Analysis: Report sheds light on complexity of IDF’s effort to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza war

Third report on Gaza War reveals new details on IDF precautions to avoid civilian casualties, weapons strategy, military tactics.

March 23, 2015 02:07

A Palestinian man walks atop the remains of a house that witnesses said was destroyed by Israeli shelling during a 50-day war last summer, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 10. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The IDF’s third report on the Gaza War contains a variety of unprecedented disclosures and revelations regarding the IDF’s military tactics and some of the war’s worst incidents of civilian casualties.

The late Thursday issued report makes clear distinctions between when the IDF did and did not issue warnings to persons to evacuate an area it was about to attack.

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For example, where the IDF intended to hit a weapons cache, such as with the July 24 airstrike on Tel al-atar, it provided warnings, to civilians to evacuate areas it would be targeting - sometimes both telephone and “roof-knocking" warnings.

Depending on which side of the debate one is on, roof-knocking is either a cutting-edge or controversial method of warning civilians to evacuate by firing a non-explosive missile at the roof of an area which the IDF will be striking.

The missile is set to hit an area where it will not hurt anyone, but makes a loud sound which often scares or encourages civilians to leave.

It is often used after civilians do not heed an initial telephone warning to leave.

One can debate whether these warnings and IDF intelligence were effective in sufficiently limiting civilian casualties, with five civilians of the Abu Ita household killed in the airstrike.

The IDF explained that after its two rounds of warnings, its on-the-ground surveillance revealed substantial numbers of civilians evacuating, leading to the (it turns out) erroneous conclusion that all civilians had evacuated.

Clearly, the IDF took pains and went far in trying to avoid civilian casualties.

Whether it was enough or whether some will say the IDF needed to send ground forces into the area where the weapons cache was to make doubly sure that no one remained behind could be a core point of debate with the UN and the International Criminal Court. The report also describes in far more specific detail some of the intense battles the IDF was involved in from the perspective of the IDF being shot at by Gaza forces instead of from the perspective of Gazans being hit by the IDF.

Cutting through the fog of war, the report reveals that the IDF may have strong arguments to close cases on some of the thorniest war crimes allegations incidents, including a Shejaiya incident in which 31 Palestinians were killed, including 28 civilians and three Hamas fighters.

Next, the IDF reveals that in the incident its units came under coordinated anti-tank missile and massive coordinated gunfire from as many as five different positions on July 30.

The descriptions are nearly minute by minute.

At 4:10 p.m., the IDF was hit by the antitank missile and the massive fire, which injured one IDF soldier and placed the others in immediate “mortal danger.”

Further, the report notes that a tank accompanying the unit was stuck due to a technical failure.

The IDF commanders involved thought that the coordinated assault was part of an attempt to kidnap a soldier.

Initially, the report said that the IDF did not return fire at all because the Gazan forces fire was coming from areas next to sensitive sites, including a school and a hospital.

At 4:40 p.m., the IDF tried using a smoke screen to get the firing on it to stop.

Then, at 5:00 p.m., the IDF fired five shells toward one of two other newly identified spots from which large portions of Hamas fire was emanating, after deeming the spot from which Hamas was firing as “far enough” from a nearby sensitive site.

No doubt, critics will ask how far was “far enough,” which the IDF did not reveal despite other impressive numbers of revelations of the battle in real-time.

Getting into details about its weapons strategy, the IDF said that it used artillery mortars to fire on the Hamas fighters because there was no alternative option – meaning there was no available aircraft nearby which could provide support.

The IDF also emphasized its restraint in deciding not to fire its more destructive 155 mm shells, believing that firing the weaker mortars would contain civilian casualties at lower levels. Following firing on the source of the Hamas fire for 18 minutes without neutralizing it, the IDF fired another 10 shells.

40 minutes after this second round of firing, the IDF received reports of hitting civilians.

The UN and the ICC will likely as questions about why this information only came to the IDF after 40 minutes despite past IDF commitments to improve its rapid response to learning of civilians on the ground near battle areas, especially since media and paramedics were present.

Another area of debate here will be on whether the IDF had sufficient intelligence in general regarding civilians in the area.

The IDF explains that its two rounds of warnings to leave the neighborhood were complimented with flyovers which revealed an essentially deserted area.

At the same time, it does not seem that the IDF had personnel to review the area on the ground and it admits that in real-time, it did not do a new flyover, since it said there was no aircraft available.

Overall, the IDF says it was reasonable for its commanders to assume with the information they had that there were few or no civilians in the area.

The UN and ICC may question these presumptions, both because the incident was drawn out so it might seem like aircraft should have been available and because by the incident date of July 30, enough civilian death incidents had occurred in areas presumed evacuated, that they may say the IDF could no longer make that presumption.

The IDF can counter that at the end of the day, it was taking heavy fire and showed substantial patience in responding to avoid civilian casualties.

The central battle in whether the ICC gets involved in investigating Israel comes down to whether IDF investigations are viewed as reasonable.

While the ICC may second-guess some of the above IDF judgments, it may be difficult for it to frame the complex judgments and actions as criminal.

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