IDF Lt. Col. on Beit Hanun Massacre: ‘Artillery Least Effective Against Qassams, Most Likely to Harm Civilians’
Thanks to Sol Salbe for informing me of this article. Lt. Col. (res.) Ron Ben Yishai, Defense columnist for Yediot Achronot (and serving in the paratroopers), provides a primer in Ynetnews on the IDF’s uses of artillery and why it is the least effective and most liable to error in situations like the one faced in Beit Hanun. If you read the following closely (paying special attention to the italicized passages) you will find that, whether he intended to or not, Yishai is laying out the strongest case that can possibly be made for the ultimate failure of the entire Gaza counter-insurgency operation.
And lest anyone doubt the utter horror of this heinous massacre, please view this short, but devastating Reuters video at Ynetnews (Firefox users will need install the Active-X plugin to view it; IE users should have no problem).
Please note that this is not the dovish raving of a peacenik (though many erroneously accuse me of being one here). This is the hard headed realism of an experienced military commander who understands the effectiveness of his weapons and chooses them carefully. This is someone who, while he may fight Palestinian militants to the death, understands that there are moral and tactical constraints that must be respected whether Israel wishes to or not. He is precisely in the Rabin mold. But he is precisely not in the mold of today’s IDF officer. Or at least not the ones I’m reading about in the Israeli press exemplified by Dan Halutz. It is both surprising and gratifying to read of such an IDF officer’s hard-headed pragmatism regarding this horrid incident. In short, he should be the next IDF chief of staff. And precisely for the reasons I outlined above he will never be.
Yishai begins by saying despite the fact that there may be alternate extenuating explanations for what happened:
These facts make almost no difference in the grave overall picture that is already…entrenched in Palestinian and world public opinion, which accuse the IDF of committing a massacre. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. In the dozens of years the IDF has been dealing with rocket fire from Lebanon and Gaza, one thing has been proven beyond any doubt: Artillery fire (using cannons) is the least effective means in preventing rocket and mortar fire. On the other hand, it is most susceptible to end up hurting innocent civilians. Moreover, preventive artillery bombardments that missed their targets entangled Israel in the international arena more than any other means employed by the IDF. On more than one occasion, they forced the State of Israel and the IDF – in the face of international pressure – to halt operations and actions that were essential in thwarting terrorism.
There’s no point in listing all those cases. The list is long and grim. It is enough to recall the bombing of Qfar Qana, during the Grapes of Wrath operation in 1995, which left more than 100 innocent Lebanese civilians dead. Following the incident, Israel was forced to halt its operations against Katyusha rocket launchers, accept Hizbullah’s ceasefire terms, and explain its actions to a United Nation commission of inquiry. Another case involved the Gaza family killed on a beach several months ago…
Amos Harel notes in Haaretz the disturbing fact that:
By sheer coincidence, the artillery battery that erroneously killed 19 civilians in Beit Hanun, belongs to the battalion that killed 100 Lebanese civilians in the first Kfar Kana massacre. That was the hitch that stopped Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996.
Uh, the IDF might want to consider disbanding this unit. Or do they want to wait for yet another massacre before they do something to curb its grievous mistakes?
The reason for the above is that artillery bombardment in proximity to residential areas, as accurate and careful as it may be and even employing large safety margins, will always be susceptible to errors. Some of those errors are a result of the lack of eye contact, at the time of the firing, between the cannons and the target. Many other errors result from the shells’ natural distribution.
Artillery is a weapon system designed to “cover” territory and not hit specific targets, particularly when it is used as “preventive fire” at territories rather than a specified target.
Another common reason for tragic incidents where innocents are hurt is errors in calculating the point of impact and technical failures in the armaments involved, which lead to the shells missing the target. Even shell duds that failed to explode threaten civilian populations no less than shells that were properly aimed and exploded.
Directly aimed tank fire is more accurate than artillery fire, but is also risky when employed in residential areas, because such fire is susceptible to missed shots and errors in identifying the target, particularly during nighttime. These facts are well known to IDF officials, particularly after the recent Lebanon war where about 130,000 artillery shells were fired. Now it is clear that the effectiveness of this weapon against Hizbullah fighters was marginal, while the economic cost was astronomical and reached millions of dollars.
Even before the Lebanon war, it was proven that artillery fire failed in preventing or even minimizing Qassam rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. This is the reason why the IDF Southern Command decided recently, on the recommendation of Gaza Division Commander Moshe Tamir, to stop or at least highly limit the use of preventive artillery fire. The trouble is that this recognition of the limits and risks associated with artillery fire were not implemented and so we got another horrifying testament to the dubious effectiveness and needless danger of hurting innocent civilians that is inherent in such fire near residential areas.
