Does the Presence of the IDF's HQ in Tel Aviv Endanger the City's Population?

Nir Mann
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Nir Mann

The Defense Ministry, by its nature, constitutes a salient military target and, in principle, to attack it is permitted ‏(including from afar, using planes and missiles‏). The same applies, even more obviously, to the compound of the military high command ‏(the General Staff‏). This gives rise to concern about severe damage to civilians, should a target located in the heart of a densely populated civilian area be attacked.” The speaker: Prof. Yoram Dinstein, a world-renowned expert in international law and a former president of Tel Aviv University.

Under international law, is it legitimate to attack a target in an urban area?

Dinstein: “Article 58‏(b‏) of the first Protocol, from 1977, which supplements the Geneva Conventions of 1949, stipulates that parties to a conflict should ‘avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.’ No one disputes that this article reflects customary international law, which is binding on the entire international community, although the State of Israel is not a party to the Protocol.”

Is the enemy permitted to attack without limit?

“The rule permitting an attack on military targets is subject to the principle of proportionality. That is, it is forbidden to attack a military target if the anticipated collateral damage to civilians or civilian objects is excessive relative to the anticipated military advantage. However, the military advantage anticipated from a successful attack against the Defense Ministry and General Staff facilities is so great that collateral damage to civilians, even if on a broad scale, will not generally be considered a violation of the principle of proportionality. Hence the inner logic of the provision of Article 58‏(b‏).”

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What is the implication of this for the Kirya − the Defense Ministry and General Staff base in the center of Tel Aviv?

“The historical location of the Defense Ministry and General Staff base in the Tel Aviv Kirya [government compound] is simply regrettable, but it’s hard to change the facts of life in cases like this. At the same time, the massive construction of new buildings and facilities recently is tantamount to adding crime to punishment, so to speak, because it was carried out in full knowledge of the dangers to all the close surroundings ‏(which include saliently civilian objects‏). The new construction should have taken place outside Tel Aviv. If and when new facilities and buildings are constructed, they should be placed outside the urban area, in accordance with Article 58‏(b‏). It is regrettable, even surprising, that no significant public debate has taken place in Israel on this subject.”

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Are you saying that Saddam Hussein did not violate international law in the Gulf War?

“Iraq’s attack on Tel Aviv with Scud missiles in 1991 was illegal, because those missiles ‏(even if we assume that they were aimed at the Kirya‏) had a standard deviation of two to three kilometers. Accordingly, the attack did not meet the basic principle which obliges a distinction to be made between military targets and civilian objects. The proof is that not even one Scud missile hit the Kirya, while many landed some considerable distance from it. But an enemy that will make use of precise long-range missiles against the structures of the Kirya will fulfill his obligation. Still, no weapons are 100 percent accurate. There are always technical hitches and there is also human error. The risk to structures adjacent to the Kirya ‏(and to the civilians who live in them‏) is extremely high. Because the State of Israel chose not to move the new Kirya structures outside the city, it bears ultimate responsibility.”

Municipal taxes vs. the Geneva Convention

Tel Aviv’s mayors have never concerned themselves with the question of the location of the Kirya from the perspective of international law. Problems of collecting municipal taxes, removing garbage from the base and giving parking tickets to senior officers were seen as far more relevant than the potential collateral damage liable to be caused by precision-guided munitions, or the implications of the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Convention. The most prominent mayor in this regard was Israel Rokach ‏(mayor from 1936-1953‏), who was instrumental in the transfer of General Staff headquarters to the city’s center.

After the War of Independence, there were 14 large army camps in Tel Aviv, along with hundreds of security facilities in residential buildings, businesses, warehouses, garages and elsewhere. Hundreds of abandoned houses that were seized in Jaffa, in addition to the structures in the port, became the headquarters for the Shin Bet security service, the Air Force high command ‏(Ariel Base on Yehuda Hayamit Street‏), and more. Ben-Ami Base, a transportation camp, stretched across the huge square bounded by Arlozorov, Weizmann, Jabotinsky and Namir streets. The army’s stadium was located at the present site of the Savidor Central Railway Station, the central logistics base stood at the edge of the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, and there were more bases at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, the site of the abandoned village of Sheikh Munis, Sde Dov airfield and elsewhere.

