Israeli Commander: 'We Rewrote the Rules of War for Gaza'

Published on
by
The Independent/UK

Israeli Commander: 'We Rewrote the Rules of War for Gaza'

Civilians 'put at greater risk to save military lives' in winter attack - revelations that will pile pressure on Netanyahu to set up full inquiry

by
Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem

An Israeli soldier directs a tank outside the Gaza Strip in December 2008. (REUTERS)

A high-ranking officer has acknowledged for the
first time that the Israeli army went beyond its previous rules of
engagement on the protection of civilian lives in order to minimise
military casualties during last year's Gaza war, The Independent can reveal.

The
officer, who served as a commander during Operation Cast Lead, made it
clear that he did not regard the longstanding principle of military
conduct known as "means and intentions" - whereby a targeted suspect
must have a weapon and show signs of intending to use it before being
fired upon - as being applicable before calling in fire from drones and
helicopters in Gaza last winter. A more junior officer who served at a
brigade headquarters during the operation described the new policy -
devised in part to avoid the heavy military casualties of the 2006
Lebanon war - as one of "literally zero risk to the soldiers".

The
officers' revelations will pile more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu to set up an independent inquiry into the war, as
demanded in the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report, which harshly
criticised the conduct of both Israel and Hamas. One of Israel's most
prominent human rights lawyers, Michael Sfard, said last night that the
senior commander's acknowledgement - if accurate - was "a smoking gun".

Until now, the testimony has been kept out of the
public domain. The senior commander told a journalist compiling a
lengthy report for Yedhiot Ahronot, Israel's biggest daily newspaper,
about the rules of engagement in the three-week military offensive in
Gaza. But although the article was completed and ready for publication
five months ago, it has still not appeared. The senior commander told
Yedhiot: "Means and intentions is a definition that suits an arrest
operation in the Judaea and Samaria [West Bank] area... We need to be
very careful because the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] was already burnt
in the second Lebanon war from the wrong terminology. The concept of
means and intentions is taken from different circumstances. Here [in
Cast Lead] we were not talking about another regular counter-terrorist
operation. There is a clear difference."

His
remarks reinforce testimonies from soldiers who served in the Gaza
operation, made to the veterans' group Breaking the Silence and
reported exclusively by this newspaper last July. They also appear to
cut across the military doctrine - enunciated most recently in public
by one of the authors of the IDF's own code of ethics - that it is the
duty of soldiers to run risks to themselves in order to preserve
civilian lives.

Explaining what he saw as the
dilemma for forces operating in areas that were supposedly cleared of
civilians, the senior commander said: "Whoever is left in the
neighbourhood and wants to action an IED [improvised explosive device]
against the soldiers doesn't have to walk with a Kalashnikov or a
weapon. A person like that can walk around like any other civilian; he
sees the IDF forces, calls someone who would operate the terrible death
explosive and five of our soldiers explode in the air. We could not
wait until this IED is activated against us."

Another
soldier who worked in one of the brigade's war-room headquarters told
The Independent that conduct in Gaza - particularly by aerial forces
and in areas where civilians had been urged to leave by leaflets - had
"taken the targeted killing idea and turned it on its head". Instead of
using intelligence to identify a terrorist, he said, "here you do the
opposite: first you take him down, then you look into it."

The
Yedhiot newspaper also spoke to a series of soldiers who had served in
Operation Cast Lead in sensitive positions. While the soldiers rejected
the main finding of the Goldstone Report - that the Israeli military
had deliberately "targeted" the civilian population - most asserted
that the rules were flexible enough to allow a policy under which, in
the words of one soldier "any movement must entail gunfire. No one's
supposed to be there." He added that at a meeting with his brigade
commander and others it was made clear that "if you see any signs of
movement at all you shoot. This is essentially the rules of
engagement."

The other soldier in the
war-room explained: "This doesn't mean that you need to disrespect the
lives of Palestinians but our first priority is the lives of our
soldiers. That's not something you're going to compromise on. In all my
years in the military, I never heard that."

He
added that the majority of casualties were caused in his brigade area
by aerial firing, including from unmanned drones. "Most of the guys
taken down were taken down by order of headquarters. The number of
enemy killed by HQ-operated remote ... compared to enemy killed by
soldiers on the ground had absolutely inverted," he said.

Rules
of engagement issued to soldiers serving in the West Bank as recently
as July 2006 make it clear that shooting towards even an armed person
will take place only if there is intelligence that he intends to act
against Israeli forces or if he poses an immediate threat to soldiers
or others.

In a recent article in New
Republic, Moshe Halbertal, a philosophy professor at Hebrew and New
York Universities, who was involved in drawing up the IDF's ethical
code in 2000 and who is critical of the Goldstone Report, said that
efforts to spare civilian life "must include the expectation that
soldiers assume some risk to their own lives in order to avoid causing
the deaths of civilians". While the choices for commanders were often
extremely difficult and while he did not think the expectation was
demanded by international law, "it is demanded in Israel's military
code and this has always been its tradition".

The
Israeli military declined to comment on the latest revelations, and
directed all enquiries to already-published material, including a July
2009 foreign ministry document The Operation in Gaza: Factual and Legal
Aspects.

That document, which repeats that
Israel acted in conformity with international law despite the "acute
dilemmas" posed by Hamas's operations within civilian areas, sets out
the principles of Operation Cast Lead as follows: "Only military
targets shall be attacked; Any attack against civilian objectives shall
be prohibited. A 'civilian objective' is any objective which is not a
military target." It adds: "In case of doubt, the forces are obliged to
regard an object as civilian."

Yedhiot has not commented on why its article has not been published.

Israel in Gaza: The soldier's tale

This
experienced soldier, who cannot be named, served in the war room of a
brigade during Operation Cast Lead. Here, he recalls an incident he
witnessed during last winter's three-week offensive:

"Two [Palestinian] guys are walking down the street. They pass a mosque and you see a gathering of women and children.

"You
saw them exiting the house and [they] are not walking together but one
behind the other. So you begin to fantasise they are actually ducking
close to the wall.

"One [man] began to run at
some point, must have heard the chopper. The GSS [secret service]
argued that the mere fact that he heard it implicated him, because a
normal civilian would not have realised that he was now being hunted.

"Finally he was shot. He was not shot next to the mosque. It's obvious that shots are not taken at a gathering."

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