In an exclusive interview, Givati Brigade commander Col. Ilan Malka maintains his troops did their best to avoid harming innocent civilians.
By YAAKOV KATZ
The day after Operation Cast Lead ended in mid-January and amid growing international criticism of the alleged lax rules of engagement during the fighting, the IDF decided to hold a press conference to respond to the accusations.
The venue chosen was a small IDF base located adjacent to the Sde Teiman airstrip just northwest of Beersheba. The officer chosen to give the briefing was Col. Ilan Malka, commander of the Givati Brigade, who had left Gaza the night before after spending two weeks deep inside the Strip commanding dozens of daily operations against Hamas.
Malka, 41, a graduate of the National Defense University in Washington, is part of the new generation of IDF brigade commanders who came of age in the post-Second Lebanon War era.
If during the 2006 war some brigade commanders stayed back in Israel, overseeing the fighting from secure bunkers, during Cast Lead, Malka and his counterparts from the Golani, Paratrooper and 401st brigades were all on the battlefield with their men.
At Sde Teiman, Malka stood before reporters in front of weaponry IDF troops had captured during the operation, including anti-aircraft cannon, Kassam launchers and antitank missiles.
"We did not exaggerate in our use of firepower," Malka maintained. "I will not send 10 soldiers into a house that is suspected of being booby trapped so they can all [be blown] up inside. If Hamas wants to protect the family inside, it shouldn't have booby trapped the home."
Seven months later, numerous international NGO reports accusing Israel of perpetrating war crimes in Gaza have not succeeded in changing Malka's mind about Cast Lead, which he calls a "necessary operation" in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post.
MALKA, THE first commander of Givati to have "been raised" in the brigade - established in 1984 - will soon take up his new post as chief operations officer of Central Command.
"If Hamas had fought with us in open fields and orchards, we would have fought with it there," he says. "But when they fire an RPG at you from inside a house and you then find an IED [improvised explosive device], grenades and machine guns inside, what does this mean?"
But, Malka says, things were not that clear and in a vast majority of engagements, his troops held their fire, at their own risk, to avoid harming innocent civilians.
"The moment we found weaponry in the house, we began sweeping it with selective fire," he said. "You can sweep a house slowly, but then you will lose soldiers. Therefore we took many steps to prevent our soldiers from getting hurt."
Those steps mostly paid off. While 10 soldiers were killed during the two-week ground operation, Malka reveals that initial IDF predictions were that each battalion would lose six or seven.
Hamas, like Hizbullah, knows that Israel's weak point is when fighting in urban centers amidst innocent women and children, he says, referring to cases when mothers were sent to blow themselves up next to troops or children were sent down a street to retrieve a dead terrorist's weapon.
"Hamas tried to bring out our weak side, and that is why it hides behind the civilian population," he says. "The Gaza urban centers are the playing field that it chose and where it believes that it can cause Israel damage internationally and achieve something of a victory."
Under Malka's command, the Givati Brigade penetrated the deepest into Gaza City. In a meticulously planned mission launched two days before the cease-fire went into effect, the brigade's reconnaissance battalion swept into the Tel el-Hawa neighborhood and took over two 15-story buildings in search of Hamas operatives.
The operation put soldiers just 500 meters away from the home of senior Hamas leader Mahmoud a-Zahar and a kilometer from Shifa Hospital, where most of the Hamas leadership, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, were believed to be hiding. Forty Palestinian gunmen were reportedly killed during the maneuver, which entailed climbing hundreds of stairs and sweeping dozens of apartments.
According to Arab media reports, following the operation, Hamas decided to fire the commander of its Gaza City Brigade who fought against Malka and Givati. Despite this, Malka has no doubt that, like the IDF, Hamas is also preparing for the next round, which he says could erupt at a moment's notice.
"They are rearming with new weaponry, and they are also studying the way we operated during Cast Lead to be able to stop us next time around," he says. "If this time tanks were sent in first to clear the way for the infantry, they will likely next time try to plant IEDs to stop them."
Malka admits to being surprised by the number of tunnels that Hamas had dug under the streets of Gaza. He says that before the operation he warned his troops to be extra careful when maneuvering throughout Gaza due to intelligence regarding the high threat of kidnappings.
Malka's brigade made headlines in March when the head of the Rabin pre-military academy leaked soldiers' accounts of the operation to the press. Some of the testimonies included accounts of killing Palestinian civilians, permissive rules of engagement and the intentional destruction of property. One account was by an infantry squad commander who told of an incident when a Givati company commander ordered his troops to shoot and kill an elderly Palestinian woman who was walking on a road near the troops.
Following the reports, which made international headlines, the Judge Advocate-General's Office launched an investigation and found that they were based on hearsay without any corroborating evidence.
LAST MONTH, Breaking the Silence issued a damning report of the operation which included testimonies from 26 unnamed soldiers who claimed the IDF used Gazans as human shields, improperly fired incendiary white phosphorous shells over civilian areas and used overwhelming firepower that caused needless deaths and destruction.
Malka says he was not surprised by the reports and was familiar with most of the stories beforehand. "I knew who was there and who gave the approval to open fire," he says. "Nevertheless we decided to look into everything again and discovered that the troops operated according to procedure in all of the cases."
The one incident which took Malka by surprise and which he describes as a "slap in the face" was the arrest of two soldiers from the Givati Brigade for stealing a Palestinian's credit card and using it to withdraw cash from ATMs in Israel. That investigation was launched after Ahmed Rafia, a resident of Gaza City, filed a complaint with the IDF's Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration regarding the theft. Rafia, whose account is at the Bank of Palestine, told CLA officers that his card was stolen and that NIS 1,600 was withdrawn from ATMs in Israel following the conclusion of the operation.
"These soldiers were weeds that we uprooted from our midst," Malka says, adding that he believes it is important to talk to soldiers before, during and after operations about the importance of military ethics and morals. "Even though when you are in a battle, you have missions, it is still important to maintain ethical rules of engagement."
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