Vacation Days for New Targets: Israeli Officers on Bombing Gaza, Casualties and Political Pressure

Two airmen tell Haaretz about stretching limits when it comes to risk and the ‘trust me’ culture in decision-making – which can have deadly consequences

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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A Palestinian boy carries his brother as he walks through the debris of a house destroyed in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019.
A Palestinian boy carries his brother as he walks through the debris of a house destroyed in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019.Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

“The view in the Israel Defense Forces is that success is measured by how many targets you create, the number of new targets that are entered into the database,” says A. from the Israel Air Force. In the weeks that have passed since the army bombed the home of the al-Sawarka family in Deir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip, causing the deaths of nine family members, A. has been privy to the active debate over that operation.

The IDF’s claim that the target underwent “validation” – in other words, it was checked a few days before the attack – made him and many other officers and soldiers in Military Intelligence and the Air Force’s intelligence branch uncomfortable. “In such discussions,” says A. about the validation process, “mostly there is no significant intelligence activity dealing with a target that already exists, because it is more important to create new targets. That is what they count for you in the end.”

A.’s comments do not relate to any specific incident, but to the culture he was exposed to in the military. Similar statements have also come from someone we will call B. For years A. and B. have participated in the decision-making process involved in the creation of targets and their approval. Both told Haaretz about the dynamics between the teams responsible for these processes during the rounds of fighting: about the central role of the “trust me” culture in decision-making; the supreme importance given to accumulating targets as opposed to their quality – also as a way to advance in rank; and the involvement of the political leadership, which sometimes pressures them to show “results,” which can lead to attacks for reasons that are not always operational.

The two say that on paper, there are no issues at all with the protocol for the process of selecting targets and approving them. The problem, they say, is in the implementation. Here the key people are members of the target planning team – those responsible for all its aspects, from selection and validation to addressing the question of how it will be attacked.

"There’s no thought or even the chance to express a thought, and certainly not to ask why we are carrying out the operation. You need to do it and that’s it.” - A

“The team can include between five to 15 different members,” says A. “The head of the planning team will usually be a pilot in their compulsory service or in the reserves, who is also required to take on a staff role if he wants to advance in the squadron or in rank.” The other members will mostly include intelligence staff, an operations research person who will estimate how good the plan is and the implications for collateral damage, and a presentative of the Military Advocate General’s Corps, who is responsible for various aspects concerning international law.

The two say that the first problem that comes up is in the incentives. At the end, the team leader will be evaluated on the number of new targets he created, and not on those he has revalidated. “Target duty [in which targets are revalidated] is considered to be a less prestigious mission. As far as pilots are concerned, it always comes at a bad time,” says B. “In most cases, the intelligence person will start talking. If he says at the beginning of the discussion that there is no new intelligence on the target in the last year, then the work on this target is over. Validation of a target can take a minute or it can take an hour – it depends on intelligence and the team’s desire to delve deeper into the matter.”

Web of interests

Over the past few years, both A. and B. were present at a great number of discussions about targets, and were exposed to the web of interests of those participating in the discussions. “I have to say that you sit there with good people – they’re not corrupt people,” says B. “But in the end, they are people who are evaluated on the number of targets and validations, and they also want to go home on time. Everyone in the room understands that if we begin to look in depth at every target, they won’t leave for the next two weeks. So in many cases, it becomes a sort of automatic activity.”

“Everyone understands that a high number of targets will result in the senior command being satisfied and it always adds to the advancement of the planning team commanders,” says B. “This is not something corrupt that happens under the table. It’s something that everyone understands without even needing to talk about it directly.”

The problem is not just in the time the team members have to spend on each target, but also how long they have already been in the army – or in other words, says B, the differences in seniority and rank. Sometimes, the team commander is a major in the Air Force and sitting across from him is a corporal or sergeant from intelligence. “These are young men, very talented – but it’s the army. In the end, a corporal is sitting with a pilot, and telling him he is making a mistake or making him stay in the office the whole night because he decided to dig deeper into the targets is not something every young soldier can do.”

