Lessons in non-lethal combat

The army gears up to disperse civilian protests

The IDF’s head of non-wartime combat doctrine explains what methods troops are supposed to use in the tense Nakba and Naksa days ahead

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A protester and a water cannon at Nebi Salah in early April (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash 90)
A protester and a water cannon at Nebi Salah in early April (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash 90)

Lt. Col. Israel Bibi won’t say so. He won’t do anything more than smile enigmatically and shake his head. But Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner’s behavior — the infamous jab to the face of a protester with the magazine of his M-16 — would make for an excellent cautionary chapter in the three-finger-thick textbook on Bibi’s desk.

Bibi, a resident of the settlement of Elazar and a former deputy commander of the IDF’s Officers’ School, is in charge of fighting doctrine — the IDF calls it the “torah of warfare” — for all combat soldiers during non-wartime activities. From his little caravan of an office, planted among tall and dry eucalyptus trees in a base north of Beersheba, he writes manuals that determine how the army patrols Israel’s border with Lebanon, how it handles asylum seekers, drug smugglers and terrorists from Egypt, and how it juggles the needs of the Palestinian population with the demands of terror prevention.

Those are some of the conventional tasks.

On his desk, however, is a newly authored volume entitled “Combat Instruction for Disturbances of the Peace,” and Eisner — armed with only his weapon, wearing only the shirt on his back, his eyes hot with rage, pacing within striking distance of the protesters on Route 90 on April 14 — seems to have violated virtually every rule that Bibi and his staff have drafted.

Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner facing Danish pro-Palestinian protester Andreas Ayas (screen grab from Youtube)
Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner facing Danish pro-Palestinian protester Andreas Ayas (screen grab from Youtube)

According to Lt. Col. Bibi, the army has been training its soldiers to handle the different forms of civilian protest ever since the winter of 1988, when the first intifada broke out in Jabalya and spread through the Gaza Strip and West Bank. At the time Bibi was a new draftee in the Golani brigade and he remembers facing crowds of 20,000 people in and around the Casbah of Nablus, “armed with wooden bullets that were even worse that the metal ones” and no real plan of what to do.

Challenges in the weeks ahead

Since then, he said, the army has learned a lot. And it will likely need it. On May 15 Palestinians mark Nakba Day, commemorating their losses in Israel’s War of Independence. Several weeks later, in early June, is Naksa Day, marking the repercussions of the 1967 defeat. Last year violent protests abounded on both days. This year, according to Samaria Brigade commander Colonel Nimrod Aloni, widespread civil protest, irrespective of those dates, is even more likely.

“The [Palestinian] Authority has been aiming for popular unrest of the kind that resembles the first intifada,” he told the army magazine Bamahane earlier this month, opining that it would be a long time before the Palestinians rose up in arms against Israel. “Their aim is to continue to create large protests at many sites [of the kind] that might embarrass the IDF and cause casualties that would fuel the protests.”

The weekly Bilin demonstrations generally feature violent and non-violent forms of protest (Photo credit: courtesy IDF Spokesperson)
The weekly Bilin demonstrations generally feature violent and nonviolent forms of protest (photo credit: Courtesy IDF Spokesperson)

In recent years there have been several events that indicate that the IDF still has much to learn if it is to face mass disturbances of the peace. In early July 2008 a battalion commander held the right arm of a blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinian protester in Naalin, keeping him still as one of his soldiers shot him with a rubber-coated bullet from a few feet away. The officer was subsequently tried in a military court. He received a light sentence: no promotions for two years, no command posts for a year. The IDF had already relieved him of command of the battalion. Colonel Yoel Tzur, the head of the tribunal, noted that human rights are a value upheld when facing your enemies and your detractors, but said that “a single picture is not the be-all and end-all. It immortalizes one stage in an ongoing event.”

Many of Lt. Col. Eisner’s supporters voiced similar arguments.

Brig. Gen. (res) Avi Benayahu, the former IDF Spokesman, think that the picture is, in fact, the be-all and end-all. He told Army Radio last week that the primary battle Israel faces today “is over the [public’s] perception. That is the war.” He noted that the army was still “three or four years away” from fully internalizing the severity of this threat.

On the day that the footage from Naalin was released, Benayahu accompanied IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to a White House meeting with vice president Dick Cheney. “The first thing he asked was what’s the story with this battalion commander in the territories?” Benayahu said. “Then the same thing happened with [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral] Mike Mullen.”

Benayahu believes that the camera that captured Lt. Col. Eisner’s actions, “and which every IDF soldier will face in the future, is the battleground of today.”

As he sees it, the footage of the June 2009 killing of Neda Agha-Soltan on the streets of Tehran did more “to crack” the regime in Iran than all of the actions of the CIA and the Voice of America combined.

