Israel far exceeded its responsibilities under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) when battling Hamas in the summer of 2014. According to an October 2015 assessment by a respected international group of retired military and defense officials, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) made “unprecedented efforts” to avoid civilian casualties during Operation Protective Edge.
The High Level Military Group—composed of senior military experts from Australia, Colombia, France, Germany, India, Italy, The United Kingdom, the United States, and Spain—was formed in early 2015 to independently investigate Israel’s conduct during the conflict in the larger context of adding “a professional military and legal element to debates about warfare in the 21st Century, which at times have been ill-informed and politicized, and which are of vital importance to our own armies and alliance partners.” Most of these experts had no prior connection with the Jewish state, and participants included a former chairman of the NATO military committee, a former chief of staff of the Italian army, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large on war crimes and a former director-general of the Indian Defense Intelligence Agency.
The group’s findings contradicted those reported by the notoriously anti-Israel United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), which previously had concluded that Israel violated international law, had unclear objectives and did not do enough to protect Gaza’s civilians. It is also the second independent investigation led by former military officials to strongly endorse Israeli ethics during the conflict. In March 2015, the Jewish Institute on National Security (JINSA) released a report with similar findings to HLMG.
“Members of the High Level Military Group, many of whom had never visited the country prior to our fact-finding visits were united in their view that Israel’s efforts were entirely justified, appropriately conceived and lawfully carried out, and necessary in the defense of that country’s national security,” concluded the HLMG report. “It is further our view that in the overall conduct of its campaign, the IDF not only met its obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict, but often exceeded them, both on the battlefield and in the humanitarian relief efforts that accompanied its operation.”
Israel did not want this conflict, Hamas did.
According to the HLMG, Israel did not seek out a fight with Hamas, it sought to deter the terrorist organization from launching indiscriminate rocket attacks into the Jewish state. “Israel communicated its desire for de-escalation to Hamas through third-party intermediaries and public diplomacy, before ultimately being forced to launch an operation to defend itself against the untenable threat to its population from Hamas’s rocket and tunnel assaults,” wrote the HLMG. Further, the HLMG stated, “No country would accept the threat against its civilian population that these rockets present to Israeli population centers.”
The report states that Israel only engaged militarily when its attempts at de-escalation failed. The assault began as an aerial mission limited to halting indiscriminate Hamas rocket fire. But when the danger posed to Israeli civilians by Hamas’s underground tunnel network was fully realized, the operation turned into an “appropriately narrow and clearly defined” ground operation to locate and destroy the tunnels. The IDF’s ground force operations were contained to a limited territorial area and did not enter into Gaza territory further than three kilometers.
Hamas, on the other hand, provoked Israel in hopes that it would fuel a larger conflict—and it rejected overtures to de-escalate the situation, according to the report. The Arab Spring had caused a severe shakeup of Middle Eastern paradigms and alliances, with Hamas finding itself “in a position of considerable strategic isolation, a predicament which was a major contributing factor to the renewed outbreak of hostilities.” So, it sought “a major violent escalation intended to significantly improve its position vis-à-vis Israel, its relationship with the Palestinian Authority, its external sponsors and its own population.”
The conflict began on July 7 and ended on Aug. 26, 2015. And in the end, Hamas agreed to terms in a final ceasefire agreement that were basically identical to those offered in a July 15, 2015, Egyptian-negotiated ceasefire proposal to which Israel had agreed prior to its ground operation.
Israel actively protected Gaza’s civilians, Hamas actively endangered them.
The HLMG found Israel’s conduct during the conflict, as it relates to the protection of Gaza’s civilians, to exceed what they would expect from their own militaries. The report cited that in many cases, the IDF took on significant risk at the peril of its own soldiers, and with a high tactical cost, in order to avoid civilian casualties. “It fought under restrictive Rules of Engagement and it is obvious that instances existed throughout the conflict where the IDF did not attack lawful military objectives on account of a deliberate policy of restraint…It further used its formidable intelligence capability in an effort to contain its action as closely as possible to Hamas’s assets and protect the civilian population…”
The report specifically cites Israel’s extensive intelligence apparatus and pre-strike measures as having had a significant impact on reducing civilian casualties. As a result of its accurate and thorough intelligence, the IDF was able to separate Hamas’s military assets from civilian infrastructure with “unprecedented” accuracy, and “contain its action as closely as possible to Hamas’s assets and protect the civilian population amid which these were purposely and unlawfully embedded.” The report also detailed Israel’s “thorough protocol” to warn civilians prior to a military strike, including dropping leaflets, making radio announcements, telephone calls and text messages, and communicating via third parties such as U.N. agencies. These efforts were in addition to what the IDF terms a “knock on the roof,” a practice where a projectile small enough not to cause structural damage or bodily injury is exploded on the roof of a target in order to warn those around that a strike is forthcoming. “It is our assessment that the procedures the IDF deploys in order to give prior warning of an attack are extensive and well conceived.”
