Of all the kinds of fighting, urban warfare is the one that soldiers hate most. Just ask the Russian troops who fought in Grozny during the First Chechen War. Green, untrained troops were up against experienced guerilla fighters: The Russians may have had plenty of hardware, but their weapons were not the ones suited to the situation. Tanks in particular proved clumsy in the streets, because they couldn’t fire high and they couldn’t fire low, and many were disabled by Chechen rebels. Otherwise, the Russian tactics in city fighting hadn’t changed much since Stalingrad.
In terms of sheer viciousness, the fighting in Chechnya was remarkable. In their very own version of Shock and Awe, the Chechen methods included snipers hiding behind the bodies of dead or dying Russian soldiers strung up in the windows, and the display of cut off Russian heads along the roads leading into Grozny. Everything was booby-trapped, even an innocent looking object like a football. The Russians would respond in kind by killing Chechens in less than gentlemanly fashion: Once, when they found some of their own men crucified and castrated in a village, they castrated all the village’s male inhabitants.
Having been badly bloodied in the First Chechen War, the Russians were determined to prevail in the second round. After pinning apartment bombings in Moscow on the Chechens, the Russian response was to level Grozny to the ground in 1999. They ringed the city with artillery, tanks, and rocket stations and let fly. Among the new features was the use of fuel air explosives, which form an aerosol cloud that gets into every cranny of a building and ignites, crushing everyone inside. As Stalin might have put it, “No city. No city warfare.”
The Grozny model is not available to the Western democracies, but since urban warfare is becoming the most common type of fighting, they have had to come up with some other answers and fast. As former Marine Corps Commander General Charles Krulak predicted, “Our enemies will not allow us to fight the son of Desert Storm, but they will try to draw us into the son of Chechnya.” Thus, military theorists like Britain’s Michael Evans talk of “Mad Max” hybrid wars, combining elements of traditional and guerilla warfare, where irregulars, acting as proxies or on their own, now use the kind of weaponry previously reserved for states. Aware of their economic and technological disadvantages, such organizations seek to change the nature of the game, to play it by their rules, which means no rules. They seize the initiative, choosing when and where to strike. They wear no uniforms. They use civilians as shields, and use civilian homes, schools, hospitals, and mosques as command posts and weapons depots. When outgunned, they melt back into the civilian population. Their aim is to suck the conventional army into the city and bleed it in a war of attrition. And civilian casualties have become a great propaganda tool. The traditional army suddenly becomes the villain in the eyes of the press, because of misguided notions of fair play and lingering third-world romanticism. As Frank Hoffman drily observes in his groundbreaking study “Conflicts in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars,” for Western democracies, these are not wars of choice. But still, we must fight them.
Israel has had more urban-warfare experience than most countries, first in the Second Lebanon War and recently in the operation in Gaza. As Hoffman notes, the war in Lebanon afforded the clearest instance of the new type of hybrid war, which is why U.S. officers have paid special attention to the lessons that can be drawn from it.
Civilized nations need to strike a careful balance in urban warfare: They must spare the civilian population, but also kill terrorists. They must fight humanely, but not so humanely that they end up paralyzed: At some point, it becomes a question of “better their civilians than ours.” Oddly enough, many influential Western opinion makers seem to prefer it the other way around.
Equally important is fighting the information war. In modern warfare, Hoffman writes, the battle of perceptions is almost as important as the battle itself. Like Hitler’s movement in the early 1930s, the fundamentalists are experts at claiming victim status while at the same time harboring grandiose ambitions of world domination, and all too often, the supposedly critical Western media allow themselves to be used as a conveyor belt for their propaganda. Israel has not been very effective in countering such propaganda, and neither has America.
The opening shots of the Second Lebanon War were fired on July12, 2006, when the Iranian backed Hezbollah militia started shelling Israeli villages as cover for their attack on two Israeli Humvees patrolling on the Israeli side of the border: Captured Israeli soldiers are seen as a great propaganda tool and useful in prisoner exchanges. The attack killed three of the Israeli reservists and wounded two, while two other wounded men, Sergeants Goldwasser and Regev, were kidnapped and spirited off into Lebanon. An attempt to rescue them failed, resulting in five more Israeli dead.
