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Friday, July 31, 2009

IDF report on Operaton Cast Lead

The IDF has released an official report on Operation Cast Lead. It is a seemingly exhaustive document, 159 pages long, that addresses every specific criticism of IDF activities during the war. (Even so, the IDF promises to release more information as investigations are still going on.)

The report describes the circumstances of every specific incident of major civilian casualties, attacks that damaged UN facilities, and attacks on mosques. It candidly admits its mistakes and why those mistakes were made. It describes the IDF methodology of investigating the incidents, the legal foundations for its actions, and a huge amount of background information that was previously not available or easily found.

Some interesting highlights:

In the worst incident of the war, where the al-Daia family was killed, the IDF intended to destroy the house next door to them, which was a weapons depot:
The IDF has concluded that this tragic event was the result of an operational error. An investigation determined that the IDF intended to strike a weapons’ storage facility located in a building next to this residence. However, the IDF erroneously targeted the Al-Daia residence, rather than the weapons storehouse. Although the IDF did provide warning shots to the roof of the Al-Daia residence, other warnings (such as the warning phone call) were made to the building actually containing the weapons, not the Al-Daia residence.


The IDF didn't target Nizar Rayyan, even though he would have been a legitimate target:
During this episode, which was widely reported by NGOs, Ri’an and members of his family were killed in an aerial strike that hit their home. Ri’an was a senior Hamas operative, but he was not the target of the attack, although the IDF legitimately could have treated him as a military target due to his central role in planning and executing terrorist attacks. Instead, the operational goal of the strike was to destroy Hamas’ central compound in the Jabaliya refugee camp. The compound included several buildings that served as storage sites for large quantity of sophisticated weapons. The IDF limited the planned attack to the weapons storage site and did not seek to injure or harm Ri’an or, of course, any members of his family.

In an effort to ensure that it destroyed only the storage facilities, and did not harm civilians residing in the buildings, the IDF issued several warnings before the attack. These included not only general leaflets and telephone calls, alerting civilians to avoid facilities serving Hamas and other terrorist groups, but specific phone calls to the residents of the targeted buildings, notifying them of the planned strike and warning them to evacuate the premises. The IDF also fired two separate rounds of preliminary warning shots with light weapons, 13 minutes and 9 minutes before the strike, providing sufficient time for residents to evacuate. The residents evidently understood these early warnings, as a group of them did leave the building, a fact confirmed by IDF surveillance before proceeding with the strike. The IDF observed this group evacuation and drew the reasonable conclusion that the buildings (including Ri’an’s house) were empty. Only then did the IDF launch the strike.

Following the strike, secondary explosions were visible. This confirmed that Hamas used the buildings for weapons storage, and therefore it was a legitimate military objective according to the Law of Armed Conflict. Only later was it discovered that, Ri’an and his family chose to remain in the building after others had evacuated, leading to their death.
The IDF similarly describes its use of white phosphorus as a smokescreen, the specific military advantages it gave them, and the carefulness of when deciding to use it:
Hamas’ anti-tank units, equipped with advanced anti-tank missiles, were operating in this
area. These units were located mainly near the northern side of the UNRWA compound,
so that the compound was placed between Hamas’ anti-tank units and IDF forces. The
threat to Israeli forces was credible and imminent.

The IDF’s primary rationale for deploying smoke screening munitions containing white
phosphorous was to produce a smokescreen to protect Israeli forces from the Hamas antitank
crews operating adjacent to the UNRWA headquarters. Such a smokescreen has
proven an effective response to the anti-tank threat, since it effectively blocks the enemy’s
field of view and prevents it from using visual observation tools (including infra-red). As
discussed in Section V.D(3)(a)(i) below, the IDF’s use of the standard smoke projectile —
which is commonly found in the arsenal of other armed forces of States worldwide — is
lawful for this purpose.

The smokescreen created during the fighting in Tel al-Hawa was effective in achieving its
military objectives. It prevented most of Hamas’ attempts to launch anti-tank missiles,
although one missile did hit an IDF tank. Hamas’ anti-tank units, which are mobile, had to
change their positions in order to be able to attack IDF forces. In the absence of the
smoke-screen, the fight would have continued in this area, and the IDF would have had to
use reactive fire to engage anti-tank units, with the likelihood of greater civilian harm.
The report is filled with such details about controversial incidents. The impression one gets overall is that the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty reports criticizing Israel were written by people who have little experience in how actual wars are fought. They make sweeping statements saying that there was no legitimate reason for the IDF to have acted in certain ways without knowing what they are talking about. They automatically assume that the IDF is acting maliciously or negligently despite the IDF's incredible (and improving) record of dealing with civilians in a war zone, which is second to none. As the IDF writes:
The final core proposition that runs through this Paper is that, while the principles of
customary international law may be “basic” and can be simply stated, they nevertheless
must be applied with analytical rigor. Reports by non-governmental organisations and
rapporteurs and committees acting under mandates from international organisations too
often jump from reporting tragic incidents involving the death or injury of civilians during
armed combat, to the assertion of sweeping conclusions within a matter of hours, days or
weeks, that the reported casualties ipso facto demonstrate violations of international law,
or even “war crimes.” Often, these leaps of logic bypass the most basic steps, such as
identification of the specific legal obligation at issue and explanation of how it was
violated. The depth of feeling in the face of civilian losses is understandable, but it does
not excuse this rush to judgment. It is a fundamental precept of the rule of law that any
legal inquiry about events relating to armed conflicts cannot assume the conclusion,
particularly a conclusion that — as shown below — proper application of the law does not
sustain.


The IDF report goes into aspects of international law, into details of Hamas war crimes, and into most other relevant information about the operation. It is well worth reading for anyone who wants to know all sides of the story.

Another fascinating detail uncovered in the report of particular interest to this blog was a footnote referring to a Hebrew report that determined that over 90% of all "police" killed in Gaza were in fact terrorists, far higher than the 67% we have identified. A synopsis of its findings are here (autotranslated), the actual report listing all the names of the terrorists in Hebrew is here. (The file downloads as a ZIP file but it is a PDF file; rename it and then you can view it.)

(h/t t34zakat)