The IDF’s New Tactics

Several months ago, a young woman working in Kibbutz Dorot’s carrot fields noticed a piece of paper lying on the ground with a short inscription in Arabic. It looked like a treasure map. She put it in her pocket. Some time later, she gave it to her friend Avihai, who works for Breaking the Silence, an organisation of military veterans who collect testimony from Israeli soldiers to provide a record of everyday life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Avihai was in the middle of interviewing soldiers about their experiences during Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip last summer. He recognised the piece of paper as a leaflet that had been dropped by an Israeli plane above Palestinian neighbourhoods in the northern part of the Strip; the wind had blown it six miles from its intended landing point.

The leaflet helps explain why 70 per cent of the 2220 Palestinians killed during the war were civilians. The red line on the map traces a route from a bright blue area labelled Beit Lahia, a Palestinian town of 60,000 inhabitants at the north edge of the Strip, and moves south through Muaskar Jabalia to Jabalia city. The text reads:

Military Notification to the Residents of Beit Lahia

The IDF will be undertaking forceful and assertive air operations against terrorist elements and infrastructure in the locations from which they launch their missiles at the State of Israel. These locations include:

From east Atatra to Salatin Street. From west [unclear] to Jabalia Camp.

You must evacuate your homes immediately and head toward southern Jabalia town along the following road:

Falluja Road, until 12 noon, Sunday 13 July 2014.

The IDF does not intend to harm you or your families. These operations are temporary and will be of short duration. Any person, however, who violates these instructions and does not evacuate his home immediately puts his own life as well as the lives of his household in danger. Those who take heed will be spared.

‘The significance of this leaflet,’ Yehuda Shaul, the founder of Breaking the Silence, told me, ‘cannot be appreciated fully without reading our new report.’ The report is made up of 111 testimonies, provided by around seventy soldiers who participated in the fighting.

One thing is immediately clear from the interviews: the IDF’s working assumption was that once the leaflets were dropped, anyone who refused to move was a legitimate target:

Q: You said earlier that you knew the neighbourhood was supposed to be empty of civilians?

A: Yes. That’s what they told us … they told us that the civilians had been informed via leaflets scattered in the area, and that it was supposed to be devoid of civilians, and civilians who remained there were civilians who apparently chose to be there.

Q: Who told you that?

A: The commanders, in off-the-record type conversations, or during all kinds of briefings.

The IDF has the technology to tell whether people had actually left, but the claim that ‘no civilians should be in the area’ is a recurring refrain.

The land invasion began on 17 July and was generally limited to within a mile of the border. An infantry soldier deployed either in or near Beit Lahia described a typical incident:

There was one time when I looked at some place and was sure I saw someone moving. Maybe I imagined it, some curtain blowing, I don’t know. So I said: ‘I see something moving.’ I asked [permission] to open fire toward that spot, and I opened fire and [the other soldiers] hit it with a barrage …

Q: What were the rules of engagement?

A: There weren’t really any rules of engagement … They told us: ‘There aren’t supposed to be any civilians there. If you spot someone, shoot.’ Whether the person posed a threat or not wasn’t a question; and that makes sense to me. If you shoot someone in Gaza it’s cool, no big deal. First of all because it’s Gaza, and second because that’s warfare. That, too, was made clear to us – they told us, ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot,’ and they made it clear that there were no uninvolved civilians.

It seems safe to assume, however, that most of the civilians who died weren’t killed by infantry troops. One of the IDF’s basic doctrines is to try to guarantee zero risk for its troops. The region was ‘softened’ by artillery fire for nine days before the ground forces were scheduled to invade. Planes, helicopters and drones (though the IDF does not admit to using killer drones) bombarded the region from the air, and there was heavy artillery fire from inside Israel. As one soldier put it,

We knew that by the time we got there on Friday there were not supposed to be any people in the area, since leaflets were dispersed and also because there wasn’t very much left of the place. The artillery corps and the air force really cleaned that place up.

The Israeli zero risk doctrine was developed with the help of Asa Kasher, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and one of the authors of the IDF’s ethical code. Kasher interprets just war theory and international humanitarian law as stipulating a hierarchy of protection: Israeli civilians must be protected at all costs, then come IDF soldiers, and only then do the enemy’s civilian population enter into the equation. ‘When it is impossible to accomplish a military mission without endangering the lives of a terrorist’s non-terrorist neighbours,’ Kasher writes in ‘The Ethics of Protective Edge’, ‘as much compassion as possible under the circumstances must be shown without aborting the mission or raising the risk to Israeli soldiers.’

As the troops prepared to enter Gaza, artillery and intelligence officers determined which targets should be eliminated before the ground invasion: tall buildings overlooking the incursion route, for example, and places from which rockets had been launched at Israel. One soldier describes a high-ranking officer looking at an aerial photo on which targets had been circled, and then pointing at several other Palestinian houses and instructing the artillery officer to eliminate them too.

The Israeli military fired 34,000 artillery rounds during the war: 12,000 smoke, 3000 illumination and 19,000 explosive. With an American-made Howitzer 155-millimetre cannon, a strike is considered precise when the round falls anywhere within 100 metres of the target. Howitzer shells can kill anyone within 50 metres and injure anyone within 100 metres.

