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How the IDF Works to Prevent Civilian Casualties

An article published in the latest issue of The Weekly Standard highlighted the IDF’s international law unit, called “Dabla,” and described the lengths the IDF and Dabla go through to avoid civilian casualties when conducting airstrikes.

The IDF uses the first document​—​called a “target card”​—​when commanders prepare strikes against enemy targets. During the Gaza conflict, such targets included a weapons cache hidden on the second floor of a densely populated four-story residential building, a command-and-control center located in a mosque, and a surveillance platform hidden inside a hospital.

Willy Stern, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, explained that after all relevant parties have signed off on the “target card,” the decision on whether or not to attack still rests with the commander. Once a decision is made, the IDF goes to great trouble to keep civilians from harm.

Here are just some of the steps and warnings designed to prevent civilian casualties that might take place before missiles start flying: The IDF may, variously, gather detailed intelligence on who lives in the building; call or text those who reside in a particular building with a warning that a strike is coming; drop Arabic-language leaflets over the area warning residents; fly a drone with sophisticated surveillance cameras overhead, as an extra set of eyes to make sure the civilians have vacated; drop a small charge on the roof which shakes the building, as a final warning signal that a strike is coming; and employ a highly precise and carefully chosen weapon system which, IDF lawyers and commanders hope, would destroy only the weapons cache but not surrounding rooms.

During Operation Protective Edge last year, the IDF used more than 4,000 target cards to guide its operations.

But here’s the kicker: Although most strikes were carried out without harm to innocent bystanders, IDF field commanders nixed other approved strikes in Gaza, despite these multiple layers of precautions to prevent civilian casualties. Why? “There is no symmetry in international law,” says Lt. Col. Robert Noyfield, the Dabla attorney in charge of targeting. “We do it out of moral obligation; we do it for ourselves. We are a democratic country that abides by the rule of law. By doing so, of course, we also hope to avoid criticism from the international community. How can we be faulted when abiding by the law?”

Despite all these precautions, Israel is still subject to criticism for using disproportionate force.

Ironically, the IDF has been criticized in some circles for being too careful. Stern quoted Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg, a distinguished expert on military law at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt, who said that the IDF takes “many more precautions than are required…[it] is setting an unreasonable precedent for other democratic countries of the world who may also be fighting in asymmetric wars against brutal nonstate actors who abuse these laws.”

Stern referred to a report from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), who reviewed Israel’s conduct in the fighting last summer. The JINSA report noted:

Contrary to accusations of widespread unlawful military conduct, we observed that Israel systemically applied established rules of conduct that adhered to or exceeded the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) in a virtually unprecedented effort to avoid inflicting civilian casualties, even when doing so would have been lawfully permitted, and to satisfy the concerns of critics. However, it is the conclusion of this Task Force that Israel’s military restraint unintentionally empowered Hamas to distort both the law and facts for their own purposes to the ultimate detriment of civilians’ safety, for which Hamas bears sole responsibility.

In Everything You Need to Know About International Law and the Gaza War, which was published in the September 2014 issue of The Tower Magazine, David Daoud explained the concept of “necessity” and how it related to Israel’s decision to go to war.

The lawfulness of these actions must be approached contextually. Professor Lung-Chu Chen of New York Law School says that a “developing process of coercion” may reach a point where a victim state must immediately and proportionately respond militarily to protect itself or its citizens. He continues, “Law cannot reasonably ask and expect a target state to wait like a sitting duck to see its own destruction in the face of such danger.” So a war is aggressive, and therefore illegitimate, if the use of force is unjustified by necessity. But what is necessity?

Necessity is a constant assessment—at the onset of hostilities and throughout—of whether defensive armed force is necessary to halt and repel an armed attack, or whether peaceful alternatives exist. The existence of necessity is determined from the context of the events, and exists where an attacker, wanting to harm a country’s sovereignty or sense of security, carries out substantial attacks against the target state. Some scholars argue that only in the case of an “isolated armed attack” must a state reasonably verify the futility of diplomacy and peaceful alternatives before resorting to force; others say that exercising self-defense need not be the final resort at all. As Oscar Schachter, a former president of the American Society of International Law, emphasized, “[a] State is not obliged to turn the other cheek” in the case of an ongoing armed attack. Nor is it obligated to compromise its sovereignty. Only manifested unwillingness to address diplomatic channels, which need only be utilized in good faith, would indicate unlawfulness.

Israel was provoked into launching Protective Edge by continued rocket and mortar fire from Gaza into southern Israel, for which Hamas, as the ruling government in Gaza, is ultimately responsible. Protective Edge grew out of the prior Operation Brother’s Keeper, launched in the West Bank after Hamas operatives from Hebron kidnapped three Israeli teenagers. Hamas denied responsibility (though eventually admitted it), and refused to return the teens. Instead, between July 2 and 7, it launched 230 rockets into Israel. The cycle of escalation led to the launching of Protective Edge on July 8. Additionally, for some time Israel possessed intelligence that Hamas had built a large offensive tunnel network leading into Israel, discovering three of them in 2013.

Israel repeatedly resorted to diplomatic means to achieve the (reasonable) goal of Protective Edge: Ending the increasing threat that Hamas poses to Israel’s security and the lives of its citizens. Israel agreed and adhered to multiple humanitarian ceasefires of varying duration, but Hamas repeatedly violated them, entering them in bad faith and only as a ruse. Hamas said it would not agree to a permanent ceasefire unless its demands were fully met—namely, lifting Israel’s (legal) blockade and opening all crossings to the passage of humans and materiel. Reports indicate that Israel agreed to many of these demands, but Hamas also demanded the re-opening of Gaza’s airport and seaport—expected to serve as an entry point for Iranian weapons—a demand it knows Israel can never accept. Hamas’ bad-faith negotiations and constant refusal to disarm leaves Israel with no option but to fight, making Israeli military action necessary.

So Israel had to go to war. Hamas left Israel with no other choice if Israel wanted to protect the lives and property of its civilians. But even if Israel’s war was necessary, it could still incur guilt for initiating a war of aggression if it responded with comprehensive force to minor Hamas provocations.

[Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Flickr ]