Urban Warfare and the Lessons of Jenin

By Yagil Henkin

How Israel's record in preventing civilian casualties stacks up against operations in Grozny, Kosovo, and Mogadishu.

The efforts by American and British forces to secure control of Iraq, especially in the cities of Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, and Nasiriya, have brought to light the immense moral and tactical challenges facing a modern army engaged in urban warfare. With the high concentration of civilians and the tactical difficulties involved in this kind of combat, even the most advanced of invading armies are given pause by the prospect of taking an urban center by force. In this light, it is worth taking a new look at the experience of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) over the past two years, in the battles they have fought in Palestinian cities, and in particular the April 2002 operation in the West Bank town of Jenin.
In the annals of Israel’s wars, the battle in the Jenin refugee camp stands apart. This clash between IDF soldiers, who entered the camp as part of a wide-ranging anti-terrorist campaign known as Operation Defensive Shield, and the hundreds of armed Palestinians who had taken up positions there, was one of the bloodiest engagements of the war that has raged between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) for the past two and a half years. For eight days, Israeli soldiers engaged in intensive house-to-house fighting in a densely populated urban area filled with hidden explosives. Only when armored Israeli bulldozers demolished buildings sheltering the last of the Palestinian gunmen was the resistance finally quelled and the full extent of the damage revealed: According to the United Nations, 23 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinians were killed.1 Hundreds of houses were seriously damaged or destroyed.
The battle of Jenin was, in many respects, the toughest challenge faced by Israeli forces since they began operating in PA territory. While the most obvious problem was tactical—few places are less hospitable to an invading army than a densely populated urban battlefield—the IDF also faced the onerous task of distinguishing fighters from civilians, and maintaining a high level of concern for the welfare of the latter under extremely difficult conditions. The IDF’s vaunted “purity of arms” was put to the test in the battle of Jenin, and many expected it to fail.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the events in Jenin became the focus of intense media coverage within hours after the fighting began, and unconfirmed eyewitness accounts took on enormous significance long before the actual facts came to light. Throughout the next few months, journalists widely quoted Palestinian Authority spokesmen such as Yasser Abed Rabbo, Saeb Erekat, and Nabil Shaath, who claimed that the IDF had perpetrated a “massacre” in Jenin, and that many hundreds of Palestinians had been killed.2 The international media, particularly in Europe and the Arab world, reported continuously on the “war crimes” Israel was said to be committing in the camp. Descriptions of the alleged horrors figured especially prominently in the British press: Justin Huggler and Phil Reeves of The Independent wrote that “nearly half of the Palestinian dead who have been identified so far were civilians, including women, children and the elderly. They died amid a ruthless and brutal Israeli operation, in which many individual atrocities occurred, and which Israel is seeking to hide by launching a massive propaganda drive.”3 In a similar vein, a lead article in London’s prestigious Guardian called Israel’s actions in Jenin “every bit as repellent” as Osama Bin Laden’s September 11 terror attacks on the U.S.4 And one of the Evening Standard’smost influential columnists, A.N. Wilson, declared emphatically that “we are talking here of massacre, and a cover-up, of genocide.”5
Spokesmen for the UN and for international human rights organizations joined in as well. Terje Larsen, the United Nations’ envoy to the Middle East, visited Jenin shortly after the fighting and described what he saw there as “horrific beyond belief…. We have expert people here who have been in war zones and earthquakes, and they say they have never seen anything like it.”6 Human Rights Watch published a report in May accusing the Israeli army of the “unlawful and deliberate killings” of unarmed Palestinians.7 Amnesty International, in a November 2002 report, accused Israel of “war crimes” in Jenin.8
It goes without saying that such charges cannot be dismissed lightly. If they were to prove well founded, they would raise serious questions about the moral standards of the Israeli army, and would also require that the officers responsible be brought up on charges. But is there really anything to them?
In the year that has passed since the events, a great deal of reliable information has become available that reveals what really happened in the battle of Jenin. The picture that emerges is strikingly different from the images that filled the press in the weeks after the clash: Not only was there no massacre of innocents in the Jenin refugee camp, but in the vast majority of cases IDF soldiers took unusual measures—even at the risk of their own safety—to prevent harm to the camp’s civilian population. These efforts, I will show, were not simply isolated acts of restraint. They were the result of decisions made by both the military command and the civilian leadership as part of a deliberate policy aimed at keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. The IDF followed these orders nearly to the letter, even though they significantly complicated fighting in a residential area, and despite the fact that other armies—even the most “enlightened” among them—have rarely shown such a level of concern for civilian populations in time of war.
To support my argument, I will first consider the special nature of what is known in military jargon as “urban combat.” This kind of fighting inevitably takes a terrible toll on the invading force, and a far worse one on the civilian population. Second, I will consider how other armies have behaved during urban combat, including those ostensibly involved in humanitarian operations, such as NATO forces in Kosovo and UN troops in Somalia. The experience of these armies provides an invaluable perspective for considering the third and final part of my argument, which deals with the IDF’s operation in Jenin. In this section, I will focus on the challenges posed by battle conditions in the Jenin refugee camp and the exceptional measures taken by the IDF to protect the lives of non-combatants there.
The evidence that has come to light in the past year refutes the allegations that Israeli soldiers engaged in a massacre, or in war crimes more generally, during the battle of Jenin. Indeed, in the history of modern warfare it is difficult to find another example of an invading army that took upon itself such a degree of restraint in order to minimize civilian casualties. The relatively low number of civilian casualties in Jenin not only gives the lie to the accusations made in the months that followed, but also testifies to the high moral standard employed by the IDF—a rare demonstration of humanity in the midst of battle, for which Israel paid a heavy price.
It is impossible to assess what happened in Jenin without a clear understanding of what is involved in urban warfare. This kind of combat differs sharply from other forms of fighting, and in most ways works to the disadvantage of the invading army. George Mordica II, senior analyst with the United States Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, understood as much when he entitled an article on the subject, “It’s a Dirty Business, But Somebody Has to Do It.”9 Urban combat, explains Mordica, forces an army to deal with a large number of extremely complicated problems, and is therefore best avoided whenever possible. “In earlier times, laying siege to a city and then taking it was the objective. Since World War II and the refinement of maneuver warfare, cities have become a restricted area that is more easily bypassed or reduced than taken.”10 Indeed, attacking a city is always “a dirty business,” one that can result in heavy losses to even the strongest and most technologically advanced military force.
The first problem is the uncertainty of combat conditions. Intelligence is incomplete at best. Even sophisticated tools, such as pilotless drones and satellites, are of limited use when the fighting takes place on city streets, since buildings and ruins serve as cover for enemy fighters. Any army advancing through a residential area must anticipate enemy snipers lurking behind every window, wall, or pile of rubble. Every house is a potential deathtrap.
Urban conditions, moreover, complicate every aspect of command and control. Combat takes place on two or three levels simultaneously: Above ground (in and on top of buildings), at ground level, and even below ground (in tunnels and sewers). And while coordination becomes that much more difficult, the cost of mistakes goes up dramatically, since they are much more likely to result in friendly-fire casualties.11 In addition, fighting takes place in streets and alleys at close range—normally less than fifty yards—making it difficult for invading forces to identify and react quickly to an armed threat.12

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