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Israel's Humane Army

Israel's Humane Army

The head of the International Law Branch of the Israeli Defense Forces talks about Israeli restraint, and efforts to reduce Palestinian casualties.

by Colonel Daniel Reisner, IDF

Jerusalem - November 15, 2000

Many people tend to compare between the current situation and the Intifada of 1987-92. I would like to explain to you in a few words the differences, from my perspective, in relation to the current situation and the Intifada in 1987.

During the 1987 Intifada, 100 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were under Israeli control. None of this is similar to what is happening right now. First of all, Israel does not control the Palestinian towns and villages right now. Population-wise, 97 percent of the Palestinian population is under Palestinian control. Territorially, the percentage is somewhat different -- 40 percent of the West Bank and 95 percent of Gaza are under Palestinian control.

So what we have now is: a) we are no longer in the Palestinian-populated areas, b) we are no longer in daily control inside these areas, and c) the incidents taking place right now are not taking place within the towns and villages, they are incidents which take place when Palestinians move toward what we now call "flash points" -- and then we have an incident.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

 

From a legal perspective, classical international law only recognizes two situations: peace or war. But life isn't as simple as that. The current situation, the fact that now a large percentage of the attacks involve live weapons, that we are facing a Palestinian authority, that we are facing a Palestinian security service which in part is taking active participation in hostilities -- has brought us to the conclusion that we are no longer in the realm of peace.

Rules of engagement are a worldwide phenomenon. We did not invent them, and there is a spectrum of rules of engagement which are relevant. On the one hand, at the extreme end, is what I'll call "police rules of engagement." These are more or less standard worldwide. You are allowed to use live fire in self-defense. In all other cases, you usually use what is called "less than lethal" or "non-lethal" weapons systems.

The other end of the spectrum is warfare. In warfare, you are allowed to fire at military targets. You don't have to fire warning shots, you don't have to aim at the feet, and if it's a military target you usually don't have give advanced warning. Generally speaking there are limitations, but they are rather few and far-between. There is a large area in between these two ends of the spectrum which every country has to adapt and use for its specific situation.

Up to the current events, the rules of engagement of the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were "police rules" of engagement. When this new situation came about, we came to the legal decision that we have crossed the line between the area of peace and the area of active hostility.

We have made at least two modifications to adapt to the new circumstance. First of all, you have of course heard of the specific incident when we used attack helicopters to attack specific locations. Now, obviously that's not part of a peace-time operation. But please note that even when we did utilize these war-time measures, we did them as follows: A), we gave advance notice of the sites we were going to attack, and several hours advance notice. B), we fired warning shots before shooting, and C), when we did attack, we hit the specific locations we said we were going to attack, so that actually no one was killed.

The second change now is that the word "life-threatening" situation is interpreted a bit more widely that it used to be. For example, now [an Israeli soldier] doesn't necessarily have to wait until you get shot at before firing back. Generally speaking in most countries, that would be self-defense anyway. For us, until this current situation, the soldiers were actually told to wait until they were shot at.

RIOT CONTROL

 

A lot has been said in the media and in [human rights] organizations about the fact that we haven't been using enough non-lethal weapons systems. First of all, what do we use? The Palestinians have been claiming that we invented a new type of tear gas. I'm sorry, we don't have a new type of tear gas. We are using international standard CS tear gas, which is used by police forces and military organizations all over the world.

And we use the famous rubber-coated bullets. We are aware of the fact that the rubber-coated bullet has in some instances caused severe injury, but statistically as far as we are aware they are very small. If it's fired at too close a range, yes, it can be dangerous, which is why we train our soldiers how to fire it. This weapon system is not unique to Israel, it's been used in other parts of the world.

During the 1987 intifada, we actually invented quite a bit of riot-control equipment. We invented a stone-throwing vehicle, and we invented a helicopter-dropped net. The problem in the current situation is that we are no longer facing the classic disturbance, because IDF soldiers might actually be targeted with live fire, because the Palestinians have that capability everywhere.

We've started searching all over the world for non-lethal weapons systems, or as they are now called, "less-than-lethal" weapons systems. During the last weeks, we sent groups of experts to tour every single country in the world which has such capabilities -- 26 different countries and military organizations. And there are no non-lethal weapons systems on this planet which are effective over 100 meters. None. We are now trying to develop new systems which will meet the new threat, which means they will be effective at longer ranges, which will actually mean that it will keep the people away and therefore also prevent them coming near us into effective ranges of live-fire weapons. But these are now in development and they'll take some time.

EXCESSIVE FORCE?

 

I have heard a lot of statements in the media and By [human rights] organizations about the numbers of people being hurt. From all I've read, 3-4,000 people injured seems to be the vicinity of the number that most international organizations are talking about. The claim against the IDF is that we're using excessive force. Let's try and see if the numbers bear this out.

We have three kinds of events in which we are being attacked. The first event is a normal riot/disturbance/stone-throwing incident. On the other end of the spectrum we have the live fire attack, be it attack from machine guns, automatic rifles. And we have the mixed incidents, where you have both stone-throwing and rifle fire in between.

Let's say that an average incident will involve several dozen people and will last 30 minutes on average. I have the statistics of how many attacks there have been in the last six weeks against Israeli targets:

  • 1,351 armed attacks
  • 3,734 attacks without live weapons

     

That's a total of over 5,000 attacks instigated by the Palestinians. Now if we take the number of people who have been injured, we find that on average less than one person is being injured per incident.

Is that excessive use of force?

Colonel Daniel Reisner is the head of the International Law Branch of the Israeli Defense Forces. These comments are excerpted from a Nov. 15 press briefing.

 

Published: May 6, 2001


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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Ilana Konstantinovsky, January 26, 2002 12:00 AM

I want to tell you about our Army

My best friend is in the army,
things are really bad at the moment and the battle against terror is like never before.
We are scared for our lives, we are afraid to go outside.
We know how many of the palestinians want to die murdering our innocent people.
My only hope is to know that those wonderful soldeirs are there, risking their lives to protect us.
I have heard about stories in witch soldiers refuced to shoot in mad crowd of young palestinian and were killed for that.
For their hearts, for seeing children and not weapons of hatred.
I know that every child wants to live.
Every child has a beating heart yearning to love but why do they have to brain wash them into such deadly hate.
I can tell that our army is the most humane in the world no matter what others might say.

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