Hezbollah had tried to kidnap soldiers before, and they had fired rockets into Israel without earning more than a halfhearted Israeli slap in return. But on this occasion, the newly elected government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched an immediate bombing campaign. Its targets were Hezbollah positions and selected elements of Lebanese infrastructure as punishment for allowing the terrorists to operate from its territory; the Israelis particularly hit the Shiite Dahiya district of Beirut, where Hezbollah is headquartered. Hezbollah responded with rocket attacks on northern Israeli towns and villages. Olmert’s stated aim was to destroy Hezbollah as a fighting organization, get the kidnapped soldiers back, and end the rocket attacks.
Initially, the Israelis believed they could win on the cheap, relying on airpower alone. Significantly, the Israeli chief of staff at the time, General Dan Halutz, had been commander of the air force, and as such, he held an overoptimistic view of the capabilities of his own service. His blueprint had been nato’s 1999 Kosovo campaign when, after 78 days of airstrikes, nato compelled Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate. The Israeli Air Force quickly succeeded in taking out the Iranian-supplied, medium-range rockets — the Fajr-3s and the Fajr-5s, which have a range of 43 and 75 kilometers respectively — and the long-range Zelzal-2 (range: 210 kilometers). But it had no answer to the short-range Katyushas, capable of hitting targets within a 20-kilometer radius.
As the Israeli military analyst Ron Tira has pointed out, American Shock and Awe-type tactics, aimed at paralyzing the enemy by knocking out his control and command centers and vital nodes, works fine against conventional forces like those of the Iraqis or the Serbs, but it is ineffective against a widely dispersed system like the one fielded by Hezbollah, consisting of autonomous cells. In Tira’s words, it is like “trying to break an amoeba’s bones.” When it became clear that air power alone wouldn’t win the battle, limited Israeli ground operations began. On July 17, the troops entered Lebanon in a wholly predicable fashion, from south to north, not in the kind of bold maneuvering Israel has been known for in the past. Here they met with some unpleasant surprises. Hezbollah had turned the villages, often situated on hilltops, into fortresses. Food and ammunition supplies had been stored to last for weeks of fighting, and Katyusha rockets had been prepositioned in the houses of Shiite supporters. At the appropriate moment, a rocket team would emerge and off went the Katyusha.
And, stealing a page from the Vietcong, Hezbollah had turned parts of south Lebanon into fortified zones of tunnels and bunkers with hardened concrete roofs, some of them constructed right under the noses of un peacekeepers. What was worse, Israeli intelligence had not spotted them, either. The Hezbollah forces were made up of local teams of so-called “village guards,” consisting of seven to ten men, to which was added the efforts of Hezbollah’s 1,000-man-strong commando force, charged with taking on tanks and firing rockets. The military analyst Andrew Exum observed that unlike the rigid command system used by Arab forces in earlier conflicts, where local commanders had to wait for orders from above, the Hezbollah fighters had been given wide powers of discretion. Many of them fought tenaciously and did not surrender, while others melted back among the civilians. And who was Hezbollah, then?
The Katyusha rockets kept falling, and so the Israelis finally launched a large-scale ground offensive. As in Grozny, though, tanks proved vulnerable. Unlike in the past, where Arab armies were often incapable of operating sophisticated Soviet hardware, Hezbollah (thanks to training from its Iranian backers) used its antitank weapons imaginatively and with deadly efficiency. In the armored brigade that saw the heaviest fighting, 18 Israeli tanks were seriously damaged, while two were destroyed outright by monster improvised explosive devices. Hezbollah also used their antitank weapons against Israeli troops who had established themselves in buildings.
Having launched it much too late, the Israelis had to break off their ground offensive when the un Security Council passed a resolution imposing a cease-fire after 34 days of fighting. As a result, Olmert’s declared war aims were not achieved: The Israelis did not destroy Hezbollah, and they did not get their kidnapped soldiers back.
