[News] Turning Civilians Into Legitimate Targets - The IDF’s New Tactics

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 5 11:46:00 EDT 2015

May 05, 2015

*Turning Civilians Into Legitimate Targets*

  The IDF’s New Tactics


Several months ago, a young woman working in Kibbutz Dorot’s carrot 
fields noticed a piece of paper lying on the ground with a short 
inscription in Arabic. It looked like a treasure map. She put it in her 
pocket. Some time later, she gave it to her friend Avihai, who works for 
Breaking the Silence <http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/>, an 
organisation of military veterans who collect testimony from Israeli 
soldiers to provide a record of everyday life in the Occupied 
Palestinian Territories. Avihai was in the middle of interviewing 
soldiers about their experiences during Operation Protective Edge, 
Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip last summer. He recognised the piece 
of paper as a leaflet that had been dropped by an Israeli plane above 
Palestinian neighbourhoods in the northern part of the Strip; the wind 
had blown it six miles from its intended landing point.

The leaflet helps explain why 70 per cent of the 2220 Palestinians 
killed during the war were civilians. The red line on the map traces a 
route from a bright blue area labelled Beit Lahia, a Palestinian town of 
60,000 inhabitants at the north edge of the Strip, and moves south 
through Muaskar Jabalia to Jabalia city. The text reads:

    *Military Notification to the Residents of Beit Lahia*

    The IDF will be undertaking forceful and assertive air operations
    against terrorist elements and infrastructure in the locations from
    which they launch their missiles at the State of Israel. These
    locations include:

    *From east Atatra to Salatin Street. From west [unclear] to Jabalia

    You must evacuate your homes immediately and head toward southern
    Jabalia town along the following road:

    *Falluja Road, until 12 noon, Sunday 13 July 2014.*

    The IDF does not intend to harm you or your families. These
    operations are temporary and will be of short duration. Any person,
    however, who violates these instructions and does not evacuate his
    home immediately puts his own life as well as the lives of his
    household in danger. Those who take heed will be spared.

‘The significance of this leaflet,’ Yehuda Shaul, the founder of 
Breaking the Silence, told me, ‘cannot be appreciated fully without 
reading our new report.’ The report 
<http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/pdf/ProtectiveEdge.pdf> is made up 
of 111 testimonies, provided by around seventy soldiers who participated 
in the fighting.

One thing is immediately clear from the interviews: the IDF’s working 
assumption was that once the leaflets were dropped, anyone who refused 
to move was a legitimate target:

    Q: You said earlier that you knew the neighbourhood was supposed to
    be empty of civilians?

    A: Yes. That’s what they told us … they told us that the civilians
    had been informed via leaflets scattered in the area, and that it
    was supposed to be devoid of civilians, and civilians who remained
    there were civilians who apparently chose to be there.

    Q: Who told you that?

    A: The commanders, in off-the-record type conversations, or during
    all kinds of briefings.

The IDF has the technology to tell whether people had actually left, but 
the claim that ‘no civilians should be in the area’ is a recurring refrain.

The land invasion began on 17 July and was generally limited to within a 
mile of the border. An infantry soldier deployed either in or near Beit 
Lahia described a typical incident:

    There was one time when I looked at some place and was sure I saw
    someone moving. Maybe I imagined it, some curtain blowing, I don’t
    know. So I said: ‘I see something moving.’ I asked [permission] to
    open fire toward that spot, and I opened fire and [the other
    soldiers] hit it with a barrage …

    Q: What were the rules of engagement?

    A: There weren’t really any rules of engagement … They told us:
    ‘There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot
    someone, shoot.’ Whether the person posed a threat or not wasn’t a
    question; and that makes sense to me. If you shoot someone in Gaza
    it’s cool, no big deal. First of all because it’s Gaza, and second
    because that’s warfare. That, too, was made clear to us – they told
    us, ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot,’ and they made it clear that there
    were no uninvolved civilians.

It seems safe to assume, however, that most of the civilians who died 
weren’t killed by infantry troops. One of the IDF’s basic doctrines is 
to try to guarantee zero risk for its troops. The region was ‘softened’ 
by artillery fire for nine days before the ground forces were scheduled 
to invade. Planes, helicopters and drones (though the IDF does not admit 
to using killer drones) bombarded the region from the air, and there was 
heavy artillery fire from inside Israel. As one soldier put it,

    We knew that by the time we got there on Friday there were not
    supposed to be any people in the area, since leaflets were dispersed
    and also because there wasn’t very much left of the place. The
    artillery corps and the air force really cleaned that place up.

