By Howard Linett
Today's adversaries are often terrorists. Terrorist organizations are not signatories to international conventions and treaties. Terrorists do not abide by the principles that nations have established among themselves for the conduct of armed conflict. In fact, the opposite is true. Terrorist groups are well schooled in these principles and expertly exploit them to advantage over their opponents.
Terrorists' violations of the principles of armed conflict are blatant and deliberate. They are often designed to manipulate those fighting the terrorists or responding to a terrorist attack to place themselves in a position to violate the principles or respond ineff ectively. When this terrorist strategy works, the opposing force must choose between canceling an operation, conducting an ineff ective operation, or risking war crimes charges. This strategy was successfully employed by Hamas, the terrorist organization controlling the Gaza Strip, against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) during Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
Being subject to allegations of war crimes and defending against criminal charges in a foreign court of law is not an idle threat. Cellular telephone cameras and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) supplied video cameras, together with media personnel handpicked by the terrorists, provide evidence of the alleged crimes, and even manufacture it when necessary. Wealthy benefactors provide funds to support NGOs' lobbying of prosecutors for the purpose of filing criminal indictments. If a given jurisdiction chooses not to prosecute, another can be sought.
War Crimes charges may have factual merit or be politically motivated. Charges can be used as a means of attack, like jurisprudential IEDs. To date, the IDF has been subject to approximately 100 investigations or legal actions alleging criminal conduct in carrying out Operation Cast Lead. Before reviewing the legal framework of the principles of armed conflict and Hamas' tactics, the issue of religion must be examined. There are both nationalistic (e.g., Fatah) and religious (e.g., Hamas) terrorist organizations. The ideology of a terrorist organization influences the tactics the group employs. Islamic theology provides for a belief in martyrdom. A believer of Islam who is killed in battle against nonbelievers becomes a martyr. Martyrs are revered and rewarded. They immediately enter paradise and, once there, are believed to receive many personal rewards. Members of the martyr's family are believed to be treated similarly. Some within Islam believe that all members of the faith who are killed in confl ict with non-believers, regardless of whether they were active combatants or passive bystanders, become martyrs. Thus, the question arises whether the principles of armed conflict, primarily devised by Western nations with Judeo-Christian belief systems, are viable for conflicts with terrorist groups who believe that their civilian population will immediately enter paradise if killed in conflict. The legal framework for conducting armed confl icts and the use of force involves a few straightforward rules, expressed as principles.
The first is the principle of distinction, which states that combatants are to be distinguishable from the civilian population. This is so combatants do not target their adversary's civilians and do not jeopardize their own civilians. Parties to armed confl ict are so obligated. Second is the principle of proportionality which states that combatants must weigh military objectives (gains) against the harm (incidental) to be caused to civilians in obtaining that objective, then take reasonable precautions, before attacking, to minimize incidental civilian harm. Defenders must also act to minimize civilian casualties. Again the parties to an armed conflict are so obligated. Their obligations are parallel, if not identical. These principles provide the context in which Hamas' tactics were catalogued in a 168 page IDF report on tactics encountered (hereinafter referred to as "the report") distributed in August 2009.
Background of the combat
Hamas operated from within the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated geographical areas in the world. Well over 90 percent of the Gaza Strip's population is now Muslim. The IDF could only achieve its assigned objectives if it conducted a campaign on the ground inside the Gaza Strip. Hamas recognized this and prepared for a likely air attack followed by a ground assault.
Hamas' strategy relied upon foreign media reports from within the Gaza Strip as its most effective weapon. Media broadcasts of horrific destruction and death, especially of small children, appeared on bloggers' websites, opened evening news broadcasts, and ran on the front pages of newspapers and magazines around the world, accompanied by heartrending photos.
In contrast, Israel refused to allow the foreign press into the Gaza Strip. Thus, Hamas-friendly media outlets and correspondents provided virtually exclusive coverage of the events. Hamas outperformed Israel in media warfare just as various terrorist factions have done to coalition forces involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.
Hamas in Gaza deliberately attacked civilian population centers before and during Operation Cast Lead, making an Israeli military air and ground operation inevitable. Hamas employed mortar bombs, Kassam and Grad rockets, homicide/suicide bombers, and active shooters against Israeli civilians. Hamas boasted of its intention to hit Israeli civilian population centers. The terrorist group's specific goal was to inflict the maximum amount of civilian death, suffering, destruction, and devastation that it could. Hamas understood that the terror group that was most successful at killing Israelis, and that launched the grandest attacks, would become the dominant militant group in Gaza. It would be able to solicit the largest financial contributions and attract the best recruits. Hamas' public relations personnel were quick to publicize and exploit mortar and missile strikes in Southern Israel. Hamas systematically and deliberately used civilian sites as cover for its military operations. Using their own civilian areas for military advantage was central to the terrorists' overall strategy. Hamas based its operations in civilian areas because of the likelihood that doing so would result in substantial harm to civilians. Hamas' apparent intent was to make it impossible for the IDF to avoid harming civilians and damaging civilian structures.
Hamas launched rockets from areas near schools, used hospitals as bases of operation, stored weapons in mosques, and booby trapped entire neighborhoods. Thus, Hamas was able to keep the IDF from attacking legitimate military targets by taking advantage of the IDF's aversion to causing Palestinian casualties. When the IDF did attack, civilian casualties and the damage caused to homes, public institutions, and the Gaza Strip's infrastructure made excellent propaganda. The media reported almost all casualties as civilian, including combatants engaged in firing missiles. Casualty counts became a propaganda tool artfully wielded by Hamas supporters.
