Sunday, August 17, 2014

IDF and the Laws of Warfare

A couple of weeks ago I posted a short item about the data being collected by the IDF during the war and the implications this might have when the time comes to investigate it. Most of my comment was based simply upon observing the capabilities of the IDF spokesperson.

In the Friday edition of Yedioth Acharonont there was a much longer and more detailed description. It's not online, and it's only in Hebrew, so far as I can see, so as a public service here's a quick summary.

The IDF takes international law very seriously. Over the past decade it has considerably expanded the part of the military prosecution which deals with the laws of war, and there is now an entire team of officers, many at the colonel level, whose entire profession is to ensure the IDF functions within the law. I'll stray from the Yedioth article for a moment to add that I've come across these folks in recent years, in professional discussions, and they're knowledgeable, committed and professional. I expect that they know more about the laws of war than just about any media type or pundit who pontificates on the matter, except of course the other professionals. It seems safe to me to say that if anyone who doesn't have a full and updated education in the laws of war informs you about how what the IDF does is illegal etc, they are probably talking through their hat comfortable that you, too, don't know enough to call them out. The laws of war, like any branch of law, is a professional field, and it takes training and practice to be good at it.

 That's the first stage.

The second stage is that these officers spend a significant chunk of their time training other IDF troops in the basics. Clearly a corporal in the infantry won't go through a full course of training, but the higher the officer, the more exposure they will have had to the principles and concepts of the laws of war, and the more occasions on which they'll have been required to think about applying them. The training of an IDF soldier includes the understanding that the IDF respects the laws of war; the training of an officer includes applying these laws.

The third stage is that the legal types participate in the planning of all operations. I'm not going to detai the many levels of preparation an IDF operation goes through from conception to execution, but there are lots of them; the legal experts are part of the process. According to Yedioth, this results in some operations never being authorized in the first place, and others are adapted to stay within the law.

The fourth stage of preparation is that there's a legal expert in every division, and there are channels of communication down to at least the level of battalions; since companies and platoons don't generally execute their own operations, that more or less covers everyone.

Fifth stage: Ariel and artillery actions. Ariel and artillery actions are not necessarily susceptible to heat of battle situations. Both pilots and artillery officers are less likely than infantry, tank or engineering soldiers to need to respond immediately to fire from an unidentified source in the confusion of a battlefield. The article in Yedioth claimed that every single shell shot by those two branches was thought about in advance, and targets were vetted in advance, after they were visually identified by one or more of the layers of eyes the IDF had over Gaza - drones, other drones, radar and other stuff.

Sixth stage: heat of battle situations. Once the ground forces were engaged in close-hand battle, all of he above is nice to have, and the stream of digital data coming in to the grunts and their officers is impressive, but at the end of the day it's split-second decisions made under threat of immediate death which form the outcome. There are no legal advisers who can ponder the alternatives. You do your best in training, secure in the knowledge that training is different from battle. Always has been, always will be. Still, training does have a significant impact on the result of battle.

Seventh stage: post-battle investigation. The upshot of all this is that the IDF has the data to examine just about every single move or piece of action that happened in the Gaza war, and most of the time has the documentation to prove whatever results its investigators reach. The Goldstone Report was chock full of inferring, since its members had no access to the documentation. Whoever investigates this recent war without full access to all that documentation and evidence the IDF has amassed, will essentially be talking nonsense, no matter what their conclusions are. Sort of like trying to figure out how an American presidency functioned based only on contemporary newspaper reports from the Russian media.

Were mistakes made? I have no doubt. It's inevitable. Were crimes committed? On this point the legal officers being interviewed by Yedioth were admirably careful in answering: they wouldn't say no, they were only willing to say that every case would be investigated.

I recognize this entire story is completely, totally and irrevocably incompatible with roughly 100% of the international media reports over the past month. But you see, the thing about truth is that it isn't effected by media reports one way or the other. People's understanding of reality is; their ideologies and Weltanschaungen can be, but hard facts aren't.

It's also yet another example of how it happens that Israelis understand the world differently than everyone else. This is often used against them: if everyone says you are X, you must be X, and if you insist you aren't X you're not only wrong, you're fools. But of course, the entire surroundings has been telling itself falsities about Jews for millennia (literally). This didn't make it true then, and doesn't make it true now.

Ah,I forgot to add: feel free to show me one other military in the annals of war which can tell a similar story.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Yet another military funeral

I've been going to military funerals for more than 40 years. This says more about my age than anything else: people old enough have been going to funerals for 60, or 70, or 90 years. Though the funerals before 1948 weren't military, technically. So there's that. The young soldiers at the entrance to the cemetery handing out fliers explaining how to behave in the case of a rocket attack, however, are an innovation.

