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ICG Risk Blog - [ Israel retakes the Stupid Award from the Palestinians; utter failure of proportionality and necessity in attempting to recover a POW ]

Israel retakes the Stupid Award from the Palestinians; utter failure of proportionality and necessity in attempting to recover a POW


Years ago, after another tit-for-tat atrocity in the Arab-Israeli continuum, I remember a cartoonist rendering a Palestinian rushing into a tent clutching a trophy for stupidity exclaiming words to the effect that , 'Brothers, we have reclaimed the prize from the Israelis.' While the prize has been exchanged many times since, Israel's ongoing gross failure to apply any semblance of proportionality and necessity in its military response to a small but remarkably effective and well-executed Palestinian raid, has insured that Israel reclaimed the prize.

The immediate Palestinian trigger for Israeli reaction, which itself was in response to a series of botched Israeli air strikes whose missiles killed innocent Palestinian bystanders, was a Sunday, 25 June, joint incursion by three Palestinians groups, Izz el-Deen al-Qassam (Hamas' armed wing), the Popular Resistance Committees and the Islamic Army, who executed a "unprecedented" attack on an Israeli frontier post that has stunned Israel with its audacity, professionalism and success:

Israeli officials said on Sunday that the tunnel, which extended from Gaza at least 600 yards and emerged in Israel, behind Israeli lines, had taken many weeks, if not months, to dig. Israel clearly had warnings of an attack and had closed the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza for several days last week for security reasons. That closure meant that the nearby Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza was also shut, since the European monitors for Rafah get there through Kerem Shalom. On Sunday, Israel quickly shut all crossings into Gaza and kept them shut all day, even to journalists, who protested the closure.

The attack took place on an Israeli Army outpost near the Kerem Shalom kibbutz, but not at the crossing point itself. According to reports, about eight Palestinian fighters came out of the tunnel near the spot where Gaza, Israel and Egypt meet at about 5:15 a.m. local time and split into small teams. One group blew up an armored personnel carrier, which was empty, and another threw grenades into an Israeli Merkava tank, killing [two]... [A third crewmember] was seriously wounded and the [Merkava gunner, Gilad Shalit, was captured as a POW.] Antitank missiles were also fired toward the vehicles from Gaza [while two] other Israeli soldiers were also wounded.

A third group moved about a half mile northeast to the outpost near the kibbutz and attacked it. The Palestinians then blew a hole in the fence separating Gaza from Israel and returned to Gaza with Corporal Shalit. Two Palestinians died in the attack...

Israel's response combined the predictable with the extreme. Among the predictable:

  • Agitprop campaign that painted the governing Hamas as the culprit when it was its independent military wing, whose commander resides in Syria, that led the raid, said that the incident was "a wake-up call [for] those in the international community who are talking about whether there is a new, pragmatic Hamas," and that it was "Hamas-terrorist blackmail."
  • Painted Shalit as a pained innocent when he was a combatant on a frontier duty station as the gunner on a Merkava main battle tank, and was in the tank at the time of the attack; described Shalit's abduction as a "kidnapping," inflating the capture itself as a criminal act, when he was a captured POW, no more, no less. (I traced the "kidnapping" comment back to a Reuters attribution to an Israeli mediator on the day of the attack. By the seventh update, Reuters was using "kidnapped soldier" in its headline while the NY Times picked it up the same day, using the term five times in its first item. An examination of NY Times and other western press has shown "kidnapped" or "kidnapping" to be the assumed term rather than POW or prisoner.)
  • Stonewalled any discussion of negotiation even though Israel has previously negotiated for captives, with prisoner exchanges having been made, Israel has commenced its bargaining position as it the potential does not exist. The fear of appearing weak, as much to Israelis sensitive over the Gaza withdrawal as to Palestinians, seems to be painting Israel in the corner of hoping that a hard-line will force Egyptian, French, PLO and other assets to secure Shalit's release:

    Israeli officials immediately rejected the demand from the groups, which include the Popular Resistance Committees; the Army of Islam, a new grouping; and the military wing of Hamas, which is running the Palestinian government. "This is not a matter of negotiations," Mr. Olmert said, "this is not a matter of bargaining." Justice Minister Haim Ramon said: "We have no intention of negotiating with Hamas. We demand that the Palestinian Authority return the kidnapped soldier so we do not have to take very harsh and painful measures."

