The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is taking new measures to warn Palestinian civilians about impending aerial attacks. This comes in response to questions raised over whether Israel had complied with international laws during its 2006 war in Lebanon and the Gaza offensive earlier this year.
Human rights groups have expressed concern that pamphlets dropped by the IDF before the attacks did not offer sufficient directions on where civilians should evacuate to or — in some cases — offered incorrect information telling civilians to "go to city centers" when the IDF subsequently attacked those very areas.
Although over 200,000 phone calls were made to civilians in Gaza during "Operation Cast Lead" the IDF has acknowledged that improvements in early warning technology would help prevent the deaths of civilians in future conflicts.
"Ensuring that warnings contain detailed and accurate information, including directions on how to get to safe areas, will improve the probability that civilians take the warnings seriously and help spare civilian lives during future armed conflicts," read a letter from Human Rights Watch (HRW) to the Israeli military’s Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.
HRW did express concern over the use of civilian warnings during the 2006 war in Lebanon. "[T]he IDF, having issued civilians in South Lebanon warnings to leave, often then treated the area as a civilian-free zone," but many civilians remained in their homes. "Yet the IDF often seemed not to take their presence into account."
"We know from our own experience in Vietnam that it isn’t enough to warn civilians because they often can’t leave, because they have elderly or sick relatives or they are scared their homes will be looted," Professor Emeritus Michael Walzer at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University told IPS. "We tried to create free fire zones in Vietnam and gave people ample opportunity to leave but many didn’t. That will always be true."
The problem of effectively evacuating civilians raises issues about what role Palestinian authorities should perform in ensuring that areas targeted by the IDF are evacuated.
"Early warning is fine but it’s not enough. It also requires Palestinian leadership to allow innocents to evacuate and act on warnings," Professor Amos Guiora at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law told IPS. "It’s difficult, but not impossible, to alert hundreds of thousands of people but it requires cooperation from the Palestinian leadership who must have an interest in protecting their civilian populations."
The issue of early warnings for civilian populations — and the slowness of evacuations — lead to the concerns voiced about the use of human shields in recent conflicts.
During the Gaza War both Israel and Hamas accused each other of inadequately evacuating civilian populations and using Palestinian civilians to protect military positions.
While most analysts agree that any form of alert for civilians is a positive step, questions continue to be raised about whether conflicts fought in densely populated areas — such as the West Bank, Gaza, or Sderot — can ever avoid considerable civilian casualties.
"I think this is at a certain level slightly absurd. Thinking you could have such a widespread use of force of that nature in such a heavily populated area as Gaza and think you could limit the civilian casualties is something I just can’t see occurring," Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, told IPS.
"The inevitable consequence of major armed conflict between regular and irregular forces in a densely populated area leads to people being used as human shields. Whatever the orders from the other side might be," Ibish continued.
The political fallout from the Gaza War was widely seen to strengthen Hamas — who consolidated power and gained popularity for standing up to the Israeli offensive — and damaged the public image of Israel and the IDF.
Attempts to strengthen the warning system for Palestinian civilians would begin to address both the international condemnation of the IDF’s actions as well as the domestic political concerns that the Gaza offensive failed to result in a more stable situation for Israeli civilians in border regions.
"It’s difficult at the end of the day to conclude that the Gaza offensive politically weakened Hamas," concluded Ibish. "Hamas’ domestic political power has been shaken more by Obama’s diplomatic outreach than any Israeli bombs."
(Inter Press Service)