Among those who attended last week's pilots' graduation at the Israel Air Force base in Hatzerim was Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin. Why would a busy man like Diskin take the trouble of going to a military ceremony at a distant base in the Negev? The answer has to do with the tight cooperation between the Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces, particularly the air force, as reflected in fighting in the territories.
The Shin Bet and the IAF (in some cases the IDF Southern Command is also involved) are responsible for the most lethal part of combating terror organizations in the Gaza Strip: the assassinations from the air, for which Israel coined the euphemism "pinpointed thwarting." This past month alone, at least 40 armed terrorists were killed in IDF air attacks.
Lately, the thwartings have indeed become more worthy of the title "pinpointed." In all the attacks of recent weeks, only gunmen were hurt, as confirmed by Palestinians. The rate of civilians hurt in these attacks in 2007 was 2-3 percent. The IDF has come a long way since the dark days of 2002-2003, when half the casualties in air assaults on the Gaza Strip were innocent bystanders.
The attacks fall into three main categories: targeting specific known terrorists; targeting Qassam rocket-launching cells en-route or in action; and punitive bombardments of Hamas outposts, in response to rocket or mortar fire into Israel. Since Israel began air assaults on the Gaza Strip, in late 2000, the first two types of attacks killed more than 100 Palestinian civilians.
In their quest to hit terrorists, who operate in the midst of civilian populations, the IAF attacked even when the terrorists were in densely populated areas. There were always safety rules, but these were "bent" at times in view of the target's importance. The result was mass killing of civilians.
The best-known case involved the liquidation of a senior Hamas man, Salah Shehadeh. Besides Shehadeh and one of his aides, the one-ton bomb the IAF dropped on the Gaza house he was staying in also killed his wife, daughter and 13 civilians. That affair led to the infamous statement by then-IAF chief (and later IDF chief of staff) Dan Halutz about "a ding to the plane," in reference to the impact of civilian casualties.
The army's public responses in the Shehadeh affair and other incidents combined obtuseness with self-righteousness. Senior officers claimed there is simply no other way. The attacks are necessary, they said, and it's impossible to reduce the number of "noncombatants" who wind up getting hurt.
Turns out it is possible. Reducing the number of civilian casualties in the attacks on Gaza was one of the first tasks Halutz's heir as IAF chief, Eliezer Shkedi, marked out for himself. The data improved commensurately. From a 1:1 ratio between killed terrorists and civilians in 2003 to a 1:28 ratio in late 2005. Several IAF mishaps in 2006 lowered the ratio to 1:10, but the current ratio is at its lowest ever - more than 1:30.
The IAF warns, however, against expecting zero collateral damage. All it would take is for a missile to veer off-course by a few meters because of a technical malfunction and civilians would be killed. And another thing: When tensions escalate, such as under massive Qassam fire from the Gaza Strip, the IDF is more active and also takes more risks, leading to more civilian casualties among the Palestinians.
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