Turning point on the border

But what seems to truly have thrown the army into higher gear was the events of May 15, 2011, when a hundred Palestinian Syrians managed to swarm over the border fence between Israel and Syria and enter the Israeli Druze village of Majdal Shams.

Faced with the choice of defending the integrity of Israel’s border and gunning down the protesters — potentially sparking armed conflict with the flailing regime in Damascus — or allowing the citizens of an enemy state to charge into Israel, the soldiers on the scene held their fire for as long as possible and, though the brigade commander was wounded, bleeding from his face, he instructed them not to shoot to kill and to contain the protest by encircling the village.

Four protesters were killed during the charge and roughly a hundred Syrian nationals reached the Israeli village.

Some viewed the soldiers’ behavior as perilously meek, others as an illustration of grace under fire. For Bibi and his staff it was a call to action. With the help of several battalion commanders on university leave from service, they drafted a set of lessons from the day’s events.

In the Golan Heights, the anti-tank ditch has been deepened “after years of not being cared for,” the barrier has been raised to 18 feet and the area has been lined with “things that are scary without causing harm.”

In the Golan Heights, Lt. Col. Bibi said, the anti-tank ditch has been deepened “after years of not being cared for,” the barrier has been raised to 18 feet and the area has been lined with “things that are scary without causing harm,” likely referring to pyrotechnic mines planted in the ground.

The episode also spurred the direct involvement of the chief of staff and the production of the new book, which outlines in diagrams and in theories the correct way to address what he calls the three types of disturbances of the peace: a sit-in; a peaceful protest studded with several lone gunmen; and a violent protest, with civilians hurling Molotov cocktails and stones.

Despite what one of Bibi’s staff officers characterized as an insane degree of tension” between the army’s primary task of teaching civilians to wage war and its ancillary one of teaching them to perform police duties, Bibi said that the IDF now begins instructing combat soldiers to deal with the threat of civilian protests toward the end of basic training. An intelligence officer briefs them, and their sergeants introduce the riot-dispersal means at their disposal.

A protest at the Kalandia checkpoint north of Jerusalem. The scream is mounted atop the middle jeep (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90)
A protest at the Qalandiya checkpoint north of Jerusalem. The ‘scream’ is mounted atop the middle jeep (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

The army has invested “a ton of money, millions” in the creation and production of nonlethal weapons, with factories like Beit Alfa Technologies “working around the clock,” Bibi said. Today all border-patrolling vehicles and those operating with the West Bank — apparently including the one Eisner was in — carry a basic kit of riot-dispersal gear: tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and shock grenades.

Before beginning a tour of duty along any of the border regions or within the West Bank, combat soldiers spend a week at one of the army’s three command training bases. There they learn to work with weapons like the “skunk,” which sprays a noxious-smelling water and yeast mixture; the “scream,” which produces an unbearable sound wave; and the Remington, a shotgun that fires beanbags at a high velocity. There are many other weapons, including sand and salt bullets, and the soldiers are trained to use them during a final drill in a town-like training area generally used to simulate house-to-house combat. “We burn tires, pelt them with pine cones, fire tennis balls at them, get in their faces and scream,” said the staff officer, whose name was not cleared for usage by the IDF.

Mental preparation

Bibi and his staff also worked with psychologists. Flipping through the new book, which will soon be distributed to all regional commands, he said that officers have to mentally prepare their soldiers for nonlethal combat; have to lead from the front, as the Golan Heights brigade commander did last May; and have to arrive on the scene of a protest in a manner that shows preparedness. “That has an instant impact,” Bibi said.

When facing civilian protesters, he stressed, it is also crucial to not merely stand in place and absorb the curses and stones hurled at them. Instead, he suggested, troops should remain apart from the protesters, reducing friction, and then launch a surprise charge into the crowd in order to nab the main provocateurs. “The thing they fear most is being taken into custody.”

Army instruction also includes the use of concealed snipers. “When people are hit in the legs,” he said, felled with no one knowing the source of the fire, “it creates a sense of uncertainty.”

Finally, the army tries to “seed surprise within the ranks of the protesters,” likely a hint at the use of security officers dressed as Arabs and operating within the crowd, both drawing out and arresting those with weapons.

The IDF has also recognized the potency of pictures and film footage. According to Bibi, every combat platoon now sends one soldier to a two-week course in “operational documentation.” This means that in every 20-soldier group there is now, or will soon be, a pair of hands holding a camera rather than a weapon.

Asked if this type of training and deployment did not strip the army of its ability to wage war, Bibi sighed and said, “We are not an army with a state [at our disposal] but a state with an army. There are missions that have to be fulfilled.”

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