Excessive Force: Israel, Hamas and the Gaza Conflict

The recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Gaza-based groups has led some to charge Israel with disproportionate and excessive force, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, which on July 23 passed a resolution largely devoted to condemning Israel (HRC/RES/S-21/1):

Deploring the massive Israeli military operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, since 13 June 2014, which have involved disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks and resulted in grave violations of the human rights of the Palestinian civilian population, including through the most recent Israeli military assault on the occupied Gaza Strip …

[and condemning] in the strongest terms the widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations carried out in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 13 June 2014, particularly the latest Israeli military assault on the occupied Gaza Strip, by air, land and sea, which has involved disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks, including aerial bombardment of civilian areas, the targeting of civilians and civilian properties in collective punishment contrary to international law, and other actions, including the targeting of medical and humanitarian personnel, that may amount to international crimes …

Reversing the usual process of investigating before reaching conclusions and leveling charges, the same resolution announced a decision to:

… urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council, to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014, whether before, during or after, to establish the facts and circumstances of such violations and of the crimes perpetrated and to identify those responsible, to make recommendations, in particular on accountability measures, all with a view to avoiding and ending impunity and ensuring that those responsible are held accountable …

Are charges that Israel has engaged in indiscriminate attacks and excessive force justified? The legal question is usually asked in a vacuum – what military actions a country has allegedly taken versus the abstract demands of the international law of armed conflict. Even in such a vacuum, there is good evidence that Israel has not violated the laws of war. But there is the more important real world question of how other countries, especially Western democracies, actually behave in similar circumstances.

In other words, is it just Israel that is expected to follow, and is charged with violating, the laws of armed conflict, or are other countries held to the same standards? To answer that question requires looking at some specific examples, and perhaps the best example is the United Nations itself.

In 1993 UN peacekeeper forces in Somalia used helicopter gunships to mow down hostile civilians and militiamen. On September 9 for example, in one brief engagement, US Cobra helicopters defended a US bulldozer crew by firing anti-tank missiles and 20-mm cannon on a crowd of attacking Somali civilians and militiamen. The UN justified the killing of almost 100 Somalis by noting that, “Everyone on the ground in the vicinity was a combatant, because they meant to do us harm.” US soldiers referred to a “free fire zone” and complained that Somalis “call us killers of women and children when we shoot the very same people who are shooting at us and we kill some of the people that they are using for cover.”

It’s impossible to imagine the outcry if Israeli soldiers or spokesmen had ever said that “everyone on the ground in the vicinity was a combatant, because they meant to do us harm.”

There are other examples that are also instructive, including the United States invasion of Panama, Jordan’s reaction to a PLO uprising, and Saudi Arabia’s reaction to riots by Iranian pilgrims in Mecca, but there’s much more to be said about the Somalia intervention, so we’ll look at that first.

• US and UN “peacekeeping” action in Somalia

In 1993 Somalia was disintegrating as a country, its government overthrown and the streets of its capital, Mogadishu, run by competing clan-based militias. Widespread famine covered by the media spurred international intervention. Under a United Nations banner, President Clinton committed US forces, and along with personnel from 25 other nations, the soldiers attempted to restore order, distribute much-needed food, disarm the militias, and eventually restore civilian rule.

One of the militia leaders, Muhammad Farah Aidid, wanted to be the sole ruler of Somalia and rejected compromises among the clans brokered by the UN. On June 6, 1993, Aidid’s forces, shielded by a cordon of civilians, attacked Pakistani UN soldiers, killing 23:

One or two men approached the soldiers and began to talk to them as 15 or so walked toward them, their hands behind their backs … Women and children then surrounded the Pakistanis … blocking them from shooting at the men, who pulled out sticks and knives as other Somalis on nearby rooftops opened fire. (New York Times, June 8, 1993)

A few days later, in response to sniper fire during a demonstration, Pakistani UN soldiers fired on a crowd of Somali demonstrators, killing two:

In what appears to be a pattern of intensifying harassment, shooting episodes have increased over the past two days. On Monday, Pakistani soldiers killed two Somalis during a demonstration outside their headquarters after snipers opened fire. (New York Times, June 9, 1993)

• UN bombards Mogadishu, leading to heavy civilian casualties

The United Nations forces responded with full scale attacks against General Aidid and his militia, first attacking densely populated Mogadishu from the air:

After hours of American bombardment that shook the city, United Nations troops stormed the headquarters of General Mohammed Farah Aidid early this morning, but the Somali clan leader was not there.

