Below is an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times last week. It is an important read, especially given the recent Israeli incursions into the Gaza Strip to combat Palestinian rocket attacks. These incursions have been criticized by many (including many in Israel) as excessive, as several innocent Palestinian civilians have perished because of Israeli military actions.
June 22, 2006
Hiding Behind the Enemy
By HAIM WATZMAN
NINE months ago, Israel's Supreme Court forbade the Israeli Army to use civilians as human shields when it raided houses to arrest Palestinian combatants. Last week the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the consequence of the ruling has actually been to place Palestinian civilians in greater danger. Instead of soldiers entering houses to find their targets, the army is using bulldozers to knock the houses down.
The army of a democracy fighting an insurgency — Israel in the West Bank, like the United States in Iraq — faces tough choices. Its government requires it to observe rules of war intended to protect the rights and lives of civilians. At the same time, commanders must protect their soldiers. The two imperatives often conflict.
When I served as an Israeli infantry reservist in the West Bank in the 1980's and 90's, sometimes my company would be sent to apprehend a terrorist. Under the direction of an agent from the Israeli counterterrorism agency, Shin Bet, we'd surround and then raid the house where the man was believed to be hiding.
We usually had a Palestinian to help us. He was called "the pointer," because his job was to enter the house with us and identify the man we were after. He was a collaborator — a Palestinian serving the Israeli cause. We soldiers were not permitted to talk to him, but we had heard enough stories to know that while he might have been helping our side of his own free will, he might also have been coerced.
Most of my friends hated going on these raids. They were both dangerous and unpleasant, because the house we were raiding was always a family's home. We'd surround the house and break in after midnight, waking everyone inside. Women would scream, children cry. As often as not, the man we were after had been tipped off and fled.
If he was there, it was worse, because he'd be armed and dangerous. And the last place a soldier wants to get into a shooting match is in a small, constricted space where he can't see well, can't take cover and can't know whether there are more enemies waiting in the next room.
The pointer made some of us feel safer. It seemed logical that the terrorist would hold his fire if he saw that he might hit a Palestinian.
We used Palestinian civilians for other tasks as well. If we discovered that the boys in the village we were patrolling had jury-rigged a roadblock out of boulders during the night, we'd grab some nearby civilians and order them to dismantle it. This was partly an act of collective punishment, but there was also a safety factor involved. If the roadblock was booby-trapped, they'd get hurt instead of us.
I always felt queasy about using civilians to protect us. It didn't seem to me that we had the right to put someone else's life in danger to protect our own. I voiced my reservations on occasion, but nothing changed.
Sometime during the years that followed, the pointer and roadblock clearers evolved into something even more questionable: the human shield. Soldiers who had to raid a house or patrol a dangerous stretch of road would grab a nearby civilian and place him in front of them. Unlike the pointer, this civilian had no function other than to protect Israeli soldiers.
According to Btselem, the Israel Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the practice was not a grassroots initiative. It was an army policy, handed down to soldiers by their superior officers. The routine became much more widespread in April 2002, when Israel reoccupied the West Bank in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and other acts of violence against Israeli civilians.
In August of that year, a Palestinian man, Nidal Abu Mohsen, was killed while serving as a human shield. Israeli human rights organizations filed suit to halt the practice, and last October, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling banning its use.
Many in the army were upset. They felt they had been robbed of a tool that made their jobs safer, and which helped the commanders protect the lives of their soldiers.
But morality in combat is not just an abstract principle. It is an element of an army's strength. It is also essential to the society that sends the army into battle. If the safety of soldiers becomes the standard according to which an army designs its missions, the army will not have the courage to take risks. An army that does not take risks will be easily beaten by an opponent that does.
So it's not unreasonable — in fact, it's essential — for a society to demand that its army observe moral standards, even if the price to be paid is that more soldiers will be killed.
But sometimes eliminating one morally questionable practice opens the door to others. Once the Israeli Army banned the use of human shields, it had to come up with another way of extracting the Palestinian guerrillas from their hideouts. Hence the bulldozer. Of course, this method is much more dangerous for the family inside.
Israel can't stop hunting down its enemies. As long as there is no peace agreement with the Palestinians, the Jewish state must protect itself and its civilians. Can it do so without bulldozing houses that harbor terrorists?
Certainly it can. Raiding a house is a dangerous operation, but good intelligence, proper planning and careful execution can, in most cases, reduce the risk to a reasonable level. Commanders must be prepared to adapt their tactics to a range of constraints: terrain, weather, the training and equipment of their troops, and the enemy's positions, to name a few.
In some cases, the risk may be too great and the operation may be canceled or postponed until the next opportunity comes around. Good commanders don't give the enemy quarter, but they also don't send the Light Brigade charging unprotected at the enemy's guns.
Laws and moral rules are another set of constraints. Soldiers sometimes chafe at them because, unlike hills and bullets, they seem like artificial and unnecessary barriers. In a purely military sense, armies could better do their jobs if they could ignore the civilians on the battlefield. But we don't allow them to ignore civilians. And truth be told, I've never met a soldier who thinks armies ought to be able to maim and kill civilians with impunity.
When the Supreme Court banned the use of human shields, army commanders looked for another way to succeed with minimum risk. They decided on the bulldozer. Getting rid of the bulldozer may well mean that some terrorists will get away, and sadly, that more soldiers will die.
But in the final analysis, Israel and its soldiers will not be less secure. They will occupy the high ground, and that is the most secure place to be.
Haim Watzman is the author of "Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel."