The Israeli Way of War
Jan 28, 2011 | Michael Totten
By Michael Totten
The dry forest on the Israeli-Lebanese border provided shade but little relief. Rain had not fallen for months, and the blistering season-long heat wave that would later set parts of northern Israel on fire was currently burning down forests in Russia.
An Israeli intelligence officer led me to this concealed yet sweltering viewpoint near the border fence overlooking Lebanon where Hezbollah guerrillas were busy fortifying positions for the next round of conflict, a round that will almost certainly be bloodier and more destructive for both sides than the last. A small green valley covered with Mediterranean scrub stood between us and the Party of God.
“Four years ago you could easily see Hezbollah positions and bunkers from here,” she said. “Now you can’t. Hezbollah pretends to respect United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, but that’s just their public face. Their posts are now hidden in houses and mosques.”
A young soldier standing watch handed me a small glass of coffee with no cream or sugar. Tea is the preferred social and professional lubricant in most of the Middle East, but most Israelis and Lebanese I’ve interviewed prefer coffee.
“Do you know which houses Hezbollah is in?” I said.
“We know,” she said and nodded.
It’s easy to monitor the border area from both the Lebanese and the Israeli sides, especially for those with high-tech equipment. In some places houses are built all the way up to the fence line in each country. Some Lebanese homes are even within shouting distance of Israeli homes. Both countries are tiny. Land is scarce all around. On most days nobody shoots at anybody, and besides – not even residents of Tel Aviv and Beirut are entirely safe from the worst that can come flying at them from the other.
Hezbollah had 10,000 rockets before the war in 2006. Now it has between 40,000 and 50,000. Some are stored in warehouses. Others are hidden away a few at a time in private homes.
“What do you think about the job UNIFIL is doing?” I asked the intelligence officer. I cannot tell you her name. She never even gave me her name.
UNIFIL is the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. It has been there since 1978 (so much for it being an “interim” force) to help the Lebanese Government restore its sovereignty over the area, sovereignty that was taken away first by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, then by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), and most recently by Hezbollah. UNIFIL is supposed to keep all armed personnel, including Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah fighters, out of the 12-mile buffer zone between the border and the Litani River.
“UNIFIL is trying,” she said, “but they are having a hard time. Hezbollah puts large stones on the road to block UNIFIL’s trucks, and there’s nothing UNIFIL can do about it. It’s difficult for them to enter Shi’ite villages now.”
There’s not much visible evidence in these villages that Hezbollah is doing anything. Its fighters and officers wear no uniforms. Only rarely do they carry guns out in the open. Israeli intelligence officers can spot them regardless, and they know of literally thousands of small military positions in nearby villages and in the rural landscape surrounding the villages.
“They’re storing huge amounts of C2 explosives next to clinics, schools, and mosques,” she said. “It’s terrible that Hezbollah is doing all this in civilian areas and sabotaging the new order in Lebanon. It’s sad, not just for Israel, but also for Lebanon.”
I left her there and drove to another location on the border not far from the Israeli town of Metulla which directly faces the Lebanese town of Kfar Kila. There I met with a spokesperson for the IDF Northern Command.
“Hezbollah is choosing where the next war will be,” she said, “by placing launch sites and weapons next to mosques and clinics. They know we get in trouble if we bomb those locations. Now whenever we think of targeting places like that, an alert goes up in our system.”
The very next day, just a few hundred metres from where I was standing, Lebanese army soldiers who were almost certainly in league with Hezbollah shot and killed an Israeli army commander and seriously wounded another. The Israelis shot back and killed three Lebanese soldiers. They also killed embedded journalist Assaf Abu Rahal who worked for the pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar. Another reporter, Ali Shuaib from Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV station, was also embedded with the Lebanese soldiers who started the fight, and he was shot, too.
Perhaps the Hezbollah-affiliated journalists just randomly happened to be with the Lebanese army soldiers when one of them impulsively started a cross-border firefight. It’s possible. If things had gone a little bit differently, I could have been shot at. Israeli officials believe the journalists knew in advance what was going to happen, which is why they were there. That’s also a real possibility.