Hamas operatives regularly fired rockets into Israel from within or near residential and public buildings, including schools, mosques, and hospitals. There are dozens of examples of this tactic. Even the yard of the central building of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) educational complex in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip was used to launch a rocket attack. On January 18, 2009, an IDF UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) identified a rocket launcher placed immediately between two school buildings. The Israeli Air Force did not fire on it because it was too close to the schools, thus rewarding Hamas for the placement of the rocket launcher.
Hamas staged its command and control bases and located its weapons and munitions manufacturing and storage facilities within Gaza's most densely populated residential areas and next to all manner of protected sites. Hamas used civilians' homes and buildings housing public institutions for its operational bases. It conducted much of its fighting during Operation Cast Lead from within these private residences and public facilities. Hamas used the IDF's reluctance to attack these locations to its advantage. Hamas' main headquarters during Operation Cast Lead was located inside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. The IDF did not attack the hospital because of the inevitable harm the attack would cause civilians and the worldwide outcry that would result. Similarly, Hamas made a regular practice of storing weapons in mosques, as exemplified by the IDF's discovery of weapons in a mosque in Jabaliya.
Hamas used a variety of other public institutions for its activities, too. A training camp was located in a sports complex behind a Mosque, across from a municipality building. A laboratory for making explosives and a rocket manufacturing plant were located in the civil administration complex in the Jabaliya refugee camp. Military activities were located adjacent to sensitive sites, such as schools and U.N. facilities. Hamas even took over the homes of civilians during the operation and used them as positions from which to attack Israeli forces. The combatants took pride in endangering the lives of civilians Circle 55 on Reader Service Card and refused their pleas to go away. One such incident reported by Panorama-Italy describes how Hamas combatants positioned themselves on the roof an eight-story residential building that was home to about 170 Palestinian civilians. The residents protested, stating that the combatants' presence would draw fire from the Israelis. Hamas replied, "It will be a great honor if you will die with us, the defenders of Gaza."
Hamas systematically used medical facilities, vehicles, and uniforms of medical personnel as camouflage. They used ambulances bearing the symbols of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to transport combatants and weaponry, just as insurgents in Iraq had done. Hospitals and medical facilities were turned into Hamas Headquarters, command and control centers, and hideouts. The head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip located his Southern headquarters in a Shifa Hospital medical unit. Senior Hamas leaders stationed themselves in another of Shifa's units. An entire hospital wing was closed off for the exclusive use of Hamas operatives, and entry to all civilians to that wing was blocked. In Khan Younis, Hamas took over a Red Crescent medical clinic and converted it into a detention facility. Hamas booby-trapped civilian areas.
A primary tactic was to use explosives to booby-trap homes, schools, and entire neighborhoods. The roads were also mined. Hamas literally transformed major urban areas of the Gaza Strip into death traps in anticipation of the IDF ground incursion. The use of booby traps also resulted in their sympathetic detonation from IDF air strikes and in fighting with the IDF. Secondary blasts from these Hamas explosives destroyed homes and injured civilians. Hamas commingled with civilians and used them as human shields, particularly women and children. Combatants intermingled with civilians in order to cover their movements. They also hid among civilians and traded clothes with them. Hamas encouraged civilians, including children, to congregate in locations that the IDF had warned civilians to leave due to impending attacks. Sometimes civilians complied with Hamas' requests, and other times they were forced to do so at gunpoint. Hamas employed children as operatives and as homicide/suicide bombers. Youngsters were also used in military support roles for intelligence gathering, logistical support, tunnel digging, weapons smuggling, and weapons retrieval. Additionally. Hamas provide Gaza's teenagers with military training and militant indoctrination under the guise of running summer camps.
Hamas interfered with humanitarian relief efforts and looted relief supplies intended for the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. Combatants prevented humanitarian relief from various international aid organizations from reaching its intended recipients. During the IDF's humanitarian pauses in fighting, Hamas continued firing rockets, attacked crossing points into Gaza through which humanitarian supplies arrived, and hijacked supplies once they crossed the border. For example, a tunnel containing explosives was discovered near the Nahal Oz fuel terminal before the terminal for transferring industrial diesel to the Gaza power station from Israel was blown-up. On January 20, 2009, armed Hamas seized a Jordanian aid convoy after it entered the Gaza Strip. On February 3, 2009, UNRWA reported that armed Hamas seized 3,500 blankets and 406 food parcels from its distribution centre at the Shati refugee camp, and on February 5, 2009, UNRWA suspended all imports of aid into the Gaza Strip after Hamas hijacked 10 truckloads of UNRWA flour (100 tons) and rice (200 tons).
Hamas has honed its practices. While comparatively inferior in skills typically recognized as military, the organization has successfully achieved its goals by practicing illegal and deceptive tactics across a spectrum of disciplines that are not traditionally recognized as warfare. Each of these tactics has been employed against coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan by other militant groups. Until the governments of the world adapt to effectively confronting these tactics, they will continue to be practiced ever more widely.
About the author
Mr. Linett (www.HowardLinett.com) is a journalist and lecturer. He is an Israeli Police Civil Guard sergeant-major, a sniper instructor, and the author of "Living With Terrorism: Survival Lessons from the Streets or Jerusalem."