Israeli soldiers confront a complex dilemma in the field
By Megan Goldin
JERUSALEM (Reuters): The Israeli army walks a tightrope every time soldiers are embroiled in clashes with Palestinians.
If the army uses too little force the clashes could spin out of control and Israel risks sustaining heavy military and civilian casualties.
But the cost of too much force is a high Palestinian toll that inflames passions and fuels the violence even further. It also increases the chance of international repercussions that could harm Israel's position in peace talks with the Palestinians.
Almost 190 people, most of them Palestinians and many of them teenagers, have been killed in the bloodiest clashes in years, pitting heavily armed Israeli soldiers against Palestinians armed with stones, firebombs and automatic rifles.
The United Nations General Assembly has adopted a Palestinian- drafted resolution accusing Israel of using excessive force in the violence. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have made similar complaints.
Military analysts, including specialists abroad, say the mixture of armed and unarmed Palestinian protesters and the urban setting presents Israeli soldiers and their commanders with a complex set of tactical challenges, and a very small margin for error.
"The Israelis are in a difficult situation because they are dealing with a mixed threat, a fairly low-level threat -- stone throwers. But at the same time you have a more lethal threat, that is individuals with their own rifles and automatic weapons," said Clifford Beal, editor of Jane's Defense Weekly.
The already complex dilemmas confronted by soldiers in the field on when to open or hold fire, are complicated further by the need to take split-second decisions with the knowledge any mistake will be scrutinized by the world, he said.
"The CNN factor is very important and you don't want to be seen killing civilians," Beal said.
He said there were similarities between the clashes in the West Bank and Gaza and the conflict in Somalia in 1993 and 1994 when U.S. troops and United Nations peacekeepers opened fire on crowds of women and children in which gunmen were concealed -- and killed hundreds of people.
Michael Desch, who is compiling a study on urban warfare for the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, said that whenever conflicts took place in an urban environment, there was a high chance of causing innocent civilian casualties.
"On the tactical level, facing an unarmed crowd with people interspersed in it who have weapons is a real challenge," he said. "The problem is how to respond and when they do respond they can cause a lot of collateral casualties because of the nature of the urban environment."
The chief of Israeli military operations, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, told Reuters in an interview that soldiers were under strict orders to open fire only when they were shot at or their lives were in danger.
But he said the crowds of stone throwers that often stood between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen meant unarmed protesters sometimes moved into the line of fire and took Israeli bullets meant for gunmen positioned behind them.
Palestinian analyst Mahdi Abdul Hadi said the Palestinian protesters were no real threat to the well armed Israeli troops. He echoed Palestinian complaints that Israeli soldiers were using "excessive" force.
Abdul Hadi said the teenagers who have been involved in stone- throwing protests were taking part in a legitimate struggle and were not being "cynically" exploited to gain international sympathy for the Palestinian cause as Israel has claimed.
Eiland said the army's policy was to inflict as few casualties as possible. He said the use of tanks and helicopter gunships -- whose machineguns can fire more than 600 bullets a minute -- had been kept to a minimum for fear of a mishap that could provoke a bloody human toll.
Beal said even if Israeli soldiers went out of the way to avoid inflicting casualties, the price of each mistake was high.
"Even if an army has very good rules of engagement in place that are followed 95 percent of the time, what if they are not followed for five percent of the cases? It is a problem if you are watched by the eyes of the world," Beal said.
The Israeli army says it has been preparing for "low intensity conflict" with the Palestinians for four years, since it was caught unprepared for clashes in 1996 in which Palestinian police turned their guns on Israeli soldiers.
"In '96 we understood that we are in a dual situation. On the one hand they (Palestinians) shake our hand, on the other hand they carry weapons," said army spokesman Maj. Yarden Vatikay.
They say they have been fortifying military positions, acquiring better protective equipment for soldiers and training them to respond to a cocktail of threats that include relatively harmless stone throwers and potentially lethal snipers.
Steven Simon from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said that every time Israeli soldiers made a mistake, they played into the hands of the Palestinians.
"I think the Palestinians' strategy has been quite clear," Simon said. "The strategy is to draw fire and push the Israelis into taking steps that make Israel more odious to the international community with the aim of internationalizing the conflict."
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has called for U.N. peacekeepers to be deployed to protect his people against "Israeli aggression", a demand which Israel rejects, saying it would be a "reward" for Palestinian violence.
Mike McBride, editor of Jane's Police and Security Equipment Yearbook, said the types of riot control measures used elsewhere in the world were limited mostly to teargas, which he said tends to be ineffective, and rubber or plastic bullets (used in Northern Ireland) which can be lethal.
He said security forces worldwide were testing "Buck Rogers" style riot control techniques such as glue sprayers and low- frequency sound guns which disorient the crowd. But, McBride said, the most advanced weapon to be used in actual riots was at the backdrop to the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle last year when police used pepper-spray bombs against rioters.
McBride said the best, non-lethal method of controlling riots was to deploy large numbers of law enforcement officers to charge rioters with batons and shields. But this was problematic in situations where rioters threw petrol bombs.
"It (riot control) is very resource intensive in terms of manpower," he said. "That's why the last thing a police officer wants is for it to be spontaneous."
Israeli military analyst Martin Van Crevveld said the army was unable to deploy massive forces to deal with stone-throwing protesters because many of the clashes took place at one of hundreds of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza which were manned by only a handful of soldiers.
Van Crevveld said that unlike the earlier, seven-year Palestinian Intifada "uprising" in which Israeli soldiers killed more than 1,000 Palestinians, this time round Palestinians were armed with more than 30,000 weapons -- mostly automatic rifles.
Palestinians point to the proportionally higher toll in the current "Al-Aqsa Intifada", compared to the previous uprising, which ended in 1993 with the Oslo peace accords, as proof that the Israeli army has used too much force in the clashes.
Military analysts seem to disagree.
Desch said he thought "the Israelis have been relatively careful and another state that was trying to do this probably would have inflicted more casualties".
Another military analyst requesting anonymity from a leading European think-tank said he was surprised at the low number of casualties given the level of violence and use of weapons.
Van Crevveld said, "Considering the level of violence, considering the many hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition fired by the Palestinians, actually the death toll has been very small".