“Technical failure” in an electronic aiming system caused Israeli shells to smash into a Gaza neighborhood and kill a score of Palestinian civilians last week, an internal army inquiry concluded. As usual when equipment is assigned the blame, that answer has done little to quell recriminations.
Instead, the tragedy in Beit Hanun has added fuel to the public debate that has been raging since last summer — over whether the Israel military has grown dangerously sloppy, over how to stop Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza, and over whether the army is doing enough to prevent the death of civilians caught at the edge of battles.
Another repercussion: The deaths in Gaza apparently gave a sudden push forward to talks between Palestinian factions on creating a national unity Cabinet for the Palestinian Authority — a Cabinet mostly of technocrats, and likely with a softened platform. Whether that’s good news or bad for Israel depends on whom one asks, but it definitely would present the Olmert government with hard choices.
According to the army inquiry panel, led by Meir Kalifi, a malfunctioning radar system aimed artillery fire at the wrong spot at dawn Wednesday, November 8. The intended target, press reports said, was a grove at the north end of Gaza, from which a Palestinian group had fired Qassam rockets at Ashkelon the night before. The army reportedly had intelligence that more rockets would be fired from the same spot.
But the Israeli shells fell 450 yards away, within the town of Beit Hanun, striking a four-story building. Nineteen people — 17 of them from one extended family — were killed in their sleep or as they tried to flee. Another victim died two days later in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital.
Israeli human rights groups such as B’Tselem said that the army inquiry was insufficient, especially since Kalifi — the army’s deputy commander of ground forces — belonged to the same chain of command as those he investigated. B’Tselem has called for a criminal probe by the military police. The real issue, the group suggested, was the choice of weapon. “Artillery fire, which is inherently inaccurate, near a densely populated residential area makes civilian casualties very likely,” B’Tselem said, expressing “grave concern that the action constitutes a war crime.”
For the army brass, the Beit Hanun incident is hardly the only sign of disorder. Tensions between generals have been high since the inconclusive war in Lebanon last summer, when the military took heavy losses and often seemed directionless. Last Sunday, November 12, the commander of the Galilee Division, Brigadier General Gal Hirsch, resigned from the army, just before publication of the official postmortem into the July 12 kidnapping of two soldiers by Hezbollah that ignited the war.
The postmortem — conducted by Doron Almog — portrayed a critical breakdown in discipline in Hirsch’s division. The threat of Hezbollah abduction was known, and Hirsch prepared a detailed plan to prevent it, but his orders were never carried out. Recorded radio messages showed that the patrol attacked by Hezbollah behaved “like a class trip, not a military operation,” Almog said.
Yet Almog also said in a press conference that “responsibility in an army begins with the person at the top.” That was a direct challenge to the chief of staff, Dan Halutz — virtually a call for him to quit, as well. Leaks from the army have made it clear that many active-duty officers have lost confidence in Halutz.
The aftermath of Beit Hanun adds another burden for him. Defense Minister Amir Peretz has decided to limit artillery use in Gaza, implicitly repudiating the chief of staff’s tactics in fighting rocket fire. In the civilian arena, even those who dismiss allegations of “war crimes” are criticizing the use of artillery.
Likud Knesset Member Yuval Steinitz, for instance, told the Forward that the call for a criminal inquiry was “blather.” But, he added, artillery fire was a mistake — “not because it is immoral, but because it is ineffective. And it is also known to lead to mistakes.” What’s needed, he argued, is a full-scale incursion, like Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002.
Much more cautious is retired brigadier general Shlomo Brom, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. “I don’t think there’s a military method to prevent rocket fire completely,” said Brom, a former head of strategic planning in the army’s general staff. The best tactic available, Brom said, is direct strikes, based on sharp intelligence, against those firing or producing Qassams.
Artillery does not work, Brom said, partly because it is intended as a deterrent. Deterrence depends on there being someone in charge on the other side who can be deterred. In Gaza, he said, there’s only anarchy. And, he added, the potential for mistakes with results like those in Beit Hanun is built into the use of artillery.
More broadly, the deaths in Gaza have amplified the debate raging since last summer’s Lebanon war over how careful the army has been, and should be, to minimize civilian losses. The sharpest controversy has focused on use of cluster bombs — anti-personnel weapons that spread bomblets over a wide area. Israel used cluster bombs heavily against Hezbollah, especially in the last days of the fighting.
One reserve officer, speaking anonymously, told Ha’aretz in September that the army fired some 1,800 cluster weapons in Lebanon, containing more than 1 million bomblets. Since a large proportion of the bomblets do not explode immediately, they remain scattered on the erstwhile battlefield as unmapped land mines. As a matter of policy, the army spokesman’s office does not comment on what munitions the army has used.
No international treaty outlaws cluster bombs as such, said David Kretzmer, professor emeritus of international law at Hebrew University. But, he stressed, they are subject to general principles of the laws of war: An army must take precautions to prevent harm to civilians. And it may not use arms that make it impossible to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. By warning Lebanese to flee the battle areas, Israel fulfilled the first condition, he said. But by using weapons that remain to harm returning civilians, it violated the second rule.
Asked about the issue, the army spokesman responded, “All the weapons and munitions used by the Israel Defense Forces are legal under international law, and their use conforms with international standards.”
While the internal Israeli debate continues, the deaths in Beit Hanun may have altered the political dynamics on the Palestinian side, as well. Following the shelling, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas accelerated their negotiations. The accelerated talks indicate “a siege mentality — in a siege we’ve got to be united,” said Bar-Ilan University’s Menachem Klein, an expert on Palestinian politics.
This week, the sides reportedly agreed on a compromise figure for the next prime minister: Mohammad Shubair, an American-educated microbiologist and former president of Islamic University in Gaza. Though seen as close to Hamas, Shubair does not belong to the movement.
A unity government is expected to adopt a compromise platform that skirts the issue of recognizing Israel. Recognition is a key condition of the international community for ending the financial boycott of the P.A. However, a Palestinian compromise formula could satisfy other countries and crack the boycott. Already, the Arab League, meeting in an emergency session after the Bet Hanun killings and America’s veto of a Security Council censure of Israel, has voted to ignore the aid freeze and to work for ending the international boycott.
If a unity government is formed, Israel’s dilemma will be whether to follow suit and resume diplomatic contacts. The Likud’s Steinitz, for one, rejects that option. A year and a half ago, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon said that Abbas was not a peace partner “because he was either unwilling or unable to deliver,” Steinitz said. “What has he done since that has made him a partner?”
Brom, on the other hand, says that only a diplomatic solution can end the rocket fire from Gaza. “That option isn’t closed,” he said. “Hamas is sending messages that it is ready for a cease-fire.” A unity government could offer a way out of the deadlock, he said, depending on whether Israel demands explicit Hamas recognition of Israel — which won’t happen — or accepts a flexible interpretation of the new government’s platform. Whichever path the government chooses will spark furious controversy — one more consequence, perhaps, of the shelling in Beit Hanun.