This was the second funeral I've joined in a week. The first was of Max Steinberg, a young American Jew who came here alone to defend us, so 30,000 of us came to thank him. Today it was 21-year-old Barkai Shorr, whose father, Yaron, I have known for 46 years. And that was the first thing I noticed about the crowd. There were thousands of us, not tens of thousands, from widely diverse social circles: People who went to grade school with Yaron, high school with Barkai, the synagogue of Barkai's grandmother, neighbors neighbors neighbors, professional colleagues of Yaron but also professional colleagues of Barkai, and on and on. Yet it was clear that people from different circles also knew each other. Maybe we really are just one big circle.

Yaron spoke on his son's grave in a clear and steady voice. He told us about his family, which has been living in Jerusalem for 180 years. He told about Barkai, whose single most important characteristic was his constant volunteering (I noted the large number of Magen David Adom staff, where he's been a volunteer for six years). He told about his name,which is a bit unusual; it's a mishnaic word for dawn, and he was born at dawn. Yaron quoted a Mishna which uses the word barkai: on the morning of Yom Kippur the High Priest started working when the barkai was bright enough to see down to Hebron. He told about Barkai's years at a yeshiva in Hebron. He told us that for the coming 180 years his family's clan in this land will have lots of descendants named Barkai. Finally, he told us all, the thousands of us, to volunteer, to commit acts of service for others, and each time to say to ourselves: Barkai. Barkai. Barkai.

That was the only time his own voice cracked.

The military cemetery sits on a high hill above Jerusalem, and as we were burying Barkai you could see the magic gold of Jerusalem at sunset, Jerusalem of Gold.

As the crowds were dispersing Hamas rockets from Gaza were being shot down over the hills to the west and one could hear the explosions.

                                                      *               *                *

Every family is different, and each funeral is unique even within the structure of a military ceremony. Five years ago I was at a military funeral, that of Nitai Stern. I went there in the name of our son Achikam, Nitai's friend, since Achikam himself was fighting in Gaza. Here's what I wrote that day, about that funeral. I can hope there won't be any further ones.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A comment on military abilities on display in Gaza

A few days ago the media was full of allegations that the IDF had shelled a school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. 15 civilians were allegedly killed. In an improvement over past practice, the IDF didn't respond with a quick apology. Instead, it came out with an immediate response that essentially said "we don't think it was us, we certainly weren't aiming at the school, we think Hamas forces were active there, and we'll check and get back to you."

In a world of Twitter and its like, news needs to be less than four minutes old to be of interest; saying you'll investigate and come back isn't compelling. So all the usual suspects had a field day lambasting Israel for its inhumane cruelty (CiFWatch has a roundup of the UK culprits).

A few days passed and the IDF came back with their results. Yes, there had been fighting in the area. Yes, one errant IDF shell had even hit the schoolyard. But No, it hadn't killed anyone, because the yard was empty at the time, and here's the video of the event to prove our position, with a link to the Youtube segment. In a move that surprised no-one, the media wasn't interested in this IDF version. (CiFWatch tried to catch their attention but to no avail).

My point is about the documentation of reality, not the distortions of malicious media outlets. How is it that Israel just happened to have an aerial film of that particular building? If it has, why wait 3 days to show it? Is there more?

The full answer will go to the archives once the war is over, and will be declassified only in decades. No army in history would throw open its raw military intelligence data, for multiple obvious reasons. Yet even the little the IDF does show demonstrates that it's collecting an awesome amount if it, and is using it to direct its actions with as much care as the battlefield allows. There have been reports in the media that every shell shot by the IDF is tracked to ascertain it does what it was meant to do. I don't know if that's true, but the ability to procure a film of a random event the media is interested indicates it may be.

This capacity puts most of the immediate reporting of events in an interesting position: reporters tell what they see, through the lens of how they understand the world. But there's a second, documented version they know nothing about. A collapsed building, for example, is clearly collapsed, but how it came to be collapsed, at the hands of whom: these can be at best a matter of speculation for the cameraman who chances by a week or a month later; all the while, the IDF may well have full documentation of the event.

In the immediate term, the media has all the advantages except for the truth. Having extensive data, however, is important. It indicates that the IDF decision makers, local and tactical ones, generals and political leaders, are informed actors. They may not show us all their information, but we pretend they're mindless atavistic or blinded, at our own peril.

It is also of profound importance for Israelis, soon to round off their first entire century at war, to know that their side is doing its best. If Israelis had to understand their reality through the sole lens of the international media, they would probably long since have been demoralized into submission, as many of their erstwhile supporters abroad are. The first- or second-hand information about what's really going on, even if it never makes its way into the media, coupled by the understanding of the distance between strident media reports and reality, these are a source of long-term resilience which can't be bettered as a weapon of war.


