Baker Military Forum
Spring 2010 - Number 18

Israel and the New Way of War

Richard Kemp

r ecent consideration by the UN Human Rights Council of the report by Judge Richard Goldstone, head of their fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict, has again highlighted the issue of killing of non-combatants in so-called “asymmetric” conflict. In the type of warfare the Israelis fought in Gaza last year, the U.S., British and allied forces have been fighting recently in Iraq, are fighting today in Afghanistan, and are most likely to fight in future conflicts around the world, this is becoming one of the most serious problems we face. Like most military challenges today, the intrinsic difficulties of this issue are increasingly magnified by the ever greater focus and scrutiny of the international media and of NGOs and other international bodies.

Uncharted territory

Soldiers from all Western armies, including those of the United States, Britain and Israel, are educated in the laws of war, the Geneva Conventions. The battlefield—in any kind of war—is a place of confusion and chaos, of fast-moving action. Because of this, the complex laws of war as they apply to kinetic military action are distilled down into so-called “rules of engagement.” In most Western forces, these rules normally regulate military action to ensure that it remains well within the laws of war, giving an additional safety cushion to soldiers against the possibility of war crimes prosecution. In their most basic form, these rules tell you when you can and when you cannot open fire.

Once upon a time, the process was simple. It did not require complex and restrictive rules of engagement. Your side wore one type of uniform, the enemy wore another. When you saw the enemy’s uniform, you opened fire. But the chaos of combat rendered even this relatively simple situation difficult, in particular frequently resulting in mistaking your forces for the enemy. The ensuing tragedies are legion throughout the history of war. We call it by different names: blue on blue violence, friendly fire, fratricide. A well-known recent example for the British Army was in the 1991 Gulf War, during which a U.S. Air Force A-10 ground attack aircraft mistakenly attacked a British armored infantry fighting vehicle, killing several British soldiers.

There were other complexities that made apparent simplicity less than simple. Civilians perhaps taking shelter or attempting to flee the battlefield could be mistaken for combatants, and have sometimes been shot or blown up. Enemy forces sometimes adopted the other side’s uniforms as a deception or ruse.

These same complexities continue to exist today in conflicts between regular and irregular forces, most of which take the form of counterinsurgency operations. In one recent incident in Afghanistan, a NATO tactical bomber dropped a 500-pound bomb on British soldiers, mistaking their position for a Taliban fire-base. Three men were killed and two seriously wounded. This is the eternal fog of war.

In asymmetric warfare, these age-old confusions and complexities are made a hundred times worse by the fighting policies and techniques of the enemy. The insurgents that we have faced in these conflicts are all different: Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza; al Qaeda, Jaish al Mahdi and a range of other militant groups in Iraq; al Qaeda, the Taliban and a diversity of associated fighting groups in Afghanistan. They are different but they are linked, both by the pernicious influence, support and sometimes direction of Iran, and by the complex network of international jihad.

These groups—and others—have learned and continue to learn from each others’ successes and failures. Tactics tried and tested on IDF soldiers in Lebanon have also killed British and American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. These groups are trained and equipped for warfare fought from within the civilian population.

(Un)just war

It would be a grave error to believe that jihadist groups ignore the international laws of armed conflict—they do not. They study them carefully, and they understand them well. They know that a British, American or Israeli commander and his men are bound by international law and the rules of engagement that flow from it. They then do their utmost to exploit what they view as one of their enemy’s main weaknesses.

Their very modus operandi is built on the correct assumption that Western armies will normally abide by the rules. In Gaza as in Basra as in the towns and villages of southern Afghanistan, civilians and their property are routinely exploited by these groups in deliberate and flagrant violation of international laws and reasonable norms of civilized behavior for both tactical and strategic gain.

Stripped of any moral considerations, this policy operates simply and effectively. On the tactical level, protected buildings—mosques, schools and hospitals—are used as strongholds, allowing the enemy not only the protection of stone walls but also of international law. On the strategic level, any mistake, or in some cases legal and proportional response, by a Western army will be deliberately exploited and manipulated to produce international outcry and condemnation.

Thus, in April 2004, as combined UK and U.S. forces fought to wrest the Iraqi town of Fallujah from al Qaeda’s control, media reports screamed of a U.S. “bombardment” of a mosque. The reality of that day was that five U.S. Marines were wounded by fire from that mosque. The Marine commander on the ground exercised great care and restraint, only allowing fire to be directed at the outer wall of the mosque. But the damage was done, and the impression that the Marines had leveled a mosque indiscriminately was firmly established.

Today, British soldiers patrolling in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province will come under sustained rocket, machine-gun and small-arms fire from within a populated village or a network of farming complexes containing local men, women and children. The British will return fire. To avoid civilian casualties, rather than drop a 500-pound bomb onto the enemy, they will assault through the village, placing their own lives at greater risk. They might face booby traps or mines as they clear through the streets and alleyways. When they get into the village there is no sign of the enemy. Instead, the same people that were shooting at them twenty minutes earlier will be tilling the land, waving, smiling and talking cheerfully to the soldiers.

