Since the start of the al-Aqsa intifida (uprising) in September 2000, violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories has steadily escalated. The human cost of the on-going conflict is immense. By April 2002, more than 1,300 Palestinians had been killed by the Israeli security forces, the vast majority of them unlawfully; that is, when no lives were in danger. Palestinian armed groups and individuals had killed more than 300 Israeli civilians. Many of the victims on both sides were children. More than 23,000 other people had been wounded, many maimed for life. So far, 2002 has seen an even greater intensification of violence and suffering.
The Israeli authorities responded to the intifada and the killing of Israeli civilians by firing upon and thereby wounding and killing Palestinians at demonstrations, checkpoints and borders, and by shelling residential areas and police stations. The level of abuses committed by armed groups has also escalated. Palestinian armed groups have fired deliberately at cars with Israeli number-plates travelling along the roads of the Occupied Territories and set off bombs in public places such as malls and restaurants, deliberately targeting civilians. Israeli settlers have attacked and killed Palestinians with almost complete impunity.
Many of these abuses have been carried out with weapons supplied from the USA to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and, on a smaller scale, the supply of arms via smuggling networks to Palestinian armed groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades.
The IDF has highlighted the discovery of arms and ammunition, including rockets and mortars, on the Karine A, a small cargo ship reportedly sent from Iran to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israeli and Palestinian security officers have reported that large quantities of small weapons have been smuggled into areas under the jurisdiction of the PA from Israel. They have alleged that arms merchants and organized criminal networks are involved in this trade and that the Israeli army and police have never engaged in a serious attempt to stop them.
Many commentators on the other hand have focused on the role of the USA in supplying thousands of guided missiles, jet fighters, attack helicopters and tanks to the IDF.
One aspect of the conflict, which has perhaps received less public scrutiny than it deserves, are the weapon systems and military tactics being deployed by the IDF. And yet, the flow of weaponry into the area and the manner in which arms are used are key elements in helping to explain the appallingly high casualty rates - and how to prevent them.
In January 2002, a former British military officer was invited by Amnesty International to observe the tactics adopted by the IDF in response to the intifada. His findings were as follows:
There has been an increase in air attacks by the IDF against the PA infrastructure using US-supplied Apache Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and US-supplied F-16 laser-guided 500lb and 1,000lb bombs. In addition to tank fire, the increased tonnage of high-explosive that the IDF is dropping from the air causes a greater risk of civilian casualties. Furthermore, the effects on the mental health of those Palestinian civilians who live near to targets should not be dismissed lightly.
Flechette rounds, although reportedly supplied from the USA some years previously, were not known to be used by the IDF until June 2001. Essentially, this munition - a 120mm shell filled with up to 2,000 potentially lethal 5cm-long steel darts or flechettes - is an indiscriminate munition designed to defeat massed infantry attacks or squads of troops in the open. Under no circumstances can its use be justified in the densely populated Gaza Strip: civilians will and have been hit.
Bulldozers may seem a benign weapon, but the destruction and demolition of Palestinian houses, which the IDF claim are used as cover for attacks, is a form of collective punishment and as such is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention unless absolutely necessary for lawful military objectives. No attempt is made to warn the occupants, the demolitions often occur at night, adding to the terror, and there is no effort made to re-house the occupants.
Misinformation is apparently being deliberately disseminated by the IDF to encourage media reporting which puts an acceptable gloss on abuses such as the destruction of property, extrajudicial executions and unlawful killings. Frequently, the IDF has announced that it killed ”terrorists” when those who were killed were unarmed Palestinians unconnected with any form of armed resistance.
The IDF has refused to reveal its Rules of Engagement (ROE). ROE are not normally secret. Their purpose is to simplify and clarify in every soldier’s mind when he, or she, can use force and open fire in certain scenarios. They also provide a mechanism for the military to discipline soldiers should they break the ROE; this creates confidence among all ranks that they know where the line is drawn and what will happen if it is crossed.