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The Unconventional Battlefield

The Unconventional Battlefield

21 July 2014

Emily Gian

It has become a natural part of my day to wake up and immediately reach for my iPhone. Since the ground operation began in Gaza a few days ago, this action has been filled with dread; dread that the situation has gotten worse, dread that more innocents on both sides will be killed or traumatised by a war that Hamas has instigated; dread that more soldiers will be injured and lose their lives, dread that one of the hundreds of rockets fired by terrorists in Gaza will not be stopped by the Iron Dome and instead will cause more deaths and more heartache.

The ground operation in Gaza has also produced some shocking images and footage of what is happening on the ground in Gaza which are not easy to look at.

The problem with the international media is that very little context is given to a situation, and with so much information out there, it is easy to get bogged down in it all. I will attempt to give an overview of the situation as it stands today with secondary resources for further understanding. Operation Protective Edge is now entering its fourteenth day. As it stands, Hamas terrorists have fired well over 1,820 rockets into Israel, which is equivalent to a rocket every ten minutes. This figure has changed a number of times since I began writing this piece, and has gone up again, though I do not have official numbers.

In the last week alone, Israel has agreed to three different ceasefires. The first was last Tuesday, when Israel agreed to an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire which would see both sides end all aggressions as of 9:00am. While Israel agreed, Hamas did not and less than one hour after Israel held fire, Hamas resumed firing rockets into Israel. The IDF had said they were prepared to respond to Hamas attacks, but for six hours they continued to hold fire. In that same time, Hamas fired over 50 rockets into Israel.

On Wednesday evening, the United Nations issued a request to both sides to enact a six-hour “humanitarian ceasefire” to allow for humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip and to allow civilians to resupply needed goods. It should be noted that throughout this operation and under constant heavy rocket fire from Hamas, Israel has made provision for over 1,624 tons of gas, 6,422,969 litres of fuel, 3854 tons of flour, 31 trucks of medical supplies and 11,441 tons of food products to enter in Gaza through the Erez Crossing.

On Wednesday morning, Dror Hanin z”l became the first Israeli casualty when some shrapnel from a rocket hit him. Dror was very close to this very border crossing as he was voluntarily handing out food to Israeli soldiers. Hamas firing so close to a border crossing that allows for humanitarian aid to come in for their people shows how little they care for the welfare of their citizens.

Despite this, the IDF again agreed to enable the UN request for a humanitarian ceasefire but again stipulated that if Hamas was to fire rockets during that time, the IDF would respond with force. From 10am-3pm Hamas managed to only fire 3 mortars at Israel, but as soon as the clock ticked over to 3pm, Code Red sirens went off in the south with a rocket hitting Israel. Another 100 were fired in the next few hours alone. At the same time it was reported that one of the rockets that had been fired at Israel fell short and landed in Gaza. A little known fact from this conflict is that this has happened more than 100 times in the past two weeks.

Something happened on Thursday that became the game changer of the entire situation. Earlier in the day, the IDF identified 13 Palestinian terrorists who had infiltrated Israel through a tunnel dug from Gaza. The terrorists were heavily armed with RPGs and assault rifles and were prepared to carry out a massacre and also most likely attempt to kidnap Israelis for more political gain. The attack was fortunately foiled, as you can see from the footage released by the IDF.

In the day days preceding this, Palestinian terrorists had fired rockets, sent over drones, attempted to infiltrate Israel by sea and now by land. But this most recent attempted attack exposed a very interesting point, and that is that there would be countless more of these tunnels discovered and they are something that cannot be found by an air operation alone. So on day ten, the IDF began a new phase of the operation. Their mission “is to target Hamas’ tunnels that cross under the Israel-Gaza border and enable terrorists to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks. Such a goal requires intensive and precise operations inside Gaza. Hamas terrorists are operating underground, and that is where the IDF will meet them. The IDF intends to impair Hamas’ capability to attack Israel”.

Israel knows full well that a ground operation means more injuries and casualties on both sides. When Israeli combat units enter into Gaza on foot, they are dealing with another facet of fighting and that is urban warfare. The intricate network of tunnels lie underneath civilian houses, schools and mosques, deliberately putting civilians in the line of fire. “We know that the enemy – Hamas and other terror organisations – understands that the IDF is an ethical army, and therefore they fight from within the civilian population in order to make our work more difficult… the enemy wants us to shoot at hospitals and schools, and hurt innocent bystanders, in order to put international pressure on us”, said Major Eyal Dror, Deputy Head of the Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration Operations Division.

