It is said that the term "civil war" is an oxymoron; civil war, as T.E. Lawrence famously wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, "Like trying to eat soup with a knife." That is, long, dirty and messy. The same can be said for urban warfare, whether between conventional armies or non-state organizations. Civilians populate the battlefront, the enemy is invisible, and visibility is almost zero. To this day, battles fought in densely populated urban areas have inevitably resulted in heavy collateral damage and civilian deaths.
In addition, urban fighting has a tendency to evoke allegations in its aftermath, often unjustified. Sometimes it seems that human rights organizations ignore the complexities of urban warfare; they prefer to see a story of good versus evil - perhaps in hopes of minimizing the suffering of civilians. But by ignoring the complexity of such battles, these organizations tend to bring about unintentional results.
LISTENING TO human rights organizations in April 2002, one was convinced that Israel had committed massive war crimes during Operation Defensive Shield. These claims primarily focused on the battle that had taken place in Jenin, where 52 Palestinians were killed, most of them combatants, and an additional 23 IDF soldiers lost their lives. Terje Larsen, the United Nations' envoy to the Middle East, claimed that what had happened in Jenin was "horrific beyond belief... We have expert people here who have been in war zones and earthquakes, and they say they have never seen anything like it." Likewise, in a November 2002 report, Amnesty International accused Israel of war crimes.
In retrospect, one has to wonder, if the Jenin battle was "horrific beyond belief" despite the very low percentage of civilians killed, what would Larsen say about the IDF's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza?
In Jenin, the IDF began using tanks only after 40 hours of battle, and employed bulldozers to create safe passageways only after an ambush killed thirteen IDF soldiers. No artillery was used, and no bombs were dropped. In contrast, Cast Lead was a more conventional military operation: the IDF used artillery, smart bombs and other forms of military arsenal. The results, accordingly, were much more devastating. According to the Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi, at least 600 people were killed, with both the IDF and Hamas claiming the number at least twice as much. (The IDF claims most were armed terrorists, while Hamas and some human rights organizations claim most were civilians.) Why the difference in magnitude?
First, Gaza was a bigger nut to crack. Hamas was better organized, armed and prepared than the Palestinian fighters in Defensive Shield. Tactics such as swarming (an assault by many small forces moving simultaneously and unpredictably through buildings while avoiding the streets) which had succeeded in Shechem (Nablus) in 2002, had limited success in Gaza. The IDF's decision to instead use heavier weapons was quite logical. Because Hamas used civilian homes and mosques as arms caches and command posts, the collateral damage was significantly higher. International law clearly states that Hamas bears responsibility for this damage.
Second, Israel did not control the area around the Gaza battlefield in the same way it did during Defensive Shield. Despite technological advances, intelligence is still hard to gather in urban areas, and Israel's loose grasp of Gaza enabled Hamas to shift its forces around Gaza relatively undetected. Despite Israeli aerial surveillance, isolating the battlefield remained challenging - hence the use of artillery barrages before attacks from infantry forces.
Third, during Defensive Shield the IDF made extraordinary efforts to prevent collateral damage. The initial plan for entering Jenin required bulldozers to demolish homes and create two corridors. This plan was rejected; the IDF's upper echelons wanted to minimize collateral damage - even if it meant endangering soldiers' lives. Bulldozers were employed en masse only after a lethal ambush claimed thirteen soldiers' lives.
Israel received little credit for the fact that civilian casualties were lower than expected from an urban battle between an army and irregular forces.
The "Jenin massacre" lie was refuted, but films like "Jenin, Jenin," or Amnesty's 2002 report "Shielded From Scrutiny: IDF Violations in Jenin and Nablus" created the impression that Israel was responsible for the worst imaginable atrocities. Amnesty, it should be noted, consciously writes reports, as Stathis Kalyvas wrote in The Logic of Violence in Civil War (2006), in a way "such that [â€¦] could not yield a document that could be comparative across countries within a single year or by country across the years". In other words, Amnesty does not want to measure human rights violations against each other, thus allowing reports to exaggerate in one country while ignoring another, without any standard way to compare reports. In short, if everything is a crime, then nothing is a crime.
ONE THING was clear to the IDF after Defensive Shield: It would get
bad press either way. Endangering soldiers was illogical, since the IDF would be blamed one way or another. The wholesale condemnation of the IDF in the wake of Defensive Shield, combined with bereaved families feeling that their sons were sacrificed in order to save face, contributed to the IDF taking a different approach during Cast Lead.
While the IDF still caused less collateral damage and civilian casualties than, say, US forces did during the second battle of Fallujah in 2004, the IDF was less prepared to take chances. Tactics such as phoning to warn Hamas leaders to evacuate their families before bombs were dropped on their homes (and arms caches hidden there) were the norm during Cast Lead. In another instance, a missile was diverted from its target after the terrorist ran into a civilian crowd.
Yet it remains true that while Israel used firepower in accordance with international law, the number of civilians killed and the collateral damage in Gaza was much greater than in Defensive Shield. Comparing the operations reveals an interesting phenomenon: in some cases, human rights organizations can cause more harm than good to their case, since wild claims and exaggerations after Defensive Shield contributed to Israel's change of tactics in Gaza.
If you not only act in accordance with international law but go above and beyond the legal requirements to minimize collateral damage, while paying the price in soldiers' lives, yet are still blamed for "massacres," and treated worse than countries that have committed them, the incentives to make this extra effort are inconsequential. Organizations that blame Israel for "lack of proportionality" should first examine themselves and their claims - since their own lack of proportionality also affects human lives.
The writer is a military historian and associate fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center. This article was originally published by the Adelson Institute www.adelsoninstitute.org.il where the full version can be viewed.