Editor’s notes: The IDF’s new Yom Kippur challenges

By David Horovitz September 25, 2009

Defense chiefs are learning how to confront enemies who operate among civilians, and to confront them while trying to hold to a fine moral line. But the task of conveying our complex reality to the international community is not being adequately met

For 36 years, the Israeli army has struggled to shake off the trauma of a war for which it was unprepared.

Yom Kippur 1973 is modern Israel’s ‘never again’ moment – never again will the defenders of this country risk the destruction of the Jewish nation through hubris, through misconception, through the misreading of enemy intentions and the underestimation of enemy capabilities.

For all its qualitative advantages over neighboring armies, the Israel Defense Forces simply does not possess nearly enough manpower, equipment and budget to maintain the deployment of the forces necessary on each and every potential front to confront all possible dangers all the time. So protecting Israel in this most hostile and ruthless of neighborhoods, 36 years after their predecessors so fatefully miscalculated, inevitably remains a matter of assessment – for the IDF’s intelligence chiefs and their colleagues across the General Staff and in the security services: How likely is an initiated enemy attack across this or that border? Which other players might also be drawn into conflict? How must we allocate our resources to face the potential threat? Which additional capabilities do we require?

Day after day, week after week, year after year, the dangers are assessed and reassessed, and the IDF’s commanders adjust and perfect the strategies and tactics to meet them.

Except that safeguarding Israel, the little country that was almost overrun in 1973, has become significantly more complex since then.

THE THREAT of conventional warfare is ever-present – of enemy tanks on coordinated fronts seeking to punch deep into Israeli territory, with enemy aircraft striving for supremacy in the skies above. But, for now at least, a wealth of factors – notably including Israel’s currently peerless air power and the cold but stable peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan – mean that it is not deemed likely.

Over recent years, instead, our enemies have focused on an alternate avenue through which to seek our defeat – terrorism: The deliberate targeting not of our military power – in the ‘classic’ confrontations of men at war with guns and tanks and fighter planes and bombers – but of our civilians, especially via suicide bombers and missile attacks.

The construction of the West Bank security barrier and the sealing of the Gaza Strip drastically reduced the capacity for suicide bombers to easily enter Israel and blow us up in our malls and restaurants and buses. But we are still several years away, at best, from a hermetic defensive solution to the missile threat posed by Hizbullah’s tens of thousands of Katyushas and worse to the north, Hamas’s gradually reviving Kassam and Grad capacity to the south, and yet more dangerous capabilities in Syria and, most worryingly, in Iran.

Our enemies’ departure from the regulated ‘norms’ of warfare is not limited to the targets of their violence, however. The challenge facing today’s IDF derives not only from the need to keep our civilians safe. It extends to the need to keep the enemy’s civilians as safe as we can, too. For Hamas and Hizbullah don’t only fire into civilian territory. They fire out of civilian territory – from the backyards of homes in the villages of south Lebanon; from outside the mosques and schools and along the refugee camp alleyways of the Gaza Strip. Judge Goldstone has it back to front: It’s Hamas that kills and wants us to kill Palestinian civilians. We’re the ones who don’t want to.

Hamas fires into our homes and schools, and celebrates when it murders and maims. And when the civilians it has so ruthlessly put in harm’s way are killed or hurt as Israel bids to staunch the salvoes, it duplicitously protests our ‘aggression’ to the international community. And much of the international community, most recently emblemized by Goldstone, is proving incapable of distinguishing between aggressor and defender, between terrorism and sovereign protection.

IN AN interview three years ago, Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Shkedy, then the commander of the Israel Air Force, spoke to me of the ‘cynicism’ of Hamas in Gaza – terrorists who, as he put it, ‘cloak themselves in civilians.’

They are ‘capable of putting their own children in the car when they set off to fire a Kassam at the State of Israel,’ he noted. ‘They can take their own children to terror training bases. Cynicism is firing missiles from the yard of a house, a meter from the house, where it’s obvious that if we hit back, we hit the house. We are always grappling with these dilemmas,’ he said. ‘All the time. Understand?’

A few weeks after our conversation, we did indeed understand. The Second Lebanon War erupted, and it became plain to all Israelis that Hizbullah was employing an identical strategy in south Lebanon.

