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11 Tishrei 5766 - October 15, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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The Israeli Army in Jenin

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

In the summer '63 edition of the journal Azure (#15) is a detailed analysis of Israeli warfare as conducted last spring in Jenin compared to other, similar military conflicts. The article is entitled "Urban Warfare and the Lessons of Jenin," and was written by Yagil Henkin.

The article compares, in detail, the IDF's urban warfare to the Russian army's assault on Grozny, Chechnya; the NATO bombing of Kosovo; and the UN mission in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Following are excerpts from that article.

The battle of Jenin was, in many respects, the toughest challenge faced by Israeli forces since they began operating in PA territory.

Not only was there no massacre of innocents in the Jenin refugee camp, but in the vast majority of cases IDF soldiers took unusual measures—even at the risk of their own safety— to prevent harm to the camp's civilian population. These efforts . . . were not simply isolated acts of restraint. They were the result of decisions made by both the military command and the civilian leadership as part of a deliberate policy aimed at keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. The IDF followed these orders nearly to the letter, even though they significantly complicated fighting in a residential area, and despite the fact that other armies— even the most `enlightened' among them—have rarely shown such a level of concern for civilian populations in time of war.

Indeed, in the history of modern warfare it is difficult to find another example of an invading army that took upon itself such a degree of restraint in order to minimize civilian casualties. The relatively low number of civilian casualties in Jenin not only gives the lie to the accusations made in the months that followed, but also testifies to the high moral standard employed by the IDF—a rare demonstration of humanity in the midst of battle, for which Israel paid a heavy price.

NATO forces considering an attack on Serb forces in Kosovo in 1999 went for a `cleaner' approach [than the Russians in Chechnia]. The central aim of the operation was to stop Serbian war crimes in Kosovo with the least possible cost to NATO troops. Fearful of becoming mired in heavy fighting on the ground, the allied forces mounted a massive aerial- bombing campaign. The bombers, for the most part, maintained an altitude high enough to avoid anti-aircraft fire—which meant a notable decrease in accuracy and a commensurate increase in the likelihood of collateral damage.

During the eleven-week spring air offensive, NATO bombers deployed 23,000 bombs and air-to-ground missiles in the Kosovo region.

Though few of the Serbian army's tanks and armored personnel carriers—the main targets of the attack—were destroyed in the operation, the civilian death toll was at least 460, and some even put the number as high as 1,500 or 2,000—the unfortunate result of bombs that missed their mark.

Responding to critics, NATO placed the blame squarely on Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, claiming that he had deliberately placed military targets close to residential areas.

Under the circumstances, NATO spokesmen insisted, civilian losses were unavoidable; the bombings were "legitimate" and would continue until the Serbs surrendered. NATO similarly justified its air assault on the Serbian village of Korisa, which claimed the lives of about 100 civilians, by declaring the village "a legitimate military target" because of the presence of Serbian troops and "an armored personnel carrier and more than ten pieces of artillery."

In response to another incident in which ten civilians were killed in a bombing of the bridge on which their train was traveling, General Wesley Clark, commander of NATO forces in Europe, blamed the debacle on "how suddenly that train appeared" and described the accident's grim consequences as "really unfortunate."

Finally, after a civilian convoy was bombed by mistake, a NATO spokesman explained, "Sometimes one has to risk the lives of the few to save the lives of the many."

Government officials in NATO countries supported this position. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, for example, expressed his outrage at the Yugoslavs: "How dare they now produce crocodile tears for people killed in the conflict for which they are responsible?"

There were other such incidents, as well.

When cluster bombs landed in residential neighborhoods in the Serbian city of Nis, they killed 14 people and injured twice as many. According to a Serbian source, "the bombs fell on a busy part of town at a time when people were out in the streets and at the market, not protecting themselves in the bomb shelters where they had spent the night."

In a NATO press briefing, Major-General Walter Jertz asserted merely that "cluster bombs are used in aerial targets where we know that collateral damage could not occur."

In Surdulica, 16 civilians, including 11 children, were killed when NATO jets attacked military barracks in the village.

NATO sources acknowledged that a laser-guided bomb had gone astray and missed its target by 500 yards. The NATO statement noted that the organization "does not target civilians, but we cannot exclude harm to civilians or to civilian property during our air operations over Yugoslavia."

In another incident in Surdulica about a month later, some 17 people died when missiles hit a hospital—which, according to Amnesty International, was "reported to have been marked on all maps of the area." Colonel Konrad Freytag explained that "NATO aircraft attacked the military barracks and an ammunition storage area in the vicinity of that city.

Both these targets were legitimate military targets... All munitions hit the planned aiming points." ... Military experts also defended NATO's claim that the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians were a reasonable price to pay in a campaign against a war criminal.

Philip Meilinger, a retired U.S. Army colonel, did not hesitate to assert that the civilian casualties in Kosovo and Yugoslavia were extraordinarily light considering the number of missions and bombings.

Like the Russians, NATO members considered injury to the civilian population unavoidable given the scope of the operations in the region.

. . .

Palestinian forces were thoroughly prepared for an Israeli operation in Jenin. The camp was booby-trapped from top to bottom. "From the very first moment that their tanks left Jenin last month [after an initial IDF raid], we began to work on the plan to draw the Israeli soldiers into a trap and then blow them up," recounted a Palestinian fighter. Everyone, apparently, had a hand in these efforts: "The entire camp was busy preparing charges and explosives," Mohammed Balas, an eyewitness, was quoted as saying, in the Israeli newspaper Yedi'ot Acharonot. "Even women and small children openly laid explosives in the streets." Jenin's defenders did not hesitate to endanger their fellow Palestinians, nor did they think twice about planting bombs in houses—"inside cupboards, under sinks, inside sofas," according to one resident. Cars and dumpsters were also booby- trapped. By the time Israeli forces arrived, the whole city had become a minefield. On one street alone, an Israeli armored bulldozer detonated 124 explosive charges, some weighing as much as 250 pounds. And this was in the city of Jenin; the refugee camp itself was even more thoroughly laden with explosives.

As early as March, Ze'ev Schiff was reporting in Ha'aretz that the IDF had been told that "one of the criteria for judging the success of your operation in the refugee camps will be the lowest possible number of civilian casualties." These guidelines set the tone for combat in Jenin.

Palestinian fighters in Jenin, . . . made little effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians; on the contrary, an Israeli source relates that "in many cases, they [women and children] took an active part in the combat, helping to prepare—or even detonate—bombs or explosive traps. In others, terrorists holed up in a house would have a woman or even a child open the door to the approaching Israeli soldiers, forcing them to hesitate just long enough to allow the terrorists to shoot first." Foreign sources confirmed these reports.

Summing up, Henkin writes:

The IDF's actions in Operation Defensive Shield were not flawless, and well-substantiated claims should be investigated thoroughly. Nevertheless, the comparison with other armies, including those with the best of intentions, provides a jarring sense of perspective. The horrors of the Russian campaign in Chechnya, the NATO operation in Kosovo, and the UN intervention in Somalia show just how unusual the behavior of Israeli soldiers in Jenin really was. The facts speak for themselves: It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find similar instances of urban combat that resulted in so few civilian losses.

Throughout its actions in Palestinian Authority territory, and in particular during the fighting in Jenin, the IDF proved that it operates according to standards unequaled among the world's armies. Civilian casualties, of course, are a horrible consequence of war, even when they are few in number. Yet we must bear in mind the truth of what NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said when asked to explain the civilian losses in Kosovo: "There is always a cost to defeat an evil. It never comes free, unfortunately. But the cost of failure to defeat a great evil is far higher."


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