The major real estate skirmishes between the Tel Aviv municipality and the government were fought over Yonah Base ‏(today’s Independence Park‏) and Kiryat Meir Base ‏(where the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Performing Arts Center are now located‏), whose location interfered with the city’s development plans. The city fathers were not bothered by a small base that was built in the area that abutted the Kirya from the north ‏(and is now part of the Kirya‏) to serve as the headquarters of the Signal Corps.

Rokach was determined to fulfill his botanical vision and create Independence Park on the site of Yonah Base as a green lung overlooking the seashore. For four years the prime minister and the chief of staff repeatedly rejected Rokach’s requests. However, everything changed in the wake of the coalition crisis of December 1952, which was triggered by the issue of the status quo with the ultra-Orthodox parties. The government resigned and the new government – which was sworn in five days later – for the first time included the General Zionists party ‏(later the Liberal Party, which was eventually swallowed up by Likud‏). Rokach was the only senior figure in the General Zionists who was against joining the coalition. However, he apparently could not resist the temptation of obtaining Yonah Base, as promised by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and he entered the coalition as interior minister. That paved the way for a massive movement of units and army bases throughout Gush Dan ‏(the metropolitan Tel Aviv‏ area), including the decision to move General Staff headquarters from Ramat Gan to the Kirya. Thus the defense minister ‏(also Ben-Gurion‏) was able to announce the evacuation of Yonah Base.

The new government’s first festive session was devoted, as usual, to a comprehensive survey by Ben-Gurion of Israel’s foreign, defense and economic policy. Afterward, only one subject was raised for discussion: the relocation of General Staff headquarters to the Kirya. The issue was presented to the cabinet as a problem of evacuating three buildings ‏(historic structures of the German Templers‏) owned by the Tel Aviv municipality in the Kirya. Ben-Gurion concluded the very brief discussion by saying, “I am happy that the former mayor of Tel Aviv is sitting with us here and will help us evacuate the buildings. If that happens, the municipality will get Yonah Base.” But another 10 years passed before the municipality took possession of Yonah Base, and then only after a circular deal in which it funded the establishment of Armored Corps House in the Yad Eliyahu neighborhood.

Not on my watch

The Kirya was not mentioned in the negotiations between the municipality and the ministry. In contrast, the municipality’s demand for the evacuation of Kiryat Meir Base, which was located on the northern side of the street ‏(Shaul Hamelech Avenue‏) was constantly on the agenda. Three mayors − Chaim Levanon, Mordechai Namir and Yehoshua Rabinowitz − worked vigorously for the evacuation of the Gadna ‏(Youth Battalions‏) base at Sheikh Munis, Kiryat Meir Base and the army facilities in the Lamed Plan area, which was zoned for housing.

In 2006, I interviewed the last three mayors of Tel Aviv about this subject. Here, for example, is what Shlomo Lahat ‏(mayor, 1974-1993‏) had to say: “When I took over as mayor, I expressed my objection to the presence of the General Staff base in the Kirya, despite my military past. My position of principle derived from the understanding that the General Staff could always be a target for an enemy attack in a war situation. The issue was raised in municipal forums and in my meetings with the city engineer and with the municipal council. However, I did not make a formal request to have the General Staff base removed from the Kirya.”

Why not?

Lahat: “That was probably due to the special ties with the defense establishment following my lengthy service in the Israel Defense Forces and on the General Staff.”

Was the idea of moving the General Staff base raised after the Gulf War?

“No. I decided not to raise the issue in the Gulf War, so it would not look as though Tel Aviv was afraid.”

Was the legal aspect mentioned in discussions on the subject?

“No. I didn’t think there was a legal problem. I thought there was a moral and a practical problem.”

No binding discussion on moving the General Staff base was held during Roni Milo’s period as mayor ‏(1993-1998‏). Milo, though, did act to have the Sde Dov airfield evacuated. “I did not take action for the removal of the General Staff from Tel Aviv,” Milo said. “We were more interested in the Southern Kirya project. We knew there was no chance to remove the Defense Ministry and the facilities of the General Staff base.”

Were legal aspects of the Southern Kirya project examined during your tenure as mayor?

Milo: “The formal legal arguments were about payment of municipal taxes. Beyond that we did not get into questions of legality or judicial propriety. I didn’t think there was any sort of problem in that regard.”