And the rocket attacks on Israeli civilians persisted throughout the war; some 4,000 Katyushas were fired, 250 on the last day. Hezbollah’s attacks killed 43 Israeli civilians, while 500,000 had to be evacuated. Thus, Hezbollah had managed to paralyze much of northern Israel. In the fighting itself, the Israeli Defense Forces lost 121 soldiers, and 628 were wounded, leading Hezbollah to crow about a “divine and strategic victory.” Hezbollah had succeeded where previous Arab armies had failed, resisting the region’s strongest army. Both the Israeli Major General Yiftah Ron-Tal and former Defense Minister Moshe Arens characterized the result as a defeat, and Israel was widely portrayed as having suffered a severe blow to its deterrence. As military analyst Jonathan Spyer wrote, this might tempt the Arabs to believe they have found a way to defeat Israel strategically. As for the Hezbollah casualties, the Lebanese government listed 1,109 dead, but they were all listed as civilians. The idf estimates it killed 600 Hezbollah fighters, but unlike the later effort in Gaza, the idf did not do an extensive intelligence analysis of those killed.
The war was mishandled from a military angle; it was a disaster from a public relations angle. The un, ngos like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and the eu (particularly the French) let loose a barrage of protests, accusing the Israelis of using excessive force and of committing a host of heinous war crimes, including endangering the habitat of the green sea turtle when the bombing of a Lebanese power station caused an oil spill in the Mediterranean. But because the Israelis could not easily be blamed for responding to what was a clear-cut act of war, the country’s critics had to find other ways of assigning blame. A previously obscure concept from the laws of war was dusted off and eagerly highlighted by the ngos and the media: the notion of proportionality. It has been a catchphrase ever since.
Proportionality, as the term is normally defined (for instance, in the final report of the committee established to look into nato bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), refers to the amount of force “a reasonable military commander” finds it necessary to use to gain his objective, based on the information available to him at the time. The operative words are “reasonable,” “necessary,” and “at the time,” and they leave a lot of room for interpretation. Unfortunately, the human rights organizations and media today use the term in the most narrow and restricted sense by substituting for the standard of the reasonable military commander that of the human rights lawyer, who has complete information available to him at all times.
In all wars, mistakes will happen. When the Israelis mistook a building in the village of Qana for the source of rocket attacks and bombed it, Hezbollah couldn’t have been happier. The television images were gruesome: Initial reports on Arab stations put the number killed in the attack at 57, of whom 21 were children. For its political theater, Hezbollah imported extra bodies from other attacks to the site to augment the body count. Later the figure was lowered to 28 killed, including 17 children.
Nobody enjoys seeing children killed. But as Jonathan F. Keiler, a former Army judge advocate general corps officer, writes in Parameters, though regretful, “mistaken allocation of force is not a crime.” World War II abounds with examples of massive and not very discriminating applications of power, some of which in retrospect were clearly mistakes, such as the bombing of the French city of Caen in the Allied invasion of Normandy.
What is important here is intent: The deaths of 100,000 French civilians during the Allied invasion were not intentional but the inevitable costs of war, as was the Israeli attack on Qana, a result of the Shiite custom of keeping pet rockets in their bedrooms. By contrast, Hitler’s terror bombing of London in the Blitz was deliberate, as are Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s targeting of civilians today. These are crimes. And when firing from built-up areas, these terror organizations themselves must carry the blame for the civilian deaths arising from Israeli counter fire. Taken to their extreme (which is what the ngos like to do) these criticisms seem to demand that, in cases where civilians might be hurt, no force can be used. This would make it impossible to respond to attacks from organizations like Hezbollah or Hamas, which hide in the civilian population. Indeed, Keiler argues, rather than being too brutal, the problem with the Israeli war effort in Lebanon was that it was far too reluctant and halfhearted and didn’t use the necessary force to reach its objectives.
