Learning from Israel’s past Gaza Strip invasions
“A political resolution that addresses the roots of the conflict is the only way to defend Israel’s borders and citizens” writes a former Israeli soldier
Over five weeks have passed since Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel. Whole families were executed, toddlers were slaughtered, women were raped, victims were tortured and dismembered. Approximately 1,200 people were killed, most of them civilians, and 240 Israelis and other nationals were taken hostage in Gaza. Since then, Hamas has been firing rockets daily at cities and towns in Israel, while Israel has engaged in aerial and artillery bombardments of the Gaza Strip.
On 27 October, Israel commenced its ground invasion, which is still ongoing. According to the UN, around 11,000 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip so far, 1.5 million people have been displaced, and 45% of Gaza’s housing units have been destroyed or damaged.
At Breaking the Silence, we spent several years studying testimonies of soldiers who served in previous Israeli campaigns in Gaza. Looking back can help us see more clearly the choices we face today.
Israel’s past military campaigns in Gaza were conducted according to two main principles.
The first principle is sometimes referred to as ‘zero risk to our forces’. It gives the highest priority to the safety of Israeli combatants. This may sound reasonable enough, but the principle also maintains that the soldiers should be made safer by transferring the risk to civilians in Gaza, even if they are not involved in hostilities.
The second principle is known as ‘the Dahiya doctrine’, named after a neighborhood in Beirut that was heavily bombed by Israel in the 2006 Lebanon War. The Dahiya doctrine maintains that, in an asymmetrical conflict against a non-state actor, a period of calm can be achieved by causing disproportionate damage to military assets and civilian infrastructure and properties. Such response would create deterrence and turn the civilian population against the non-state organization that operates from its territory.
These two principles — ‘zero risk’ and Dahiya - have shaped every aspect of Israel’s military campaigns in Gaza since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9.
Consider a few examples:
On 21 October the Israeli army dropped leaflets on northern Gaza, warning residents to leave immediately, declaring their lives at risk and explicitly stating that “anyone who chooses not to leave from the north of the [Gaza] Strip to south of Wadi Gaza may be determined an accomplice in a terrorist organization”. Evacuation warnings such as this one were also used in previous military campaigns in Gaza. Civilians who resided in areas the ground forces were meant to invade were ordered to leave their homes.
After the time allotted for evacuation, these areas suffered heavy aerial and artillery fire, the purpose of which was often to “soften” the area: to repel enemy combatants, to destroy structures that might pose a threat to the ground forces, and to convey to civilians who have failed to obey the evacuation order that they have no business being there. As far as Israel was concerned, the warnings separated civilians from combatants and “converted” civilian areas into battlefields, where there is, supposedly, no need to restrain the use of force.
Thus, the battlefield mentality allowed for more permissive rules of engagement. In “converted” areas, where residents were warned to evacuate, the soldiers’ orders were often not to take chances and to treat everyone as a Hamas militant. Soldiers who served in past ground invasions report being told: “Anyone who’s there, as far as the military is concerned is sentenced to death” and “You shoot anything that moves”.
One soldier explained: “The perception is that anyone you see is a terrorist.” And another said: “They told us: there aren’t supposed to be any civilians. If you identify someone—you shoot them.”
These orders did not mean, and the soldiers did not understand them to mean, that even people who are clearly harmless should be shot; they meant that if there is any doubt that a person is harmless, the person should be treated as hostile. The orders served to protect soldiers against possible threats at the expense of innocent civilians who stayed behind and were determined “accomplices to a terrorist organization,” as the recent leaflets put it.
To fight Hamas inside urban areas, the presumption of innocence which, in the past, guided urban warfare in the IDF, was turned on its head. In Gaza, anyone who does not evacuate is guilty until proven innocent.
Once the conceptual transformation of the villages and neighborhoods into battlefields was completed, the Israeli forces attacked as if fighting a conventional war. Combat engineers and armed bulldozers cleared the path for the ground troops, destroying anything in their way — roads, cars, apartment buildings, agricultural lands.
Merkava tanks moved alongside infantry, constantly firing at anything that seemed like a threat. A soldier describes the bulldozers and the tanks operating in tandem: “[They] fired, destroyed, fired, destroyed, and that’s how we moved… Houses at strategic locations that we were not about to capture, dangerous things. […] They flattened everything.”
Soldiers say there was continuous fire, without break: machine gun fire, mortar fire, M16, artillery, aerial fire. Anything was considered a legitimate target: “You’re in Gaza, you shoot at everything”.
The intense fire was meant to shield the soldiers and the destruction was meant to eliminate possible threats to them. Protecting the soldiers was the highest priority. The devastation of whole neighborhoods was both a byproduct of this protection and, at the same time, one of the goals of the operation, according to the Dahiya doctrine.
Once inside, the forces were tasked with finding and incapacitating Hamas combatants or, as in 2014, finding and demolishing tunnels used by Hamas to invade Israel. Some of the houses the forces raided were turned into temporary headquarters and dorms. When the ground forces finally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, many of the houses in which the soldiers stayed were blown up by military engineers while the neighborhoods they occupied were bombed by the air-force. This was a clear implementation of the Dahiya doctrine, which required destruction of civilian areas independently of any risk to soldiers’ safety. One soldier describes the retreat:
“An hour, or an hour and half before the start of the ceasefire, one swoop after another, aircrafts came in and bombed all the houses that were in some way associated with the enemy … House after house, bombs falling and erasing each house. We were three or four hundred meters away. Once we confirmed that everyone was out, airplanes went in and took them down. The house descends into the ground. Erased. Turns into dust.”
As these examples make clear, the principles that guided Israel’s military operations in Gaza entail increased harm to civilians and severe damage to civilian property and infrastructure. Although past military campaigns did not deter Hamas from resuming hostilities, Israel’s commitment to these principles did not weaken. On the contrary, with each new round of violence, the two principles were interpreted as permitting and recommending even greater use of force and firepower. The lessons drawn from past conflicts were always about the proper application of these principles, never about the validity of the principles themselves. Experience teaches us only what our assumptions allow us to see.
The horrific attack of 7 October made it abundantly clear that Israel’s defence requires a different approach. We should question our assumptions: the lesson we should draw from past conflicts is that force alone cannot afford us Israelis the security we deserve. A political resolution that addresses the roots of the conflict is the only way to defend Israel’s borders and citizens. We must reach binding agreements that secure the rights, security, and freedom of Israelis and Palestinians alike and the self-determination of both people.
Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.
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