The cen
ter of Mogadishu was transformed into a battlefield as aircraft led the assault and peacekeepers swept through the city…

The attack began at 1:30 A.M. local time as General Aidid’s neighborhood was shaken by cannon fire, missiles from Cobra helicopter gunships and a AC-130H Specter gunship… (New York Times, June 18, 1993)

The AC-130 is a particularly devastating weapon, and the raids caused heavy casualties:

By this evening, hospitals reported that more than 60 Somalis had been killed and an estimated 100 wounded.

Two helicopter missiles landed in the yard of a French relief agency, International Action Against Hunger, killing one Somali worker and wounding seven others. (New York Times, June 18, 1993)

• UN Bombs Mogadishu radio, claiming “incitement”

Among the targets was Mogadishu radio, which was bombed to silence “anti-United Nations” incitement:

… aerial bombardments …hit the Mogadishu radio station. The station, United Nations officials said, had been used to broadcast anti-United Nations messages and incite actions against the peacekeeping force. (New York Times, June 18, 1993)

• UN Blames civilian deaths on Aidid: He sent civilians to confront troops

After the initial fighting, 20 Somali civilian demonstrators were killed by Pakistani troops:

The attacks have fed resentment and anger among Somalis against the Americans and the United Nations. The tensions were made worse when more than 20 civilians were killed in two demonstrations on Sunday when Pakistani troops opened fire after snipers aimed at them … (New York Times, June 18, 1993)

The UN envoy in Somalia, retired US Admiral Jonathan Howe, laid the blame for civilian deaths squarely on General Aidid:

Admiral Howe accused General Aidid of using women and children as shields for gunmen, saying that the general’s faction had organized the demonstrations and that he would be held responsible for the deaths. (New York Times, June 18, 1993)

• UN calls for “Armoured Personnel Carriers, Tanks and Attack Helicopters”

The day of the June 6 attacks against Pakistani soldiers, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 837, which:

  • condemned the unprovoked armed attacks against [UN] personnel … which appear to have been part of a calculated and premeditated series of cease-fire violations …

  • [urged] member states to contribute, on an emergency basis, military support and transportation, including armoured personnel carriers, tanks and attack helicopters to provide … the capability appropriately to confront and deter armed attacks …

Thus while Israel has been condemned by the UN for its relatively limited use of tanks and helicopters, the UN itself called for increasing use of such weapons in Somalia.

• US Helicopters rocket meeting of Somali leaders, killing at least 54

Attacking on July 12, 1993 what was described as the “command and control” of Aidid’s militia, US helicopters fired “16 missiles and more than 2000 rounds of 20-mm cannon rounds” into a Mogadishu villa where Aidid aides and other Somali leaders were meeting. (New York Times, July 13, 1993) According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, at least 54 Somalis were killed in the raid and another 174 wounded, while Somali sources claimed that the dead totaled 73, included 10 children and 22 women. (Agence France Presse, July 13, 1993) Four Western journalists who rushed to the scene were killed by a Somali mob outside the villa. (AFP, July 13, 1993)

• In September battle “free fire zone” declared, 100 Somalis killed by US Cobras

In a September 9, 1993 battle sparked by a Somali attack against a US bulldozer crew, US Cobra helicopters fired anti-tank missiles and 20-mm rounds at “the crowd that came to see the shooting, killing nearly one hundred people.” (Black Hawk Down, p 76; in the text the date for the battle is erroneously given as September 19; the correct date of September 9 is given in the notes, p 360)

Apparently the crowd had begun to help Somali militiamen in the battle, leading UN Military Spokesman Major David Stockwell to defend firing on civilians:

Everyone on the ground in the vicinity was a combatant, because they meant to do us harm. (Manchester Guardian Weekly, September 19, 1993)

According to a diary account of one of the US units involved in the action:

… the Cobras killed as many as 100, they were shooting into crowds where they were taking fire. Remember it was a free fire zone… [The Somalis] use women as cover and concealment for when they shoot at us to make it harder to see who is doing the shooting, if we can see them at all. Then they call us killers of women and children when we shoot the very same people who are shooting at us and we kill some of the people that they are using for cover. (Black Hawk Down, p 360)