Friday, July 11, 2014

A response to that nasty East Jerusalem op-ed in the New York Times

I'm riding out this round of Israeli-Gaza violence without blogging, as a good civil servant should. In the midst of it, however,the New York Times saw fit to publish a problematic op-ed by one Rula Salameh, a Palestinian woman from Beit Haninah, which is in north Jerusalem but for purposes of political correctness is called East Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem is one of my pet interests, and this op-ed has been causing quite a bit of excitement on Twitter, here's a quick rebuttal.

Salameh makes three points. One, Israeli immigration policy sucks. Two, she's afraid for her 17-year-old son Memo, ever since that ghastly murder of their neighbor, 17-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir. Third, Israeli policy in Jerusalem is geared to harm Palestinians.

I see no need to relate to the immigration issue. The New York Times has twice endorsed President Obama, and his administration has deported more than 2 million folks from the US for not being citizens, including people who have lived there for decades and have no potential center of life elsewhere; hundreds of Africans have died just this month in futile attempts to get in to Europe. Immigration policies are tricky everywhere.

I can emphasize with Salameh's fear for her son. I was once in Washington DC with three children just about the time a crazy sniper was shooting down people at gas stations, and it wasn't fun, even tho the statistical chances of being hit were small. More important, all my three children went thru their adolescence in a Jerusalem where people were routinely blown to death on buses, in supermarkets, sitting in cafes or walking down the street. We did our best to shuttle them everywhere by car, but being teenagers they weren't keen on that so mostly we lived thru the lethal roulette Salameh's countrymen were playing with us, and we hoped for the best and went to the ocasional funeral. It was trying, so I can empathize with her fear.

Tho, come to think of it, she was raising her kid at the exact same time about two miles away, and there was never any danger, absolutely none, in her neighborhood. Only had she taken him into the Jewish parts of town would she have had anything to fear... from her own people, not from us, who were blowing up whoever was there.

Which brings me to the enormous element of the story she somehow forgot to tell. Since the end of the 2nd Intifada, Jerusalem has become ever more a place that Arabs walk in free of fear. Thousands of them have moved into the Jewish neighborhoods, and tens of thousands enter the Jewish parts daily: they work there, study there, play there, consume there, freely mingling amongst the Jews, noticed only if they choose to wear recognizably Muslim garb - which many do, unmolested. The city hasn't yet grown together, but it's clearly on the way, with one major exception: the Jews still mostly don't go into the Arab neighborhoods. The Old city, yes, along the edges, yes, but you won't find many Jewish teenagers rambling thru the Arab neighborhoods. Whether it's too dangerous, or they only fear it's too dangerous, is an interesting question I don't fully know the answer to.

Finally, Salameh's third point, about Israeli policies. They've been a mixed bag these past 47 years. Indeed, Israel has not invested adequate public resources in the Arab parts of Jerusalem. This is a fact, though the present mayor, Nir Barkat, is trying to rectify things, and this didn't interfere with his re-election bid last year. (The Arabs didn't vote for him). On the other hand, the Palestinians in Jerusalem enjoy a higher standard of living, including national health insurance, Jerusalem's high level medical infrastructure, social security, full access to colleges and the university, and so on and on. Israeli policy in Jerusalem is a mixed bag. It wold have been honest of Salameh to mention this.

Yes, there was one ghastly murder of a Palestinian teenager, and his murderers are already under arrest (three of them, the other three having been sent home for not having been involved). In response, Arab youth torched the light-rail train that goes thru Beit Haninah (Salameh forgot to mention this) and violently rioted for a few days before calming down. Soon the rails will be fixed and the evil Israeli tram line will return to Beit Haninnah. I have no doubt Salameh's son is already back in the Jewish parts of town, returneg safely home each evening. He needs to be careful, however, if the sirens go off, bacause the Hamas rockets from Gaza don't ask for identity cards.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On Jewish political murderers and chauvinist bullies


I had an interesting e-mail exchange the other day with a fellow, on the topic of Jewish politically-motivated murderers and other chauvinists. It occurs to me that part of my side of the discussion might be of more general interest, while falling deep enough into consensus-territory that I need not be inhibited to express it in public in spite of my vocational need to stay away from politics. So here's what I wrote:

1. The Internet in general, all over the world, encourages some types of people to express ugly hatreds: racism, misogyny, etc. Just yesterday I was reading vile stomach churning comments on the website of The Economist! A respectable, cool-headed and rational publication if there ever was one. Armed with hatred, enabled by the ease of use, and under cover of anonymity, dozens of readers piled on with comments that you'd be hard-pressed to hear in a pub at midnight after everyone has had too many pints. Is this hatred and barbarism new? I doubt it. It's been there forever. But it's easier to find it, to express it, and to join virtual crowds of like-minded bullies.

