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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.