• After botched raid, 18 US Soldiers and up to 500 Somalis are killed in half-day battle

Firefights and ambushes continued for several months culminating in an ill-fated attempt on October 3rd by US Rangers and Special Forces to capture dozens of Aidid’s senior aides. The raid went awry when first one and then another Cobra helicopter was shot down by Somalis using RPG’s (rocket propelled grenades). Refusing to abandon the body of a dead pilot trapped in the wreckage of one of the helicopters, US forces instead formed a perimeter around the crash site, attempted to extricate the body, and called for reinforcements. The soldiers trapped near the downed choppers soon faced a withering assault from Aidid’s men, who were armed with AK-47’s and RPG’s. The reinforcement attempts and the effort to hold the position, while heroic, caused massive casualties. The eventual rescue, employing tanks and armored personnel carriers, added to the bloodshed. According to one report:

At least 300 Somalis are believed to have been killed during the street fighting in Mogadishu on October 3, and hundreds of women and children were among the 700 treated in hospitals after the battle…. “There was tremendous carnage involved,” a Pentagon official said.(New York Times, Oct. 14, 1993)

The author of the definitive book on the battle estimated that the toll had been even higher, up to 500 Somalis killed and a thousand injured. (Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden, p 310)

Many of these casualties were due to fire from US helicopters, which were reported to have let loose with 75,000 rounds and 63 anti-tank missiles in the 14 hour battle. (Gannett News Service, November 22, 1993)

• Despite high casualties, US spokesmen deny excessive force was used in raid

US Army spokesmen asserted that, high civilian casualties notwithstanding, the US had not used excessive force, nor breached international laws, and the Somalis themselves bore the ultimate responsibility, since they used civilian shields and had started the firefight:

From all reports, the nature and degree of force used … did not exceed what was necessary to counter this escalating fire and was consistent with the right of self-defense under international law…

It has been our experience that the Somali gunmen who have opposed us have frequently used women and children and, at times, have worn women’s clothing, to cover their movements and to protect them from attack. These gunmen do not wear uniforms or distinctive insignia; they do not carry arms openly; they are not led by accountable military leadership; they are not subject to military discipline and they do not comply with international law. It is they who initiated the firefight and who bear ultimate responsibility for this tragic loss of life.(Statement by US Central Command as reported in New York Times, October 14, 1993; emphasis added)

• The US Invasion of Panama

Reacting to increasingly repressive and criminal behavior in 1988 by Panamanian strongman General Manuel Noriega, the United States imposed economic sanctions on the Central American country and indicted Noriega for drug running. On December 15, 1989, following further unrest in the country, and a failed coup attempt, the Noriega-led assembly declared war on the United States. (New York Times, various articles December 1989)

US apprehensions over these developments were heightened by concerns for the safety of approximately 15,000 US citizens who then lived in the Panama Canal Zone.

• Unarmed Marines assaulted at roadblock, one killed

On December 16th four unarmed US Marine officers driving in Panama City took a wrong turn and encountered a military roadblock near the Noriega headquarters, at which point:

Panamanian soldiers tried to pull the Americans out of their car and then opened fire when they fled, killing one and wounding another in the ankle. (New York Times, December 19, 1989)

In response to this attack on American soldiers, which President Bush described as an “enormous outrage,” the United States, on December 20th, invaded Panama. The US invasion force was 20,000 strong, including elements of the 82nd Airborne Division and the 6th Mechanized Brigade. The US order of battle included mortars, APC’s (Armored Personnel Carriers), Sheridan tanks, and A-64 Apache helicopters firing Hellfire anti-tank missiles. Additionally, US forces employed F-117 Stealth fighter-bombers, which made their combat debut, dropping 2000 pound bombs near Panamanian barracks at Rio Hato (New York Times, December 24, 1989). Finally, the US also used the lethal AC-130 gunship, which is:

… equipped with a frightening array of 20-mm canon, 7.62-mm Gatling guns and even 105-mm howitzers that fire 40-pound shells …. [The AC-130] can lay down 17,000 rounds of ammunition a minute in a pulverizing stream of bullets. (Newsweek, January 1, 1990)