There is this perception that we know how to do everything super accurately, as if it doesn’t matter which weapon is being used … But no, these weapons are statistical, and they hit 50 metres to the right or 100 metres to the left, and it’s unpleasant. What happens is, for seven straight days it’s non-stop bombardment, that’s what happens in practice.

The artillery officer has to ensure the target is a certain distance from sensitive sites, such as UN facilities, schools, clinics and hospitals. These distances are not set in stone, but determined by what the IDF terms ‘activity levels’. If, for example, the activity level is one, then the target of a 155-millimetre projectile can’t be within 500 metres of a school. But if the activity level is changed to three, then the safety range is decreased dramatically. An officer explains:

First level means you can fire artillery up to a certain distance from civilians, or from a place where you think it’s likely there’ll be civilians … For fighter jets and the bigger bombs of one ton, half a ton, it’s defined verbally … as ‘Low level of damage expected to civilians.’ Next is the second level. The mortar ranges stay the same, and for artillery the distance from civilians decreases. For jets, it says, ‘Moderate harm to civilians’ or ‘Moderate harm to civilians is expected,’ or ‘Moderate collateral damage’, something like that. This means something undefined, something that’s according to the way the commander sees things and the mood he’s in: ‘Let’s decide ourselves what “moderate” means.’ In the third level, the artillery’s [safety range from civilians] gets cut by about half. I’m not talking about jets, where there’s already significant damage and it’s considered acceptable, that’s the definition. We expect a high level of harm to civilians. Like, it’s OK from our perspective, because we’re in the third level. They aren’t given a specific, defined number, this is something I remember clearly. That’s left to the commander.

Another soldier adds that the activity levels reflect ‘the degree of collateral damage you’re allowed to cause. [They] reflect the means that you’re permitted to use, and the distance you need to maintain from sensitive locations when you shoot. They reflect a whole lot of parameters concerning the activation of fire.’

There can be many reasons for changing the activity level. Some have to do with the intensity of the fighting. When Hamas blew up an armoured personnel carrier in Shuja’iyya and killed seven Israeli soldiers, the activity level immediately changed:

There were many, many targets that [weren’t attacked] because they didn’t qualify under the firing policy, and then after Shuja’iyya for example, suddenly some of those targets did get approved. The sort of problematic targets that were at a certain distance from some school – suddenly stuff like that did get approved.

The activity level may also change due to specific intelligence, or simply because the only remaining targets are not within the range permitted by level one, ‘because the “target bank” had been depleted.’

‘Hamas is pushing for a display of victory,’ that’s always the expression used … this sweeping expression that’s used at the end of every round [of fighting]. [There is talk that] the delegations are in Cairo, or on their way to Cairo, or will soon be arriving in Cairo. But the fighting keeps going on, and even if you think it’s about to end – you have to keep acting like nothing’s about to end. So that’s why you go up a level, to turn the threat around and also as a show of force. And so it’s possible that the target will be approved if it’s justified, if there’s a good reason, if it’s a valuable target, or if there’s a good chance to hit it in a way that’ll look good to the Israeli audience, and look bad for the Palestinian audience. That’ll hurt the military rocket-firing capabilities of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, or of other organisations …

Q: Collateral damage means only bodily harm, or also damage to property?

A: Bodily harm.

Q: Property isn’t counted at all?

A: Not as far as the levels – the levels are practically binary. These are the levels of collateral damage, and the grading is based solely on human lives.

After the 2006 Lebanon war, the IDF realised that its strictly hierarchical command structure had hindered the war effort. The idea, which is now common in the US military as well, is to create a network of interconnected decentralised cells with significant autonomy to make executive decisions. In the words of General Stanley McChrystal, who headed the US Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008, ‘to defeat a networked enemy, we had to become a network ourselves.’ Each cell is made up of officers from different branches – infantry, artillery, air force, military intelligence, secret service agencies – who work together on the basis of shared information and shared strategy. The way the IDF cells function is classified, but it seems likely there are two main kinds: ‘attack cells’ and ‘assistance cells’. Attack cells would include ‘hunting cells’ whose goal is to hunt down Palestinian militants and assassinate them. There are also thought to be ‘fishing cells’, whose task is to monitor a particular area to determine who the ‘big fish’ in it are; and ‘real estate cells’, which identify and monitor strategic buildings and facilities so that they can be destroyed at the right moment if necessary.

One soldier, who was very likely a member of an ‘attack cell’, was asked what happens when the target bank is depleted, i.e. whether the IDF attacks the houses of lower ranking Hamas activists when most higher ranking targets have already been eliminated. The soldier replied:

Absolutely. See, you start the fighting with a very clear ‘target list’ that has been assembled over a long period of time, and there are also units whose objective is to mark new targets in real time. When we start running out [of targets], then we begin hitting targets that are higher on collateral damage levels, and pay less and less attention to this. But there are also all sorts of efforts aimed at gathering intelligence that’s specifically for establishing new targets like, for example, which areas are being used to launch [missiles or mortars toward Israel], statistics on where rockets are being fired from, where mortars are being fired from. [The co-ordinates] are calculated in a pretty precise way, and are used to try and figure out where it’s likely that there is a rocket-launching infrastructure. And you say: ‘OK, I’ll strike that piece of land, because every morning at 7 a.m., ten mortar shells are fired from there.’