Do we shoot at those missile crews when there are children nearby, children deliberately brought into the line of fire by Hamas, I asked Shkedy back then? No we do not, he responded. Instead, he said, the IDF was improving its accuracy. ‘Our answer is to create a situation where you hit within a meter, a meter and a half. If we know that [the terrorist] is holding his son’s hand, we do not fire. Even if the terrorist is in the midst of firing a Kassam, and the Kassam is aimed to kill. We do not fire.’

Enemy ‘cynicism’ has only deepened since then – presenting new moral dilemmas for the IDF.

Facing the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead onslaught at the turn of the year, Hamas stored weapons in mosques. It booby-trapped schools. It left guns ready to fire in homes all over Gaza, while its gunmen, ‘unarmed,’ dodged from home to home out of uniform knowing that their weapons were waiting.

In Gaza nine months ago, Shkedy’s successors say, the IDF did its utmost to isolate the combatants from Hamas’s civilian pawns. That the IDF dropped leaflets and made phone calls and sent SMS messages and more to warn Palestinian civilians to leave combat zones is well-known and thoroughly documented. And while the IDF acknowledges that hundreds of civilians were killed and is itself investigating several allegations of illegitimate use of force against Palestinian civilians, some of them raised by local human rights watchdog organizations, the most senior officers are adamant that they have come across not a single instance in which civilians were deliberately targeted.

Nevertheless, in its assault on Hamas, the IDF was guided by the principle that its priority was, first, to protect Israeli civilians and, second, to protect its own soldiers, while still aborting innumerable operations because of feared Palestinian civilian casualties.

As commanders in the field said at the time of the fighting, therefore, if their troops were coming under fire from a building where civilians had been ordered to leave, air power was sometimes called in and the building targeted from above. That makes for a striking contrast to 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. In that offensive, no remotely comparable effort was made to persuade civilians to leave the combat zone, and a dozen soldiers lost their lives in a single ambush in Jenin refugee camp, for example, because the IDF felt it had to choose close-combat over air power given that so many civilians were in the vicinity.

The shift in IDF tactics is highly significant. Still coming to terms with Palestinian terrorists’ readiness to operate from the heart of residential areas in 2002, the IDF placed soldiers’ lives in acute danger by fighting house to house in West Bank terror enclaves with many of its superior military capabilities, most notably in the air, neutralized by the imperative to minimize Palestinian civilian losses. Having internalized that Hamas cynicism by 2008-09, the IDF made a priority of compelling Palestinian civilians to evacuate, and thus, while close-combat was still a dominant feature during the fighting, it felt it could more legitimately call in air support on occasion to save the lives of its troops on the ground.

As IDF commanders have stressed again and again, it was Hamas that created the civilian theater of war in Gaza. Israel had left the Strip and had no desire to return. The rocket fire on Sderot and beyond ultimately left no choice. But it had adjusted its tactics and internalized lessons bitterly learned in previous such confrontations.

In an interview in these pages last week, Shkedy’s successor, Ido Nehushtan, responding to questions about the level of Palestinian civilian fatalities, was emphatic that the Israel Air Force’s choice of targets was moral. Pressed on the specific targeting of Hamas police personnel in the IAF’s initial attacks, Nehushtan referred to Hamas as a terrorist construction from top to bottom, a rogue force that killed fellow Palestinians when seizing power from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in Gaza in June 2007.

‘Look at the way they killed Fatah… their own people,’ he recalled. ‘We need to disconnect from traditional military concepts and understand that Hamas doesn’t work that way. They don’t come in uniforms or in tanks to a battlefield… We did the detailed inspection of every single target. But they are the opposite and intentionally target civilians. This is an asymmetric conflict not just on a military level but also on an ethical and moral level.’

Other security officials note that the vast majority of the 89 Hamas police personnel killed in those first December 27, 2008, air strikes were members of the Izzadin Kassam Brigades or other military forces, and that several of them had been directly involved in acts of terrorism.