Part of the Israeli fear could be the repetition of prisoner taking if there are negotiations:

Israeli officials said today that the seizure of a soldier appeared to be a prime aim of the Palestinian raid, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, along with two of the attackers. They said that the militant groups, led by Hamas, were following the model of the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon, and would try to bargain for the release of prisoners...

Israel, while giving some time to diplomacy, felt a deep sense of political urgency and had to consider the damage to its reputation for hard-hitting retaliation if it waited too long. "Israel is prepared to take very serious military action," he said. "The warnings must be taken very seriously. This is not an event to which Israel can turn a blind eye."

While that may be, a blind eye has certainly been turned on the place of necessity and proportionality in restraints on Israel's use of forceful action:

Necessity in Mission Accomplishment. In armed conflict, only that amount of force necessary to defeat the enemy may be employed; any application of force unnecessary to that purpose is prohibited. In short, necessity limits the amount and kind of force permitted to that which is authorized by the law of armed conflict. For example, the unjustified killing of prisoners of war would be illegal under the law of armed conflict; therefore, the concept of necessity would prohibit the use of force for such a purpose. Necessity, or "military necessity," as it is sometimes called, connotes a limitation on the application of military force. It is important to note that military necessity does not mean military expediency. Military expediency may not be used as an excuse to expand the use of force as a matter of necessity in order to sanction violations of protections set forth in the law of armed conflict. Military necessity simply permits commanders to use force to attack lawful military objectives when there is a need to do so. "Lawful military objectives," in turn, are defined as those objectives whose "nature, purpose, or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture, or neutralization at the time offers a definite military advantage." The term "definite military advantage" is often considered the advantage gained by the neutralization of an enemy’s war-fighting and war-sustaining capability. Under this principle, force may lawfully be used, as necessary, against places or things that are being used for a military purpose by an adversary, or against the military personnel of that adversary.

Proportionality in Mission Accomplishment. What constitutes proportional force under the law of armed conflict is very different from what may lawfully be used in self-defense to respond to a hostile act or to a demonstration of hostile intent. The primary difference involves the end state. In war, the goal is to obtain the submission of the adversary through the defeat of the adversary’s military structure or units by overwhelming force. In contrast, self-defense merely allows the use of force to counter the threat posed by an adversary, to ensure the continued safety of one’s own forces, and, where applicable, to deter or modify the future behavior of an adversary (a state or terrorist organization).

The principle of proportionality in the law of armed conflict context also requires that a military response or attack not cause damage to civilian property (collateral damage) or death and injury to civilians (incidental injury) that is excessive in light of the anticipated military advantage. The best decision-making tool available to help the commander determine what constitutes proportionate force for mission accomplishment under the law of armed conflict is the "balancing test." This test weighs the possible harmful effects of the contemplated level of force in terms of incidental injury to civilians and collateral damage to civilian property against the expected military advantage. Incidental injury of civilians or collateral damage to civilian property during an attack on a legitimate military target is lawful if the commanderhaving taken all reasonable precautions to minimize civilian injury and property damage consistent with the accomplishment of the mission and security of the forcecan be judged to have reasonably balanced these unavoidable costs to an enemy’s civilian population and property against the military advantage to be gained.

I fear that recent Israeli actions such as the Gaza withdrawal and national elections, coupled with Israel's traditional sensitivities to any casualty, have left Tel Aviv insensitive to the "ethical requirement to show due regard to the lives of the adversary's military and civilian populace. Military professionals have a:

need and responsibility [to] make civilian leaders clearly aware of the risks (to our forces, and to innocents) and the very real limits of the possible in any use of military force. For the military itself, if a culture is allowed to grow up that makes prevention of friendly casualties a central priority or even a sine qua non expectation, there will be quite serious ethical and political potential risks. Ethically, the drive to protect one’s own forces at all costs can lead military commanders to disregard entirely the ethical requirement to show due regard to the lives of the adversary, both military and civilian.

