The IDF's Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration commander recognizes that his dossier on Gaza civilian deaths is a little late in coming.
By YAAKOV KATZ
On May 18, 2004, the IDF launched Operation Rainbow in response to the deaths of 13 soldiers, the majority of whom were killed after their armored personnel carriers were blown up in the southern Gazan town of Rafah.
The goal of the eight-day operation was to uncover weapons-smuggling tunnels along the Philadelphi Corridor, and to prevent the smuggling of Strella shoulder-to-air anti-aircraft missiles from the Sinai into Gaza.
On the third day of the operation, hundreds of Palestinians started marching towards IDF positions near Khan Younis. Helicopters fired flares to push back the crowd, which refused to stop. An IDF tank then fired a shell at an empty building near the crowd, which the military said was full of armed men. The shell set off a chain of explosions, resulting in numerous casualties.
Palestinian sources initially reported 22 dead and dozens injured. The number was adopted by the international media, and the reports prompted heavy international condemnation of Israel, and calls for it to cease the operation.
Under pressure to discover the truth, Lt.-Col. Moshe Levi, then the operations officer at the IDF's Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA), worked around the clock to determine the accurate number of casualties. It turned out to be eight.
FIVE YEARS have passed since then, and not much has changed for Levi, today a colonel and the commander of the CLA. An intelligence officer who has been studying the Palestinians since the beginning of his 24-year military career, Levi, 42, has spent the past 12 years working for the for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) in a number of senior positions.
His primary job as head of the CLA is to coordinate the transfer of aid into Gaza, to prevent a humanitarian crisis there. His job also includes revealing the truth about what is happening on the ground inside the Strip. Alongside this work, Levi is also compiling a list of the names of those Palestinians reported to have been killed during Operation Cast Lead. The list, he says, shows that two-thirds were terror operatives, and that once again the world was duped by Hamas.
THE CLA'S HQ - a frequent target for Palestinian mortar squads - is adjacent to the Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza, and occupies a few small one-story concrete office buildings within a fenced-off compound surrounded by 20-foot walls. The buildings are equipped with bulletproof windows, and guarded by looming watchtowers.
Levi and his relatively small staff began preparing for Operation Cast Lead two years ago. The preparation had two focal points. The first was to drill field commanders for combat in a civilian urban arena, providing them with various scenarios that could arise and testing their responses.
The second was to identify United Nations and other NGO facilities throughout the Strip. To this end, special maps were drawn up and marked, so that the field commanders would know what to avoid when operating in their vicinity.
"The strikes against civilian infrastructure were due to its being used by Hamas or to there being fire from the facility," Levi told The Jerusalem Post in an extensive interview this week.
One example was an Israeli attack on a medicine warehouse which belonged to the al Quds Hospital in Gaza City - an attack that drew strong international condemnation.
"The al Quds hospital was known to us, but the warehouse - which was not known to us - was located several streets from the hospital, and they fired from within the warehouse," Levi said, adding that following the incident, one of the NGOs that operates in Gaza admitted to the IDF that it had made a mistake by not telling the CLA about the warehouse.
Levi also told of the way IDF troops halted operations to assist Palestinians in distress - stories most of which were not published in the media.
For example, he says, on January 9th, one commander of a Golani Brigade battalion ceased operations and ordered his soldiers to help load handicapped Palestinians into ambulances sent to evacuate them from Jabalya to Gaza City.
In another case, a soldier from the 401st Armored Brigade was seriously wounded after his tank was hit by an anti-tank missile. While the commanders were coordinating his evacuation, a request was received at the CLA to allow an ambulance into the area to evacuate a pregnant Palestinian who had gone into labor. The commander in the field complied.
While the fighting was going on, the IDF also allowed hundreds of trucks loaded with basic foods and medicine into Gaza. Israel ceased military operations for several hours each day to allow humanitarian corridors to be opened, even though Hamas took advantage of the lull to regroup, transfer weapons and receive orders.
"We know, for example, that Hamas would hold briefings in Shifa Hospital for its field commanders [during the daily time-out], and pass on the day's orders," Levi said.
Why, then, did Israel agree to a lull?
"We thought that there was a need, alongside the fighting against Hamas, to care for the civilian population and allow it to re-supply," he said. "This policy creates more flexibility and legitimacy for our operations, and shows the moral face of the IDF - since this is the only military in the world that allows these things," explained Levy.
Meanwhile, since the beginning of the operation, Levi and his team of officers have been gathering information that can refute what he calls Hamas fabrications. Take, for instance, the case of nine Hamas "medics" who Hamas said were killed by the IDF.
One such "medic" was Anas Naim, the nephew of Hamas Health Minister Bassem Naim, who was killed during clashes with the IDF on January 4 in the Ash Sheikh Ajlin neighborhood of Gaza City.
Following the clashes, the Palestinian press reported that Naim was killed, and that he was a medic with the Palestinian Red Crescent. An investigation by the CLA revealed several photos - posted on a Hamas Web site - of Naim holding an RPG launcher and a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
"Naim was killed," Levi said. "But, as the pictures show, he was not a medic."
DURING THE interview, Levi opened the CLA dossier on Palestinian fatalities - for the first time - and presented The Post an overview that is utterly at odds with the Palestinian figures that have hitherto formed the basis for assessing the conflict.
While the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, whose death toll figures have been widely cited, reports that 895 Gaza civilians were killed in the fighting, amounting to more than two-thirds of all fatalities, the IDF figures put the civilian death toll at no higher than a third of the total.
To illustrate the distortion, Levi cited the January 6 incident near the UN-run al-Fakhura School in Jabalya, about which initial Palestinian reports falsely claimed IDF shells had hit the school and killed 40 people or more, many of them civilians.
In fact, Levi said, no more than 12 Palestinians were killed in the incident - nine Hamas operatives and three noncombatants.
Basing its work on the official Palestinian death toll of 1,338, Levi said the CLA had now identified more than 1,200 of the Palestinian fatalities. Its 200-page report lists their names, their official Palestinian Authority identity numbers, the circumstances in which they were killed and, where appropriate, the terrorist group with which they were affiliated.
LEVI SAID the war taught him that there is a need to establish a "response team" in the IDF, which will be tasked with studying specific events and working to refute false Hamas claims and outright lies.
He also said he recognizes that this week's publication of the CLA's study on the Palestinian fatalities has come too late to make much of a difference, but stressed that it can still play an important role.
"We cannot leave the field open just for Hamas," he concluded.
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