After the nine-day artillery assault on the Gaza Strip, the troops marched in. The testimonies suggest that every infantry brigade was accompanied by a tank battalion, an engineering battalion and several D9 bulldozers, and had back-up artillery at its disposal as well as constant reconnaissance that was communicated to the officers on the ground through an assistance cell. The soldiers say that the ground troops had instructions to kill any person within range. Before they entered Palestinian houses, a tank would shoot a shell to create a way in or soldiers would use hand-held missile launchers. Anyone inside would be incapacitated and so unable to surprise the troops. Once they were in, any movement outside was considered suspicious.

Several soldiers said that at first there were arguments about how they should behave in the Palestinian houses they occupied. In briefings, soldiers were instructed not to loot or plunder, and some argued that they shouldn’t sleep on the mattresses or make coffee on the stove. Others disagreed:

The way I saw it, I pictured this family returning to their house and seeing it totally wrecked: the windows all broken, the floors torn up and the walls messed up by grenades; and they say: ‘The sons of bitches ate my cornflakes, I can’t believe it.’ No chance. They wouldn’t care if you used their cooking gas, if you used their kitchen. That’s total bullshit in my opinion. I don’t think that type of quandary is complex at all.

Many others began to understand that the ethical dilemmas raised in the briefings were a farce:

We knew that we were entering a house and that we could be good kids, on our best behaviour, but even then a D9 [armoured bulldozer] would show up and flatten the house. We figured out pretty quickly that every house we left, a D9 would show up and raze it. The neighbourhood we were in, what characterised it operationally was that it commanded a view of the entire area of the [Israel-Gaza border fence] and also some of the [Israeli] border towns. In the southern and some of the eastern parts of Juhar ad-Dik, we understood pretty quickly that the houses would not be left standing … At a certain point we understood it was a pattern: you leave a house and the house is gone; after two or three houses you figure out that there’s a pattern. The D9 comes and flattens it.

This is the Dahiya doctrine in action, named after the Beirut neighbourhood which Israel turned into rubble in 2006. According to Gabi Siboni from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, the IDF needs

to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses. Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes. The strike must be carried out as quickly as possible, and must prioritise damaging assets over seeking out each and every launcher.

According to the 2009 Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the essence of the doctrine was ‘widespread destruction as a means of deterrence’. Soldiers talk of the ‘day after’ effect:

Part of the [military] engineering rationale, of what’s called ‘the day after’ – I don’t know if that’s the term that’s published – is that when we blow up and flatten the area, we can in effect sterilise it. Throughout the period of combat, one keeps in mind that there is this thing called ‘the day after’, which is: the day we leave [the Gaza Strip], the more [areas] left wide open and as ‘clean’ as possible the better. One decides on a certain line – during the days after Operation Cast Lead it was 300 metres from the fence – and this area is levelled, flattened. Doesn’t matter if there are groves there, doesn’t matter if there are houses, doesn’t matter if there is a gas station – it’s all flattened because we are at war, so we are allowed to. You can justify anything you do during wartime … Everything suddenly sounds reasonable even though it isn’t really reasonable. We had a few D9s in our battalion and I can attest that the D9s alone destroyed hundreds of structures. It was in the debriefing. There were a few more structures that we blew up in the end. Obviously there were all kinds of other things, but the D9 was the main tool, it doesn’t stop working. Anything that looks suspicious, whether it’s just in order to clear a path, whether it’s some other thing, it takes it down. That’s the mission.

Another soldier describes the last hour before a ceasefire:

There was a humanitarian ceasefire that went into effect at 6 a.m. I remember they told us at 5.15: ‘Look, we’re going to put on a show.’ It was amazing, the air force’s precision. The first shell struck at exactly quarter past five and the last one struck at 5.59 and 59 seconds. It was crazy. Fire, non-stop shelling of [a] neighbourhood [east of Beit Hanoun] … Non-stop. Just non-stop. The entire Beit Hanoun compound in ruins.

Q: When you saw this neighbourhood on your way out, what did you see?

A: When we left it was still intact. We were sent out of Beit Hanoun ahead of the ceasefire, ahead of the air force strikes.

Q: And when you went back in [after the air strikes], what did you see of that neighbourhood?

A: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing. Like the opening scene in The Pianist. There’s that famous photo that they always show on trips to Poland that shows Warsaw before the war and Warsaw after the Second World War. The photo shows the heart of Warsaw and it’s this classy European city, and then they show it at the end of the war. They show the exact same neighbourhood, only it has just one house left standing, and the rest is just ruins. That’s what it looked like.

Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation as well as ‘The Human Right to Dominate‘ (co-authored with Nicola Perugini, forthcoming June 2015).

This article originally ran in the London Review of Books.

Neve Gordon is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies and the co-author of The Human Right to Dominate.