After the war, the Winograd Commission, named after its chair, retired Justice Eliyahu Winograd, was set up in Israel to examine the political and military failures of the effort in Lebanon. According to its report, the Second Lebanon War ended without a clear victory over a semi-military organization of a few thousand men. Rather than concentrating on defeating the enemy and thus protecting the home front, the report noted, “The idf comported itself in the war as if the fear of suffering casualties among its soldiers served as a central element in the planning processes and its operational considerations.”
In addition, the army had neglected the training of its reserves, and their equipment was inadequate. One of the idf’s main problems in Lebanon was that the troops were unprepared for the mission, having for years had to deal with the Intifada in the West Bank, a task which fell in a gray area between policing and small skirmishes; Lebanon was a wholly different kind of fighting. On the political side, the commission blamed the Olmert administration for having gone to war without a comprehensive military plan and without an exit strategy. Thus, the cabinet had failed to choose between the two options available: the short sharp blow to Hezbollah delivered through standoff firepower, or going in to really clean out the terrorist infrastructure in southern Lebanon. Instead, it had placed itself right between the two choices. The report summarized: “From the very beginning, the war has not been conducted on the basis of a deep understanding of the theatre of operations, of the idf’s readiness and preparedness, and of the basic principles of using military power to achieve a political and diplomatic goal.”
In retrospect, some have argued that the criticism of the campaign may have been overly harsh, a result of unrealistic Israeli expectations. The British military specialist John Keegan warned against drawing overhasty conclusions. Rather than a defeat, he characterized it as “a setback”: “The idea that the idf had suddenly lost its historic superiority over its Arab enemies and that they had acquired military qualities that had hitherto eluded them is quite false.”
After the war, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, himself stated that if he had known the Israelis would respond as they did, he might have thought twice about abducting the soldiers. And as Guy Bechor, a political scientist who sat on the Winograd Commission, has pointed out, the northern front has been quiet for three years now. It is significant, in Bechor’s view, that when a rocket was fired after the cease-fire, 15 minutes later a denial was issued by Nasrallah, accusing freelancers of having fired it. And when his military chief of staff, Imad Mughniah, was killed in February, 2008, in Damascus by a car bomb, Nasrallah did nothing. More importantly, he did not lift a finger to support Hamas in the Gaza conflict, except to allow for the launch of two Katyusha rockets fired by a small Palestinian outfit, an act characterized by a Haaretz analyst as “a launch for the record.”
Under un resolution 1701, Nasrallah must keep his organization north of the Litani River, with un peacekeepers and 15,000 Lebanese soldiers stationed between the river and the Israeli-Lebanese border. Thus, in Bechor’s view, the Israelis have succeeded in establishing a measure of deterrence without getting stuck in the Lebanese quagmire. Managing the situation is as good as it is going to get, he notes. Still, the fact remains that the Israeli performance in Lebanon was less than convincing, and conditions can change awfully fast. As Israeli analyst Jonathan Speyer reminds us, in November of 2007, Hezbollah conducted maneuvers for three days south of the Litani, in direct contravention of Resolution 1701, without anyone intervening. The Lebanese troops are less than diligent in searching Hezbollah vehicles. And the organization’s stores of medium and long range missiles have been resupplied.
After lebanon, the idf set out upon a period of intense introspection, intent on recovering its fighting edge. The chance to redeem itself came in the Gaza incursion this past winter.
The Israelis had withdrawn their forces from Gaza City and the other Arab towns in 1994, but they kept protecting some Israeli civilian and military installations in the strip. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw completely in August 2005, deeming too steep the international costs of defending the few isolated Israeli settlements and being seen as an occupying power. But the withdrawal also fulfilled the warnings of those who foresaw that the strip would become a launching pad for constant attacks on southern Israel.