Either way, the Israelis don’t put civilians in harm’s way, neither their own nor anyone else’s. At least they aren’t supposed to. They’ll go to jail if they do. But placing civilians in harm’s way is how things often go in the Arab world, I am sorry to say.
A Video Game City
There’s a small chance the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 was the last one, but that isn’t likely. None of the outstanding issues that sparked it have been resolved.
Hezbollah could find itself isolated and vulnerable if the Iranian government is overthrown and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sidekick Bashar Assad in Damascus is forced to clean up his act, but I wouldn’t bet on that, at least not in the short run. Iran’s government has proven itself much stronger than its internal enemies, and Lebanon’s government is far too weak and compromised to avert the oncoming collision, a collision that is shaping up to be thoroughly nasty. “I don’t belittle the situation in Gaza Strip,” IDF Brigade Commander Enav Shalev told Ynet News recently, “but Lebanon is a different story.”
God only knows how Hezbollah trains its fighters, but I have a pretty good idea what the Israelis are up to because Abe Lapson, an IDF director of combat engineering, hosted me at the urban warfare training center in the northern Negev near the border with Gaza.
They built a scale model city out there in the desert where Israeli soldiers engage in sophisticated combat exercises. They fight each other in these exercises, so it’s always a challenge. Trained Israeli soldiers are far more dangerous than any army – even Hezbollah – the modern Arab world has yet produced.
I saw the skyline of the “city” as we approached on a road through desert, and from a distance it almost looks real. Up close it’s different.
“It almost looks like a set for a video game,” I said.
Lapson chuckled and said, “But it’s real.”
I could see everything from the control tower. The buildings are smaller and farther apart on the outskirts than they are in the center, just like a real village or town in the West Bank, Gaza, or Lebanon. And I have to say they did a pretty good job with the realism. Pyrotechnic teams set off explosions. Vehicles emit different colours of smoke depending on what kind of damage they’ve supposedly taken. Walls have simulated blast holes because doors and windows are often booby-trapped, forcing soldiers to create alternate entrances.
The Israelis here shoot blanks at each other, and they wear sensors on their torsos and limbs that tell them when and where they’ve been “shot” and whether or not they are “dead”.
“We’ve even argued about how much garbage we should put on the ground for realism,” Lapson said.
The casbah and the refugee camp are the most dangerous places. They’re built in a hodgepodge manner and are usually crowded. It’s hard to find adequate cover because roofs often cover the paths. None of the Israeli soldiers standing above can provide overwatch protection.
Of course, the fake casbah and refugee camp are easier to fight in than the real ones. In the real world there are people, donkeys, clothes lines, vendors, and noise, not to mention live ammunition and traps.
Mannequins and Old Age homes
I’ve never been to a Hezbollah training camp, although I did ask Hezbollah officials if I could see one before they blacklisted me for “writing against the party.” They refused. Still, I’m certain they don’t have dummies representing civilians who aren’t to be touched.
The Israelis do, though. They place mannequins on the grounds dressed in the clothes of civilians and peacekeepers as well as enemy soldiers and terrorists.
“The other side includes both hostiles and civilians,” Lapson said, “and the hostiles will often embed themselves among the civilians. We go over a large number of what-if scenarios. We imbue an ethical and moral backbone in all our soldiers from the very beginning, and we have humanitarian officers with our infantry troops. We take extra precautions, even when it puts our own troops in danger.”
You could argue, I suppose, that the Israelis pulled a con job on me, that they planted these civilian-clothed mannequins as part of some Soviet-style propaganda campaign, but there’s no evidence that’s what happened. Totalitarian regimes sometimes use Potemkin stage pieces and actors to fool foreign journalists. Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) had just such an experience when he visited North Korea. Israel, though, is the sort of place that only behaves this way in the feverish minds of conspiracy theorists.
