Ironies from Israel #3: Lessons of History

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On March 27, 2002 Palestinian militants killed 30 Israeli civilians at the resort town of Netanaya, part of a wave of suicide attacks that accompanied the Second Intifada.  In response to this assault, on March 29 the IDF publically announced the implementation of Operation Defensive Shield, a large-scale military incursion into the West Bank that involved the activation of 20,000 Israeli reservists.  The operation had actually begun unannounced a month earlier, making the March 29 invasion the second wave to move into Palestine.

The IDF entered every Palestinian city, but the most serious fighting was in Bethlehem, Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah, where Yasser Arafat was besieged in his presidential headquarters.  The most intense combat was in Jenin, where according to UN reports both sides engaged in excesses, though a rumored massacre in the Jenin refugee camp proved unfounded.  In the entire operation 30 Israelis were killed and 127 wounded, while the Palestinians suffered 497 dead and 1447 wounded, with 7000 detained.  The World Bank estimated the Palestinian economic losses at $361 million.

The Israeli goal, stated before the Knesset by Prime Minister Arial Sharon, was to capture or kill terrorists and destroy the infrastructure that supported them, which was to include anyone who resisted the Israeli troops.  Palestinian and neutral observers claimed that the operation was also directed against the police, officials and general infrastructure the Palestinian Authority. In its report Amnesty International stated that “the IDF acted as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians.”  Human Rights Watch determined that “Israeli forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

Urban warfare, particularly for the aggressor, is extremely difficult and destructive, especially when the defenders have the time to prepare, as in Jenin.  Though they used helicopter gunships, because of American pressure the IDF could not simply bomb the city into submission and was forced to conduct house to house fighting, resulting in more casualties than it was accustomed to when operating against Palestinians.  The IDF ultimately developed effective tactics employing armored bulldozers, and lacking heavy weapons, Palestinian forces were defeated.

With little experience in this type of intense urban warfare the IDF studied the accounts of other militaries that had engaged in such actions.  One of the most pertinent of these concerned an operation carried out in Poland from January to May 1943 by the German Wehrmacht: the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.