risks to civilians are best reduced through a comprehensive approach: the “civilian harm mitigation life cycle.” This life cycle includes deliberate risk reduction efforts at every stage of a military operation: mission and mandate, planning, tactical execution, assessment, response, learning and adapting, and institutional capacity. It incorporates learning loops so that lessons from each operation lead to better planning and execution in the next.

To implement this life cycle, the Israeli Defense Forces can begin by identifying risk factors for civilians. In planning, the Israeli military can gather basic information about the civilian environment, such as population density, presence of humanitarian organizations, critical infrastructure, and other civilian objects. This information can inform no-strike processes, planning, and the development of courses of action that take civilians into account and improve situational awareness. In operational execution, the Israeli Defense Forces can explore alternative forms of movement and attack to reduce potential harm to civilians. This can also include consideration of precautionary measures such as tactical patience, using surveillance to detect civilians entering the target area, and improving air-ground integration to communicate essential details. In these communications, it is important that forces learn to articulate their assumptions and avoid leading language that may trigger cognitive bias in order to reduce the risk of misidentification of civilians as military targets.

Learning and adapting is a critical element of civilian harm mitigation and response. The Israeli Defense Forces could mandate internal reporting of civilian harm as part of tactical after action reports and collect reports from external organizations. A lesson from US operations in Iraq is that external reports are critical for gaining a complete picture. More than half of the confirmed cases of civilian harm in counter-ISIS operations in Mosul originated in external reports. For Israel, assessments of civilian harm can be used to identify common risk factors for civilian harm and develop operational adjustments. 

What can the US do to protect civilians in Gaza?

With its depth of experience from wars over the past decades, the United States is in an excellent position to make use of lessons learned—both internally and externally. One option is to convene a small group of US government experts for rapid policy advice on urban warfare. The US has a range of lessons from its experiences in urban conflict in Mosul, Fallujah, and Sadr City in Iraq, Raqqa, Syria, and elsewhere. This group could synthesize pertinent lessons about factors contributing to mission effectiveness and mitigating civilian harm, developing a set of best practices built upon resources that are already available. They could inform senior US leaders to support policy decisions and engagements with Israeli authorities.

In addition, building on the three-star Marine Corps general and supporting staff recently sent to advise on urban operations, Washington could deploy experts on civilian harm mitigation and response to Israel to assist in this effort. Ideally they would also work directly with the Israeli Defense Forces to apply best practices in civilian harm mitigation, learning, and adaptation. Advisors could identify ways the United States could directly provide information, analysis, and technical capabilities to improve Israel’s ability to mitigate harm during operations.

As part of a CNA study on military partnerships in learning, I visited Israel last year for discussions with Israeli Defense Forces officers and staff. Their personnel told me that they worked to protect civilians the best they could, but acknowledged they may have “blind spots” that limit their ability to mitigate civilian harm in practice. They expressed an interest in learning more about protecting civilians.

Protecting civilians is a win-win

Some widespread myths about civilian protection are that it always entails restrictive rules of engagement and other limitations on the use of force and that protecting civilians is in conflict with achieving mission objectives or protecting one’s own forces. Experience suggests otherwise. We have seen that over time, civilian harm has increasingly become a strategic challenge to military operations. It can undercut security by damaging legitimacy and alliances. Adversaries exploit civilian casualties in their fundraising and recruiting. CNA has performed a meta-analysis of thousands of incidents of civilian casualties. Many of these cases involved the misidentification of civilians as military targets. Reducing misidentifications can both reduce civilian harm and create more opportunities for militaries to be effective against intended targets.

In CNA’s work with US partners, we have found that they are receptive to civilian harm mitigation when it is framed in terms of a win-win. For Israel, that win-win is meeting its stated goal of protecting its own civilian population from future Hamas attacks in a way that clearly promotes the protection of civilians in Gaza. Practical steps taken by the United States and Israel to mitigate and respond to civilian harm in Gaza during military operations can positively influence regional security and stability and ultimately make the civilian population of Israel safer, too.

Larry Lewis is a principal research scientist at CNA. He previously served as the senior advisor on civilian harm to the State Department, where he was the primary author of the 2016 Executive Order on civilian casualties. He has led many studies on mitigating civilian harm and has worked extensively with militaries—including the US, NATO allies, and key US partners—to help reduce civilian harm in their operations.