These same insurgents will mine roads used by NATO vehicles and tracks used by foot patrols. Many soldiers have lost their legs or their lives in such attacks. There is, of course, no question of minefields being marked, as is required under international law: the idea would be preposterous to our opponents, but is rarely if ever commented on by the media.

Like Hamas in Gaza, the Taliban in southern Afghanistan are masters at shielding themselves behind the civilian population and then melting in among them for protection. Women and children are trained and equipped to fight, collect intelligence and ferry arms and ammunition between battles.

Female suicide bombers are increasingly common. The use of women to shield gunmen as they engage NATO forces is now so normal it is deemed barely worthy of comment. Schools and houses are routinely booby-trapped. Snipers shelter in houses deliberately filled with women and children.

Squaring the circle

The British and U.S. armies have grappled with these problems, and are now finding some solutions. When an enemy flouts the rules of war, we cannot shy away from hard decisions. When necessary, we now attack protected locations after weighing the risk that non-combatants might suffer.

We respect international norms and the sanctity of holy places. But when our troops take fire from these locations or roadside bombs stored there are used to murder the innocent, we have no choice other than to act. British and American troops now routinely search mosques in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, of course, they do so with sensitivity and tact wherever possible. And when necessary we bring down fire on those locations. This is not done in a trigger-happy or careless manner but rather in a proportionate way, as set out in the theory of a Just War. And it is always with the aim of minimizing wider suffering.

Obviously this kind of application of force is undesirable. But to emphasize its legitimacy, the following comes from the U.S. military counterinsurgency manual, recently produced under the direction of General David Petraeus and using lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan:

The principle of proportionality requires that the anticipated loss of life and damage to property incidental to attacks must not be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained. Soldiers and marines may not take any actions that might knowingly harm non-combatants. This does not mean they cannot take risks that might put the populace in danger. In conventional operations, this restriction means that combatants cannot intend to harm non-combatants, though proportionality permits them to act, knowing some non-combatants may be harmed.

General Petraeus then moves ahead of the strict requirements of the laws of war when he adds:

The use of discriminating, proportionate force as a mindset goes beyond the adherence to the rules of engagement. Proportionality and discrimination applied in counter insurgency require leaders to ensure that their units employ the right tools correctly with mature discernment, good judgement and moral resolve.

This is the use of restraint and focused violence as a positive tool in counterinsurgency; not simply as humanitarian and legal restraint. It recognizes the importance of winning and maintaining the support of the local population—and sometimes even the insurgent himself—perhaps over and above the priority of winning a particular engagement.

Battlefield challenges

Ultimately, in counterinsurgency operations the military commander must balance a series of often conflicting and very difficult judgments, in addition to the other pressures he faces on any battlefield. Every soldier who has been in combat—whether it is Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan or Iraq—can testify to the chaos and confusion of war.

It is difficult enough to maneuver large numbers of troops and vehicles across treacherous and inhospitable terrain, sometimes by night, in dust storms, rain or searing heat; in armored vehicles with limited external vision; against near-impossible timelines; and coordinating with neighboring forces, ground attack aircraft, helicopters, artillery, engineers and logistic support.

But the complexities and potential for confusion are hugely increased when the enemy is trying to prevent you from doing it by killing you and blowing up your vehicles and equipment. Piled on top of this are the limits of reconnaissance and the frequent inaccuracy or incompleteness of the intelligence picture, sometimes brought about by the enemy’s own operational security, deception and disinformation, sometimes by lack of resources or inadequacy of collection systems.

For every intelligence success, even in modern armies, there are a hundred disappointments. In close combat even the most technologically sophisticated weapons, surveillance systems and communications devices can and frequently do fail—especially when you need them most. Messages are sometimes not transmitted, not received, or garbled.

Precision-guided munitions don’t always hit the target they are supposed to and sometimes explode when they shouldn’t, or don’t explode when they should. Especially in close infantry combat, the concept of the precise, surgical strike is more often pipe dream than practical reality.

The close urban or rural environment often found in Helmand, Gaza or Iraq can also serve to diminish the advantages of technology, frequently putting high-tech NATO forces on an equal footing with their much more basically trained, armed and equipped opponents.

Then there is perceptual distortion, common in combat situations, which can lead a commander or soldier to comprehend events in a way that is different from reality. The stresses and fears of battle, tiredness and the body’s natural chemical reactions, including production of adrenaline, can lead to excluding or intensifying sounds, tunnel vision, temporary paralysis, events appearing to move faster or more slowly than they actually are; loss, reduction or distortion of memory and distracting thoughts. These affect different people in different ways and can add to the confusion and chaos of battle.

Amid the disorientation, the smoke, the fire, the explosions, the ear-piercing rattle of bullets, the screams of the wounded, the incomplete intelligence picture and the failure of technology, commanders and soldiers must work on to achieve their mission, no matter how hard it gets.

It is in these conditions that commanders must balance their judgments, mindful always of the laws of war and the rules of engagement. The balance is between killing the enemy, and achieving the mission—while avoiding civilian casualties. Additionally, the effect on hearts and minds—the support or otherwise of the civilian population—must always be considered.

