How does the IDF address international law when using ground forces?

The UN Human Rights Council criticizes certain warning shots, especially Israel’s dropping of non-explosive missiles onto the roofs of buildings.

November 29, 2016 05:34
3 minute read.
An IDF soldier.

An IDF soldier.. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)

Col. Noam Neuman, head of the IDF International law department (ILD), provided a rare look Monday into how the IDF determines its international law obligations in complex situations involving ground forces.

Speaking at a Hebrew University conference sponsored by the Minerva Center, Neuman stressed that, while most contemporary international law debates about use of force focus on air power and drones, it is important to look at the unique problems confronted by ground forces.

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He described ground forces weaponry as grenades, rifles, artillery and tanks and some special challenges as involving ambushes and booby traps.

“Breaching,” he explained, is a tactic of entering and gaining control over a building suspected of housing dangers through the use of bullets or explosives to break down or blow off a door or even blowing a hole in a wall, if entering through the front door area is considered too dangerous.

Such uses of force can harm civilians, though Neuman said breaching is allowed under international law, even for purposes that are “gray” or incidental to achieving a mission.

Ground forces can employ breaching if in doubt as to whether a building is a military target; if they are looking for shelter to avoid being shot at; or even if they simply want a location to help control the area and are concerned about military resistance.

This is in contrast to the general rule that use of force is only justified if there is a “military necessity” with that necessity usually referring to a military target.

“Masking,” he explained, is a tactic in which ground forces create a smokescreen to mask their movements within a certain area so they can move around more freely and reduce exposure to enemy fire.

Neuman showed conference attendees a French-US video of troops using the tactic, noting that even though it is not the intent, the tactic can accidentally cause physical harm to civilians who are sensitive to smoke inhalation or if they are hit by a shell used to distribute the smoke.

The colonel described warning shots as a use of force directed at getting civilians to evacuate an area that is about to be attacked or to deter them from approaching a checkpoint, and not to actually harm or attack a confirmed military target.

Despite that distinction, however, some, including the UN Human Rights Council, criticize certain warning shots, especially Israel’s dropping of non-explosive missiles onto the roofs of buildings it plans to attack (also known as “roof-knocking”) to push civilians to evacuate. They consider this a problematic use of force that can harm or unduly traumatize civilians.

Nevertheless, at the same time, top US officials and others have supported and even copied the roof-knocking tactic.

Lastly, Neuman discussed maneuvers by vehicles such as tanks.

“Part of maneuvering is using tanks,” which even when they go straight down a thin road “will cause damage, break walls and windows, destroy property... just to move from point A to point B.”

He bristled at one interpretation of a relevant international law provision that might define driving a tank down a narrow street as an illegal “attack” for this reason.

But he also stated that, without international law lawyers explicitly interpreting a separate provision as defining that damage as permitted by the “necessities of war” (which to date they have not done) there is no obvious justification on the books for a practice that essentially all militaries take for granted as necessary.

Neuman argued that creatively and actively interpreting such provisions to match the realities of what has been consistent state practice by the world’s law-abiding militaries is important to strengthen the relevance of law and countries’ commitment to the law.

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