Sadly, by Friday, we had already received news of the first Israeli soldier to be killed. He was Sgt Eitan Barak z”l. Over the weekend, we then learnt of four more deaths – Sgt. Adar Barsano, Major Amotz Greenberg, Sgt, Bnaya Rubel and Lt. Bar Rahav. And then that moment of dread I talked about, when we woke to the news here that another thirteen soldiers from the Golani Brigade had been killed in various battles over the weekend. Five of the names have been cleared for publication – Major Tzafrir Bar-On, Capt. Tzvika Kaplan, Sgt. Gilad Ya’akovi, Sgt. Oz Mandelovich and Sgt. Sean Carmeli. Two more names have now been released – Max Steinberg and Staff Sgt. Moshe Malko. Seeing the faces of these soldiers, reading their stories, brings home the stark reality that in an attempt to bring calm to Israel, and to put an end to the terrorist operations within Gaza, it will have to pay a heavy price.

While some of the attention has now been turned to the ground operation, rockets are still constantly being fired at Israel. On Saturday at around lunchtime, a rocket hit a Bedouin village in Israel’s Negev desert region and killed 32 year old Bedouin man Aluj Aday, and injured three other people including a 4 month-old baby who is still in hospital and in a critical condition. The unfortunate death of a Bedouin man raises the issue that Hamas’ rockets do not discriminate between Jew and Arab.

Yet, only last week, Hamas Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, stated, “We say to [Israeli Arabs] living in Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, Lod, Ramla, and the Negev, the rockets fired by the Al-Qassam Brigades will not hit you. We know those parts. We are familiar with the geography and with the history. Not a single Arab Palestinian child will be hit by one of our missiles. Our rockets are aimed at the Hebrews, the murderers, the Israelis, the criminals. Don’t be afraid. Go on with your everyday life, and celebrate our victory, just like we will celebrate it here, in Gaza’.

Unfortunately, either Barhoum was lying (the most likely case) or his Hamas rockets must have missed the memo about the Bedouin communities in Israel’s south.

This current operation has brought some surprising moments, and some moments that should come as a surprise but have not. For example, on Thursday it was announced that 20 rockets had been found in an UNRWA school. The UN issued a statement condemning the incident, declaring that “this is a flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law”. They also mentioned that the incident is “the first of its kind in Gaza”, which is not entirely true. I recall this incident when three terrorists were filmed preparing and then launching mortars from a UNRWA boy’s school in Gaza. But I suppose this was some sort of a loophole as the Hamas terrorists were not storing the weapons at the facility, rather were launching them straight away! Hamas, for their part, have denied UNRWA’s claims. Apparently, despite these denials, UNRWA returned the rockets to Hamas.

In the meantime, one of the major battles of the past few days has taken place in the Gazan city of Shuja’iya. Since the start of the current operation, over 140 rockets have been fired from there into Israel, and it has been a major hotbed for terrorist activity within civilian areas. Aerial photos declassified from the IDF show rocket launchers inside or right next to a mosque, a hospital, a children’s playground and a cemetery. In order to minimise civilian casualties in the area, a few days ago the IDF began dropping leaflets in Arabic, warning residents to leave. It said, “for your own safety, you are requested to vacate your residence immediately and head towards Gaza City before 8:00am on Wednesday July 16 2014. The IDF does not want to harm you or your families. The evacuation is for your own safety. You should not return to the premises until further notice. Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families”.

Unfortunately for the civilians of Shuja’iya, Hamas commanded them to stay in the area, thus putting them in harm’s way and using them as human shields. Since the ground operation began, IDF soldiers have found 10 openings to tunnels in this neighbourhood. Many of these openings originate directly underneath houses, and yet the IDF still takes care when trying to destroy these tunnels. Additionally, they are facing a situation where Hamas is actually booby-trapping houses so that when they enter, the house will blow up. While the media has been quick to report the heavy battle that is taking place in Shuja’iya, they are less forthcoming in providing in sort of context, thus making it look like the IDF entered the area just for the fun of it.

There also seems to be a view among some commentators that the sides in a conflict must be evenly matched or that their casualty numbers must be similar. But while Israel spends millions to develop Iron Dome and requires every new home built to have a safe shelter from enemy bombing, Hamas spending concentrates on building tunnels to shelter its bombs and then, as we have seen with the example of Shuja’iya,  it expects its people to act as human shields when the inevitable Israeli retaliation comes.

