The northern Gaza strip seen from the Israel side. Photo: Getty
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My time in Israeli Defence Force tells me the level of casualties in Gaza is avoidable

What will ultimately stop the deaths of innocent Palestinians and Israelis is a peace deal putting an end to the conflict. But in the meantime, a modification of the Israeli rules of engagement could reduce the number of innocent casualties.

In the 1982 Lebanon war I served as an Israeli artillery forward observer, my task to pinpoint the PLO’s positions and call in fire from our artillery units. We stayed in the evacuated Al Jamous School, overlooking Beirut. The routine was simple enough: I would pop into the classroom next door from where I would collect the co-ordinates and description of my military targets: “a military camp”, “a mortar”, “an antenna”. I would then return to my room and, looking out of the windows, I would direct our fire on the targets.

From time to time I would pause to let the air force get in to drop its munitions; and the navy would fire from the sea. Beirut, in the summer of 1982, was all burning up – a city on fire.

There was a purpose to this massive bombardment: to hit Yasser Arafat’s guerrilla force and its weapons – and also put pressure on the Lebanese, particularly those living inside Beirut with no water, food and electricity, so they demanded Arafat get out of Beirut which would then stop our assault.

In the end, a Lebanese military officer by the name of Jonny Abdu confronted Arafat who left Lebanon and moved to Tunisia.

Looking back now, I’m appalled by our brutal bombing of Beirut. Was it justified to turn this beautiful city into a Middle Eastern Dresden and kill hundreds of innocent civilians in the process?

Now to Gaza where, like in 1982 Beirut, the Israeli army is using overwhelming military power to locate and destroy Hamas’s tunnels, to stop them firing rockets into Israel – and also to put pressure on the Gazans (as we had pressured the Beirutis) so they turn their backs on Hamas as a political force.

In the process, just as in Lebanon, hundreds of innocent Palestinians have been killed and parts of Gaza, as some sections of 1982 Beirut, have been turned into wastelands. Even worst, UN schools in Gaza which are shelters to more than 250,000 refugees, and their hospitals have also been hit by Israeli artillery and bombs.

Wayward artillery

Can anything be done so that in the next round between Israel and Hamas, which is inevitable, there would be fewer innocent civilian casualties?

The answer to this question is yes. It is indeed possible to reduce the number of casualties on the Palestinian side, but this would require a modification of the Israeli army’s rules of engagement, namely the way it operates, particularly when in close proximity to schools, hospitals and other shelters.

For example, as an artillery officer I know that even now – with advanced technologies – artillery fire is unreliable. As an artillery forward observer, I always looked up to the sky, praying my shells hit the targets and not land on my head. Artillery shells have a strange habit of going astray.

In 1996, in southern Lebanon, wayward Israeli artillery shells landed on a UN compound near the village of Qana, killing 106 innocent people. In the current Gaza war many of the innocent casualties were victims of artillery shells landing in the wrong place. What’s needed here is to ensure that heavy artillery is not used in Gaza’s urban areas – particularly not near schools and hospitals.

As for Israeli attacks from the air, at the moment, Israeli pilots, or those who dispatch them, can choose from a range of bombs weighing from 250-1,000kg. They often opt for the latter, as they are big enough to destroy the target completely – and the pilots are confident they can hit the target accurately, as they often do.

The problem is that the collateral damage of such big bombs is catastrophic in densely populated Gaza; it destroys not only the intended targets but also causes massive damage to nearby structures and kills non-combatants. Such big bombs must be banned altogether from being used in the vicinity of shelters, schools and hospitals.

Hannibal Protocol

Finally, certain practices employed by the Israeli army should not be allowed to be used, most notably the “Hannibal Protocol”, which is the IDF’s procedure for preventing soldiers from falling into enemy hands.

The Hannibal Protocol is yet another product of Israel’s Lebanon wars: a procedure to be used in the first minutes and hours after a possible abduction of an Israeli soldier. It calls on the military to dramatically escalate attacks in the vicinity of any kidnapping – to strike at bridges, roads, houses, cars – everything, in fact, to prevent the captors from disappearing with the abducted soldier.

When the IDF thought – wrongly as it turned out - that one of its officers had been abducted by Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip, the Hannibal protocol was activated to a most devastating effect. The army used everything at its disposal – tanks, artillery, aeroplanes, drones – and pounded vast areas in Rafah, causing enormous damage, killing and wounding scores of innocent Palestinians.

The brutal Hannibal procedure seems to me to break all rules of war. It should be thrown out of the window and never used again in Gaza.

What will ultimately stop the death of innocent Palestinians and Israelis is a peace deal putting an end to the conflict. But in the meantime, a modification of the Israeli rules of engagement could reduce the number of innocent casualties.

In 2010, following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip which resulted in hundreds of Palestinian casualties, the IDF produced a document calling on military commanders, operating in densely populated areas, to “exercise judgement and use more accurate weapons, or lower-impact weapons”.

It seems, judging from the sheer number of Palestinian casualties in the current Gaza war, that the Israelis are not following their own rules – or the rules were produced at the time as a PR exercise to silence international criticism.

There’s no reason to think the Israelis couldn’t change their rules, though. We have international conventions banning, for instance, the use of chemical weapons in war, so it is possible, I believe, to also prohibit the use of heavy artillery, big bombs and cruel procedures in densely populated areas such as the Gaza Strip. After all, it is also in Israel’s interest, as the horrific pictures coming out of the Gaza Strip ruin the country’s already tarnished reputation.

The ConversationAhron Bregman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.