There is another judgment as well, often overlooked in media and human rights groups’ frenzies to expose fault among military forces fighting in the toughest conditions. It is preventing or minimizing casualties among your own soldiers. There will frequently be times when a military commander must make a snap judgement between the safety of his own troops and that of others. Human nature dictates that he will often choose his own men. It is hard to see how it could be otherwise.

There is more to it than the commander’s natural human response and loyalty to his men. For soldiers to follow their leader into combat—at any level, but especially at the point of battle—they must trust him. How many soldiers want to die, be blinded, burnt, or have their arms, legs or face blown off? None will trust, or follow, a commander who is profligate with his men’s lives.

These calculations and decisions become much harder when one is fighting a tough, wily, skillful enemy, one minute shooting at you or setting a land mine to blow up your vehicle, the next leaning on the threshold of his compound, dressed indistinguishably from the population.

In defense of Israel

Because of these realities, it is incumbent on senior military officers and politicians to support troops in a way which will help them avoid actions that lead to unnecessary civilian deaths and the creation, perpetuation or deepening of grievances. And which could see soldiers ending up in court for unlawful killing or war crimes, or give the media any excuse to scream abuse of human rights and murder.

General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan, has made the reduction of unnecessary civilian casualties one of his top priorities. So it should be. From my own experience, I know that it is also a high priority of British commanders in Afghanistan.

I have witnessed the efforts that American and British forces have been making for years in Iraq and Afghanistan to minimize civilian deaths. Though impressive, these have not always worked, for the reasons outlined above: imperfect intelligence, technological failure, and poor communications. While all can be improved through better technology, the fog of war will remain for as long as wars are fought.

There is another factor that we shouldn’t forget: there will always be bad soldiers, who deliberately or through incompetence go against orders. We have seen this in the British Army and among the Americans, in well-publicized cases in Iraq among others.

But what of the Israeli Defense Forces, much criticized by Judge Goldstone, others in the UN, many humanitarian organizations and the international media for alleged human rights abuses and their disregard for the lives of non-combatants in Gaza? The IDF during Operation Cast Lead took extraordinary measures to safeguard the rights of Palestinian civilians, some of which could be instructive for other armies.

Commanders on the ground went to great lengths to accurately pinpoint mobile Hamas targets, such as rocket launchers. Using sophisticated air and ground-based surveillance, including the latest infra-red systems, they carefully triangulated firing positions. When possible, the IDF gave at least four hours’ notice to civilians to leave areas thus targeted. Target engagement was carried out using precise sighting systems to achieve accuracy and reduce the chances of collateral damage.

Attack helicopter pilots, tasked with destroying Hamas mobile weapons platforms, had discretion to abort a strike if there was too great a risk of civilian casualties in the area. Many missions that could have taken out Hamas military capability were cancelled because of this.

During the conflict, the IDF allowed huge amounts of humanitarian aid, supplied by the Israeli state, into Gaza. This sort of task is regarded by military tacticians as risky and dangerous in the best of times. To mount such operations, to deliver aid virtually into your enemy’s hands, is to the military tactician quite unthinkable. Yet the IDF took those risks.

Israel’s border crossing at Erez remained open for casualties to come out of Gaza. In the latter stages of Cast Lead, the IDF unilaterally announced a daily three-hour cease-fire. In agreeing to this, the IDF knew these pauses would give Hamas vital time and space to re-group, re-equip and re-deploy for future attacks.

The IDF dropped over 900,000 leaflets warning the population of impending attacks—to allow them to leave designated areas. Leaflets also urged the people to phone in information to pinpoint Hamas fighters, thereby providing vital intelligence that could save innocent lives. The IDF phoned over 30,000 Palestinian households in Gaza, urging them in Arabic to leave homes where Hamas might have stashed weapons or be preparing to fight. In addition to this, the IDF broke into radio transmissions in Gaza to warn, in the Arabic language, of the locations of planned operations in Gaza, to enable civilians to leave the area.

Despite Israel’s remarkable measures, innocent civilians were killed and wounded as a result of the frictions of war I have outlined. Of course, many of these tragic deaths were an inevitable consequence of Hamas’s way of fighting. Not only was Hamas’s military capability deliberately positioned behind the human shield of the civilian population, they also ordered—forced, when necessary—men, women and children from their own population to stay in places they knew were about to be or likely to be attacked by the IDF.

Eyes wide open

The business of fighting in urban areas is tough, partly because of the need to minimize civilian casualties. It is a sad fact that significant numbers of civilian casualties will continue to occur as long as groups like Hamas use the civilian population as a defensive shield. The Goldstone report, however well intentioned, only serves to validate the strategy of these groups.

Make no mistake. Hamas and others like it will have read Judge Goldstone’s report. They will weigh its judgments and realize that, far from being viewed by the world as cowardly and murderous, the practice of hiding behind women and children and maximizing civilian casualties is very much in their interest.


Colonel Richard Kemp, CBE, was the commander of British Forces in Afghanistan in 2003. His book, Attack State Red, an account of military operations in Afghanistan, was published by Penguin in September 2009.