One of IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot‘s first appointees has begun his term in office by formally signalling his appreciation of the Artillery Corps:
Maj.-Gen. Sami Turgeman, head of the Southern Command, cited a number of soldiers for exemplary actions during Operation Protective Edge last summer.
Members of the Artillery Corps’s Dragon Battalion and Sky Rider tactical drone unit received letters of commendation from Turgeman signed by newly instated IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot.
The Dragon Battalion, together with the Namer (Leopard) Battalion, provided critical fire support to infantry and armoured units during the fighting, firing thousands of shells and destroying enemy targets. Their actions helped rescue units that came under heavy Hamas fire and enabled manoeuvring units to complete their missions.
And who could doubt that the Artillery Corps played an important role in Israel’s operations last year?
Notwithstanding earlier legal advice from the counsel to Israel’s Defence Ministry against the use of artillery fire in urban areas, during Operation Protective Edge ‘the army… re-discovered the necessity of the curved trajectory shell‘.
Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem explains what happened next:
[H]arm to civilians… was exacerbated by the use of artillery fire, which is inherently inaccurate. During the fighting, the military made extensive use of artillery inside residential areas. An article published in the Ground Forces’ journal noted that about 14,500 tank shells and 35,000 other artillery shells were fired during the fighting.According to a story in Israeli daily Haaretz, a senior general staff officer confirmed that the military had fired more shells than it had planned to, probably four times as many as during Operation Cast Lead. After hitting the target, artillery shells can have a deadly effect on a radius of 50 to 150 meters from the site of explosion, and can injure people at a 100 to 300- meter radius. A former artillery soldier gave the following description:
It is impossible to aim the shells in an accurate manner and they are not meant to hit specific targets. Different factors such as the humidity of the air, the amount of heat in the barrel and the direction of the wind may determine whether the shell falls 30 or even 100 meters from the spot at which it was aimed. For that reason, a multi-barrel artillery battery fires a barrage of shells in a certain direction knowing that statistics will work their course, and that due to the scatter and the amount of damage caused by many shells, the target will indeed be hit.
In densely populated urban areas, such as the Gaza Strip, weapons with a possible deviation of a few dozen meters or more may result in fatalities of civilians who did not take part in hostilities. Even if some houses in these areas were being used for military purposes and even if residents were given warnings, the choice made by the military to consider entire neighbourhoods military targets flies in the face of IHL provisions, whereby the use of inaccurate weapons inside civilian neighbourhoods is unlawful. (pp. 56-57)
During the conflict, Amnesty International was among the first to pay tribute to the Artillery Corps’ heroics:
An attack overnight on the Jabaliya elementary school in Gaza, where more than 3,000 displaced civilians had sought refuge, is a possible war crime and should be independently investigated, said Amnesty International today. The attack killed at least 20 people and injured dozens more at the school, which is located inside the very densely populated Jabaliya Refugee Camp.
An initial assessment by UNRWA – the UN relief agency for displaced Palestinians and refugees – who analysed fragments and damage at the site, indicates the school was hit by Israeli artillery despite the fact that UNRWA shared its coordinates with the Israeli army 17 times. The strike is the sixth attack on a UN-run school in Gaza since Operation ‘Protective Edge’ began on 8 July.
‘If the strike on this school was the result of Israeli artillery fire it would constitute an indiscriminate attack and a likely war crime. Artillery should never be used against targets in crowded civilian areas and its use in such a manner would never be considered a “surgical” strike’, said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program.
It is inevitable that the repeated use of artillery in densely populated civilian neighbourhoods will lead to the unlawful killing and injury of civilians and destruction and damage to civilian buildings, regardless of the intended target.
And people say the IDF lacks accountability!
p.s. The IDF of course acknowledges that an artillery shell may on occasion land astray. Such deviations are strictly dealt with. Thus, when during Operation Cast Lead (2008-9) artillery fire was directed at the densely populated urban neighbourhood of Tel al-Hawa in Gaza City, Gaza Division commander Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg and former Givati Brigade commander Col. Ilan Malka were ‘reprimanded‘.
According to Human Rights Watch, the shelling of Tel al-Hawa included ‘air-burst white phosphorus [fired] directly over homes and apartment buildings where civilians were living or taking shelter, killing at least four civilians from one family‘. (p. 3)
As B’Tselem noted at the time, disciplinary proceedings, if they are to be just, must be proportionate to the offence. But those fearing a witch-hunt against Eisenberg and Malka needn’t have worried. The IDF – noting that the officers had been ‘disciplined not for using the phosphorus shells but rather for giving the authorisation to fire regular artillery shells’, the use of white phosphorus having been found ‘not improper‘ – quickly clarified that the reprimands ‘would not affect their future promotions’.
p.p.s. Eisenberg himself has experience enforcing the IDF’s severe code of ethics. Back when he was a mere colonel in Gaza, he suspended a platoon commander, Captain R., accused of emptying his magazine into a 13 year-old girl who had wandered too close to an army outpost in Rafah. An initial autopsy found 17 bullets in her body, including three in her head. Col. Eisenberg assured that the investigation ‘would be conducted quickly and that there would be no whitewash‘. Sure enough, just a year later a military court acquitted the commander of manslaughter, illegal use of his weapon, obstruction of court proceedings and exceeding his authority, which is to say, of all charges. And, so far from being a whitewash, a subsequent High Court judgement ordered the IDF to pay the good captain NIS 82,000 in compensation.