“We train our soldiers to respect sacred buildings,” Lapson said. “We have a lot of respect for the holy places of all peoples and all cultures. This is something we integrate into our training. We train our soldiers with extra sensitivity even though we know it can be used against us by our enemies.”
“What do you do if someone is firing at you from a mosque?” I said.
“That’s a decision that’s made by the higher ranks on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “It’s always case-by-case, even though it slows down the pace of the fighting. It’s very slow when we have house-to-house combat. It’s already slow, but when we have to stop and judge each individual case on its merits, we have to slow down the fighting even more.”
It’s the same with the US in Iraq. Mosques are off-limits, except when they aren’t. One night while out on a patrol with American soldiers in Baghdad, a half dozen militiamen stalked us in the dark. The only reason we knew they were there is because the soldiers I was with wore night vision goggles. I could hardly see anything. And these militia guys were using a mosque as their base of operations. Several camped out on the roof next to the minaret behind camouflage netting. The soldiers I was with, though, weren’t allowed to do anything about it. The mosque was untouchable even though it had been militarised. Only the Iraqi army was allowed to go in there.
On another occasion, though, I visited a Kurdish mosque in the mountainous north a few hundred feet from the Iranian border that had been hit by an American air strike at the beginning of the war.
Ansar al-Islam -which later became an al-Qaeda franchise after the Kurds kicked them into Iran – was using that mosque as a base. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was with them in that mosque for a while, and the caretaker told me the terrorists of Ansar turned the shrine into a toilet. He was glad the mosque was hit by an American missile because it punished Zarqawi’s people and helped the Kurds there get rid of them.
Still, mosques are not to be hit except in unusual circumstances.
“As you can see,” Lapson said, “the mosque here is in an elevated position. It’s a great firing position. We might need a pinpoint strike. We might even send an engineering team to take out only the part of the mosque that’s causing a threat and will do minimal collateral damage. Obviously sending in a team to take out only a specific part of the mosque will endanger the team that’s carrying out that assignment, but it’s something we’re willing to do. We are willing to take those extra precautions.”
Sometimes they just avoid hitting mosques altogether. I visited the Lebanese town of Maroun al-Ras while touring Hezbollah’s post-war rubblescape after the 2006 war and was amazed to find a nearly unscathed mosque surrounded in every single direction by pulverised buildings. The Israelis obviously felt it was important to flatten the area for whatever reason, but they did it while sparing the mosque. If they didn’t care about saving the mosque it almost certainly would have been smashed like everything else.
“An area like this,” Lapson said, “which is maybe equivalent to a one-block radius, would require a very large force, a battalion or larger, to take it because of the multi-level buildings and our extra precautions.”
“How many soldiers are in your battalions?” I said.
“We can’t discuss numbers,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “But it’s a lot.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Each battalion has several companies, and each company has several platoons, and so on. This is how much we’re willing to slow the pace of advance in order to ensure proper treatment and exclusive targeting of terrorists and not the civilians. It would be a lot easier to just take out whole buildings, but that’s not something we’re willing to do. We have a doctrine called ‘purity of arms.’ We must put ourselves at risk before we are allowed to fire our weapons.”
“But you guys do take out whole buildings sometimes,” I said. “I’ve seen areas in Lebanon where entire buildings were taken out.”
“We have protocols for when there is constant fire and a constant threat from a building,” he said. “Again, it’s on a case-by-case basis. If we have to take out a whole building, we’ll use a bulldozer, an explosive demolition, or an air strike. Either way, it will be a pinpoint thing that shouldn’t cause too much collateral damage on the surrounding buildings.”
Just then, several fighter aircraft screamed overhead and flew in the direction of Iran. The sound would been terrifying if I were in Lebanon or Gaza during a war.
“You should wear these,” he said and handed me two soft foam earplugs wrapped in plastic. “When the exercise starts, it’s gonna get loud.”
A few minutes later, a simulated attack started. Soldiers on the outskirts of town fired at defenders just inside the perimeter. The blanks didn’t sound like real rounds at first. They were loud, sure, but the pop sound they made didn’t resemble the real thing all that much, at least not from a distance.
