A state comptroller review of the Israeli army’s handling of the 2014 Gaza war published Wednesday identified a number of flaws but overall gave the military a passing grade, noting its extensive efforts to avoid civilian casualties.
The document focused on the military’s shortcomings on aspects of the war concerning international law, but noted that these were generally outweighed by the army’s significant efforts to minimize civilian casualties.
“The IDF does its utmost and examines every target before attacking it in order to distance civilians from it,” State Comptroller Yosef Shapira wrote.
The report noted that the issue of civilian casualties was specifically discussed by Israel’s political leaders in security cabinet meetings throughout the war.
Though he found the army to be generally conscious of these issues, Shapira called for the IDF and National Security Council (NSC) to take more seriously the implications of international law and civilian casualties on military campaigns.
In response, the army on Wednesday said it welcomed the report and will “earnestly study its findings and work to address the shortcomings.”
Over the past three and a half years since the 2014 war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, the State Comptroller’s Office has worked with officials from the Israel Defense Forces, the security cabinet, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Justice Ministry in order to prepare the document.
In a rare move, the 169-page report was published in both Hebrew and English.
The report found issues with the army’s internal system of reviewing potential breaches of international law, like the 464 “exceptional incidents” that were reported in the 2014 war. The comptroller found that these “fact-finding assessments” were not always completed in a timely manner or as efficiently as possible. However, Shapira wrote these efforts were nevertheless performed “in good faith and with a sincere desire to… arrive at the truth.”
In response, the IDF said that “most of the specific suggestions regarding these mechanisms have already been fixed and addressed.”
The comptroller also identified significant problems with the army’s Hannibal Protocol, a special order that gives troops in the field looser rules of engagement in the event a soldier is kidnapped, notably that within even the upper echelons of the military there was confusion over its exact meaning. The issues noted, however, are largely moot as the army replaced the Hannibal Protocol with a new, supposedly clearer order in June 2016.
The 50-day Gaza operation began on July 7, 2014, in response to repeated rocket attacks from the Strip, but it later shifted into a tunnel-destroying mission.
By the war’s end on August 26, 2014, the IDF had targeted over 30 tunnels, of which 14 had crossed the border into Israel. Thousands of rockets had been fired by Hamas and other Gaza terror groups indiscriminately into Israel.
On the Israeli side of the conflict, a total of 74 people — 68 soldiers and six civilians — were killed. In Gaza, more than 2,000 people were killed, with Israel putting the percentage of civilians killed at approximately 50 percent and the Palestinians estimating it to be closer to 70%.
Israel said the high proportion of civilian Gazan deaths was the fault of Hamas, which embedded military infrastructure, including tunnel entrances and rocket launchers, in residential neighborhoods.
Issues and recommendations
Shapira specifically noted the importance for Israel to adhere to the laws of armed conflict and protect human rights, both to protect the country from potential prosecution in the International Criminal Court and out of a sense of moral responsibility.
“There is no national security without preserving the values of democracy and human rights,” he wrote.
He also acknowledged that the country’s enemies regularly use human rights laws against Israel, filing claims that Israeli politicians and soldiers “committed war crimes and violated international humanitarian law.”
The IDF has not yet implemented in its exercises the effects that may result from a high number of civilian casualties during the attack
But the State Comptroller’s Office found the army has insufficiently recognized and internalized the significance of potential human rights abuses.
“The IDF has not yet implemented in its exercises the effects that may result from a high number of civilian casualties during the attack, in relation to its ability to achieve the military and political objectives of the operation,” the comptroller wrote.
“The NSC did not examine… the international consequences that may result from harm to uninvolved civilians, and the possible effects on the IDF’s ability to realize its objectives in combat,” according to the report.
Though it details the army’s extensive efforts to limit civilian casualties during the for operation, the comptroller criticizes the IDF for insufficiently training its officers in issues related to international law.
For instance, the former military advocate general, Maj. Gen. (res.) Danny Efroni, is quoted in the report as saying that he was only allotted “an hour and a quarter for his lecture on international law” to future brigade commanders.
The comptroller called for additional legal advisers to be spread throughout the IDF to lower-ranking units, though this view is not accepted by the army, including by the Military Advocate General Corps.
“Our position is that there is no room to extend the legal counsel below the division level,” the army told the comptroller.
Shapira also makes more marginal recommendations, like calling for Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians — known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT — to ensure that its officers speak fluent Arabic in order to better handle Palestinian civilian concerns.
Regarding the Hannibal Protocol, the comptroller commended the army for replacing it, having found that it was largely misunderstood, with some believing that the order allowed soldiers to shoot or shoot at a comrade if he or she were captured.
The protocol was implemented during the Gaza war on August 1, 2014, when Lt. Hadar Goldin was captured in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. The IDF subsequently determined that he was killed in action, and his remains are believed to still be held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
When the protocol was declared in Gaza, a column of tanks reportedly charged into inhabited neighborhoods. Bulldozers tore down houses, and artillery batteries, tanks and aircraft opened fire, isolating the abduction zone and reportedly targeting all vehicles leaving the area.
According to Palestinian reports, the death toll reached approximately 120, though the IDF estimated the number to be closer to 40.
The comptroller called for the army to review the new order and ensure it is appropriate and fits the type of combat scenarios soldiers are likely to encounter.