A picture of Palestinian schoolboy Muath Abu Malhous, who was killed in an airstrike on Gaza, is seen on his chair at his classroom in a school in the central Gaza Strip, November 16, 2019.Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

In this regard, A. adds, during times of fighting, an airman will want to attack a certain target, and the intelligence person sitting with him (who needs to examine it, validate it and determine if it meets all the conditions) will not interfere. He will trust him – after all, he is more senior. “There were some cases like this, and in none of these situations did I happen to see any kind of doubt in the senior commander’s decision that he could be making a mistake. There’s no thought or even the chance to express a thought, and certainly not to ask why we are carrying out the operation. You need to do it and that’s it.”

The ultimate goal

What is deeply ingrained early on, say the two, is the ultimate goal: to find targets. “When a young soldier arrives, this issue of the sensitivity with the officers who must show results is also passed on to them in the clearest way, while they are still in their training period. It’s a sort of information that’s passed on as a legacy from the veteran soldiers to the new ones,” says A. “They make the fact clear to him, that this is advancement and that people want to rush home early.”

Over time, the message gets absorbed. “The airman wants to initiate an attack and the intelligence person will want to sign off on another target,” adds A. “In the end, the two people understand what they want upstairs and they try not to put sticks into each other’s wheels.”

One of these main sticks is an additional check of a target at a time when there are possibilities to create new ones. “There can also be 500 targets, and to go over them takes time away from creating new targets,” explains A. “Sometimes they can give the team a project to create new targets in a certain area or around a specific matter, and as far as the members are concerned, this becomes the main task.” Sometimes, he says, it also brings goodies: “A team that brings new targets can receive all sorts of benefits, such as a work field trip or days off, or they can be declared the most successful team.”

The relationship between the number of targets and their quality has an additional side effect: difficulty selecting targets that will actually advance the fighting if they are attacked. “Operation Protective Edge [in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014] lasted 51 days,” says B. “The beginning was very intensive and after three weeks, our targets ran out, too.” At that point, targets that were being suggested were open fields, sites that had already been struck, and roads or tunnels whose entrances had been attacked back at the beginning of the hostilities. “There was an order to continue to produce attacks all the time. They called it creating awareness of being pursued, but in reality it was making noise in Gaza,” he says.

‘No way of knowing’

A separate issue when it comes to selection and even more so, attacking the target is the question of what the site holds. A. says that when a target comes up for reexamination by the planning team, the staff can’t know what is really there. “If it appears as a weapons warehouse, then we can’t say how many weapons are in the target,” he says. “There could be one hand grenade there or 1,000 hand grenades, or just toilet paper. We have no way of knowing.”

A. says that during a wave of attacks, no one will send a drone to conduct a check of every target in real time – visint, or visual intelligence, is the technical term – just to ascertain that what was there is still there, or if there has been a change, whether it is now an observation post, training compound or weapons warehouse. “There is no way to know what is happening in real time, so we operate according to the target database,” he says.

Neither A. nor B. took part in the assault which killed members of the al-Sawarka family, but they say this type of situation could happen when there is a desire to satisfy the team and the level of confidence in the quality of the target is not high enough. “Everyone knows that in most cases nothing happens – that’s the perception. They tell you that they are willing to take the risk,” says A. “But suddenly an incident occurs where an entire family dies and no one understands why. I have no idea if the Deir al-Balah incident is such a case, but I have no doubt that such an incident can happen in exactly those situations of ‘give and take’ between the members of the target planning and validation team, the problem of the ‘trust me’ culture.”

“A team that brings new targets can receive all sorts of benefits, such as a work field trip or days off, or they can be declared the most successful team.” - A

The person who is supposed to play a major part in such a process is the Military Advocate General’s Corps representative. “They have a regular saying in those meetings: It’s possible to attack the target if it is proportional,” says A. “Proportional is a flexible concept in army.” Sometimes, he adds, a team commander who is interested in more targets will seek to stretch the limits and the risk involved in selecting the targets, so the collateral damage expected could lead to more civilian casualties.

The question of what the targets really hold has additional implications not necessarily connected to civilian deaths. “Sometimes we hear about an attack on a training compound of some terrorist organization or another,” says A. “People can think it’s a compound that looks like Tze’elim Base, with large buildings, firing ranges and areas for practicing urban warfare.” But sometimes, he says, what is described as a training complex is an area where we know the activists come to run or do physical training. “An observation post can be a position that looks like a lifeguard stand or a hole with sandbags around it. An ‘underground’ target can be a parking spot under an activist’s house. Not every ‘underground’ is an attack tunnel like you think, or as it’s presented in the media.”