Personal experience in teaching ethics in warfare to senior military officers indicates that it is extremely difficult in the contemporary environment to get them to grant even the importance of that issue. The military’s cultural expectation that overwhelming force will be used in all circumstances to insure the maximum safety of one’s own forces seriously threatens due regard to considerations of proportionality, military necessity, and discrimination in practice. Such thinking risks overwhelming just war considerations of proportionality and noncombatant immunity in tactical situations of any threat to friendly forces whatsoever.

I am sympathetic to a desire to diminish prisoners - consider the recent sad end to two US captives in Iraq - and protections against it would complicate Israel's posture on the border and other sensitive areas. Conversely, were I Palestinian, I would try to maximize Israeli hostages. That and, I believe, an Israeli fear that it must put Palestinians back in awe of Israeli action, and even have to depose the duly elected Hamas government, has led it to extreme steps that will directly and indirectly prove costly to it:

  • Precipitate a humanitarian crisis by sealing Gaza's borders and bombing the six transformers of the US owned main power plant in Gaza, leaving most of central Gaza City and southern Gaza without power and thereby water. As many as 700,00 (half of Gaza's citizens) could be affected. Backup generators, hospitals included, have only modest reserves. Israeli army statements that the power plant was targeted "in order to disrupt the activities of the terror infrastructure involved directly and indirectly in the abduction of Corporal Shalit" was a gross violation of proportionality and necessity as power, food preparation, air conditioning, water supplies and sanitation are affected. (Limited food, fuel and medical deliveries were doled out on 2 July, long after gasoline supplies had been exhausted
  • Destroyed three bridges near central Gaza and Deir el-Balah, again to impede moving Shalit out of Gaza but severely damaging Gaza's commercial infrastructure.
  • Detention across the West Bank of "87 Palestinians linked to militant groups, including 64 Hamas members [which] included eight cabinet ministers, one-third of the total, including Omar Abdel Razak, the finance minister. The Israelis also detained more than 20 Hamas members of the Palestinian Parliament in raids in Ramallah, Jenin, East Jerusalem and elsewhere."
  • Targeted the empty office of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh as an apparent signal that "the Hamas leader could be targeted unless militants release an abducted soldier."

In targeting for influence, the application of force can be seen as having two basic targeting strategies: target-based and effects-based:

  • Target-based approach
    • Prescribes HOW -Reactive -Targeting for destruction
    • TARGETS, Input - Pick target set to meet objectives
    • EFFECTS, Results - See if results from attacking targets meet objectives
    • OUTCOMES, Objectives - If results do not meet objectives pick a new target set and repeat
  • Effects-based approach
    • Describes WHAT -Proactive -Targeting for influence
    • OUTCOMES, Objectives - Start with desired objectives
    • EFFECTS, Results - Plan for effects that will achieve objectives
    • TARGET, Input - Select effect pairings to generate effects desired

I continue to believe that if the Israeli goal is to retrieve a single POW that they are pursuing an overkill target-based strategy, but lean more to an effects-based strategy if the goal is the destruction of the Hamas government and the POW was seen as a plausible trigger:

Israel, the senior [Israeli] officer said, is also using the crisis "to make the Hamas government weaker and even to remove it." That makes more sense to Ali Jarbawi, a professor and dean at Birzeit University here, who turned down an offer from Hamas to join the government as an independent.

Israel wants to continue with its unilateral policies based on the idea that there is no "Palestinian partner," Mr. Jarbawi said. "If you build up your strategy on having no partner, then you have to ensure you don't have one. So when Palestinians tell you that there is about to be a political agreement among the factions, putting their house in order at last, you intervene."

The kidnapped soldier matters, he said. "But he is also a pretext for the Israelis, who also have a score to settle with Hamas." Israel, he says, wants a compliant Palestinian Authority. "Israel wants to show to Hamas that you have to deal with us," he said. Israel also wants to restore, after the embarrassment over the raid and the continuing rain of Qassam rockets, its military dominance over the Palestinians.

