Analysis: Why is Israel’s military killing so many of its own?

The perils of urban warfare, coupled with operational issues within the army, appear to be hobbling Israel’s advance.

This photo combo shows three hostages who had been abducted from Israeli communities near the Gaza border, from left, Alon Shamriz, Samer Al-Talalka and Yotam Haim. Israeli troops mistakenly shot the three hostages to death Friday, Dec. 15, 2023 in the Gaza City area of Shijaiyah, where troops have been engaged in fierce fighting with Hamas militants. (Courtesy of the Shamriz, Al-Talalka and Haim families via AP)
This photo combination shows from left, Alon Shamriz, Samer Al-Talalka and Yotam Haim — three Israelis who were taken captive by Hamas on October 7, and mistakenly shot dead by Israeli troops on December 15, 2023 in the Gaza City area of Shujayea, where troops have been engaged in fierce fighting with Hamas fighters [Courtesy of the Shamriz, Al-Talalka and Haim families via AP]

The Israeli army’s reaction to the Hamas attacks of October 7 has so far gone through four distinct phases.

The first, which started within hours of the incursion into the territory of Israel, was mostly aerial bombardment as revenge and preparation for next steps. The second phase saw the infantry and artillery enter the northern areas of the Gaza Strip from three directions, advancing towards Gaza City to cut it off from the remainder of the Palestinian territory.

In the third phase, Israel’s army completed the encirclement at the fringes of the city, making some limited advances, probes towards the centre. In the current, fourth phase, Israeli soldiers are making slow progress towards the centre of Gaza City, engaging in proper urban fighting.

Having accomplished the blockade of the largest city in the north, Israel has repeated the same staged approach in the centre, and fighting in Khan Younis is now also in phase four.

So far, fighting has been limited to conventional ground combat, with both sides operating as analysts had expected. The threat of tunnel warfare has not yet materialised.

To confirm my assessments of the fighting so far — especially as I observe it from a distance — I spoke to a retired United States general with whom I spent time on the ground during intense urban fighting in Fallujah in Iraq in 2004. He shared my view of the dangers and difficulties of full-scale MOUT, the US abbreviation for “military operations in urban terrain” that Israel is pursuing.

He made two very interesting observations on casualties.

First, the learning curve for the attackers is very steep, as expected. No training can prepare soldiers for the real conditions of fighting in narrow streets, being attacked from all sides including from above, and having to worry about tunnels as well.

The general noted that “most efficient weapon in urban warfare is experience”, explaining that every ordnance is designed for a certain imagined and ideal situation that never exists on the ground. “In training a soldier learns what, say a hand grenade, is supposed to do and what its lethal range is. But till he has thrown a few from one room to another, he cannot imagine the force of the blast or the distance that the shrapnel goes bouncing off concrete walls”. Until each fighter and each unit engaged gain that crucial experience, they will take higher casualties.

The death of nine Israeli soldiers in a single incident in Shujayea on December 12 is a textbook example illustrating the general’s warning. Two officers and two soldiers from the Golani Brigade, one of the Israeli army’s most experienced units, were ambushed by Qassam Brigade fighters as they entered a building. An improvised explosive device (IED) blocked their exit route and Hamas fighters finished them off with hand grenades and machine-gun fire. As a second Israeli team tried to rescue their comrades, they too triggered IEDs and were then killed by crossfire from the building they were in and from the higher floors of the neighbouring one.

The American general’s second poignant warning regards the numbers. While attackers in modern warfare can expect between three and five wounded for each soldier killed, the ratio in MOUT is probably twice as high.

Extreme dangers of urban combat do not affect only soldiers. Civilians who are caught in the areas of house-to-house fighting also get killed — some by bombs from the air, others by soldiers on the ground.

The Israeli air force has not shown much thought for sparing civilian lives when bombing Gaza; Most of the Palestinians killed, now more than 20,000, fell victim to aerial bombardment.

Israel admitted that 50 percent of the bombs used were “dumb” ones. They can only be aimed by pointing the aircraft before release and can stray 50-to-100 metres (164-328 feet) from their aiming point. For Israel, it might be acceptable to kill Palestinian civilians with imprecise bombing, but not Israeli soldiers.

But Israel has already killed one of every eight of its combat casualties through imprecise bombing. On December 12 the military command admitted that of the 105 troops killed by that point — the current figure being 137 — 20 were killed by “friendly fire” and other incidents involving Israeli soldiers killing each other. Of those 20 soldiers, 13 died from Israeli air force bombs, either through mistaken identification and location of the troops or by bombs falling far away from the aiming point.

The majority of those bomb casualties occurred in the earlier phases of the war when distances between troops and their enemy were still considerable. But in urban fighting foes are often 10 or 20 metres (33-66 feet) away, so the only acceptable way to support them is to use precisely guided smart bombs.

The current Israeli rate of advance seems to be slow. Such a modest rate of movement might be deliberate, to minimise casualties. But if days ahead demonstrate an ease in the bombardment of the centres of Gaza City and Khan Younis, that might be a first sign that the Israeli air force is running out of smart bombs.

Another incident also demonstrated the extreme perils of urban warfare: On December 15 Israeli soldiers killed three Israeli captives who managed to escape and were trying to cross over to the very unit that machine-gunned them to death.

Israel was shocked, as the civilians, for a change, were Israeli civilians, not Palestinians who are regularly killed by armed Israeli soldiers and police. But how could soldiers shoot people who were so non-soldierlike?  Shirtless, to show they had no weapons; in civilian trousers; carrying a makeshift white flag, a symbol of surrender and peace; and speaking in Hebrew?

Under pressure from its stunned citizens, the Israeli military will certainly investigate all circumstances in detail, but some things are clear.

Even in the heat of battle killing of civilians, especially ones displaying intent to give themselves up may indicate several unwanted issues that mar the operational performance of any army. These include a lack of proper training to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants; blatant disregard for the lives of the purported enemy showing intent to surrender; and extreme battle stress without psychological support for war-weary soldiers.

Other possible factors include disregard by the higher command of the conditions on the battlefield and a failure to rotate out of combat the units that may have been engaged in heavy fighting, especially if the unit suffered casualties; and failure of the chain of command or the appointment of commanders of a character unfit to follow orders and take decisions.

Aside from Hamas, the Israeli military clearly has issues within its ranks to deal with. At the same time, it seems unsure how much it can count on support from their Prime Minister. There are signs that many higher officers distrust Benyamin Netanyahu and would rather have in his place someone who would show more respect for the military than for his own political goals.

They won’t admit it, but another ceasefire might be the respite that Israel’s military needs.

Source: Al Jazeera