While Israel actively tried to help civilians, Hamas actively tried to exploit and endanger them. The HLMG concluded that not only did Hamas disregard the safety of civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel, but its military strategy intentionally put both populations in harm’s way. Hamas launched up to 4,000 rockets and mortars “deliberately and indiscriminately” at Israeli civilian populations during the conflict hoping Israel would retaliate. And Hamas’s strategy of embedding its military structure among its own civilians showed “a flagrant disregard for LOAC and the safety of its own population…” Hamas encouraged the use of human shields to avert strikes on its military infrastructure. At the beginning of the conflict, a senior Hamas spokesman asked about this tactic responded, “The policy of people confronting the Israeli warplanes with their bare chests…has proven effective…We in Hamas call upon our people to adopt this policy.” Training guides seized by the IDF also showed how Hamas fighters should deliberately use civilians as cover for combat operations and how to hide weapons in civilian areas.
Indeed, evident in Hamas’s strategic concept is the active encouragement of harm to its own civilians. Hamas understands clearly that it benefits from harm to its own civilians not only in seeking to galvanise Palestinians for its war on Israel, but rather by pursuing an asymmetric strategy aimed at the court of international public opinion, where Hamas’s tactic of drawing Israel into fighting in civilian urban areas with the resultant casualties and television pictures is a targeted attempt to erode Israel’s legitimacy at the cost of Gaza’s civilian population, whom Hamas’s strategy thus purposefully endangers.
Israel exceeded its humanitarian responsibilities, and Hamas tried to obstruct those efforts.
Israel launched an extensive campaign of humanitarian support for the civilian population of Gaza throughout the duration of the conflict, “Despite clearly aiding Hamas” and which the report called “an extremely rare historical occurrence…” The report states that during the conflict, Israel’s office for the Coordination and Liaison Administration for the Gaza Strip (CLA) facilitated the passage of a total of 5,637 trucks transporting 122,757 tons of supplies from Israel into Gaza, and supported the entry of 71 doctors and nearly 200 ambulances, as well as the establishment of a field hospital at the Erez crossing for injured Gazan civilians. The IDF also helped evacuate those seeking medical attention at the facility. And in order to ensure that all this happened in an effective manner, “the IDF set up a sophisticated coordinating structure incorporating military, NGO and civilian representatives during the conflict.” Eighty-nine Civilian Affairs Officers (CAO), a program created by CLA in 2010, were also integrated into combat units to advise commanders in regard to operational aspects as related to humanitarian matters—all of the CAOs were fluent in Arabic.
The IDF also set up an Infrastructure Coordination Centre—operating 24 hours a day throughout the conflict—to maintain Gaza’s critical infrastructure needs, including fuel, electricity, water and sewage and communications. “Israel appears to have made a substantial effort to facilitate the preservation, repair, or import of the necessary components to ensure an acceptable level of supply,” cited the report. In total, Israel facilitated 782 truckloads of various fuels and gas into Gaza, made 22 repairs to water infrastructure, three repairs to the sewage system and 13 repairs to communications infrastructure. Israel also donated large amounts of rice, flour, sugar, cooking oil and bottled water to alleviate civilian suffering.
The report reveals that Hamas devoted time and resources to prevent Israeli aid from reaching Gaza residents. “We were further alarmed by incidents that point to an effort by Hamas to actively obstruct Israel’s humanitarian efforts during the conflict,” wrote the HLMG. Specifically, Hamas and other Palestinian factions opened fire at the Kerem and Erez crossings intending to halt the transfer of humanitarian aid, leading to fatalities, injuries and delays in delivering assistance. Much of the aid Israel provided had to be provided in secret for fear of being targeted by Hamas and it had to be rid of any markings indicating origins in Israel so that Hamas would allow the supplies to enter. Further, the HLMG found that Palestinian civilians feared execution by Hamas for cooperating with Israel. And lastly, the terrorist group also sought to prevent civilians from obtaining medical care at Israel’s field hospital.
The HLMG concluded its report with a clear viewpoint: Israel acted within, and at times exceeded, the Law of Armed Conflict. In fact, the Israeli government and IDF used all of the resources at its disposal to keep Gaza’s civilian population as safe as possible and to limit collateral damage. All civilian casualties are deeply unfortunate, but given Hamas’ penchant for nesting within civilian population centers, the Palestinian casualties that resulted are not indicative of Israel’s intentions (nor necessarily its actions).
In addition, the HLMG determined that Hamas made no attempt to follow LOAC, including intentionally endangering its own population, and that it abused Israel’s adherence to the code for operational gain. And finally, regarding previous reports on the conflict, the HLMG stated:
Without seeking to deny the necessity or discourage in any way the practice of appropriate formal and informal checks and balances on warfare in the international system, we further note that in reviewing commentary from the United Nations Human Rights Council, a number of NGOs such as Amnesty International, and sections of the media commentary on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, there are stark, unwarranted condemnations of the IDF’s conduct that do not accord with our own examination. We believe that where ideological motivation can be discounted, the principle for this disparity is the absence of the appropriate military and legal expertise and judgement in much of this commentary.
Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report