I think that Israel has miscalculated both short term and long term Palestinian resilience, is forcing a Palestinian unity much more favorable to Hamas, and even Hezbollah, than to Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, and could well wind up with a reoccupation, a dissolved Palestinian Authority, and responsibility for the "binational state" that Israel was trying to avoid.

Postscript: As of this writing, the lesser two of the three groups that launched the frontier attack, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Islamic Army, are stating that "We will close the file" of the POW unless an impossible 1500 prisoners are released, presumably meaning that Shalit will be executed, the body not returned, and the Israeli public left in limbo as to his end.

Proportionality and Necessity citations:

Necessity, Proportionality and the Use of Force by States
Judith Gardam
Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law (No. 35)
ISBN-13: 9780521837521
November 2004

The Proper Role of Professional Military Advice in Contemporary Uses of Force
Martin L. Cook
Parameters, Winter 2002-03, pp. 21-33

The Commander’s Role in Developing Rules of Engagement
Lieutenant Colonel James C. Duncan, U.S. Marine Corps
Naval War College Review, Summer 1999, Vol. LII, No. 3

JUNE 1998

Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance
By Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade et al
NDU Press Book
December 1996

Timeline items in Gaza and Israel:

Olmert Rejects Ultimatum on Soldier by Palestinians
New York Times
July 4, 2006

In Gaza, Not Just a Soldier -- or Prisoner
Corporal's Capture Emboldens Israel's Bid to Weaken Hamas, Palestinians' Pleas for Detainee Releases
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post
July 4, 2006

Israel Steps Up Raids in Bid to Free Soldier
New York Times
July 3, 2006

Israel Allows Limited Aid to Reach Gaza
New York Times
July 2, 2006

Israel strikes Palestinian PM's office
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
02 Jul 2006 10:19:05 GMT
More (Adds scene at Haniyeh's office, paragraph 4, Haniyeh comments 17)

Israel Squeezes, and Gazans Adapt to the Vise
New York Times
July 2, 2006

Israel rejects demands, talks on soldier faltering
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
Jul 1, 2006 3:30pm ET

Israeli strike on Gaza power plant will cost US
By Adam Entous
Sat Jul 1, 2006 3:13pm ET

Freeing Israeli troop key to ending crisis: Bush
By Jim Wolf
Sat Jul 1, 2006 12:27pm ET

Gaza power cuts endanger patients: doctors
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
Jul 1, 2006 12:09pm E

Mediators hopeful of freeing Israeli soldier
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
July 1, 2006

FACTBOX-The crisis over Israel's captured soldier
Jul 1, 2006 5:38am ET

FACTBOX-Key facts about Gaza Strip
Jun 30, 2006 6:35 AM ET

Hamas Leader Sees Plan to Cripple Government
New York Times
June 30, 2006

Seizures Show New Israel Line Against Hamas
New York Times
June 30, 2006

Israeli Troops Move Into Gaza; Bridges Are Hit
New York Times
June 27, 2006

Hamas struggles with hostage predicament
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
Tue Jun 27, 2006 2:09pm ET

Tensions Rise After Israeli Is Kidnapped
New York Times
Published: June 26, 2006

Militants' Raid on Israel Raises Gaza Tension
New York Times
June 26, 2006

Israel's Defense Minister Is Faulted by Left and Right
New York Times
June 26, 2006

Israelis Warn of Military Response to Gaza Attack
New York Times
June 25, 2006

UPDATE 7-Israel rejects demands over kidnapped soldier
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
(Adds Hamas reaction, Abbas-Haniyeh talks, rockets)
Mon Jun 26, 2006 12:42pm ET
Note: This item was latest update to:

Talks, threats over Israeli soldier held in Gaza
Nidal al-Mughrabi
June 26, 2006; 2:54 AM
First Reuters date/time group was Sunday, June 25, 2006 9:32 PM ET

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  Terrorism Public  


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