Pushed by Goldstone, Israeli army embraces new ‘smart’ warfare

By Leslie Susser, JTA JERUSALEM

Despite Israel’s rejection of the Goldstone report on the Gaza war a year-and-a-half ago, the international criticism it engendered has led the Israel Defense Forces to make a number of significant changes in policy and doctrine.

And they’ll stay even though Richard Goldstone has recanted one of the most significant findings of his committee’s report – that Israel intentionally targeted civilians and may have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza.

Among the changes made by the IDF were modifying the way soldiers fight in urban areas, teaching relatively low-level combat officers nuances in the laws of war, attaching humanitarian liaison officers to active forces and making media relations a priority.

Last May, eight months after the Goldstone report was released, the IDF issued a new document defining rules of engagement in urban warfare. Although the ideas elaborated long had been standard practice, putting them down in writing was tantamount to introducing a new doctrine for fighting in built-up areas.

The document noted that during the Gaza operation, even after every effort had been made to induce civilians to evacuate areas where combat was expected – for example, by dropping fliers and making direct telephone calls to area residents – more often than not some non-combatants stayed behind.

The new doctrine requires that after efforts have been made to warn the civilian population to leave, the incoming troops first fire warning shots and give the remaining civilians a chance to leave safely. Then, to minimize casualties among civilians who nevertheless choose to stay, IDF fighters and commanders must use the most accurate weapons at their disposal and choose munitions of relatively low impact.

The IDF also has taken significant legal steps.

Officer training courses at company, battalion and brigade levels now include detailed study of international law, with special reference to the rules of war. The Military Advocate General’s Office and the Foreign Ministry consult regularly with foreign governments and international organizations to ensure that all IDF operations conform to accepted legal norms.

During the monthlong Gaza War in the winter of 2008-09, legal advisers from the Military Advocate General’s Office served with combat forces, advising commanders in real time of what might constitute a breach of law. In January 2010, then Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi standardized this practice, instructing commanders to consult with legal advisers not only in the planning stages of military operations, but also during the actual fighting.

To prevent possible loss of military focus, however, Ashkenazi ordered that the legal advisers be sent to divisional headquarters rather than battalions or brigades, as is common in some other Western armies.

Another step the IDF has taken to help minimize civilian casualties and humanitarian distress on the other side is to attach humanitarian liaison officers to troops in the field. The officers come from a pool set up by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, and are in regular contact with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and international aid organizations in Gaza.

Their task in the event of hostilities is to help coordinate humanitarian needs on the Palestinian side and to point out locations of sensitive facilities like hospitals, schools and U.N. aid centers to ensure that they are not mistakenly targeted. Such officers were assigned during the Gaza War on an ad hoc basis and, according to the IDF, proved very effective.

As a result, Ashkenazi decided in February 2010 to refine and institutionalize the system.

The most radical change in IDF thinking since Goldstone has been in the realm of media relations. Now there is a firm consensus in the army that the way military actions are perceived is at least as important as their physical impact.

Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu, the Israeli army’s outgoing spokesman, is fond of quoting the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen’s dictum that whereas public relations once was supplemental to battle, now battle is supplemental to PR.

More than ever, IDF generals agree, all operations must now be planned with media, legal and international legitimacy aspects in mind. To instill more media savvy, the IDF Spokesperson’s Office routinely sends its mobile communications’ school unit from one combat unit to the next teaching officers to get their messages across in 20-second sound bites. Moreimportant, trained media officers are now attached to combat units.

This means that in future combat situations, commanders will have legal, humanitarian and media advice on tap.

Not everyone is happy with the changes. Some say it will make it difficult for the Israeli army to operate in combat situations and won’t prevent the next Goldstone report because, they say, war is always ugly, brutal and destructive.

Nevertheless, it seems that in the post-Goldstone era, with Israel under severe international scrutiny, the IDF is determined to do all it can to uphold the strictest standards of international law.

Moreover, the IDF is collaborating with some of the human rights organizations critical of its actions to make sure cases of alleged IDF misconduct are handled appropriately. Last July, the military advocate general, Avichai Mendelblit, singled out B’Tselem, which monitors Israeli actions against Palestinians, for thanks.

“Between the military and various human rights organizations, there is constant dialogue,” IDF spokesman Capt. Barak Raz told the Forward newspaper last year.

Another inkling of the IDF’s heightened legal sensitivity came earlier this month, when the Israeli army notified the Supreme Court that any Palestinian civilian deaths in the West Bank caused by the IDF in noncombat situations will now automatically spark a criminal investigation.

Under the old policy, the army first conducted a fact-finding field inquiry to decide whether or not to open a criminal file, laying itself open to charges that the “fact-finding” often was simply a ruse to block criminal proceedings. Now such criminal investigations will be mandatory.

In what American military strategist Edward Luttwak has dubbed “the post-heroic era,” the IDF finds itself hampered by two major constraints: care not to conduct operations that might incur international censure or operations that could lead to heavy Israeli military casualties.

Sometimes the two principles are at odds, as when Israeli ground forces used heavy fire in the Gaza War to avoid casualties, and in so doing put Palestinian civilian lives at risk. But often they are complementary, as in the IDF’s reluctance to commit ground troops unless absolutely necessary.

Part of the solution to the post-Goldstone dilemma lies in technology. For example, using super-accurate munitions that can pinpoint terrorist targets, pilotless planes that can identify and attack would-be rocket launchers, and active defense systems like the Iron Dome – anti-missile batteries that last week downed several Grad rockets launched from Gaza. The system simultaneously located their launch points, enabling immediate attacks on the militiamen firing them.

These capabilities enabled Israel to cool the latest Gaza flare-up without incurring international opprobrium or risking soldiers’ lives.

In other words, the Goldstone report and its international ramifications have pushed the IDF into a process of self-examination resulting in a new doctrine of “fighting smart” from operational, legal, humanitarian and media points of view.