2. There have always been chauvinist Jews who were willing, under some conditions, to commit serious crimes in the service of their extreme agenda. Most of the time they mutter and rant in the darkness of their souls or perhaps among narrow circles of like-minded extremists, and no more. Every now and then, however, they take criminal action. This has happened in every single decade since the 1930s - tho probably not in every year, and certainly not at any given month. I"m talking about violence and murder, much worse than mere ugly facebook campaigns. The facebook campaigns are happening for the reasons I mentioned in (1).

3. As a general rule, Jewish society since the 1930s condemns its murderers and thugs and restrains them. Not always with full success, sadly. But our overall track record is pretty good, as good as any other free society, and in a completely different league than our enemies - and this has been the case all along. Not connected to the "occupation".

Friday, May 30, 2014

Living and Dying in in Divided Jerusalem

Jewish cemeteries are fascinating places. I was in one this morning, and noticed this gravestone.

It's the final resting place of Chaya Sarah Safra, who died in the winter of 1957, nine years after Jerusalem had been divided. In all those years she had not been able to visit the grave of her husband, Noah Safra, who had died ten years (to the day!) earlier. He was buried on the Mount of Olives, which in 1957 was in Jordan. Her family buried her in the main cemetery of West Jerusalem, Israel.

Resting in one city but two hostile countries, her gravestone contains all the information from his, so that visiting her might be a bit like visiting them both; and resting separately might be a bit like resting together.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Celebrating (in) Jerusalem

The Jews have been around for quite a while now - 3,000 years, give or take half a millennum and depending upon whom you ask and what criteria you use for "Jews" and "around". If you tried to list the Top Ten events in their history, the list you'd end up with might say more about you than about them. Torah at Sinai? Disliking that Jesus fellow back on Passover that year? Rebbi orally editing an oral tradition? Lobbying Cyrus? David penning Psalms? The Baal Shem Tov shaking things up? Abraham haggling with God about Justice? Spinoza laying philosophical foundations for the Enlightenment?

When you get into recent history - say, 1750 onwards - things get even trickier. The emergence of secular German-speaking Jewish thinkers is probably on the list; should Refael Lemkin convincing the UN to outlaw genocide be on it? For that matter, is the Holocaust a Jewish event, and will it look as important in 2045 as it did in 1995?

The top event on my list for the Common Era is easy: the 28th day of Iyar, or June 7th 1967, the day Israel gained control of the entire city of Jerusalem including all of the Old City. It's not a normal event when a group of people spend 1,897 years vocally waiting for an event, which then happens. I'm not aware of anything remotely similar having ever happened anywhere, anytime, with any other group.

This evening is the 28th of Iyar, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. We celebrated it at our shul in an unusual way, by celebrating Baruch's 90th birthday, which also happens today.

I wrote about Baruch back when he was a young 85. At 90 he still identifies primarily as the grandson of Rav David W, the chief rabbi of their Slovakian community. A Holocaust survivor, who fought in Israel's War of Independence and then spent 10 months as a POW in a Jordanian camp. One of the speakers this evening recollected stories about his service as a tank crewman in the Sinai War of 1956. Much of the congregation came to celebrate with him this evening, as he is universally regarded as second in importance only to the Rabbi, and he's the more obviously beloved of the two. (Rabbis inevitably have critics because they take positions on matters).

He was surrounded by his family: children, lots of grandchildren, lots and lots of great-grandchildren. It was the most natural and miraculous event imaginable. One of two survivors of a death march on which 2,000 people perished, celebrating his 90th birthday in Jerusalem. Geopolitics, world history, wars, national interests and international cynicism, statesmanship and diplomacy, terrorism and hatred, law, international law, justice, injustice, propaganda, public relations, politics - these and many others are all part of the contemporary story of the Jews and their City. At times, however, a simple birthday party will trump them all with the force of its truth.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

More Jewish-Arab integration in Jerusalem

I took this snapshot recently near the Israel State Archives (you can see a sign pointing to us in the upper left). It shows the sign on a truck advertising the driving school from which it hails: Hanan's Driving School.

In Hebrew and in Arabic. Hanan is an equal opportunity fellow. He'll teach whoever pays him to learn how to drive a truck. There are lots of folks in Jerusalem who speak lots of languages, but he advertises only in the languages of those who are likely to want to drives trucks. Hebrew and Arabic fit that bill, so those are his languages. Not Russian (they speak Hebrew by now), not French or English (they probably don't speak Hebrew well, but nor do they drive trucks), not Yiddish ('bal-agulehs' are an extinct breed). Hebrew and Arabic.


Apartheid my foot.

Oh by the way: the sign directing traffic to the Israel State Archives is in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English, in that order.