The Israeli zero risk doctrine was developed with the help of Asa 
Kasher, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and 
one of the authors of the IDF’s ethical code. Kasher interprets just war 
theory and international humanitarian law as stipulating a hierarchy of 
protection: Israeli civilians must be protected at all costs, then come 
IDF soldiers, and only then do the enemy’s civilian population enter 
into the equation. ‘When it is impossible to accomplish a military 
mission without endangering the lives of a terrorist’s non-terrorist 
neighbours,’ Kasher writes in ‘The Ethics of Protective Edge’, ‘as much 
compassion as possible under the circumstances must be shown without 
aborting the mission or raising the risk to Israeli soldiers.’

As the troops prepared to enter Gaza, artillery and intelligence 
officers determined which targets should be eliminated before the ground 
invasion: tall buildings overlooking the incursion route, for example, 
and places from which rockets had been launched at Israel. One soldier 
describes a high-ranking officer looking at an aerial photo on which 
targets had been circled, and then pointing at several other Palestinian 
houses and instructing the artillery officer to eliminate them too.

The Israeli military fired 34,000 artillery rounds during the war: 
12,000 smoke, 3000 illumination and 19,000 explosive. With an 
American-made Howitzer 155-millimetre cannon, a strike is considered 
precise when the round falls anywhere within 100 metres of the target. 
Howitzer shells can kill anyone within 50 metres and injure anyone 
within 100 metres.

There is this perception that we know how to do everything super 
accurately, as if it doesn’t matter which weapon is being used … But no, 
these weapons are statistical, and they hit 50 metres to the right or 
100 metres to the left, and it’s unpleasant. What happens is, for seven 
straight days it’s non-stop bombardment, that’s what happens in practice.

The artillery officer has to ensure the target is a certain distance 
from sensitive sites, such as UN facilities, schools, clinics and 
hospitals. These distances are not set in stone, but determined by what 
the IDF terms ‘activity levels’. If, for example, the activity level is 
one, then the target of a 155-millimetre projectile can’t be within 500 
metres of a school. But if the activity level is changed to three, then 
the safety range is decreased dramatically. An officer explains:

    First level means you can fire artillery up to a certain distance
    from civilians, or from a place where you think it’s likely there’ll
    be civilians … For fighter jets and the bigger bombs of one ton,
    half a ton, it’s defined verbally … as ‘Low level of damage expected
    to civilians.’ Next is the second level. The mortar ranges stay the
    same, and for artillery the distance from civilians decreases. For
    jets, it says, ‘Moderate harm to civilians’ or ‘Moderate harm to
    civilians is expected,’ or ‘Moderate collateral damage’, something
    like that. This means something undefined, something that’s
    according to the way the commander sees things and the mood he’s in:
    ‘Let’s decide ourselves what “moderate” means.’ In the third level,
    the artillery’s [safety range from civilians] gets cut by about
    half. I’m not talking about jets, where there’s already significant
    damage and it’s considered acceptable, that’s the definition. We
    expect a high level of harm to civilians. Like, it’s OK from our
    perspective, because we’re in the third level. They aren’t given a
    specific, defined number, this is something I remember clearly.
    That’s left to the commander.

Another soldier adds that the activity levels reflect ‘the degree of 
collateral damage you’re allowed to cause. [They] reflect the means that 
you’re permitted to use, and the distance you need to maintain from 
sensitive locations when you shoot. They reflect a whole lot of 
parameters concerning the activation of fire.’

There can be many reasons for changing the activity level. Some have to 
do with the intensity of the fighting. When Hamas blew up an armoured 
personnel carrier in Shuja’iyya and killed seven Israeli soldiers, the 
activity level immediately changed:

    There were many, many targets that [weren’t attacked] because they
    didn’t qualify under the firing policy, and then after Shuja’iyya
    for example, suddenly some of those targets did get approved. The
    sort of problematic targets that were at a certain distance from
    some school – suddenly stuff like that did get approved.