Then the invading force stormed into the building Lapson and I had embedded ourselves in and fired upon the soldiers tasked to defend it. I scrambled to plug my ears with orange foam because now the blanks sounded as loud as live rounds. The bare concrete walls of the training set amplified the sound by easily an order of magnitude.
The soldiers had no trouble running past me and Lapson and firing at their “enemies” without “shooting” us. I had to jump out of their way as they flew up the stairs, but they remained focused exclusively on their targets. Lapson and I were just part of the furniture.
Electronic sensors on their arms, legs, and torsos emitted high-pitched whines as soldiers on each side were “shot”. I heard a sound like a flat-line on the heart monitor of a dying hospital patient as the gunshots crescendoed inside the room. The only things missing were the blood, the pain, and the screaming.
Amidst all the noise, confusion, and simulated raw violence – even when the soldiers were less than two feet in front of me – no one ever pointed his weapon at me.
“We Would take Complaints From Hamas if they Bothered”
Not everyone in the Israeli army follows the code. How could they? Millions of people serve in that army. If millions could be compelled to consistently follow a moral and ethical code without exception, police departments and prisons wouldn’t be necessary. Yet even the best societies have police departments and prisons, and even the best armies need military police, prosecutors, and courts-martial.
I met with one of the JAG officers at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv. Her office is the complaints department, and she gets a lot of complaints. Part of her job entails launching investigations and bringing criminal charges against her fellow soldiers if it looks like they might have committed a war crime.
“I’m not interested in the source of a complaint,” she said. “I take all of them seriously no matter where they come from.”
Some allegations of crimes come from Palestinian lawyers. Others are filed by civilians, police officers, and NGOs. Some even come from Israeli soldiers. Hamas, oddly enough, has yet to lodge a single complaint.
“We would take complaints from Hamas seriously if they bothered,” she said, “though I doubt they ever will. I’m really not interested in the source. Reporters sometimes bring things to our attention that we didn’t know about, and I’ve launched criminal investigations based on their information.”
Israel, like the United States, uses the Law of Armed Conflict. No one else in the Middle East does, especially not the likes of Hamas or Hezbollah.
One important thing the law requires is what’s known as “distinction”.
“Distinction,” according to the law, “means discriminating between lawful combatant targets and noncombatant targets such as civilians, civilian property, POWs, and wounded personnel who are out of combat. The central idea of distinction is to only engage valid military targets. An indiscriminate attack is one that strikes military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.”
It means you can’t target kindergartens and coffeeshops with suicide-bombers or air strikes. It also means you can’t use human shields:
“Distinction requires defenders to separate military objects from civilian objects to the maximum extent feasible. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to locate a hospital or POW camp next to an ammunition factory.”
Hamas and Hezbollah use human shields in this way as a matter of course. I’ve interviewed residents of South Lebanon whose own front yards were used by Hezbollah as rocket launching pads during the 2006 war. Israelis, though, are strictly prohibited from doing anything of the sort, not only by international laws but by their own laws.
“We read the complaints and decide if they should trigger a criminal investigation or a command investigation,” the JAG officer said. “If the complaint requires a criminal investigation – such as an accusation of looting, human shielding, or targeting civilians – an investigation will be launched immediately. If a complaint relates to operational activities, we won’t necessarily investigate right away. We first need to check with commanders to hear what they think happened during an operational activity, such as a person’s house getting damaged by an air strike.”
Shortly before I interviewed her she filed two indictments for a crime allegedly committed during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza two years ago.
“Civilians were in the basement of an apartment building,” she said. “Two soldiers asked a 10-year-old boy to open bags in the corner of a room. This is completely unacceptable, not at all allowed in the IDF.”
“Are you’re saying they used the kid as a human shield?” I said.
“It wasn’t exactly like using a person as a human shield,” she said, “but it’s close. We are not allowed to force civilians to participate in a military activity, so these two soldiers were indicted for endangering a civilian.”
