Last week an Israeli media channel published an interview with the commander of an IDF sniper unit. To highlight the operational and moral dilemmas facing a sniper when in action against terrorists in densely populated war zones, the commander told the following story. A sniper shot an armed terrorist who fell to the ground dropping his gun. Another terrorist trying to get to his friend and retrieve the gun was also shot by the same sniper. Next, the terrorists sent out a small boy to pick up the gun. The sniper, after a short hesitation, held fire and the boy collected the gun and brought it back to his senders.
Yesterday, the IDF spokesman’s office released a short video demonstrating the operation of the Israeli artillery guided missile ‘Tamuz’. The video, which was filmed by a camera mounted in the nose of the missile, demonstrated the ability of the missile’s operators to divert it from its target during the last seconds of its flight so that it would explode in an open area away from a group of uninvolved civilians revealed on the video screen standing near the intended target.
These two items took me back years ago to an incident I witnessed in Lebanon a short time after the 1982 ‘Peace for the Galilee’ operation . An IDF ground force discovered that the inhabitants of a south Lebanese village had brought in overnight two ancient Russian made T-34 tanks, saying that they needed them to defend themselves against fighters from another village. The then commanding officer of Israel’s Northern Command, General Amir Drori, ordered the force to demand that the villagers remove these tanks from the village or else they would be destroyed. The villagers refused and began surrounding the force. The general then instructed the force to leave the village and ordered the pilots of a pair of AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships to destroy the tanks from a distance using anti-armour missiles. Whilst the helicopters were taking firing positions, the villagers sent out hundreds of women and children that surrounded the tanks and climbed on top of them serving as a human shield against a strike. After a prolonged and heated exchange of radio communications between the general, the ground force and the helicopter gunship pilots, the order to open fire was called off and the general left the area angry and frustrated.
The 1973 Yom Kippur war was probably the last war in which Israel fought solely against enemy states’ regular armies which were clearly distinguishable from their civil populations. In any future war, much of the fighting will take place in densely populated areas where the ability to hit enemy combatants effectively whilst avoiding harm to innocent civilians will be severely limited.
The terror organisations are acutely aware of this Israeli limitation and will exploit it in full, as they have already done in the past. Their calculation is deplorable and cynical, but as they see it they have got nothing to lose. If firing from behind the backs of women and children will prevent the Israeli sniper or ‘Tamuz’ missile operator from returning fire against their men – that is great. They carried out their mission and returned safely. If IDF soldiers will return fire and innocent civilians will be killed alongside the terrorists – that is even better. Israel will again be vilified by an international chorus of condemnation and will be accused of carrying out war crimes.
Following the second Lebanon war in 2006 and operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in 2008, there were calls within Israel for the laws of war against terror organisations operating from within civilian populations to be re-written. Time will tell if this will indeed happen and if it will get the approval of other nations and of international bodies. What is already clear from the lessons of these two operations is that it is impossible to beat an enemy in a war with one hand tied behind the back.