In 2006, the present mayor, Ron Huldai ‏(first elected in 1998‏), stated that there was no practical reason for the General Staff base to be located in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Indeed, he noted, from the strategic viewpoint, its location could motivate an attack on the city. On the other hand, he added, the scale of the investment in the General Staff base is such that there is little chance of moving it in the decades ahead. Indeed, the subject was not discussed in any municipal forum during the first eight years of Huldai’s tenure as mayor. He did not think the issue should be initiated by the municipality, as it involves national responsibility.

Was the status of the Kirya considered in terms of international law?

Huldai: “I did not deal with that. For me, the Defense Ministry, the headquarters and their activity there, and whatever it implies, are a fact.”

Six years have passed since then. The warnings about missile threats from Iran, Syria and Lebanon have constantly increased − but nothing has changed in Tel Aviv. The municipality has not discussed the Kirya and taken no action on the subject.

Checkered past

The Kirya area has been transformed five times over in terms of zoning and population − more than any other place in Tel Aviv. In 1871, the German Templers purchased an area of 500 dunams ‏(125 acres‏), from the Greek Patriarchate in Jaffa, on the limestone ground west of the Ayalon River and on it built the agricultural settlement of Sarona. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, many Templers joined the Reich army. Most of them served in the Wehrmacht in Africa, with the intention of joining the staff of the Gauleiter, who would rule Palestine after its conquest. Some served as “experts on Jews” in the Gestapo ‏(including the commander of the Mühldorf concentration camp in Germany, from the Aberle family who interrogated the parachutist Enzo Sereni and sent him to Dachau to be executed‏). In the summer of 1941, when Gen. Erwin Rommel reached Egypt, the British expelled most of the Templers in Palestine to Australia and turned Sarona into a British military base. During the period of the armed uprising against the Mandate authorities by the Yishuv ‏(the prestate Jewish community in Palestine‏) after the war, the forces stationed at Sarona enforced order in Tel Aviv and were targeted for attack by the Jewish underground groups.

On December 16, 1947, two weeks after the United Nations passed the Palestine partition resolution, the British left the Gush Dan region. That same day, the Haganah − the forerunner of the IDF − hoisted the Israeli flag over the Sarona base and named it Yehoshua Base, after Yehoshua Globerman, a senior figure in the Haganah. The Givati and Kiryati brigades, the Air Force, the Armored Corps, the Medical Corps, National Police Headquarters and other units were established at Yehoshua Base in the five months of its existence. Because Jerusalem was to become an international zone under the partition plan, the Emergency Committee ‏(the Yishuv body that preceded the National Council and the Provisional Government‏) decided, on February 2, 1948, that Sarona would be the temporary seat of the future Israeli government.

Zeev Sherf, the secretary of the Emergency Committee, was placed in charge of preparing the base for its state role. The heaviest pressure he faced in terms of requests for buildings came from the municipality and the Haganah. When the War of Independence erupted, there were some 20,000 Jewish refugees in Tel Aviv who had fled their homes in the southern neighborhoods bordering on Jaffa, Abu Kabir and Salameh. The gravest plight was that of the abandoned children: hundreds of Holocaust orphans and children from the Youth Aliyah project, for whom the municipality received eight buildings ‏(which now house the medical clinics opposite the Azrieli Towers‏). With most of the country still under British control, the Haganah was in desperate need of a base to create the formation of the new Israeli army. The pressure was relieved only after Givati Brigade left for the southern front, the headquarters of a Palmach commando unit moved to Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, near Jerusalem, and Israeli forces conquered Jaffa.

Upon the termination of the British Mandate, the Jewish National Fund and the Tel Aviv municipality decided to purchase the Sarona site legally from the Mandatory custodian of absentees’ property, whose office had confiscated the land from the Templers in the Second World War. A long, bitterly contested struggle in the international arena ensued. Within the framework of the Reparations Agreement with Germany, a compensation fund for the Templers in Australia was established, and in 1991 it concluded its activity. The joint JNF-municipality ownership of the Sarona lands generated more bitter confrontations, most of them over plots in the Kirya.

Minority opinion

Following Israel’s independence, the houses and yards of once-pastoral Sarona became the corridors of power for the new government. The cabinet chose the name Hakirya for the site, and all the ministries relocated there, apart from one: the Defense Ministry. Because units of the defense establishment were already ensconced in buildings belonging to the Histadrut labor federation throughout Tel Aviv, and owing to the shortage of space in the Kirya, this constrained arrangement was accepted without opposition.

