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Israel's Military Morality In Gaza

Col. Herzi Halevi: "Israel's conduct of Gaza war was in full compliance with international law and rules of warfare"

"Palestinian civilian casualties were result of Hamas decision to fight behind civilians in populated areas"

"My Paratroopers Even Warned Palestinians Civilians In Advance To Leave Neighborhoods & Buildings Before We Attacked, Even Though This Tipped Off Hamas"

IDF reserve forces before the operation in Gaza Strip

Col. Herzi Halevi, who spent the entire ground war inside the Gaza Strip, has given an inside description of the fighting against Hamas. The officer commanded 2500 Israeli paratroopers who killed an estimated 170 Hamas fighters, while one of his officers died and four other paratroopers were wounded. The colonel is married and has four children. He was interviewed by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

Question: how do you explain the disparity in casualties?

Col. Herzi Halevi: "it is impossible to send soldiers into battle with unclear orders. I told them that our objective was to hit Hamas hard, to neutralize the enemy and to kill as many of them as possible. So that it would not happen again in another two weeks.

On the third floor a Palestinian family would be living, on the second floor you would find the Hamas military headquarters while in the basement, you would find an arsenal of rockets and weapons

"The force with which we initially entered the Gaza Strip reduced the number of casualties we suffered - it worked this way. This forceful blow did not permit the terrorists to utilize all the sabotage and explosives they had prepared in advance for us. Take for example the shelling before our entry into the Gaza Strip. When you hear such a shelling, I assure you that you do not want to be the enemy on the other side. It was a shelling of the entire area we prepared to enter. Fighter aircraft, helicopters, artillery and tanks participated. I think that this is what the enemy really felt. We also reached them from different and unexpected directions and in such strength that the terrorists did not remain behind to activate their booby traps and explosives.  Every place we reached there were almost no civilians remaining behind. The only ones who did stay were very rich families, who did not want to loose their possessions, or the very poor with no place to flee. The terrorists had taken over the civilian buildings which were abandoned, but hey left behind quantities of explosives and weapons - rocket propelled grenades ready for launch and even automatic rifles left strewn on the floor. We also uncovered arms caches. 

Col. Herzi Halevi

Yediot Ahronot: Officers serving under the colonel described him as a man with very healthy instincts whose decisions in battle saved the lives of many soldiers.  His subordinate officers describe ne him as "An excellent tactician who knows how to surprise the enemy and keep him off balance. He is not just a hero but also very smart. That explains why our losses were so low compared to the Palestinian fighters".

Question: But perhaps the initial estimates of Hamas strength were highly exaggerated because the IDF seem to have no trouble on the ground in coping with Hamas?

Col. Herzi Halevi: "These evaluations were exaggerated. Everything that was spoken about we found on the battlefield. There were tunnels, and large quantities of explosives and booby traps as well as tricks to try and enable Hamas to kidnap more of our soldiers. Even I was surprised by the quantity of explosives and weaponry we found there. Entire streets were booby trapped from start to finish waiting for us to enter before they were to be detonated.
At the outset of the fighting, Hamas deployed as an organized military formation, but we were soon able to disperse them and scatter them. For example, at the entrance to the A' Shatti  refugee-camp we fought a battle against some 50 to 60 terrorists. At first, they fought in an organized fashion with command and control tactics. In effect, we were fighting against the Hamas Battalion. However, at the end of the day Hamas broke up with 30 to 35 dead while we suffered only four wounded".

Everything we did in Gaza was in full compliance with international law and the rules of warfare

The IDF colonel is well aware of allegations that the IDF exercise disproportionate force in the Gaza Strip and this resulted in a high casualties among the Palestinian civilians and widespread destruction.

Col. Halevi responded: "We exercised great restraint for eight years. However, when the battle began, we had to be very focused and determined. Whoever decided to set up military positions among the Palestinian civilian buildings bears full responsibility. For example, on the third floor a Palestinian family would be living, on the second floor you would find the Hamas military headquarters while in the basement, you would find an arsenal of rockets and weapons. Whoever did that had to know that it would be impossible to prevent civilian casualties. Hamas chose to fight from within populated areas knowing full well the civilian population would pay the price. Under the circumstances, the resulting damage was not irregular. It's true there are streets in Gaza which resemble those in World War Two. However, the proportionality of our response in comparison with Hamas tactics was appropriate in every way. Anyone who takes issue with the destruction in Gaza, should ask himself if he would have been prepared to pass through a street that was to booby trapped and wired with explosives all the way, or if he would send his son to fight down that street,  without first inflicting a massive blow beforehand. If the operation had ended with 50 more Israeli soldiers killed, another Israeli soldier abducted maybe 40 Israeli civilians killed in rear, that would have been a harsh blow to Israel's national morale. The Iranians, the Syrians and  Hezbollah have been watching what transpired in Gaza and got the message. We had to end it swiftly and in a convincing way otherwise there would have been a price to be paid".

