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U.S. Army helicopters arrive in Mosul.  (Photo: United States Forces Iraq/flickr/cc_

Taking Page from Israel War Tactics, US Military Employs Controversial 'Roof Knocking'

Tactic criticized by UN commission used "extensively" during Israel's deadly 2014 bombing of Gaza

Andrea Germanos

An Israeli tactic deemed "ineffective" at preventing civilian causalities by a United Nations commission has now been adopted by the United States in its fight against ISIS, according to a U.S. military official.

Air Force Maj. Peter Gersten, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for the U.S.-led coalition, explained at a press briefing Tuesday that the tactic dubbed "knocking on the roof" was, in fact, used during a strike in Mosul, Iraq against a "major distributor of funds to Daesh fighters." A woman the military had seen come and go with her children from the building died in the strike—"an unfortunality," as Gersten called it.

"We went as far as actually to put a Hellfire on top of the building and air burst it so it wouldn't destroy the building, simply knock on the roof to ensure that she and the children were out of the building. And then we proceeded with our operations," Gersten said. He went on to say that ISIS fighters are "using the civilian force as human shields." He said that the military saw the woman and children leave the building. They then "began to process the strike," but the woman ran back into the building and was killed.

As CNN reported in 2014, "The Israeli Air Force developed the technique in 2009 as a way to warn civilians in Gaza to leave buildings it has identified as locations where Hamas keeps ammunition, a rocket stash or command post. But it is a controversial policy that has been criticized by human rights groups."

The reporting also notes that the tactic was used "extensively" during Israel's 2014 bombing campaign on Gaza dubbed "Operation Protective Edge."

The UN estimated that Israeli strikes during the operation killed over 1,400 civilians—69 percent of the Gaza's causalities. Those casualties included nearly 500 children and over 250 women.  Just months after the campaign ended, as the Jerusalem Post reported at the time,  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey sent a team of officers to learn tactics from the Israel Defense Forces during the operation.  Dempsey made note of "roof knocking" and praised Israel for taking "extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties."

A UN commission report looking into that conflict criticized the tactic.

"Based on its findings, the commission concludes that the 'roof-knocking' technique is not effective, in particular if not combined with other specific warnings," it stated.

"In some cases, it appears that concerned persons did not understand that their house had been the subject of a 'roof-knock,'" the inquiry added. It also criticized the short time between the roof knock and the attack, writing, "If the 'roof-knock' is the first warning, a few minutes are clearly not sufficient to allow a multi-storey building inhabited by families with children and elderly and sometimes disabled persons to be evacuated, taking into account the time required to realize that the strike was meant as a warning."

Human rights attorney and writer Noura Erakat argued in 2015 of Operation Protective Edge, "The use of force against Gaza in 2014 reflects a new norm that Israel, together with the United States, aims to establish in the context of counter-terrorism operations."

Erakat charged that

Israel considered those who did not flee following a warning as involuntary human shields, whom they consider Hamas’s victims of “terrorism.” Israel has not been clear, however, whether these involuntary human shields constitute civilian harm to be considered in its proportionality assessment. Its military decisions reflect that they did not count: at least 142 families lost three or more members in attacks on residential buildings resulting in at least 742 casualties. Based on their investigation, the FIDH concluded that “rather than minimizing loss of civilian life, Israel’s warning policy fomented massive forced displacement and spread confusion and fear among the population.”

The U.S. said last month that civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria as a result its war against Isis in Iraq and Syria totaled to 41. Independend watchdog project Airwars, however, found that over 1,000 civilian casualties "appear likely" from coalition strikes.

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