Security and Defense: Coming out of its white phosphorous shell

Why did the IDF wait so long, and leave the international arena open to the Hamas narrative?

kids play with phosphorus 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
kids play with phosphorus 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
In the middle of Operation Cast Lead, Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel drove to Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv and boarded a Beechcraft Kingair B200, called "Zufit" by the IAF. The Zufit is a reconnaissance aircraft equipped with a specially designed camera system that allows it to take pictures from a standoff position. This means that it can remain within Israeli airspace, but track and take pictures of targets on the other side of a border. The plane flew south, and began focusing its camera on a force from the 101st Battalion of the Paratroop Brigade operating in northern Gaza. The force, which was positioned on the second floor of an apartment building, was coming under heavy fire. At one point, Hamas terrorists fired an RPG through the second floor window. In the Zufit, Harel could hear the communication between the force and the battalion commander. Three soldiers were wounded, one seriously, and the battalion commander needed to call for a ground evacuation. Two armored personnel carriers and one tank came rumbling down the tight alleyway. Shortly afterward, an artillery battery deployed outside Gaza let loose a number of 155 mm. white phosphorous shells that exploded in midair and created smoke cover for troops on the ground. The IDF came under harsh criticism for using these smoke-screen shells. Human Rights Watch, for example, deployed weapons experts to the Gaza border to watch the midair explosions. HRW executive director Kenneth Roth later accused Israel of violating "the legal requirement to take all feasible precautions during military operations to avoid harming civilians." The shells, he said, "never should have been deployed." Harel, as well as the rest of the IDF top brass involved in investigating the use of white phosphorous during the 22-day offensive, believe that the shells should have been deployed and plan to deploy them again in a future conflict, should one erupt. One top officer, who met several times with a team of foreign military officers, said that Canadian and American generals who came to Israel to investigate the damage caused to UN facilities during the operation were surprised when they were shown that the white phosphorous shell was actually American made and NATO approved. The IDF also used other white phosphorus weapons during the operation - mortar shells that blow up on the ground and carry kilograms of incendiary material. While the IDF claims that this weapon was used in accordance with international law, the use of white-phosphorus mortar shells in a future conflict will be examined. While the five probes released to the public this week mainly exonerate the IDF, they do not deal with the larger question of whether the IDF plans to use the same aggressive level of force in a future conflict in Gaza. THERE IS no real argument between the IDF and the Palestinians about the extent of the damage in Gaza. Following the operation, Military Intelligence teams compared satellite photos of different areas in Gaza to see which homes were standing before the operation, and which had been destroyed. The results showed 636 residential homes that were destroyed by ground forces, and another 1,000 or so residential and commercial buildings that were hit from the air. The disagreement between the IDF and the Palestinians is over who should be held responsible for this level of destruction. The Palestinians, naturally, blame Israel. Israel blames Hamas's use of civilian infrastructure. Before the operation, the IDF had marked 1,800 buildings as off limits. These were UN facilities, hospitals, clinics and other aid organization buildings. The IDF was forbidden from targeting these unless they came under attack from terrorists holed up in them. The IDF's decision to cooperate with the UN military team that visited Gaza after the conflict is an indication of how convinced the military is that its use of force was proportionate and that it was sensitive to the loss of civilian life. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi ordered the military to open all its doors to the UN team. The five colonels who conducted the IDF's internal probes spent many hours with their American and Canadian counterparts. The IDF also drafted Brig.-Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel, former head of the Planning Division's Strategic Branch, to lead the team that worked with the UN investigation. THIS IS in contrast to the aftermath of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, when UN secretary-general Kofi Annan established a fact-finding mission to investigate claims that Israel had perpetrated a massacre in Jenin. Fearing that the UN was completely biased, the government decided not to cooperate with the team, which was then disbanded. The reason behind the IDF's decision to cooperate this time around had to do with the military's sense of virtue. In all, the IDF is proud of its use of precision weapons, and of its decision to drop millions of leaflets and make close to 170,000 phone calls to warn Palestinians of imminent bombings and raids. The extent of the damage in Gaza, though, demonstrates the IDF's other leading principle - the use of force to minimize Israeli casualties. In an article published in Azure magazine in October 2007, former chief of General Staff and current Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya'alon wrote about "Ethical Dilemmas in Counterterrorism." In Jenin in 2002, he wrote, 52 Palestinians were killed, almost all of them armed men. In the same battle, 23 soldiers were killed in a surgical operation - like those in January in Gaza - that forbade the use of artillery shelling or air strikes which would have dramatically decreased the number of Israeli casualties. This was done, Ya'alon wrote, to avoid a greater number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Despite this effort, the IDF came under criticism from every direction. The Palestinians accused Israel of war crimes, and the families of the dead soldiers, Ya'alon wrote, were naturally more concerned with the lives of their loved ones than collateral damage to the Palestinians. His conclusion was that Israel needs to do its utmost to avoid using aggressive force. "Put simply, the more we apply force and the heavier the collateral damage to the Palestinian civilian population, the more we play into the hands of our enemies, and the more we undermine the legitimacy of our actions," he wrote. Ya'alon described a three-pronged test that the IDF needs to conduct when evaluating missions. Firstly, commanders need to consider how they - as well as the soldiers under them - feel about the mission. This is referred to as the "mirror test" as to whether the IDF will be able to look at itself in the mirror after the operation. It appears that following Cast Lead, the answer is yes. The second prong asks how the country will react to an operation and its results. Here, too, it appears that the public supported the IDF action. The third prong examines how an action perceived internationally, when a failure is clear. In this case, failure is evident in the IDF's decision to publish the findings of its probes only three months after the operation in Gaza ended. There were interesting findings pertaining to the legal use of white phosphorus, as well as to the conclusion that only 12-17 people were killed - including several terrorists - in an IDF strike near a UN school in Jabalya, and not 40-50 as reported. Still, though such IDF findings began to emerge in bits and pieces over the past three months, they were not officially released to the public until Wednesday. WHY DID the IDF wait so long, and leave the international arena open to the Hamas narrative? Why did the IDF not publish its findings on white phosphorus during the operation, when HRW and the international media were accusing it of war crimes? These questions will need to be addressed by the IDF - especially with reports that Hamas is rapidly rearming, and that another conflict may be just around the corner.