Israel's "Aggression", the Nebelspalter, Switzerland, 1956

Question: And what about the blow to noncombatants?

Col. Herzi Halevi: "From the moment we withdrew from Gaza, I have been meeting with my various paratroop officers. I asked them: 'Did it ever happen that you or your men threw a grenade inside a room and afterwards when you entered you found the body of the civilian?' They replied this never happened, not even once. I asked them again how this could be. They explained to me that at every building they had to enter, the soldiers would first fire harmlessly at the walls. If they heard shouting inside they enabled the people to leave safely. Thousands of rooms in Gaza were cleared in this manner. There was never a case where a grenade was thrown inside a room where Palestinian civilians were hiding. Moreover, every place we attacked we warned the civilians before hand with leaflets dropped from the air and even fired warning shots so that they could flee safely in advance. There were those who criticized this move saying that Hamas would know we were about to attack and flee. I think we behaved appropriately in trying to prevent casualties to noncombatants. I did not see bodies of civilians, except for those who remained in buildings that were detonated because they had been sabotaged. Whoever agreed to remain in buildings, knowing Hamas sabotaged them to kill Israeli soldiers, must suffer the consequences of his actions. And when I compare the lives of the civilians who lend their hand to these Hamas tactics with the lives of my soldiers I have absolutely no dilemma".

Before we went into Gaza, I stressed to the troops that they must refrain from injuring noncombatants or damaging civilian property as far as possible. I was there in the neighborhoods and in the buildings and I never saw or felt an atmosphere of revenge among the soldiers

The paratroop commander also had high praise for the Israeli Air Force noting unprecedented coordination between pilots and ground commanders. "Once a day I would talk with a senior Air Force commander to coordinate our battle plans. In addition, an officer from the helicopter  squadrons actually entered the Gaza Strip on a daily basis to meet with me and then brief the helicopter pilots. It reached the level of ground commanders speaking directly with helicopter pilots who were supporting him from the air. Everyone was familiar with the same aerial photographs and on the same page. An indication of this is the fact that that no ground troops were injured by 'friendly fire' from the air". (This was not the case among ground forces-four of the ten IDF soldiers who died in Gaza were killed by' friendly fire' indicating the complexity of fighting inside built-up areas.)

The commander was also asked to respond to the possibility that nongovernmental bodies in some European countries trying to initiate legal proceedings against IDF officers if they visit those states.

Col. Herzi Halevi: "I'm not ashamed nor do I have any fears over what we did in Gaza. I depend on the Israel and hope it will know how to protect the officers it sent into battle. Everything we did in Gaza was in full compliance with international law and the rules of warfare. I told my soldiers: 'Even if a terrorist opens fire at you, the moment he throws down his weapon you do not shoot him'. According to international law, a civilian installation, even a hospital that is exploited by the enemy, can be attacked. It should be remembered that with all the deaths and destruction, we did not use our maximum strength. My superiors restrained me and I restrained the officers serving under me.

Despite declarations by the by Hamas leaders, Halevi is convinced that the terrorist organization has suffered a severe blow. However, he assumed Hamas will again try to kidnap an Israeli soldier and Israel had to prepare for the next round because Hamas was also learning from what happened in Gaza. At the same time, Hamas was now in a state of shock and had never expected that Israel would hit back with such force and go so far into Gaza. Now, he said everything depends upon Israel and if it will know how to respond if Hamas again fires more Qassam rockets.

Question: Nevertheless, during conditions of war how can soldiers behave as humanely as possible? 

Col. Herzi Halevi: "Before we went into Gaza, I stressed to the troops that they must refrain from injuring noncombatants or damaging civilian property as far as possible. I was there in the neighborhoods and in the buildings and I never saw or felt an atmosphere of revenge among the soldiers. Clearly after a military force is stormed and cleared a building of Hamas, it does not look as if it has just been refurbished and repainted. In war the laws are different."

David Essing

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