• Small Panamanian army overwhelmed; civilians not spared

These weapons were used to devastating effect against the 12,000 man Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF), which amounted to little more than a uniformed militia, and Noriega’s plainclothed militia known as the Dignity Battalions. In the course of the fighting, numerous civilians were also killed, and entire blocks of poor civilian neighborhoods were destroyed in Panama City. According to one press report:

At around 12:15 AM Wednesday, residents of century-old wooden houses ringing Noriega’s sprawling PDF headquarters, called the Comandancia, were startled by the roar of circling US AC-130 … gunships and attack choppers, then the rumble of tanks in the streets. The tanks fired barrage after barrage at Noriega’s official lair … The streets soon began to fill as terrified residents ran out of their flaming houses. An unknown number died in their homes; many were injured. (Time, January 1, 1990)

As the US forces advanced towards Noriega’s headquarters, the Panamanians fought back, drawing an unrestrained response from US Apache helicopters:

… riflemen and machine-gunners [began] shooting from the headquarters and the windows of surrounding apartment towers and other houses. American
helicopter gunships unleashed rockets and volleys of machine-gun fire. (New York Times, December 26, 1989)

According to another report of the fighting in the neighborhood, which housed 20,000 people:

… flames lapped at the base of a smoke column that rose several thousand feet. An American military helicopter hovered overhead and occasional explosions could be heard.

“This is horrible,” said a mother who had fled the area with members of her family. “Never in the history of our country has this been seen.”

Residents said that many of the wooden houses near the headquarters had been hit by gunfire and artillery fire. Many had burned, and some residents said they had lost everything. (Reuters, December 21, 1990 as published in the New York Times)

While the Pentagon officially estimated that 516 Panamanians were killed in the invasion, 314 soldiers and 202 civilians (UPI, September 18, 1990), some credible reports indicate that the civilian death toll was far higher. A 60 Minutes report suggested that the number of dead may have approached 4000, and cited a US Army document dated nine days after the invasion began that estimated the number of civilian dead at 1000. The Army document stated that:

Some were killed in the Torrijo section of Panama [site of the Noriega headquarters], where about 10 blocks of high-density housing or slums were destroyed as a result of our ops.(60 Minutes, September 30, 1990)

• US and allies veto critical Security Council Resolution

A Security Council Resolution which “strongly deplore[d] the intervention in Panama by the armed forces of the United States of America.” was vetoed by the United States, Britain and France, though a majority of the council’s 15 members voted in favor. (New York Times, December 24, 1989)

When Cuba pressed the General Assembly to pass a resolution condemning the US invasion, a senior State Department official said that such a resolution would be:

another example of hypocrisy … visible to the rest of the world even if it isn’t to the members of the United Nations. (New York Times, December 27, 1989)

• Saudi reaction to the Iranian disturbances in Mecca in 1987

During the 1987 Muslim hajj, or annual religious pilgrimage to Mecca, Iranian pilgrims, 157,000 strong, staged violent demonstrations intended to destabilize and discredit Saudi Arabia. According to news reports, the Iranians, bolstered by senior intelligence agents and Revolutionary Guards, intended to take over the Grand Mosque and force Saudi religious officials to declare Iranian ruler Ayatollah Khomeini the leader of all Muslims. (AP, August 5, 1987)

The Iranians, reportedly carrying under their clothes “knives and sticks,” soon overwhelmed Saudi police, taking their weapons. After a Saudi policeman was beheaded during street battles, reinforced Saudi security troops began to “shoot to kill.”(New York Times, August 8, 1987; UPI, August 29, 1987)

According to Saudi Arabia more than 275 Iranian pilgrims were killed in the fighting; Iran claimed that the toll was 600, with 4500 injured, and that “Saudi police mowed down pilgrims with machine guns.” (AP, August 5, 1987)

• Despite heavy civilian toll, US and Arab leaders back Saudi actions

The United States refrained from criticizing the Saudis for the heavy civilian death toll, and instead “blamed Iran … for the riots and praised Saudi Arabia for bringing the clashes under control.” State Department spokesman Charles Redman, said that Iranian charges that the US instigated the riots served Iran’s:

… political interest in exciting its own population and escalating its campaign of tension, intimidation and destabilization in the Gulf. (New York Times, August 4, 1987)

Arab rulers also defended the Saudis. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, for example, was reported to have joined “a growing number of Arab leaders … in denouncing Iran for the violence in Mecca.(New York Times, August 5, 1987) Arafat did not condemn the Saudi forces for using machine guns against Iranian pilgrims most of whom were without firearms.