For eight years, the villages in the south of Israel had suffered vicious rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza — more than 10,000 rockets in total — two-thirds of which were launched after the unilateral Israeli disengagement in 2005, making it impossible for the villagers to live normal lives. In the village of Sderot, where the warning time is 15 seconds, every 50 meters or so there is a bomb shelter, painted pale yellow not to be too grim, and its kindergarten is encased in concrete, sarcophagus-like. No other nation would have put up with this for so long. In addition, in 2006, a soldier named Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas.
By the end of 2008, Israeli patience had run out. Operation Cast Lead was launched on December 27, lasting 22 days. Taught by Lebanon, Olmert was now careful not to overpromise. The declared aim of the operation was not to destroy the 16,000 Hamas fighters, but to degrade their military capabilities and drastically reduce the rocket attacks. To totally stop them was deemed impossible without completely reoccupying the area. Overall, the aim was to rebuild Israeli deterrence from any loss it had suffered in Lebanon.
The challenge was formidable. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on earth, with 1.5 million people jammed into a space only six times the size of Manhattan, and Hamas had promised an unpleasant welcome for the idf. According to Colonel Ofer Lavie, although the Israelis start from a disadvantage in urban warfare due to their concern for civilian lives, certain steps can be taken to improve the odds. One is choosing the right moment. By giving the impression of business as usual in the days leading up to the attack, the Israeli Air Force caught the Hamas chief of police, Tawfiq Jabber, out in the open at a police graduation ceremony. Air targets included official buildings, training camps, weapons depots, the homes of Hamas leaders, and the tunnels on the Egyptian-Gazan border, through which Hamas’s rockets were smuggled. According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in acquiring new targets, the Israeli Air Force’s response time had been reduced to 15–20 seconds, down from 60 in Lebanon. This is vital, since targets do not linger. The other way to improve the odds is by not using the routes the enemy has prepared for you. Unlike in Lebanon, this time, the idf entered from unexpected directions, and going in, they let their bulldozers create pathways rather than using the streets. The Israelis also relied less on tanks and used infantry instead, and because they knew that Hamas had no experience with night fighting, much of the action took place at night.
To illustrate what the idf soldiers were up against, General Yom-Tov Samia, a veteran from Lebanon and Gaza, showed an aerial map of al Atarta, a small village in Gaza, where roadside improvised explosive devices (ieds) were marked in red and numbered seven. Green was reserved for ieds of more than 200 kilos, of which there were ten, while yellow designated the five tank mines. Orange marked a sniper which had been positioned right next to the mosque. All this was crammed into an area measuring less than one square kilometer. Not only did the idf troops have to avoid the ieds along the roads, or under them, but they also had to guard against ieds hidden in the walls of buildings. Five years ago, two armored Israeli personnel carriers were destroyed in Gaza by such devices.
To this one can add the tunnels, crisscrossing the area and marked in black, one of which was more than 340 meters long, connecting civilian houses, mosques, and military headquarters. Certain houses had been designated for kidnapping Israeli soldiers. Hamas had bragged that they would capture 21 Gilad Shalits (21, in Arabic, signifies a very large number). The idea was to lure soldiers into the houses, overpower them, and spirit them off through the tunnels to prepared holding cells in other buildings before anyone realized what had happened. In this kind of environment, outside-the-box thinking is at a premium. When the Israelis moved in, they did not know how many terrorists would pop up behind them: The houses might look empty, but the tunnels would allow the Hamas fighters to quickly reoccupy them. To solve this problem, an enterprising commander let his armored bulldozers plough a deep trench, and his men would then just sit by the holes, ready to kill anybody coming out.
The war marked the first time where mosques were a deliberate target, as they serve as rocket and ammunition depots, and sniper fire often originates from them. According to General Samia, the fact that these attacks did not cause an uproar in the Arab world confirmed that they were no mistake. The Arab governments knew very well what Hamas used the mosques for. The Israelis had no other choice.
Obviously, this kind of fighting is extremely stressful for a young squad leader. He has to be ready for fighters jumping out of windows or popping up from tunnels or wearing women’s clothes, and at the same time, he must protect civilians. A soldier whose squad has suffered repeated attacks and who has seen his buddies killed in horrible fashion may well have a shorter fuse, notes Colonel Lavie, which is why soldiers should only be exposed to this kind of fighting for limited periods.