The activity level may also change due to specific intelligence, or 
simply because the only remaining targets are not within the range 
permitted by level one, ‘because the “target bank” had been depleted.’

    ‘Hamas is pushing for a display of victory,’ that’s always the
    expression used … this sweeping expression that’s used at the end of
    every round [of fighting]. [There is talk that] the delegations are
    in Cairo, or on their way to Cairo, or will soon be arriving in
    Cairo. But the fighting keeps going on, and even if you think it’s
    about to end – you have to keep acting like nothing’s about to end.
    So that’s why you go up a level, to turn the threat around and also
    as a show of force. And so it’s possible that the target will be
    approved if it’s justified, if there’s a good reason, if it’s a
    valuable target, or if there’s a good chance to hit it in a way
    that’ll look good to the Israeli audience, and look bad for the
    Palestinian audience. That’ll hurt the military rocket-firing
    capabilities of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, or of other organisations …

    Q: Collateral damage means only bodily harm, or also damage to property?

    A: Bodily harm.

    Q: Property isn’t counted at all?

    A: Not as far as the levels – the levels are practically binary.
    These are the levels of collateral damage, and the grading is based
    solely on human lives.

After the 2006 Lebanon war, the IDF realised that its strictly 
hierarchical command structure had hindered the war effort. The idea, 
which is now common in the US military as well, is to create a network 
of interconnected decentralised cells with significant autonomy to make 
executive decisions. In the words of General Stanley McChrystal, who 
headed the US Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008, ‘to 
defeat a networked enemy, we had to become a network ourselves.’ Each 
cell is made up of officers from different branches – infantry, 
artillery, air force, military intelligence, secret service agencies – 
who work together on the basis of shared information and shared 
strategy. The way the IDF cells function is classified, but it seems 
likely there are two main kinds: ‘attack cells’ and ‘assistance cells’. 
Attack cells would include ‘hunting cells’ whose goal is to hunt down 
Palestinian militants and assassinate them. There are also thought to be 
‘fishing cells’, whose task is to monitor a particular area to determine 
who the ‘big fish’ in it are; and ‘real estate cells’, which identify 
and monitor strategic buildings and facilities so that they can be 
destroyed at the right moment if necessary.

One soldier, who was very likely a member of an ‘attack cell’, was asked 
what happens when the target bank is depleted, i.e. whether the IDF 
attacks the houses of lower ranking Hamas activists when most higher 
ranking targets have already been eliminated. The soldier replied:

    Absolutely. See, you start the fighting with a very clear ‘target
    list’ that has been assembled over a long period of time, and there
    are also units whose objective is to mark new targets in real time.
    When we start running out [of targets], then we begin hitting
    targets that are higher on collateral damage levels, and pay less
    and less attention to this. But there are also all sorts of efforts
    aimed at gathering intelligence that’s specifically for establishing
    new targets like, for example, which areas are being used to launch
    [missiles or mortars toward Israel], statistics on where rockets are
    being fired from, where mortars are being fired from. [The
    co-ordinates] are calculated in a pretty precise way, and are used
    to try and figure out where it’s likely that there is a
    rocket-launching infrastructure. And you say: ‘OK, I’ll strike that
    piece of land, because every morning at 7 a.m., ten mortar shells
    are fired from there.’

After the nine-day artillery assault on the Gaza Strip, the troops 
marched in. The testimonies suggest that every infantry brigade was 
accompanied by a tank battalion, an engineering battalion and several D9 
bulldozers, and had back-up artillery at its disposal as well as 
constant reconnaissance that was communicated to the officers on the 
ground through an assistance cell. The soldiers say that the ground 
troops had instructions to kill any person within range. Before they 
entered Palestinian houses, a tank would shoot a shell to create a way 
in or soldiers would use hand-held missile launchers. Anyone inside 
would be incapacitated and so unable to surprise the troops. Once they 
were in, any movement outside was considered suspicious.

    Several soldiers said that at first there were arguments about how
    they should behave in the Palestinian houses they occupied. In
    briefings, soldiers were instructed not to loot or plunder, and some
    argued that they shouldn’t sleep on the mattresses or make coffee on
    the stove. Others disagreed:

The way I saw it, I pictured this family returning to their house and 
seeing it totally wrecked: the windows all broken, the floors torn up 
and the walls messed up by grenades; and they say: ‘The sons of bitches 
ate my cornflakes, I can’t believe it.’ No chance. They wouldn’t care if 
you used their cooking gas, if you used their kitchen. That’s total 
bullshit in my opinion. I don’t think that type of quandary is complex 
at all.