Human rights organisations may wish the IDF prosecuted more of its soldiers than it does, but it does prosecute some whether it prosecutes just the right number or not.
“We did learn about events from the Goldstone Report and investigated them,” she said. “Goldstone had 34 reports. Twelve were criminally investigated. Of those 12, we knew about some of them already and had already opened investigations.”
She received more than 400 complaints about Cast Lead from all sources combined, including journalists, and her office launched 48 criminal investigations.
“It’s not true,” she said, “that the release of the report was the only reason we investigated actions during the conflict.” Half of those 48 investigations were already underway before the Goldstone Report was even published.
The Role of NGOs
“What do you think about all these NGOs that criticise Israel and the army?” I said.
“I actually appreciate the work of the NGOs,” she said. “They help me make sure our violent operational activity is conducted appropriately. I want to live in a country where there is an address for these kinds of complaints. We’re in constant dialogue with them, and they help me. They do seem to appreciate the thorough work we do. They probably don’t agree with all my decisions, but they know I take what they say seriously.
“Sometimes we’re asked why we haven’t investigated when civilians die,” she continued, “but not every time a civilian is hurt does it mean a violation of the Law of Armed Conflict has occurred. We read the command investigation reports and if we suspect a criminal offence was committed I launch an investigation. We ask for hundreds of command investigations every year. If commanders don’t know about an event and what happened we launch an investigation. That doesn’t mean they all end up with indictments. I check these reports as a lawyer, not as a soldier. There is often a gap between what’s reported and what is the truth.”
She told me her office dealt with complaints in the exact same way during combat operations in the West Bank at the time of the Second Intifada.
“What about Lebanon?” I said. “How many complaints did you get from Lebanon during and after the 2006 war?”
“We didn’t get any complaints from Lebanon during or after the 2006 war,” she said, “but the use of cluster bombs was investigated.”
That hardly means everyone in Lebanon feels peachy about the way Israel conducted itself. Even Lebanese people I know who sympathise with Israel to an extent are disgruntled about Israel’s choice of targets in 2006.
The most likely reason no one from Lebanon filed any complaints is because contact of any kind with the State of Israel has been considered treason in Lebanon ever since Syria conquered the country at the end of the civil war. There is far more hatred of Israel among Palestinians than among Lebanese, but Palestinians and Israelis are at least able to talk to each other without anyone going to jail.
“It’s harder to investigate military matters than regular criminal offences,” she said. “We have to locate the place where it supposedly happened, and we have to figure out which unit was at that location precisely when it occurred. Sometimes we don’t get exact or accurate dates, so we don’t know which unit would have been there. Some complaints we’ve received supposedly happened before the war even started. Soldiers don’t always even remember what happened because of the fog of conflict, and they often remember events differently from each other. After piecing together what happened as best we can, we see if there is evidence that we can bring to court. We have to figure out the subjective state of mind of a soldier who pulls the trigger. If he reasonably felt his life was in danger, whether or not it actually was, he is not guilty of intentionally harming a civilian.”
Still, civilians get killed, and it’s not always the fault of Hamas or Hezbollah. Israelis who are found guilty will go to prison.
Can you imagine Hamas or Hezbollah investigating their fighters and punishing them if they harmed Israeli civilians? The very idea is absurd. The whole point of firing missiles at cities and sending suicide bombers into restaurants and onto buses is to murder as many civilians as possible. These aren’t just acts of terrorism. They’re war crimes.
“If we get complaints about the intentional targeting of civilians, we have to investigate,” she said. “Our soldiers often take it personally and get angry. They resent being investigated after being ordered to go to war and risking their lives. I understand why they feel that way, but we have to do this. It’s not just important because of all the international pressure. It also matters for the health of our society.”
Michael J. Totten is a journalist who has reported from Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Cyprus, Turkey and Israel. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Commentary, and numerous other publications. He maintains a weblog at www.michaeltotten.com © Michael Totten, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.