The Israelis knew they were getting somewhere when Hamas leaders went completely to ground and when, during the last ten days of the operation, Hamas begged for a cease-fire: Whereas Hezbollah in Lebanon could be characterized as a paramilitary force, Hamas occupied a rung somewhere between terrorists and paramilitaries.
Compared to Lebanon, Israeli casualties were kept at a minimum: Ten soldiers were killed, four of them by friendly fire. Hamas captured no Israeli soldiers. Rockets did not rain on Tel Aviv, as Hamas had promised. Only four Israeli civilians were killed in Hamas rocket attacks, but 182 were wounded. Realizing they would not be able to suppress every rocket, the Israelis had prepared shelters and had installed a warning system, which would register the direction of the rocket the moment it was fired. Having divided the region into sectors, only the one where the rocket would hit was warned, thereby reducing the kind of anxiety that had occurred during the Lebanon war. Some 565 rockets and 200 mortars were fired.
Since the Gaza incursion, Israel’s south has been relatively quiet. Before the operation, on some days as many as 800 rockets were fired. The rocket attacks now average one a day (which is still one too many). Although new weapons have been smuggled in, Hamas has not fired them, but it has allowed mini-me organizations to fire a small number. As General Tzur, head of the idf training efforts and a division commander in the Gaza fighting, points out, the best the Israelis can achieve with this kind of war is a degree of deterrence: Paradoxically, he notes, six or seven years ago, when no one controlled the Gaza strip, it really did not matter what the Israelis did. Now that the Palestinians have become more organized, they have more things to lose. You influence the situation for a time, says Tzur, but you do not solve it.
While the idf is clearly back on the ball, observers have been less impressed with the political side of the operation. Anthony Cordesman saw some of the political confusion of Lebanon repeated in Gaza, with Prime Minister Olmert wanting the operation to go on, while foreign minister Tzipi Livni and defense minister Ehud Barak wanted to break off early. One general afterwards grumbled that that the idf is never allowed to finish the job, and that to expect the civilian Gazans and Fatah to take charge is an illusion. Leaving too early just sets up another round.
The other israeli weak spot was the information war, which still left much to be desired. The Israeli Foreign Ministry had carefully briefed the media in advance on background, but once the Gaza fighting started, the air was again thick with accusations of war crimes, massacres, wanton destruction, and indiscriminate Israeli fire, with the ngos competing to level their accusations first. In case anyone should have missed the point, the un Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Richard Falk, a man known for having declared the Iranian revolution “progressive” and for harboring conspiracy theories about 9/11, pronounced the operation “inherently unlawful.”
Getting into the spirit of things, the cartoonist Pat Oliphant portrayed the idf as latter- day Nazis, and pop personalities issued statements of solidarity proclaiming, “Today we are all Hamas.” This is an organization, it should be remembered, which found it imperative to announce during Christmas that it would reintroduce crucifixion as punishment, and which delights in placing film footage on the internet showing its executioners busily slicing off the heads of the Fatah competition. The basic problem, in the view of Gerald Steinberg, editor of NGO Monitor, is that the Palestinians have succeeded in hijacking the narrative, thanks to decades of postcolonial Western guilt. In the view of influential ngos and much of the media, poor people are by definition virtuous: If their chosen methods of fighting are sometimes unpleasant, they cannot be expected to know better. By contrast, Israel is held to the severest standard.
Both Fatah and Hamas know how to appeal to Western emotions. A photograph from 2004 that was widely distributed among Christian charities in Britain shows a little girl with her eye missing, a result of Israeli fire. She is holding a doll which also has a patch over its eye. The missing context of the photograph is that the girl was hit because Fatah gunmen in the West Bank had been firing at the Israeli settlement of Gilo from houses belonging to Christians, thereby ensuring an Israeli response.
