by Yagil Henkin
It is said that the term "civil war" is an oxymoron; civil war, a term including guerilla wars and counter -insurgency operations tends to be, as T.E. Lawrence famously wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, "Like trying to eat soup with a knife." That is, long, dirty and messy. The same can be said for urban warfare, whether between conventional armies or non-state organizations. Civilians populate the battlefront, the enemy is invisible, and visibility is almost zero. To this day, battles fought in densely populated urban areas have inevitably resulted in heavy collateral damage and civilian deaths. For example, it is estimated that during the Second Battle of Falujah in 2004, at least 7,000 out of the city's 50,000 buildings were totally destroyed, and many more were heavily damaged. The number of civilian deaths is not known; some claim 6,000, while US Marines Expeditionary Force 1 Commander Lt. General John Sattler has estimated that a mere 1,500 civilians (and 5,000 terrorists) remained in the city during the battle.
In addition, urban fighting has a tendency to evoke allegations in its aftermath, often unjustified. Sometimes it seems that human rights organizations and other observers ignore the complexities of urban warfare; they prefer to see a story of good versus evil – perhaps in hopes of minimizing the suffering of civilians. But by ignoring the complexity of such battles, these organizations tend to bring about unintentional results.
Listening to human rights organizations in April of 2002, one was easily convinced that
In retrospect, one has to wonder: If the Jenin battle was "horrific beyond belief" despite the very low percentage of civilians killed (relative to other modern urban battles), what would Larsen say about the IDF’s ’08-’09 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, during which, in absolute numbers, more civilians were killed, even if, according to the IDF, their percentage was still relatively low?
In Jenin, the IDF began using tanks only after forty hours of battle, and employed bulldozers to create safe passageways only after an ambush killed thirteen IDF soldiers. No artillery was used, and no bombs were dropped. In contrast, Cast Lead was a more conventional military operation: the IDF used artillery, smart bombs and other forms of military arsenal. The results, accordingly, were much more devastating. According to the Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi, at least 600 people were killed, with both the IDF and Hamas claiming the number at least twice as much. (The IDF claims most were armed terrorists, while Hamas and some human rights organizations claim most were civilians.)
Why the difference in magnitude?
Third, during Defensive Shield the IDF made extraordinary efforts, relative to other western forces fighting urban battles, to prevent collateral damage. The initial plan for entering Jenin required D-9 bulldozers to demolish homes and create two corridors inside the refugee camp. This plan was rejected; the upper echelons of IDF command and
The "Jenin massacre" lie was refuted, but films like Muhammed Bachri's "Jenin, Jenin" (where claims are made that "the Nazis did not do things like this," and a montage creates the false impression of an Israeli armored vehicle running over POWs), or Amnesty's 2002 report "Shielded From Scrutiny: IDF Violations in Jenin and Nablus" created the impression that Israel was responsible for the worst imaginable atrocities. Amnesty, it should be noted, consciously writes reports, as Stathis Kalyvas wrote in The Logic of Violence in Civil War (2006), in a way "such that […] could not yield a document that could be comparative across countries within a single year or by country across the years". In other words, Amnesty does not want to measure human rights violations against each other, thus allowing reports to exaggerate in one country while ignoring another, without any standard way to compare reports. In short, if everything is a crime, then nothing is a crime.
But this is nothing compared to Janine di Giovanni from the London Times, who claimed that "Rarely in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life." This is a ludicrous claim, considering that the lowest estimates of civilian deaths in the 1995 battle of Grozny in Chechnya were 6,000, or that Sierra Leone’s civil war caused the death of tens of thousands of civilians while two million were displaced and tens of thousands more were attacked with machetes.
One thing was clear to the IDF after Defensive Shield: It would get bad press either way. Endangering soldiers more than international law required was illogical, since the IDF would be blamed one way or another. The wholesale condemnation of the IDF in the wake of Defensive Shield, combined with bereaved families feeling that their sons were sacrificed in order to save face, contributed to the IDF taking a different approach during Cast Lead.
While the IDF still caused less collateral damage and civilian casualties than, say, the Americans did during the second battle of Falujah, the Israeli military was less prepared to take chances. True enough, tactics such as phoning to warn Hamas leaders to evacuate their families before bombs were dropped on their homes (and arms caches hidden there) were the norm during Cast Lead (although considered abnormal by any other military logic). In another instance, a missile was diverted from its target after the terrorist ran into a civilian crowd. At the same time, some charges against
Yet it remains true that while
If you not only act in accordance with international law but go above and beyond the legal requirements to minimize collateral damage, while paying the price in soldiers' lives, yet are still blamed for "massacres," and, as a result, are treated worse than countries that have committed massacres, the incentives to make this extra effort are inconsequential. Organizations that blame
Yagil Henkin, an associate fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, explains why international human rights organizations damage their own agendas.
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