The word “proportional” is not used in any accepted international laws but rather, “proportionality” has a specific meaning that is measured in terms of whether the potential for damage (particularly to civilians) by an operation is excessive when compared with the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. We have seen many examples in the current fighting of Israel calling off an operation when it becomes apparent that civilians will be killed or injured.

However, in any  military campaign fought in densely populated areas, accidents are  as inevitable as they are tragic, yet it remains unprecedented in a region such as this for example, to hear Shimon Peres express regret at the accidental deaths last week of four children on a Gaza beach where warnings had been given of an imminent attack.

The situation in Shuja’iya led to the third ceasefire of the conflict, brokered by the Red Cross and requested by Hamas for humanitarian and medical reasons. Israel agreed to a two-hour ceasefire just for the town of Shuja’iya. In the two hours that Israel allowed a ceasefire, Hamas terrorists were seen firing from the Wafa hospital and were hiding weapons there. Even journalists who are otherwise less than friendly when it comes to tweeting about Israel witnessed this, with one tweeting, “Hamas fighters were trying to hide their weapons as they left Shejaiya under temporary ceasefire”.  Another said, “Inside Shejaiyya we also saw several #Hamas gunmen. One passed dressed in a woman’s headscarf… tip of a gun poked out from under cloak.”

This raises an interesting point about the journalists themselves in Gaza. Despite the disparity between what is actually happening, and what is being reported in the media, it was interesting to see that the last few days journalists have been prevented from leaving Gaza by Hamas, basically forcing these journalists to speak the truth. It’s not the first time this has happened either, with journalists tweeting about the same thing during Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012. I always find it interesting when journalists become the story … and it should be remembered that when Israel places restrictions on journalists there is a major outcry. Why am I not surprised that the media is not as interested now as it was then?

Yesterday, US President Barack Obama, called PM Netanyahu in relation to the current situation. While acknowledging that “no nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders, or terrorists tunnelling into its territory”, he expressed concerns about Israel’s methods. He said, “although we support military efforts by the Israelis to make sure that rockets are not being fired into their territory, we also have said that our understanding is the current military ground operations are designed to deal with the tunnels, and we are hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this process in a way that minimises civilian casualties”.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon echoed these sentiments but went a step further saying “I condemn this atrocious action [the Israeli strikes on Shuja’iya]. Israel must exercise maximum restraint and do far more to protect civilians”. Strange words coming from the head of the United Nations whose own agency discovered missiles stored in one of its schools and then returned them to Hamas so that they can be fired at Israeli civilians.

Here is the problem. Both want the IDF to operate in a way that minimises civilian casualties. The IDF wants this too. We have seen on numerous occasions that they have called off strikes if civilians have entered the area, and before that they have tried to warn civilians to leave the area. The problem is with the battlefield, which lies right in the heart of civilian areas. Israel did not choose this battlefield, Hamas did. For every tunnel that finds its origins in a civilian household, for every terrorist that fires a rocket from a school, a playground or a mosque, there is an unfortunate consequence. And the worst part? Hamas uses this to their strategic advantage. Every life lost in Gaza is a media win for Hamas. To this end, Hamas even issued guidelines on how to describe deaths to the media: “Anyone killed or martyred is to be called a civilian from Gaza or Palestine, before we talk about his status in jihad or his military rank. Don’t forget to always add ‘innocent civilian’ or ‘innocent citizen’ in your description of those killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza”. What a cynical reflection of their own people.

And just today, another major incident was prevented by IDF soldiers. Two groups of terrorists entered Israel through another tunnel near Kibbutz Nir Am. The first cell was identified by the IDF and killed. This video shows how the incident played out. These attacks are frightening. Alan Dershowitz, who was able to see a tunnel that was discovered a few weeks ago talks about how they “begin in Gaza and snake under the Gaza-Israel border to unknown locations within Israel”. He continues “the tunnel I was in ended very close to an Israeli kindergarten in a kibbutz. The purpose of that tunnel was to allow Hamas terrorists to emerge from underground and kill and kidnap the 57 babies and children who attend the kindergarten every day”. This is terrifying. These terrorists can emerge anywhere within Israel, armed with explosives, guns and other dangerous weapons, and carry out large-scale terror attacks on Israeli citizens. Every single cell that is stopped brings with it the chilling message that this could happen at anytime, and next time, the outcome could be catastrophic. But the media is not interested.

So as another day ends for us here in Australia, we can only hope for better news when we wake up in the morning, so that feeling of dread can finally go away. May the brave soldiers of the IDF come safely home and may a quieter time come to the citizens of Israel.