In the Gaza operation, the idf had decided not to let the media in. This is understandable, since war is not nice when brought into our homes on television, but the decision left Hamas as the sole source of images, and again, the Western media let them through largely unfiltered. Thus, the Israelis had to contend with photos of dead children and bodies stacked like cordwood, and with the anguished words of a Palestinian doctor on Israeli radio who had just learned that his daughters had been killed while he was working at the hospital. The impact of such images and sound bites is immediate, while Israeli officials are left with the thankless task of having to provide context.
Predictably, the concept of proportionality kept resurfacing. Thus it was noted that Hamas “only” fired Qassam rockets with 300 grams of tnt, while the Israeli used advanced f-16s for its bombings. As Judge Keiler notes, such objections rest on misconceived notions of warfare that seek to reduce it “to a series of tit-for-tat attacks” and on faulty logic: As if, he writes, rather than responding with precision attacks, it would be preferable for Israel to engage in Hamas-style indiscriminate rocket attacks.
In Lebanon, the accidental Israeli bombing of the school in Qana was singled out for international condemnation, and in Gaza, Israel was condemned for bombing the unrwa school in Jabaliya. Palestinians immediately presented this as the deliberate murder of 43 children, and the idf at first apologized. But later investigations showed that the Israelis had responded to mortar attacks originating from a Hamas position just 80 meters from the school and that all the Israeli return shells had landed outside the school property. Five Hamas terrorists were killed, though seven civilians were also hit. Maxwell Gaylord, the un humanitarian coordinator in Jerusalem, had to backpedal, stating that “the un would like to clarify that the shelling and all of the fatalities took place outside and not inside the school.” The un blamed it all on a “clerical error.”
Further accusations involved the alleged Israeli misuse of white phosphorous shells, which due to their incendiary nature cannot be used in built-up areas. The issue was brought up by a Norwegian doctor known for his ardent espousal of the Palestinian cause and later repeated by an Israeli organization called Breaking the Silence without any substantive evidence to back it up. Its leader, Dani Zamir, a former reservist parachute company commander, has for years been on the rampage, denouncing his own government as illegitimate, unjust, and immoral, for which he has earned praise from Noam Chomsky. The media pass on such accusations without stating the background of those making them. An investigation by the idf concluded that phosphorous shells had been used in open country for marking and range-finding purposes, not for antipersonnel uses. Otherwise the stuff is used in munitions that cause smokescreens, which are vital in ground maneuvers. These are not designed to cause injury.
In all wars, there will be soldiers who snap or who misbehave. In the Gaza conflict, much was made out of the graffiti slogans left by some idf troops in Arab houses. In modern war, hatred of the enemy, normally a strong motivating force, has become a no-no, and no allowance is made to the pressures soldiers find themselves under. To this one can only say that the idf is an extremely disciplined army, but it still consists of people. A commander can only enjoin his soldiers to refrain from such behavior because it gives the enemy a cheap propaganda victory. Cutting through all the excitement, in his report, Anthony Cordesman flatly summed up the Israeli conduct of the war: “There are no laws of war or historical precedents that say such an approach is not legitimate or necessary.”
More than anything else, what Cast Lead made clear was the severe restraints the idf imposes on itself in the way it carries out operations. As Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander in chief of the British forces in Afghanistan, commented during the fighting, “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the idf is doing today in Gaza.”
During Cast Lead, the Israelis put out a quarter of million calls, telling people to leave their neighborhoods. They dropped leaflets and used last-minute, so-called “Knock on the Roof” measures, in which a small nonexplosive missile was fired at a building, telling the inhabitants to get out, because bombing was imminent. From a military point of view, to warn your enemy in advance that he has ten minutes to get himself and his family out of danger is clearly nuts. But realizing that it is all too easy to win the battle, but lose the war, the Israelis must weigh their options every time: Is the pr damage resulting from an attack worth it, or is it wiser to wait for another opportunity? During the Gaza conflict, the Hamas leadership had located its command center in the Shifa Hospital, but the international fallout from attacking a hospital was regarded as too harmful to Israel’s cause, and so the Israelis chose not to bomb. The same applied in many instances when Hamas had brought in women and children to stand on the roofs of houses.