Read that carefully, a division commander ordered a policy of “highly limiting” artillery fire and the policy was “not implemented.” Amos Harel describes the situation a bit differently. He claims that Tamir himself approved the deviation from his own policies. This indicates an IDF commander so desperate for results that he rescinded his own policy, probably against his better judgment. This shows an army so lacking in discipline that it deviates from standing policy in the hopes of achieving a specified result. And of course it fails. If you can’t achieve a result following SOP then you’re highly unlikely to achieve it by violating them.
This is precisely the IDF that failed so miserably in Lebanon. Lucky for the IDF Palestinian militants cannot punish them as severely for their failures as Hezbollah did. But this is a gang that literally can’t shoot straight. Consider another grievous operational error noted by Amos Harel:
Veteran artillery men were terrified to discover that the battery had fired at Beit Hanun on the basis of range aiming from the previous night. The corps’ artillery procedure demanded that before firing at a designated target, the unit had to reset range and bearing that morning, because changes in the weather and humidity could affect the shell’s trajectory. Without such resetting, a 450-meter deviation from the target is not so radical.
They used coordinates for their firing based on test firing 12 hours earlier! This is like an airline pilot making an instrument landing and then 12 hours later, instead of doing it again, he decides that the coordinates he used for his last landing would work just as well this time. What he doesn’t take into account is that the wind’s direction and force could’ve changed dramatically thus causing him to crash.
And consider this statement from one of the IDF Gaza officers, which vainly attempts to portray artillery as an effective means of interdicting rocket fire:
IDF GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant told Channel 2: “Israel’s citizens don’t know how many times artillery fire has prevented Qassam [rocket] launches. When you fire at the launching area area two or three hours in advance, there is a good chance of preventing the Qassam fire.”
Or not. Based on the results, I think I’d trust Yishai’s judgment before I’d trust Galant’s. Besides which, you’ll notice Galant doesn’t address the grievous error rate in such blanket artillery attacks. That’s because he doesn’t care about Palestinian casualties. He’s only interested in results. Or supposedly interested in results. If he were really interested in results he’d examine how successful such tactics are. Yishai doesn’t believe what he’s saying about artillery’s “effectiveness.” Why should we or any Israeli?
Israel will have to address the results of the disaster not only on the moral plain but also in terms of the damage to its position in the international arena. We must also recognize the fact that every such disaster boosts the motivation of Palestinian terror groups to continue the Qassam fire and terror attacks as well as the legitimization they receive on the Palestinian street.
If an IDF lieutenant colonel understand this why can’t Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz? If you needed any proof that Yishai is right, read this Haaretz subheadline: “21 Qassams said fired at Israel in wake of IDF shelling on Gaza.” Or consider this wise, but sad testimony from a massacre survivor:
At the Kamal Adwan Hospital, Maali Athamnah, 27, the aunt of the newly orphaned Isra and two other siblings who survived, Islam, 14, and Muhammad, 3, who broke both his legs, broke into tears reading a list of the dead, nearly all of them relatives. Another 80 people were wounded.
Ms. Athamnah said she did not support the militants’ firing rockets into Israel. But she said: “Just think who is firing them: those who lost family members to Israel. And think about these kids now. They will be the rocket firers in the future. No mother, no father. No house. They will be the next ones to fire the rockets.”
Yishai asks why the IDF would pursue such flawed tactics as artillery barrages in densely crowded urban areas knowing of the possible disastrous consequences:
So why does the IDF still continue using artillery fire? It appears the answer stems from the frustration of IDF commanders after military operations considered successful do not curb or significantly reduce Qassam fire.
Again, a return to the IDF’s lack of discipline borne of the utter failure of its military ‘strategy’ (if one can call it that).
Such operations, like “Autumn Clouds” at Beit Hanoun and “Defensive Shield” in the West Bank in 2002 are supposed to create an intelligence infrastructure that would bring results in the long run. Yet meantime, the IDF and political echelons are slammed in the media and by residents of Sderot and Ashkelon. The pressure exerted on commanders in the field as a result of the ongoing Qassam fire, and the frustration that stems from it, lead them to ignore professional considerations .
Experience shows that even if it ultimately turns out that the civilians killed in Beit Hanoun Wednesday were hurt by a “work accident” in a Hamas weapons warehouse in town [ed., Haaretz and Ynetnews quote many IDF sources which concede that it was a result of an artillery assault, not a “work accident”], the Palestinians and international community will continue to blame Israel.
Therefore, the required conclusion is that the IDF must completely end preventive artillery fire. Foregoing this means would not fundamentally change the results of fighting Qassam fire, but at the same time will prevent severe physical and perceptual damage among innocent Palestinians and diplomatic damage to the State of Israel that will curb its ability to act against terrorist rocket fire.