How the IDF decides on a target (and why @HRW and @UN_HRC and @Amnesty are clueless)
Haaretz has a an accidentally excellent article with a terrible headline and perspective that describes the checks and balances that go into the IDF’s decision to bomb a house.
The headline is “After UN report on summer Gaza war, Israel Air Force still believes it acted properly” – as if the IDF is closing its eyes to the stories told in the UNHRC Davis report.
HRW and Amnesty, and to a lesser extent the Davis report, believe that the IDF acts like an irrational person who gets his kicks out of randomly bombing Arabs.
Last November, Amnesty released a statement:
“Israeli forces have brazenly flouted the laws of war by carrying out a series of attacks on civilian homes, displaying callous indifference to the carnage caused,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
“The report exposes a pattern of attacks on civilian homes by Israeli forces which have shown a shocking disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians, who were given no warning and had no chance to flee.”
Here’s the truth:
The army is not turning its back on the results of the war, but even today it is convinced that all the targets went through what they call “the oiled machine.” This air force-speak means that they were researched by intelligence people and approved to the effect that bombing them did not violate international law. Then, they went through a planning process to decide how and from where the target would be bombed. Only at the end of that process were they sent as coordinates to the aircraft.
The “target page” that explains what is to be bombed includes an aerial photograph of the target and its surroundings, and indicates whether there is likely to be weaponry nearby. It also shows what kind of aircraft will attack – combat plane or helicopter – and with what armament. In addition, it notes what warning needs to be given to the inhabitants of the house. In most cases, this was the “roof knock” procedure in which the plane first fires a relatively light bomb at the corner of the target in order to warn the inhabitants of the impending strike.
“Let’s say there’s a target located in some building and it’s a kind of war room, and in order to destroy the building we need to use bomb X,” an officer with the rank of colonel who was involved in these planning stages explained to Haaretz. “Because of the population density of the neighborhood, it’s clear that the bomb will damage adjacent buildings, which could endanger their inhabitants. In a case like that they’d choose a smaller bomb, at the expense of damage to the war room. We wouldn’t necessarily demolish it but we’d have a consultation in order to make sure we achieve an operational effect while it also looks like we aren’t attacking disproportionately.”
Proportionality was one of the key topics in the UN report, which also questioned why Israel did not moderate its aggressive aerial line during the fighting. “The apparent lack of steps to re-examine these measures in the light of the mounting civilian toll,” states the report, “suggests that Israel did not comply with its obligation to take all feasible precautions before the attacks. Furthermore, the large number of targeted attacks against residential buildings and the fact that such attacks continued throughout the operation, even after the dire impact of these attacks on civilians and civilian objects became apparent, raise concern that the strikes may have constituted military tactics reflective of a broader policy, approved at least tacitly by decision-makers at the highest levels of the Government of Israel.”
In the army they are claiming that Hamas exploited the private residences of military arm commanders for terror actions: In some of them weapons were hidden, in others war rooms were located. The prevailing explanation is that the military use of a residential building transforms it into a legitimate military target.
“If it was clear that this commander was directing terrorist activities from his residence, then we don’t give him any immunity in his home,” says Major-General (res.) Amos Yadlin, a combat pilot in his military training, formerly head of Military Intelligence and currently head of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Of course it is necessary to check the collateral damage (military-speak for harm to civilians who are not involved in the fighting) from the attack, vis-à-vis the military advantage that will be obtained. If there is a military advantage here that can be proved, then it is definitely a legitimate target.” However, says Yadlin, if a bomb hits a minor militant and many uninvolved civilians around him are killed – that is “a grave mishap.”
At the same time, Yadlin emphasizes it was Hamas that chose to absorb itself into a civilian environment, using it as a human shield. “It is our fundamental moral obligation to defend the State of Israel by hitting those people and not giving them any immunity – not in homes and not in any civilian environment from which they operate against us,” he says.
One such case is the attack on the Abu Ghanem family in Khan Yunis. According to reports in the Palestinian media, 10 people were killed in the bombardment, two of them Islamic Jihad militants. The military inquiry found that the target of the attack was Danian Mansour – a commander in the organization with a rank parallel to brigade commander. He was responsible for the group’s activity in northern Gaza. In the army they assessed that there were civilians in the building in which Mansour was located but believed that there was only one residential apartment at the site.