The Israelis of course do not always refrain. For instance, in 2002 they took out Hamas’s chief bomb-maker Saleh Sharade, whose bombs had killed hundreds of Israelis, killing his wife, daughter, and a dozen civilians in the process. Here the argument was clearly one of “better their civilians than ours.” Likewise in Cast Lead: The Israelis bombed the house of Nizar Rayan, a senior Hamas leader who had chosen to ignore the ten-minute warning, believing the Israelis would not strike. Due to this acute error of judgment, he and his family of 15 were wiped out.
Regarding the Palestinian casualties in Cast Lead, the Palestinians claimed 1,434 dead, of which they said 235 were combatants, the rest police officers and civilians. The Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya has since subjected these numbers to close scrutiny by comparing the data provided by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and from the Palestinian Authority with those on the official Hamas website. Hamas published no names of “martyrs” during the actual fighting and no names the following month. Names started to appear after the second month. These names the Israeli analysts held up against the ones published by the Palestinian human rights organization. Slowly, the true picture emerged of who among the dead were Hamas terrorists. But by then, Hamas had long ago achieved its goal in terms of international outcry.
According to official idf figures, which build on the Institute for Counter-Terrorism research and on intelligence sources, 1,166 Palestinians were killed in Cast Lead. Of those, 709 have been identified as members of Hamas or the smaller sister organizations. Among the 239 police officers claimed, many did double duty as Hamas militants. The Palestinian “civilian” casualty list also included a bunch of Fatah operatives that Hamas had taken the opportunity to finish off at the start of the conflict. Some were executed with headshots, others hurled from city roofs. Might as well blame the Israelis.
What the two conflicts have demonstrated, writes Gidi Grinstein, director of the Reut Institute, is the breakdown of governance in Lebanon and among the Palestinians: How does one hold a weak state like Lebanon responsible for what goes on within its borders? How does one ensure compliance in an agreement with the Palestinians, who are deep in fratricidal strife, when there is no central governing body that Israel can subject to its policy, whether it is offering carrots or sticks? Therefore, to keep hitting Israel over the head with demands for concessions is pointless. And as long as the old men in Tehran who are the sponsors of Hezbollah and Hamas are allowed to meddle unpunished, there will never be peace.
What these two conflicts have further underscored is the need for changes in the laws of war. It no longer fits present-day reality, in which the urban terrorist and the civilian are indistinguishable. In a legal text, you can distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. But on an urban battlefield, they look exactly alike.
And we need to redefine the term “civilian.” As Alan Dershowitz has pointed out, “today the same word equates the truly innocent with guilty accessories to terrorism,” covering both the person who has allowed his house to be used for storing weapons and the innocent one-year-old sleeping in his crib. When we assess casualty figures, Dershowitz argues, we need to recognize many kinds of involvement — say, of those who allow their houses to be used for weapons storage, who encourage their children to become martyrs, and who contribute financially to the cause. We need to distinguish between those who willingly allow themselves to be used as human shields for terrorists from those who are forced into doing so.
Such legal changes and redefinitions reflect not only an Israeli need. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is up against the very same problems. Therefore, notes Keiler, in the Gaza conflict, though concerned with civilian casualties, the George W. Bush administration refrained from using the term “proportionality” and for good reason: It can just as easily be used against the U.S. in Afghanistan. In fact, every time American troops call in an airstrike, the word pops up.
The Obama administration may not display the same caution in its reactions to future Israeli actions, but it is a self-defeating road for America to go down. In Keiler’s view, the concept represents “the leading edge of an effort to delegitimize any action by powerful Western nations against weaker developing countries or nonstate actors.” Thus, if the overwhelming use of power and exploiting technological advantage were the issue, one could fault the whole Allied conduct in World War II against resource-poor Japan for being unjust and criminal.
If it is not too crude to bring up, war is about winning.