Many others began to understand that the ethical dilemmas raised in the 
briefings were a farce:

    We knew that we were entering a house and that we could be good
    kids, on our best behaviour, but even then a D9 [armoured bulldozer]
    would show up and flatten the house. We figured out pretty quickly
    that every house we left, a D9 would show up and raze it. The
    neighbourhood we were in, what characterised it operationally was
    that it commanded a view of the entire area of the [Israel-Gaza
    border fence] and also some of the [Israeli] border towns. In the
    southern and some of the eastern parts of Juhar ad-Dik, we
    understood pretty quickly that the houses would not be left standing
    … At a certain point we understood it was a pattern: you leave a
    house and the house is gone; after two or three houses you figure
    out that there’s a pattern. The D9 comes and flattens it.

This is the Dahiya doctrine in action, named after the Beirut 
neighbourhood which Israel turned into rubble in 2006. According to Gabi 
Siboni from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, the 
IDF needs

    to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is
    disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses.
    Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment
    to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction
    processes. The strike must be carried out as quickly as possible,
    and must prioritise damaging assets over seeking out each and every

According to the 2009 Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, 
the essence of the doctrine was ‘widespread destruction as a means of 
deterrence’. Soldiers talk of the ‘day after’ effect:

    Part of the [military] engineering rationale, of what’s called ‘the
    day after’ – I don’t know if that’s the term that’s published – is
    that when we blow up and flatten the area, we can in effect
    sterilise it. Throughout the period of combat, one keeps in mind
    that there is this thing called ‘the day after’, which is: the day
    we leave [the Gaza Strip], the more [areas] left wide open and as
    ‘clean’ as possible the better. One decides on a certain line –
    during the days after Operation Cast Lead it was 300 metres from the
    fence – and this area is levelled, flattened. Doesn’t matter if
    there are groves there, doesn’t matter if there are houses, doesn’t
    matter if there is a gas station – it’s all flattened because we are
    at war, so we are allowed to. You can justify anything you do during
    wartime … Everything suddenly sounds reasonable even though it isn’t
    really reasonable. We had a few D9s in our battalion and I can
    attest that the D9s alone destroyed hundreds of structures. It was
    in the debriefing. There were a few more structures that we blew up
    in the end. Obviously there were all kinds of other things, but the
    D9 was the main tool, it doesn’t stop working. Anything that looks
    suspicious, whether it’s just in order to clear a path, whether it’s
    some other thing, it takes it down. That’s the mission.

Another soldier describes the last hour before a ceasefire:

    There was a humanitarian ceasefire that went into effect at 6 a.m. I
    remember they told us at 5.15: ‘Look, we’re going to put on a show.’
    It was amazing, the air force’s precision. The first shell struck at
    exactly quarter past five and the last one struck at 5.59 and 59
    seconds. It was crazy. Fire, non-stop shelling of [a] neighbourhood
    [east of Beit Hanoun] … Non-stop. Just non-stop. The entire Beit
    Hanoun compound in ruins.

    Q: When you saw this neighbourhood on your way out, what did you see?

    A: When we left it was still intact. We were sent out of Beit Hanoun
    ahead of the ceasefire, ahead of the air force strikes.

    Q: And when you went back in [after the air strikes], what did you
    see of that neighbourhood?

    A: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing. Like the opening scene in
    /The Pianist/. There’s that famous photo that they always show on
    trips to Poland that shows Warsaw before the war and Warsaw after
    the Second World War. The photo shows the heart of Warsaw and it’s
    this classy European city, and then they show it at the end of the
    war. They show the exact same neighbourhood, only it has just one
    house left standing, and the rest is just ruins. That’s what it
    looked like.

*/Neve Gordon/*/ is the author of Israel’s Occupation 
<http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0520255313/ref=s9_simz_gw_s0_p14_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=053QZGX5Q0YQC5BH4V7V&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=470938631&pf_rd_i=507846> as 
well as ‘The Human Right to Dominate 
(co-authored with Nicola Perugini, forthcoming June 2015)./

/This article originally ran in the London Review of Books 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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