The IDF may be facing some unbridgeable challenges of perception as it tries to justify to the world its conduct during the 2014 Gaza war.
The perception gap starts with the operational issues confronted by the IDF. As challenging as it was at the time, fighting Hamas in Gaza during the 2008-2009 war was “peanuts” compared to fighting them in last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, senior IDF sources recently told The Jerusalem Post.
IDF officers are usually very technical and to the point. But every now and then, if you press them and spend enough time with an officer, you catch a rhetorical flourish that captures the emotional and experiential themes that resonate underneath the uniform.
What do peanuts have to do with waging war? Officers from the IDF’s Operational International Law Department were expressing vast frustration at encountering Hamas in “the most dense” urban setting in which any democratic army has had to do battle.
The officers said that if Western armies started to see signs of asymmetric warfare from terrorist elements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and if the IDF had seen it from its adversaries prior to 2014, Hamas had elevated it to an entirely new level and art form in 2014.
They asserted that even Western military officers in other armies who sympathized with the asymmetric warfare challenge, and thought they understood what the IDF had faced last year, could not fully comprehend how much the threat has grown.
Here, asymmetric warfare refers to Hamas’s systematic use of human shields, purposely firing and fighting from civilian locations in an attempt to stop the IDF from returning fire for fear of hitting civilians.
A senior source from the international law branch described how in vivid detail, “you could see a military target in Gaza, someone firing a rocket” not just next to one civilian location, but “surrounded” by civilian locations: “One meter from a house, a few meters from a mosque with rockets hidden inside, 3 more meters from a school and not far from an UNRWA [UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] facility.”
The source portrayed it as almost intimidating for commanders in figuring out how to strike back, having to sift through a map with their target covered in dots surrounding the target, which mark sensitive sites.
Bridging the gap of explaining what Israel faces may not be entirely possible. This is especially true in regard to how much the situation has worsened since Hamas produced a manual, referred to by a senior source, for turning endangering its own civilians into a systematic effort.
Jerusalem is trying to plan for this eventuality as it prepares for the momentous UN Human Rights Council report on the war by the commission led by former US judge Mary McGowan-Davis, due in the coming weeks, and for the even more significant International Criminal Court preliminary investigation.
It has been quietly visiting key universities in multiple Western countries, producing three IDF reports and permitting top IDF officials to reveal more operational details than it did after past wars.
The IDF also organized an unprecedented February conference where it hosted officials from 13 countries who head their militaries’ legal divisions, including the US, Canada, a range of EU countries, NATO, Australia and India.
If the challenge of explaining how difficult it is to fight asymmetric warfare without causing large civilian casualties on the other side were not enough, there is the added complication of Israel’s need to explain the numbers.
Much of the focus of the debate over allegations of war crimes against the IDF revolves around the number 2,100 – the estimated number of Palestinians killed during the war.
But the truth is that figure is not nearly as problematic for critics as “only” 67 dead soldiers on the IDF side, and the vast chasm between Israeli and global perceptions of that number.
Israel and its spokespeople know instinctively that 2,100 dead Palestinians is an extremely high number.
They know that any battle over whether war crimes were committed depends on a combination of criminal investigations of mistakes, plus exhaustive detailed explanations of overall context and individual cases.
But Israelis have a much harder time coping with international criticism of “merely” 67 dead.
For example, a senior IDF legal source was confronted with suggestions from top officers in other friendly militaries that even if the IDF did not violate the law of armed conflict with certain air missile and artillery strikes, it could have reduced the Palestinian casualty count using other tactics – by taking on more risk.
The sympathetic critics think Israel’s army could have acted “smarter” to avoid delegitimization attacks beyond the law, possibly accepting more risk to its own forces by using ground special forces to more surgically clean out Hamas positions instead of blowing up those locations entirely.
The officer visibly bristled with irritation, bordering on anger. He emphasized that the IDF had taken “very heavy” casualties, losing 67 soldiers in battle.
Unlike other critiques, where the officer had detailed responses and knew it was something that needed to be struggled with, this was an outright denunciation of having to address such a criticism.
The officer was not alone. The coverage in Israel of each IDF death and funeral during the war gave the country the feeling of being surrounded by death and tragedy.
Moreover, in a country as small as Israel, 67 deaths might directly or indirectly impact more people who know or know of those who died, as much or more than the thousands of US soldiers who died in Iraq do in of a US population of nearly 320 million.
A senior source did add that at times, sending in ground forces increases civilian casualties, but it was clear that the premise of the question was rejected upfront.
The IDF has some support on this: Highly respected military commanders like former US Special Forces deputy commander Lt.-Gen. (ret.) David P. Fridovich and former commander of British forces in Afghanistan Col. (ret.) Richard Kemp have told the Post they support Israeli efforts to use artillery to promote force protection of its own soldiers. They also stress that sometimes, only artillery can accomplish a military goal.
But even top Israeli legal experts who sympathize with the IDF’s challenges, like Hebrew University Faculty of Law dean Yuval Shany and Ono Academic College Faculty of Law dean Amichai Cohen, have contended that the IDF cannot overestimate its force protection at the expense of Palestinian civilian lives.
Put simply: When 2,100 Palestinian are killed, and Israel has used large numbers of air missile strikes (as opposed to strafing gunfire) and artillery barrages, the Jewish state’s major legitimacy problem revolves around the fact that just 67 of its soldiers were killed.
In close cases where artillery killed Palestinian civilians – either by mistake or by the IDF setting its limits to “flexible” for use of artillery in proximity to civilian locations – this can cause the IDF to lose the benefit of the doubt, unless the judges are highly personally familiar with Israel’s challenges.
Meanwhile, an IDF official pointed to the 2012 International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia decision exonerating Croatian Gen.
Ante Gotovina, in justifying the IDF’s proportional use of artillery in an urban setting that indirectly resulted in civilian deaths. The acquittal, among other things, rejects the position of some international law scholars that set standards may be applied regarding the volume and distance for which artillery can be used in urban settings.
Yet the IDF can cite these valid and respected decisions until it is blue in the face – and it may not sway the deep doubt that already skeptical UN and ICC officials harbor regarding IDF actions in Gaza.
This does not mean that Jerusalem’s cause is lost by any means, especially if it continues to file indictments against its soldiers where necessary and if the US, Britain, Canada and others continue to back it on the diplomatic and legal implications of the war crimes battle.
The IDF is preparing for the next war, with a source confirming it is making changes in its legal, operational and intelligence targeting operations.
As it makes these changes, it will likely be better- prepared for the next post-war explanation – if it keeps front and center both the asymmetry challenge, and the challenge of balance of risk to Palestinian civilians versus force protection.