The roots of the Haganah lay in the Histadrut from the day of its inception in 1920. The Haganah’s national headquarters were located in the building that housed the Histadrut executive committee, on Allenby Street, and the Haganah General Staff was based in the Workers’ Lodgings at the corner of Frishman and Dov Hoz streets. Most of the command posts were scattered among Histadrut institutions in the city ‏(the newspaper Davar, Bank Hapoalim, the food giant Tnuva, the Solel Boneh construction company, the Hapoel sports association, the Agricultural Workers Union, and others‏). Some were situated in municipality buildings. After the British left, the heads of the Haganah emerged from the underground. The “Red House” on Hayarkon Street, which housed the secretariat of Hanoar Haoved ‏(Working Youth‏), was assigned to the High Command. For the directorate of the newly established Defense Ministry, the new building of Kupat Holim HMO on Esther Hamalka Street, close to Dizengoff Circle, was appropriated.

It was not only the Defense Ministry that remained outside the Kirya. No offices were found for some members of the Provisional Government, and they had to remain in their previous locations. Agriculture Minister Aharon Zisling stayed in the headquarters of the Mapam party; Labor Minister Mordechai Bentov in the editorial offices of the Al Hamishmar newspaper ‏(the organ of Mapam); Justice Minister Pinhas Rosen, a lawyer, in his private firm; and Judge Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit, the minister of police and minorities, remained in his chambers in the courthouse.

The most embarrassing situation was that of the country’s first president, Dr. Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann had been abroad in the summer of 1948. In September, when he arrived in independent Israel, he was not assigned a presidential office in the Kirya. Thanks to the vigorous intervention of Joseph Shprinzak, speaker of the provisional parliament, an office for Weizmann was finally found on the second floor of the provisional parliament’s building at the edge of the Kirya, between the sheds and maintenance warehouses. Concurrent with this development, the lengthy process by which the Defense Ministry’s units moved into the Kirya began.

On December 9, 1949, two years after passing the partition resolution, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution for the internationalization of Jerusalem. The next day, Ben-Gurion declared, “Jerusalem is an integral part of the State of Israel and its eternal capital.” He then oversaw an operation in which the government’s offices were quickly moved to Jerusalem. After a year and a half in the Kirya, most of the ministries were moved in a fleet of trucks that was mobilized for the mission. Remaining in the Kirya were the Defense Ministry ‏(due to restrictions on the presence of military personnel in Jerusalem, as stipulated in the armistice agreement with Jordan‏), the Foreign Ministry, the President’s Bureau ‏(for fear that foreign ambassadors would refuse to present their credentials in the capital‏) and other government departments.

The government officials forced to move to Jerusalem fought a rearguard battle against the decision, using bureaucratic delaying tactics. Arguing against the move, the personnel of the State Comptroller’s Office cited travel and residential expenses calculations, in the form of bus tickets stapled together and rental receipts, which are still on file in the State Archives.

In May 1948, the General Staff moved from the Red House to Ramat Gan. In the years after the War of Independence, senior figures in the IDF discussed where to locate the supreme command post ‏(the “Pit”‏) in an emergency, and the General Staff base in normal times. The finest minds of the General Staff focused on the issue of the Pit as the strategic control center in wartime. The General Staff base was perceived to be of secondary importance, being intended as an administrative means to streamline the work of the General Staff’s logistical branches with the Defense Ministry.

Dozens of sites were suggested for the Pit and the General Staff base. Endless meetings were held and numberless committees established. After the government’s decision in December 1952 to transfer the General Staff to the Kirya, a committee of ministerial directors general was established. Throughout the entire period of its work, only one person warned against moving the General Staff base to the Kirya: Pinhas Sapir, the director general of the Finance Ministry ‏(and afterward finance minister‏). “The presence of IDF headquarters in the center of the city is liable to cause damage and danger,” he insisted passionately. Faced with the fact of his splendid isolation, he concluded his remarks by saying, “I wish this to be entered into the minutes as a minority opinion.” His only recourse was to appeal to history.

The Pit was situated at Dani Base, in Ramle, and from there the 1956 Sinai Operation was conducted. In February 1955, the General Staff moved to the Kirya and has been there ever since.

Read this article in Hebrew

Dr. Nir Mann’s book on the early history of the Kirya, “The Kirya in Tel-Aviv: 1948-1955” ‏(in Hebrew‏), is a joint publication of Carmel Publishing House and the Galili Center for Defense Studies.

Defense Ministry and General Staff headquarters in the heart of Tel Aviv.

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