Since Israel ended its assault on Gaza, Palestinians and international rights groups have accused it of using excessive force that resulted in a high number of civilian casualties. The Israeli military has denied these charges, but now testimony is emerging from soldiers, indicating that some of these claims have merit.
Although rules of engaging potential enemy combatants exist, in the heat of battle they often become murky. Fighting in an urban environment where the enemy is not in uniform or carrying arms but slipping between houses and among civilians presents an especially difficult situation for soldiers.
Are there rules of engagement that can minimize civilian casualties?
- Andrew Exum, Center for a New American Security
- Sarah Holewinski, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict
- Micah Zenko, Council on Foreign Relations
- Michael E. O’Hanlon, Brookings Institution
Interpret the Situation
The recent Israeli campaign to end rocket fire originating from Gaza left 1,300 Palestinians dead and many wondering about the morality of such seemingly “disproportionate” operations. Questions of morality in warfare, though, are notoriously difficult to referee and inspire more emotion than sober thought.
A related question to ask — and one more accessible to traditional tools of measurement — would be one concerning effectiveness. In pursuing military options that carry with them such a high human cost, did the Israel Defense Force achieve operational successes at the expense of Israel’s long-term strategic interests?
In modern conflict against violent nonstate actors, rules of engagement may need to be refined for operational effectiveness.
In modern conflict against violent nonstate actors like Hamas, Hezbollah or guerrilla groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, it may be in the best interests of the dominant military actor to adhere to rules of engagement that go beyond the laws of land warfare and international conventions. As the United States military has discovered in both Iraq and Afghanistan, civilian casualties have a direct effect on the effectiveness of operations in the strategic sense.
Traditionally, Israel — much like the United States — has subscribed to a Jominian concept of warfare that privileges the destruction of the enemy’s fighting forces above other considerations. In the Clausewitzian model, though, the supreme question of war has to do with whether or not military force served its purpose in advancing national political aims.
The time may arrive when Israel decides that highly kinetic, enemy-centric military operations do not necessarily serve Israel’s longer-term strategic aims. Instead, Israel may want to adopt lessons learned from the United States experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and place a higher emphasis on the prevention of civilian casualties at the expense of lethality and force protection.
Weighing the Cost of War
Rules of Engagement will never completely prevent civilian casualties unless the first rule is “don’t discharge your weapon.” But in the real world, these rules about when and how to approach a potential enemy combatant can significantly limit civilian harm if planned properly and followed.
The lesson the U.S. learned in Iraq in 2007 was: know the mission, review the rules, make smart changes, save lives.
Just look at the example that Gen. Peter Chiarelli set in Iraq in 2007. He saw that checkpoints, while necessary to stop the speedy flow of traffic near bases or combat operations, were harming too many locals. The ordinary Iraqi didn’t know when to stop, how to stop and was too frequently being killed in his car in the resulting confusion. With General Chiarelli’s new requirements about giving better warnings, civilian casualties dropped. The lesson learned was: know the mission, review the rules, make smart changes, save lives.
The Laws of Armed Conflict tell warring parties that hitting military targets has to be proportionate to, or worth, the potential cost to civilian lives. Certain weapons cannot be used because they’re too deadly to a broad population. If the mission is to take out a weapons installation located in a densely populated area, that objective must be weighed against the cost of obliterating homes, destroying families and causing humanitarian suffering. You need to think about what weapons and tactics might best shield civilians from greatest harm.
Unfortunately the laws of war don’t tell soldiers how to weigh those factors, but a good commander knows the whole point of rules of engagement is to burrow down into where and when and how to fight. Getting that wrong is far too costly.
To Protect Noncombatants, Seek a Ceasefire
Micah Zenko is a fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The recent revelations from Israeli combat pilots and ground troops that their commanders granted permissive rules of engagement during incursions into the Gaza Strip comes as no surprise given the chaotic nature of offensive combat operations and the tactics employed by Hamas that often do not respect the laws of war.
Even the most carefully crafted rules, however, are useless if they are not utilized in split-second, life-or-death situations.
The Pentagon defines the rules as “directives issued by competent military authority that delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.” These directives provide guidance to commanders in answering four questions about using military force: when, where, against whom and how.
In an era where international perceptions of whether a state is morally and legally right to use force, and whether the scope and intensity of that force is commensurate with achieving the intended political and military objectives, the proper rules of engagement are as essential for success as highly advanced weapons systems. Even the most carefully crafted rules, however, are useless if they are not utilized by pilots and soldiers in split-second, life-or-death situations, and consistently enforced by their commanding officers.
In the future, the surest way to prevent incidences alleged by the Israeli soldiers from ever happening is to exhaust all avenues short of war to reach a ceasefire with Hamas. If Israel believes it is necessary to reignite the conflict, then according to some of its own combat veterans it will need to revisit its rules of engagement and make certain they are followed.
The Problem Lay in the Strategy
Michael E. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Whatever the rules of engagement, Israel’s soldiers did not perform notably worse than we Americans did in the early years of the Iraq war or the Afghanistan mission. In fact, in all three cases, the soldiers have been extremely careful by historical standards.
That said, there have been differences across and within these cases. In Iraq, commanders emphasized care and restraint in the use of force more as time went on than they did from 2003 to 2005. In Afghanistan, we have used air strikes somewhat indiscriminately, and that continued even through much of 2008.
Israel’s overall strategy was more problematic than the specific performance of troops or the rules of engagement.
In Gaza, my view is that Israel’s overall strategy was more problematic than the specific performance of troops or the rules of engagement. Israel did not, in my view, have any realistic chance of killing most Hamas leaders or disarming Hamas in its operation (notably, in a somewhat similar operation in Lebanon in 2006, Israel did only temporary damage to Hezbollah, as its own leaders now publicly admit). Rather, Israel wished to convey its willingness to use force to defend its people and territory — to “reestablish deterrence” as its leaders like to say.
Its hope was that Hamas would be convinced not to attack in the future even if it had weapons to do so. Israel also wanted to send a message to the region that, in effect, no land-for-peace deal is possible if it leaves Tel Aviv vulnerable to similar kinds of attacks coming out of the West Bank. Once these decisions were made, and once Israel decided that it needed several weeks of combat including a ground incursion to drive the points home, the level of Palestinian fatalities that resulted became more or less inevitable.
I think Israel could have accomplished the same goal after perhaps a week to 10 days of fighting — and that issue, rather than debates about the rules of engagement for its troops, is the crux of the matter. At least, Israel did not feel it needed to fight for 2 or 3 months to reestablish deterrence. The situation could have been better, but it also certainly could have been worse.