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Rules of Engagement

November 8, 2022

by: Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President

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In the past months, the State of Israel has come under fire regarding the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF’s) Rules of Engagement (ROE). ROE are simply the internal rules or directives afforded military forces that define the circumstances, conditions, degree and manner in which the use of force may be applied. Open-fire policies determine those instances when lethal force is merited. It is up to every sovereign nation to determine what those rules and policies will be and how they will be implemented during times of armed conflict.

The State of Israel is known for its record in minimizing civilian casualties during military operations, a record that is far better than most other countries, including the United States. An IDF soldier is required to shout at a suspect to halt activities, and then fire a warning shot into the air, only using lethal force in case of a direct threat.

Only in 2019 were those protocols changed to include allowing soldiers the option to fire on thieves who are breaking into military bases to steal weapons and ammunition or when enemy combatants are raining stones on their heads or lobbing Molotov cocktails at them or civilians. Even with those options on the table, however, IDF soldiers often choose non-lethal responses, even if it endangers their lives. The following excerpt is from the Fundamental Core Values in the IDF Code of Conduct:

The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.

(Read Extreme Measures in our October edition that unpacks how the IDF incorporates the sanctity of life—both that of its soldiers and that of the enemy—in its Code of Conduct.)

Another Shot Heard Round the World

That stellar record was called into question, however, on May 11, 2022, when Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian–American journalist, was shot and killed. The incident occurred while Abu Akleh was working as a reporter for the Arabic-language channel Al Jazeera, covering an armed conflict between the IDF and Palestinian insurgents near Jenin.

Abu Akleh was the daughter of Arab Christians from Bethlehem and spent time in the US with relatives where she obtained US citizenship. She was a 25-year veteran of battlefield journalism and one of the most prominent names across the Middle East for her reporting on events affecting Palestinians and analyzing Israeli politics. Outrage over her death was immediate and widespread.

Although Israel immediately invited the Palestinian Authority (PA) to a joint investigation of the circumstances surrounding the incident, the PA refused in favor of their own investigation—all the while blatantly accusing Israel of intentionally targeting Abu Akleh. Al Jazeera, CNN, the New York Times, the EU and countless global news and social media outlets immediately jumped on the bandwagon, holding Israel solely responsible for Abu Akleh’s death, making her a “martyr to the Israeli occupation.”

Initially, Israel thought the journalist had been killed by a stray Palestinian bullet. Yet after conducting their own thorough investigation, the army issued a statement indicating that there was a “high possibility” that she was “accidentally hit by IDF gunfire that was fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen during an exchange of fire in which life-risking, widespread and indiscriminate shots were fired toward IDF soldiers.” Although the IDF stated they had the rifle that may have fired the shot, it was impossible to tell without a forensic examination of the bullet. That bullet was in the possession of the PA, who refused to surrender it at the time.

Pointing Fingers

The next day, the Biden administration publicly demanded that Israel change its ROE. US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US “has made it a priority to mitigate and respond to civilian harms caused by military operations.” Other US officials were outspoken in their condemnation of Israeli actions and promised to continue to pressure the Jewish state until their ROE were changed.

According to British political correspondent Melanie Phillips, American intervention in the sovereign affairs of Israel was nothing but “extraordinary arrogance.” Former Prime Minister Naphtali Bennett responded cryptically: “I expect our friends in the world not to preach morality to us but to back us up in our war on terror. No one will dictate our rules of engagement to us when we are the ones fighting for our lives.” Prime Minister Yair Lapid added, “I will not allow an IDF soldier that was protecting himself from terrorist fire to be prosecuted just to receive applause from abroad. Our soldiers have the full backing of the government of Israel and the people of Israel.” However, he also extended Israel’s deepest sympathies to Abu Akleh’s family and expressed profound sorrow over her death.

In July, the PA surrendered the bullet that killed Abu Akleh to a team of Israeli technicians and renowned ballistic expert Nahum Shahaf. That bullet, said Shahaf, had undergone “a severe transformation at the hands of a hammer creat[ing] a deep depression in its back.” It had been rendered unusable in determining what gun had fired it. Further, the type of rifle used by the IDF which the PA said fired the bullet was “considered lethal at a distance of over 100 meters.” A bullet from such a rifle couldn’t have caused the terrible wounds to the reporter’s head and spine.

The US responded by referencing “an extremely detailed forensic analysis,” which indicated that they had found “no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances.” They welcomed Israel’s evaluation of the incident and made no further request for changes to the IDF’s ROE.

The Witch Hunt Continues

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. The PA has made clear their intention to appeal to the International Criminal Court, accusing the IDF of intentionally murdering Abu Akleh and demanding that criminal charges be brought against the soldier who fired the shot.

In the meantime, Israel continues to face an enemy who reveres death, teaches its young people to seek martyrdom and uses women and children as human shields—all the while struggling to protect the dignity of every human being regardless of his or her religion or nationality, gender or race, whether friend or foe.

Photo Credit: Click on photo to see photo credit

Photo License: Israeli Security

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