The targets that could start a war

After Israeli military campaigns (or rounds of escalation), senior political and security officials rush to announce that the army attacked “high-value targets” during the fighting. For the wider public, it signifies that the other side was dealt a tough blow. But A. and B. are less impressed by such talk.

“‘High-value targets’ is an expression used by the media, and by generals when they’re being interviewed,” B. says. “In effect there are targets where you know that by attacking them, you can hurt the other side’s command and control, or you can deprive it of important capabilities.”

But this, he says, becomes clear only after the attack. “More than once we saw the media reporting that the IDF has attacked high-value targets, but we know that what they hit was a bunch of containers,” he adds. “It may turn out that the container contained something worth attacking – but if there was something really high-value inside, then you can assume that Hamas would also understand that placing this container near the beach is not the safest.”

A. also has reservations when it comes to using the term. “Such a target can be a depot with two rockets or a training site,” he says. “There are targets that striking them is considered a strategic blow that would definitely influence the enemy’s fighting and create confusion for him. In particular these are targets that have to do with command and control. But to categorically call it a high-value target is something you can do only after an attack, when you see the results and understand the impact it had.”

Recently a new expression has entered the jargon of war – “powerful targets.” This ostensibly means an extra-high-value target. Practically speaking, B. says, these are buildings that are four stories and higher. “In one of the recent rounds such a powerful target was hit – a media building,” he says. “You have to understand that this isn’t CNN’s building. It’s an apartment or half a floor with media equipment that can be moved to another building the next day.”

A. and B. say the decline in high-value targets was evident in the last round of fighting in Gaza, which took place in November. The army had to create targets aimed at Islamic Jihad, without hurting Hamas assets. “Until recently no one even spoke about Islamic Jihad, nobody referred to this organization,” B. says. “There was never any preparation made to deal with this group. It’s small and has limited means. It doesn’t have Hamas’ capabilities and it’s very prominently above ground.”

Unlike Hamas, B. says, when Islamic Jihad activists shoot a rocket, they move from that position to another one; they don’t disappear.

"More than once we saw the media reporting that the Israel Defense Forces has attacked high-value targets, but we know that what they hit was a bunch of containers.” - B

They say the targets in the last operation were “pathetic.” “No large targets were hit, nor any that were too complicated to attack,” one of them says. “There was nothing big and impressive.”

In general, both believe that the motive for the most recent round of escalation was political. “The fact that there’s an incident like this less than 48 hours after fighting, which from the standpoint of the Air Force and Southern Command was conducted like an exercise, shows that somebody has to present this event like it was an achievement,” one of them adds. “To make it out to be something much bigger than it actually was.”

As a rule, A. says, political intervention in the target database is not necessarily an exceptional event. He recalls an incident in recent years when the political leadership sent a message – even a demand – “that from now on, every IDF response – and it doesn’t matter on which front – will be much more harsh than what the other side did,” he says. And then a certain incident occurred. After senior officials presented several possible responses, instructions came from the political leadership: We need an attack on much more serious targets. “The choice was illogical, because there are targets you don’t want to hit after every incident. There are targets you save for wartime, where attacking them is supposed to change the course of the campaign,” says A.

He adds, “there are cases where attacking a target may expose IDF intelligence in such a way as to lead the other side to reorganize.”

In that instance, he says, no one in the army supported the political echelon’s decision. “You feel the frustration of all those who understand that because of a political decision and in deference to some politician’s position, you are asked to do something with no operational justification and which may damage plans you’ve been working on for years.”

In another instance during that period, A. says, there was another unusual demand from Jerusalem: “The significance of the targets the political echelons wanted was a high likelihood of starting a war.”

Several years have passed since these incidents, but according to A. and B., this has been common practice for years. “Now Naftali Bennett has taken the [defense minister] position and he also makes declarations in favor of attacks that leave people dead: Iranian targets, targeted killings, every day it’s something new,” A. says.

“Professionals find it hard to listen to such things. Everyone understands that these politicians’ statements and their promises made during interviews will be a factor in choosing targets and might lead to an unnecessary attack only so the politician can tell the media he fulfilled a promise. The status of operational considerations and the desired result has been eroded and is becoming less relevant."

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