The Rules of Engagement in Gaza

Gaza Strip.

“Rules of Engagement: Open fire also upon rescue,” was handwritten in Hebrew on a sheet of paper found in one of the Palestinian homes the Israel Defense Forces took over during Operation Cast Lead. A reservist officer who did not take part in the Gaza offensive believes that the note is part of orders a low-level commander wrote before giving his soldiers their daily briefing.

One of the main themes in news reports during the Gaza operation, and which appears in many testimonies, is that IDF soldiers shot at Palestinian and Red Cross rescuers, making it impossible to evacuate the wounded and dead. As a result, an unknown number of Palestinians bled to death as others cowered in their homes for days without medical treatment, waiting to be rescued.

The bodies of the dead lay outside the homes or on roadsides for days, sometimes as long as two weeks. Haaretz has reported a number of such cases, some of them as they happened. The document found in the house provides written proof that IDF commanders ordered their troops to shoot at rescuers.

The sheet of paper entitled “Situational Assessment” was found by a field researcher of The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in the home of Sami Dardone’s family in Jabal al-Rayes, east of Jabalya. The extended Dardone family lives in about 40 homes in this neighborhood, built on a hilltop. Some of the homes were taken over by the army to house troops during the offensive and to serve as sniping positions, or for shooting in general.

Most of the homes were seriously damaged when the IDF directly bombed them or other targets nearby at the start of the ground operation. This was also the reason the homes’ residents fled on January 4. When the residents returned to the neighborhood at the end of the offensive on January 18, they found that the IDF had completely destroyed some of the homes, in addition to those that had been damaged by shelling and others that were wrecked when soldiers broke in through the walls. Sometimes the soldiers needed explosives to break in.

A military source told Haaretz that “the document that was found is not an official document signed by a particular commander, and as such the IDF cannot comment on fragments of sentences that were jotted down on a piece of paper, and asks that this not be interpreted as directives and instructions that were issued by commanders.”

‘Situational assessment’

According to the reservist officer who did not participate in Operation Cast Lead and who received a copy of the document via fax, the “Situational Assessment” was written by a platoon commander, or at the highest level a company commander. The reservist says the author of the “Situational Assessment” was making notes to brief his soldiers based on a briefing that low-ranking commanders receive from senior officers.

The date on the sheet is “16.1.08,” clearly an error because it should read one year later. It comments on political and military events that occurred in mid-January 2009. It’s possible to conclude that the author is discussing the possibility of a cease-fire, which was being discussed publicly by Israeli officials at that time.

“The next 24 hours are important; there is a likelihood they [Hamas] will not accept the agreement,” the author writes. He also mentions the “Interior Minister.” The reference is probably to Hamas Interior Minister Said al-Sayam, who was killed on January 15 when the IDF bombed his home. Four members of his family and five members of a neighbor’s family were killed. Among the dead were four children.

The commander’s notes toward the top of the sheet are largely a short political briefing – for example, “the local leadership wants [a cease-fire], the external [Hamas leadership] is out of touch” – and an assessment of the enemy’s intentions – “the enemy would like to achieve a kidnapping [of soldiers], the destruction of homes.”

“Rules of Engagement” is written in the lower half of the sheet, along with one other category: – “Operational Routine.”

The following is written: “Rules of Engagement: Fire also upon rescue. Not on women and children. Beyond the tantcher – incrimination.”

“Tantcher” is what the IDF calls Salah al-Din – the route that runs the length of the Gaza Strip. The home of the Dardone family is east of the route, so it is possible to assume these are instructions on shooting at anyone crossing the route to the east into areas held by the IDF.

A reservist soldier who did not participate in Cast Lead says that to the best of his knowledge “incrimination” refers to the process of identifying whether a person approaching is a terrorist.

The reservist officer who did not take part in the Gaza operation spoke with reservists who said “incriminating” was a shoot-to-kill order, contrary to “suspect procedure,” in which shots are fired in the air and then at the legs.

The IDF spokesman said in response that “IDF forces were given unequivocal instructions not to fire at those identified as not being involved in the fighting, and to assist as much as possible injured Palestinians under battle conditions.”

The reservist officer told Haaretz that “according to the details mentioned in the paper it appears the author was a low-ranking officer who dealt with the affairs of about 30 soldiers – like organizing their platoon equipment and oiling their weapons.”

He says the author might have taken part in an earlier briefing by more senior officers and took notes for his political and military briefing. That is where he received his instructions on the rules of engagement.

“The rules of engagement are not something the platoon or company commander makes up,” the reservist officer said.

According to the graffiti left in the Dardone homes, and based on what is known about the IDF’s deployment in the Strip, the unit involved was part of the Golani Brigade.

The last portion of the document is entitled “Operational Routine – Fighting Timeline,” and includes things such as guard duty, responsibility for platoon equipment and briefings. Under “Operational Routine” a note is included whose title can be translated as “Shitting of Houses.”

The reservist officer and soldier with whom Haaretz spoke said they were not aware of that term.

Many of the homes the IDF troops took over were left in particularly unsanitary conditions; the residents of Sami Dardone’s home found their clothes in piles with obvious signs of human feces.

Sealed bags

Haaretz asked the IDF spokesman whether “Shitting of Houses” refers to “an intentional action of turning the homes into latrines, or whether the commander wanted to talk to his soldiers about the fact that they had turned their living space into latrines.”

A reservist soldier who took part in Cast Lead told the reservist officer that “going to the toilet was part of the briefing, and perhaps ‘Shitting of Houses’ is a reference in the briefing to where to pile up the sealed bags the IDF provides the soldiers for relieving themselves.”

The IDF spokesman said that “soldiers who were in the homes were instructed to relieve themselves in areas where it did not endanger their lives, mostly inside the house, and which allowed them to carry out their operational activities in the best possible way, and for as long as it would be necessary.”

The other side of the “Situational Assessment” sheet shows that it was written on a letter sent to the troops by a child. “To the Golani soldiers, good luck in the war,” the letter reads in the hand of a young child. In the middle of the page there is a drawing of an armed soldier. “Love, the S. family.”

AMIRA HASS writes for Ha’aretz, where this article originally appeared. She is the author of Drinking the Sea at Gaza