A soldier’s most basic orders — the ones that govern his behavior, distinguishing him from a marauder — are the rules of engagement. In Hebrew the language of the law is less laundered: Directives on Opening Fire. When may a soldier use his weapon and in what way?
The orders are meant to be simple and clear. They cannot read like a UN resolution. They are repeated to soldiers before each operational action, sunk into the soldiers’ minds like an anchor.
In the West Bank, for example, the rules often sound something like this: If you see someone with a weapon and feel in immediate danger, shoot to kill. If you feel danger but have time, instruct the person to stop, then fire once in the air, then fire to wound, then fire to kill.
These rules change all of the time. They change if there are friendly forces operating nearby. They change in the day and in the night. They change if you’re operating in an environment largely cleared of civilians versus one in which many civilians remain.
But they are, in the air and, even more acutely, on the ground, nearly sapped of relevance, if not utterly perverted, by the reality of the ongoing Gaza war.
The army spokesperson’s unit said that the rules of engagement “are classified” and that, in any case, “they change all of the time.”
A senior Israel Air Force officer articulated the challenge from above. Pilots take to the sky with the instruction “to avoid to the greatest extent possible harming civilians,” said Brig. Gen. Yaron Rosen, the IAF Air Support and Helicopter Air Division Commander.
And yet, during the course of the current operation, he said, he saw, for example, “a fan” of 15 rockets scream skyward from Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza. Immediately, he could see, from his command position, where they were headed: Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Tel Aviv. As he zoomed in on the point of fire he saw that the rockets were launched from an underground launcher “on the fence” of a boys and girls school.
Returning fire, destroying the rocket launchers, he said, would probably damage the school. Perhaps there were children inside. “What do I do? What do I do now?” he asked.
The air force, he said, had held its fire and spared the lives “of hundreds of Hamas operatives” and assets in order to avoid hurting innocent people.
“When are civilians killed?” he asked. “When there’s no time. When there is fire directed at the citizens of Israel.”
“A state,” he added, “has to tend to its own citizens.”
Rosen seemed genuinely awestruck by the extent of the military infrastructure embedded in civilian and humanitarian complexes in Gaza. He used the words “unfathomable” and “insane” on several occasions. He described Al Wafa Hospital, which Israel bombed after it had been finally emptied, as the central command post from which Hamas directed the bloody battle in Shejaiya. “It was a hospital held hostage by Hamas,” he said.
The realities of Gaza, when looking at it from above, are clear, he said. The complexity, proximity, and density of population are all evident.
But the pilots operate amid largely impenetrable skies. Their lives are rarely at risk. On the ground, amid the density he described, and even with the close support of the air force, the risks for the infantry and armored corps are ever-present and, crucially, quite haunting.
A soldier from the Golani Brigade, who fought in the battle for Shejaiya, said it is already being talked about like the heroic fight for Mount Hermon in 1973. He said he had fought an enemy, taken fire from all over, even lost close friends and his direct commander, yet “we didn’t see one person.”
After a week in Gaza, he said, he still had not seen the face of the enemy.
Instead the battle swirls around them. Militants emerge from tunnels and open fire from the rear; donkeys trot toward the troops carrying a wagon full of explosives; suicide bombers make desperate sprints out of alleys; and an old man, apparently asking for water, tries to toss five grenades at a squad of troops, the commander of the Gaza Division, Brig. Gen. Michael Edelstein, said Wednesday.
He described a street patrolled by soldiers earlier this week, in a small town called Khirbet Khaza’iya, in which 19 of the 28 houses on the central street were booby-trapped. Many have tripwires in the gardens and on the doors, many with double activation devices, meaning they can be detonated from afar with, say, a cellphone. Thousands of homes, he said, have been detonated by militants across the Gaza Strip.
Paul Martin, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, described seeing Hamas gunmen retreating from Shejaiya in women’s clothing, with one of them swaddling his rifle in a blanket like a baby.
“It’s terrifying,” said a combat soldier, who fought in Operation Cast Lead. “The [brigade] intelligence officers scare the crap out of you.”
In that reality, torqued further by the constant fear of abduction, the army, it would seem, has a hard time expressing cogent rules of engagement. “We were told, fire at whatever looks suspicious,” said the soldier who fought in Cast Lead. “I doubt the regulations have changed significantly since then.”