Israel’s Changes in Response to the Goldstone Report
Publicly, Israel has been nothing but critical of the Goldstone Report. Netanyahu responded to Goldstone’s recent partial retraction, for example, by calling for the “twisted and nonfactual” Report to be thrown “into the dustbin of history.”
Behind the scenes, however, Israel has taken a different approach. According to the Jewish Press, the Report has led the IDF to adopt some very significant reforms to its war-fighting policies:
Despite Israel’s rejection of the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war a year-and-a-half ago, the international criticism it engendered has led the Israel Defense Forces to make a number of significant changes in policy and doctrine.
And they’ll stay even though Richard Goldstone has recanted one of the most significant findings of his committee’s report – that Israel intentionally targeted civilians and may have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza.
Among the changes made by the IDF were modifying the way soldiers fight in urban areas, teaching relatively low-level combat officers nuances in the laws of war, attaching humanitarian liaison officers to active forces and making media relations a priority.
Last May, eight months after the Goldstone Report was released, the IDF issued a new document defining rules of engagement in urban warfare. Although the ideas elaborated long had been standard practice, putting them down in writing was tantamount to introducing a new doctrine for fighting in built-up areas.
The document noted that during the Gaza operation, even after every effort had been made to induce civilians to evacuate areas where combat was expected – for example, by dropping fliers and making direct telephone calls to area residents – more often than not some non-combatants stayed behind.
The new doctrine requires that after efforts have been made to warn the civilian population to leave, the incoming troops first fire warning shots and give the remaining civilians a chance to leave safely. Then, to minimize casualties among civilians who nevertheless choose to stay, IDF fighters and commanders must use the most accurate weapons at their disposal and choose munitions of relatively low impact.
The IDF also has taken significant legal steps.
Officer training courses at company, battalion and brigade levels now include detailed study of international law, with special reference to the rules of war. The Military Advocate General’s Office and the Foreign Ministry consult regularly with foreign governments and international organizations to ensure that all IDF operations conform to accepted legal norms.
During the month-long Gaza War in the winter of 2008-09, legal advisers from the Military Advocate General’s Office served with combat forces, advising commanders in real time of what might constitute a breach of law. In January 2010, then Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi standardized this practice, instructing commanders to consult with legal advisers not only in the planning stages of military operations, but also during the actual fighting.
To prevent possible loss of military focus, however, Ashkenazi ordered that the legal advisers be sent to divisional headquarters rather than battalions or brigades, as is common in some other Western armies.
Another step the IDF has taken to help minimize civilian casualties and humanitarian distress on the other side is to attach humanitarian liaison officers to troops in the field. The officers come from a pool set up by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, and are in regular contact with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and international aid organizations in Gaza.
Their task in the event of hostilities is to help coordinate humanitarian needs on the Palestinian side and to point out locations of sensitive facilities like hospitals, schools and UN aid centers to ensure that they are not mistakenly targeted. Such officers were assigned during the Gaza War on an ad hoc basis and, according to the IDF, proved very effective.
As a result, Ashkenazi decided in February 2010 to refine and institutionalize the system.
The IDF has even gone out of its way to improve relations with progressive Israeli NGOs — almost certaintly the same ones the Knesset so regularly demonizes. As the articles notes, the “IDF is collaborating with some of the human rights organizations critical of its actions to make sure cases of alleged IDF misconduct are handled appropriately. Last July, the military advocate general, Avichai Mendelblit, singled out B’Tselem, which monitors Israeli actions against Palestinians, for thanks.”
Let me be clear: I am not pointing this out to be snarky, although I find the gap between Israel’s public rhetoric and its private actions to be deeply frustrating. I think the IDF genuinely deserves praise for these reforms, which are all very encouraging. And greater communication between the IDF and human-rights groups can only be a good thing, no matter how significant their differences.