It was the chief of the General Staff himself, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who took the decision not to bomb Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital during Cast Lead, even though the Hamas leadership was known to have established a key center of operations there. He could not justify the unavoidable loss of civilian life. By contrast, as I noted in these pages in January, the IDF unprecedentedly blew up a series of Gaza mosques – 14 in all, it transpires – in which Grad rockets were stored, tunnel entrances were concealed and other Hamas operations were centered.

Goldstone, risibly, could find no proof that mosques were utilized for Hamas military purposes, despite IDF footage released at the time. The absence of an Islamic outcry, moreover, underlines that the watching Muslim world was aware of the legitimacy of the IDF’s choice of targets – aware, that is, of Hamas’s abuse of what should have been tranquil places of worship.

In retrospect, given Goldstone’s evident gullibility or worse, Hamas has doubtless realized that it missed an opportunity when failing to encourage global Islamic protests – Danish cartoon-style – against what it could have branded the IDF’s senseless destruction of houses of prayer. In retrospect, too, it has doubtless realized it could have gained more international sympathy, and brought more criticism down upon Israel, by vociferously protesting that its dead policemen were innocent traffic cops.

Next time, and there will almost certainly be a next time, it can be sadly anticipated that Hamas will have rectified such failings, the better to demonize Israel. Whether the IDF is learning similar lessons is, unfortunately, a more open question.

OUR DEFENSE chiefs have demonstrably found many of the military answers to the challenge of fighting enemies who operate among civilians, and to confront them while trying to hold to a fine moral line. But the challenge of explaining the moral legitimacy of those military answers, for a world inclined to rush to superficial judgment, is not being adequately met. The Goldstone panel may have been a lost cause from the start – given its mandate and its mindset. But the task of conveying our complex reality to the international community, an essential mission if Israel is to attain wider sympathy and empathy and, by extension, wider room for military maneuver, is certainly not a cause Israel can afford to abandon.

The IDF would have helped itself immensely during Operation Cast Lead had it arranged controlled access to the civilian theater of war for credible local and foreign journalists. Better yet, before the conflict began, the IDF should have given journalists as much information as security considerations would allow into enemy battle tactics – the use of schools and mosques, the fighting out of uniform – so that the realities of the battle would be better understood as it unfolded. Those kinds of advance insights will be crucial as Israel seeks to win greater understanding in future conflicts.

The IDF would help itself immeasurably, furthermore, if, along with its own internal investigations of possible abuses, it enabled independent, transparent, domestic investigation of particularly grave allegations of misuse of force. An organization that honorably investigates its own alleged abuses can ardently claim that justice is being done, but it cannot expect automatic acceptance of this assertion.

The IDF would help itself, too, if it internalized that, along with documenting our own fatalities, it must document casualties on the other side, however outrageous that may sound: In Gaza, the Hamas health apparatus held a near monopoly on information regarding how many Palestinians were dying and whether or not they were combatants. Subsequent IDF reports documenting that this ‘civilian’ was actually an Izzadin Kassam operative, and that ‘medic’ was actually a gunman found posing proudly with automatic weapon in hand on the pages of innumerable Hamas Web sites, came far too late to have any impact.

THIRTY-SIX years after the Yom Kippur War, the enemy has changed. The dangers are less predictable and the skills needed to meet them are more diverse. Israel no longer fights primarily on the conventional battlefield. Our enemies have placed our civilians, and theirs, on the front line. Deterrence is more critical than ever. Enemies do not surrender; for the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah, mere survival is ‘victory,’ no matter how great the suffering they cause to the people they purport to represent.

No amount of explanation, articulation and insight will enlighten those, like the Goldstone panel and the UN body that dispatched it, who are willfully blind to these and other realities. But an intensified focus on persuading the international community of the legitimacy of Israel’s cause, and the tools employed to safeguard it, is vital. It could help render the biases of those who seek to delegitimize Israel more visible and undermine those who seek to deny us our right to self-defense.

Where the enemies of 1973 sensed a debilitating Israeli over-confidence on the conventional battlefield, the enemies of 2009 realize that Israel is hard-pressed to explain the intricacies and moralities of the civilian theater of war they have imposed upon us. And if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in 36 years, it is that when our enemies identify Israeli hesitation, disarray and weakness, they will relentlessly seek to exploit it.

© The Jerusalem Post