During the preparations for the attack, the military took into account the expected damage to adjacent buildings. Ultimately in the IDF they decided the attack was legal, as “the extent of the strike on them would not be excessive relative to the military advantage” that would be achieved. That is, the attack would be proportionate under the principles of international law. In fact, despite the specific warning given to those who were inside the building, five civilians were killed in the Abu Ghanem house and three more in an adjacent house. In addition to Mansour, another Jihad member was also killed.
In another incident, in which the Al Najjar family home in Khan Yunis was bombed, eight people were killed, two of them Hamas members. The target of the attack, according to the army, were Hamas militants who were manning a war room that had been set up in the family home. Here too, in the army they thought there would be civilians there but it was decided to attack nevertheless, using precision weaponry in order to avoid hitting adjacent buildings. In this case, the air force decided not to warn the residents of the building “so as not to thwart the aim of the attack.”
In conversation with members of air force personnel on active service, in the reserves and after their service, it is evident that they believe these cases do not reflect the majority of the air force’s activity in what is a densely populated and complex area. “It could be that we don’t see people in the building, or intelligence says there aren’t any people – and in the end there are,” one of them explained.
In the army they explain that when an attack is planned there are a number of people – reservists, air crews, intelligence officers and people in operations research – who are shown nearly all the information the defense establishment can provide. This includes how the building is constructed and out of what materials, how many people live in it according to the population registry, and what intelligence has been gathered about the place that transforms it from just another house on a street into a military target. After that, each target is sent for approval by a small group of officers, a number of standing army officers with the rank of brigadier general and colonel in the air force.
“We do not look at it with the eyes of ‘this is the target, we don’t ask questions.’ We see ourselves, in the very fact of our existence – as people who push the buttons and fly the planes – as responsible for the attack. We will not act as though we are blind when we receive an order,” explains the brigadier general. “And still, it’s not a rosy world. In the end, when you
attack with a fighter plane, in an urban area, you inevitably take a risk. It’s clear that it this is what you are doing, with a fighter plane, and you aren’t going to complete it without hitting anyone. That is not reasonable. And I think that this is clear to everyone.”
Lt. Col. Yoav, commander of Squadron 100 – the air force intelligence squadron – says that his people are required to report whether after the “roof knock” procedure people left the building or whether there were people in the area of the attack and after the bombardment – and whether the target was bombed as required. “There is always the potential that there will be people – and in many cases the crew identifies this, reports and stops the attack.” According to him, during the course of Protective Edge, the presence of civilians in the area of strikes engaged his people quite a lot.
“In the end people on the other side get killed, however you look at it. We see the collateral damage, and also the direct damage,” explains Yoav – who’s last name has not been released – and screens a video documenting an attack on an armed motorcyclist who fired on Israeli soldiers. “He was killed because I was good at my task,” he says. “It’s clear to me that I had to do it but it isn’t that I get up in the morning and lick my lips over this. This isn’t fun.”
An air force officer, a navigator by training, says: “You can make a mistake – and you’ll have to know how to go on fighting to live with that mistake. You have to absorb that blow, which is huge if it is personal, and keep going forward. You don’t have the luxury of saying that on the day you make a mistake – you’ll stop. The answer is that this is a complex situation. But that’s the work, and that’s the reality.”
Eshel, who spoke at a Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies conference, added, “We must minimize the extent of potential collateral damage because today, with the attack capability of thousands of targets a day, it could reach thousands of fatalities a day of people who are not involved. This is first of all bad morally, and I am saying this way before any external problem – of legitimacy and so on – and if we are not strict about this matter it will cause us to crumble from within.”
In short, every single target is vetted by may people of varying ranks with the information they have available at the time, and every bomb is accounted for to ensure that it was used properly. And mistakes are made.
Notice also that even though the left-wing Haaretz interviewed a number of people anonymously at all levels, not one of them had a “Breaking the Silence” experience of the Israeli air force just bombing people for kicks. Their accounts are consistent and also consistent with other reports over the years – reports that the NGOs studiously ignore because they write the verdict before they look for evidence.