Similarly, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also defended the Saudis, explaining that:

Moslems of the world must realize that any laxity in confronting such incidents would spread the forces of evil and aggression over all that is holy to Islam. (New York Times, August 4, 1987)

Finally, it should be noted that there were no non-Muslim reporters in Mecca, because non-Muslims are not allowed in Islam’s holiest city. With regard to violence, and with regard to access to a holy city, the contrast with Judaism’s holiest city, Jerusalem, could not be more striking.

• The civil war between Jordan and the PLO: Black September

The Palestine Liberation Organization had been firmly entrenched in Jordan, with its large Palestinian population, since the organization was founded in the 1960s. As the PLO’s military power grew it became a state within a state, challenging King Hussein’s rule and clashing repeatedly with the Jordanian army and security forces.

King Hussein blamed Yasir Arafat and the PLO for their attacks on Israel that provoked damaging retaliation. His attempts to prevent such PLO attacks were met by a number of assassination attempts. Finally, in September 1970 a PLO group hijacked three Western airliners to Jordan and blew them up after evacuati
ng the passengers. On September 15, seemingly not in control of his country, or his capital, which was dotted with PLO checkpoints, King Hussein appointed an emergency cabinet composed of loyal generals and declared martial law. The stage was set for a showdown with Yasir Arafat and the PLO. (Jordan’s Palestinian Challenge, 1948-1983, Clinton Bailey; Israel: the Embattled Ally, Nadav Safran)

The next day the Jordanian army:

… trained its artillery on fedayeen headquarters and other targets in the al-Wahdat and Husayni refugee camps adjacent to the capital. On the next day, ruthless mop-up operations began in Amman itself to dislodge Palestinian fighters from bunkers and rooftops. These operations, which lasted for ten days, were heavy-handed, causing great loss of life and damage to property. The two refugee camps were almost razed to the ground and buildings were destroyed on top of their occupants. In Amman, most buildings harboring fedayeen nests were summarily shelled. (Bailey, p 57)

The Palestinian death toll in 11 days of fighting was estimated at 3400, though Arafat claimed that 20,000 had been killed. (Bailey, p 59, The Making of a War, John Bulloch, p 67) After a cease fire lasting until July 1971, fighting resumed and the remaining PLO forces were defeated and expelled from Jordan. Some 200 fedayeen, seeing their comrades butchered by Hussein’s troops, fled across the Jordan River to Israel. Most PLO personnel and their families resettled in Lebanon, where they repeated their Jordanian experience, setting up a state-within-a-state, and launching attacks against Israel that drew firm retaliation.


Compared to the UN’s battles in Somalia, largely carried out by US forces sent by President Bill Clinton, the US intervention in Panama during the administration of the first President Bush, and the fighting in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, it seems inescapable that in comparison the IDF has acted with great restraint as it tries to avoid as much as possible civilian casualties while fighting an enemy that does its best to hide behind civilians.

In particular, Israel has put the lives of its own soldiers at risk to protect the lives of Palestinian civilians, by:

  • Sending soldiers into densely populated areas, where they have to make split-second decisions on whether a person is an innocent civilian or a terrorist. A much safer alternative for Israel would be to employ massive firepower, such as from artillery or heavy bombing from the air, but Israel hasn’t done this because these weapons don’t distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.
  • Warning civilians and neighborhoods before troops are sent in, thereby also alerting the terrorists, and allowing them to set up booby traps and kill zones targeting the soldiers.

Of course, it’s important to remember a key difference between the fighting in Gaza and Somalia: in Somalia there was no threat to American civilians at home, whereas Israel is fighting to protect the lives of its civilians, who are under attack. One can only imagine what the US would have unleashed had America itself been threatened.

The bottom line is that once again many elements of the media, and the international human rights community, are judging and convicting Israel by standards that apply to no other country, and are largely ignoring the fact that the IDF is taking more care to avoid harming noncombatants than any other army ever has.

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