The Chain of Command

There is little controversy about the facts: last Thursday, in an IDF action in Rafah, at least eight Palestinians were killed (the number will probably climb, since some of the wounded were severely hurt). Five of those killed were woman and children. Almost fifty people were wounded – many of them children who had just left their school after lessons.

The event took place on the “Philadelphi” axis, a narrow strip of land designed to separate the Gaza area from neighboring Egypt. The Palestinians dig tunnels under the strip in order to move people, weapons and goods. The IDF endeavors to prevent it.

Thursday, the IDF sent a bulldozer, guarded by tanks and armored troop-carriers, to block the tunnels.

According to the army version, fire was opened on the bulldozer and the force. The brigade commander gave a tank commander permission to fire shells at the “sources of fire”. All in all, five shells were fired at the densely populated refugee camp, including “flanchette” shells which spread thousands of deadly steel arrows, an especially inhuman weapon the use of which is forbidden by international law. The IDF suffered no casualties.

The army alleges that among the Palestinians killed were three “armed men” who had shot at the bulldozer. The Palestinians contend that none of them was a known member of a fighting organization. (This is not necessarily a contradiction: nowadays any Palestinian is liable to open fire on the occupation forces.)

The Palestinians speak about a “massacre”. Israeli spokespersons say they regret the deaths of the children. The Americans asked Israel to exercise restraint. “The world” was silently reproachful.

This was not an exceptional occurrence. It has become almost routine.

Who is to blame? Let’s try to compose a list.

First: the occupation.

The occupation creates resistance. In order to overcome the resistance, the occupation is forced to use more and more brutal methods. The occupied people, too, become more and more brutal. Human life becomes cheap, the borderline between fighters and non-fighters becomes blurred and disappears.

Second: The axis itself.

When the Gaza Strip was turned over to the Palestinian Auth ority, the Israeli generals demanded that there be no border between the Palestinian area and Egypt. The Rafah border crossing remained under Israeli control. The “Philadelphi” axis (I have no idea why it was so named) was designed to create the separation all along the border.

In order to guard the axis, a strip six kilometers long and one hundred meters wide, soldiers must pass only dozens of meters away from the Palestinian neighborhoods, which are among the most densely populated in the world.

In times of peace, that is a problematical situation. In times of conflict, this becomes a pressure cooker liable to explode at any moment.

Third: the Sharon-Ben-Eliezer government.

The “political leadership” consists of two generals, whose sole language is the language of force – the one is the leader of the Likud, the other is the leader of the Labor party.

The policy of this government is to break by force the resistance of the Palestinian people to the occupation. It acts according to the typically Israeli maxim: “If force doesn’t work, use more force.”

It may be that by now the Israeli occupation has become the most brutal of the modern era: millions of people are imprisoned in their homes for weeks and months on end, two thirds of the population have been pushed under the internationally-accepted poverty line, hundreds of thousands suffer from malnutrition, on the border of starvation – all this in addition to almost 2000 killed, among them some 400 children.

There is no sign that the Palestinian resistance is about to break. Quite to the contrary.

By orders and hints, the “political leadership” tells the army to use even more brutal methods, gradually abolishing all limits. To appease international opinion, some tiny restrictions are lifted, while at the same time much more severe ones are put into place. In this game, Shimon Peres, the Nobel hypocrisy prize laureate, plays an central role.

Fourth: the Chief-of-Staff.

Under the military hierarchical system, the Chief-of-Staff is the person solely responsible for all the acts and omissions of the IDF.

General Moshe Ya’alon has already made public his extreme right-wing orientation. He has announced that any concession to the Palestinians constitutes a “reward for terrorism”. He has defined the Palestinian resistance as a “cancerous growth”.

The Chief-of-Staff controls the actions of even the last man in the army. If he resolutely objects to certain actions, it will travel with lightning speed through the chain of command reaching every soldier, and if he encourages certain actions, or closes his eyes, this, too, will be felt instantly. There is no need for written orders. Every commander senses what his superior wants, every soldier senses was his commander desires. That’s how the army works.

Fifth: the Area Command chief.

The Commanding Officer of the Southern area and his staff are well familiar with the topographical realities. They know that if you put tanks into the “Philadelphi” axis, there will be Palestinians who will open fire. There exists, therefore, a high probability that a fire-fight will develop near a densely populated area, and men, women and children will be killed. That’s what happened this time, too.

(The same thing has happened in other incidents in the Gaza Strip, such as the one a week before at neighboring Khan Younis, when 17 Palestinians, including women and children, were killed. A different topography, similar circumstances, same command.)

Sixth: the brigade commander.

After the fire fight started, the brigade commander ordered the firing of the shells. He knew that under the circumstances there was no possibility of separating the armed men from bystanders. He acted according to a principle, which seems to have been adopted by the IDF: in order to “liquidate” one armed man, it is worthwhile killing ten unarmed people. He should not have ordered the firing of even one shell, much less five.

He acted with the approval of the division commander, who appeared again on television and boasted about the action. Like the commander of the air force, he seems to sleep very well at night. He has no qualms, no second thoughts, nothing.

Seventh: the tank commander.

A tank commander is supposed to be able to act under pressure and to make decisions under fire. He must have known that under the circumstances, one shell would cause havoc, and much more so several, including the murderous “flachette” variety.

The light finger on the trigger is another symptom of the deterioration of the situation and places a heavy burden of guilt on the whole chain of command, from the Prime Minister down to the last soldier. Shooting shells at curfew-breakers, and especially at children throwing stones at heavy tanks, has already become the bane of the West Bank.

The order to shoot shells may have been a “manifestly illegal order”, over which flies “the black flag of illegality”, which a soldier is obliged to disobey under Israeli law. No soldier can argue that he “only followed orders”.

I cannot judge if the lives of the soldiers were in danger. Fortunately, no soldier even suffered a scratch. IDF soldiers are better protected than any soldier in the world. But if they were indeed in mortal danger – the responsibility lies with the commanders, who deliberately put them into this situation.

URI AVNERY has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation. Avnery is featured in the new book, The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent.


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URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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