In the 1982 Lebanon war I served as an Israeli artillery forward observer, my task to pinpoint the PLO’s positions and call in fire from our artillery units. We stayed in the evacuated Al Jamous School, overlooking Beirut. The routine was simple enough: I would pop into the classroom next door from where I would collect the co-ordinates and description of my military targets: “a military camp”, “a mortar”, “an antenna”. I would then return to my room and, looking out of the windows, I would direct our fire on the targets.
From time to time I would pause to let the air force get in to drop its munitions; and the navy would fire from the sea. Beirut, in the summer of 1982, was all burning up – a city on fire.
There was a purpose to this massive bombardment: to hit Yasser Arafat’s guerrilla force and its weapons – and also put pressure on the Lebanese, particularly those living inside Beirut with no water, food and electricity, so they demanded Arafat get out of Beirut which would then stop our assault.
In the end, a Lebanese military officer by the name of Jonny Abdu confronted Arafat who left Lebanon and moved to Tunisia.
Looking back now, I’m appalled by our brutal bombing of Beirut. Was it justified to turn this beautiful city into a Middle Eastern Dresden and kill hundreds of innocent civilians in the process?
Now to Gaza where, like in 1982 Beirut, the Israeli army is using overwhelming military power to locate and destroy Hamas’s tunnels, to stop them firing rockets into Israel – and also to put pressure on the Gazans (as we had pressured the Beirutis) so they turn their backs on Hamas as a political force.
In the process, just as in Lebanon, hundreds of innocent Palestinians have been killed and parts of Gaza, as some sections of 1982 Beirut, have been turned into wastelands. Even worst, UN schools in Gaza which are shelters to more than 250,000 refugees, and their hospitals have also been hit by Israeli artillery and bombs.
Can anything be done so that in the next round between Israel and Hamas, which is inevitable, there would be fewer innocent civilian casualties?
The answer to this question is yes. It is indeed possible to reduce the number of casualties on the Palestinian side, but this would require a modification of the Israeli army’s rules of engagement, namely the way it operates, particularly when in close proximity to schools, hospitals and other shelters.
For example, as an artillery officer I know that even now – with advanced technologies – artillery fire is unreliable. As an artillery forward observer, I always looked up to the sky, praying my shells hit the targets and not land on my head. Artillery shells have a strange habit of going astray.
In 1996, in southern Lebanon, wayward Israeli artillery shells landed on a UN compound near the village of Qana, killing 106 innocent people. In the current Gaza war many of the innocent casualties were victims of artillery shells landing in the wrong place. What’s needed here is to ensure that heavy artillery is not used in Gaza’s urban areas – particularly not near schools and hospitals.
As for Israeli attacks from the air, at the moment, Israeli pilots, or those who dispatch them, can choose from a range of bombs weighing from 250-1,000kg. They often opt for the latter, as they are big enough to destroy the target completely – and the pilots are confident they can hit the target accurately, as they often do.
The problem is that the collateral damage of such big bombs is catastrophic in densely populated Gaza; it destroys not only the intended targets but also causes massive damage to nearby structures and kills non-combatants. Such big bombs must be banned altogether from being used in the vicinity of shelters, schools and hospitals.
Finally, certain practices employed by the Israeli army should not be allowed to be used, most notably the “Hannibal Protocol”, which is the IDF’s procedure for preventing soldiers from falling into enemy hands.
The Hannibal Protocol is yet another product of Israel’s Lebanon wars: a procedure to be used in the first minutes and hours after a possible abduction of an Israeli soldier. It calls on the military to dramatically escalate attacks in the vicinity of any kidnapping – to strike at bridges, roads, houses, cars – everything, in fact, to prevent the captors from disappearing with the abducted soldier.
When the IDF thought – wrongly as it turned out - that one of its officers had been abducted by Hamas in the southern Gaza Strip, the Hannibal protocol was activated to a most devastating effect. The army used everything at its disposal – tanks, artillery, aeroplanes, drones – and pounded vast areas in Rafah, causing enormous damage, killing and wounding scores of innocent Palestinians.
The brutal Hannibal procedure seems to me to break all rules of war. It should be thrown out of the window and never used again in Gaza.
What will ultimately stop the death of innocent Palestinians and Israelis is a peace deal putting an end to the conflict. But in the meantime, a modification of the Israeli rules of engagement could reduce the number of innocent casualties.
In 2010, following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip which resulted in hundreds of Palestinian casualties, the IDF produced a document calling on military commanders, operating in densely populated areas, to “exercise judgement and use more accurate weapons, or lower-impact weapons”.
It seems, judging from the sheer number of Palestinian casualties in the current Gaza war, that the Israelis are not following their own rules – or the rules were produced at the time as a PR exercise to silence international criticism.
There’s no reason to think the Israelis couldn’t change their rules, though. We have international conventions banning, for instance, the use of chemical weapons in war, so it is possible, I believe, to also prohibit the use of heavy artillery, big bombs and cruel procedures in densely populated areas such as the Gaza Strip. After all, it is also in Israel’s interest, as the horrific pictures coming out of the Gaza Strip ruin the country’s already tarnished reputation.