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Monday, November 5, 2012
Dilemmas of Warfare in Densely Populated Civilian Areas

Dilemmas of Warfare in Densely Populated Civilian Areas
Moshe Tamir
Military and Strategic Affairs | Volume 4 | No. 2 | September 2012
[Brig. Gen. (ret.) Moshe (“Chico?) Tamir was the commanding officer of
the Gaza Division. This essay is based on a lecture delivered at the
December 2011 conference “Challenges of Warfare in Densely Populated Areas,?
sponsored by INSS and the International Committee of the Red Cross.]

This essay attempts to present operational perspectives on conducting
warfare in densely populated areas. It also distinguishes between three
types of combat within this general category, with the goal of shedding
light on this complex type of warfare.

The ?rst type relates to standoff warfare, a situation in which the enemy is
located in one sphere and one’s own forces are in another. In this case, one’s
forces do not control the enemy’s sphere but direct massive ?repower towards
it. Examples of such situations are IDF activity in Lebanon over many years
and current activity in the Gaza Strip. In situations of this sort it is
imperative to take into account not only the capabilities and means of one’s
own forces, but also the civilian population residing in the area of

The second type of warfare in densely populated areas relates to warfare in
urban areas. In such situations, the attacking force must maneuver, i.e.,
take control of urban areas containing not only enemy forces but also
civilian populations. The most prominent example of such warfare in recent
years is Operation Defensive Shield. Operation Cast Lead and the Second
Lebanon War are other examples of situations in which IDF forces had to take
control of densely populated urban areas. This type of situation is marked
by intense friction in civilian surroundings. The IDF is experienced in both
standoff ?ghting and urban combat, but operating with civilians is
qualitatively different.

The third type reflects a speci?c complex situation, where although one’s
forces have taken control of the area, they are forced to battle returning
enemy cells. An example of this situation is Judea and Samaria since
Operation Defensive Shield. The United States faces a similar situation in
Afghanistan and Iraq, albeit both geographically and militarily more
dif?cult than the situation that confronts Israel. Despite the Americans’
range of capabilities and means, they have not managed to decrease the
amount of hostile activity. In this type of situation, legally and morally
the army becomes almost completely responsible for the civilians in the
area, even if military rule has not been declared. In other words, the army
needs completely different abilities and skills.

What follows are some examples of the various situations. In the context of
the conquest of Tul Karm during Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF
conducted a series of intensive actions within densely populated urban
areas, operating massive force at the brigade and division levels. The
possibility of the IDF operating effectively against terrorism within the
population was limited because terrorist cells were almost completely
integrated within the area. Any movement of the population was used to
camouflage the movement of terrorist cells. Three or four attempts to
overcome terrorism in Tul Karm failed because movement by tanks and armored
personnel carriers very noisy. When the noise was heard, the terrorist cells
would scatter to the suburbs and villages at the city’s outskirts, and when
IDF forces would reach key locations in the city, only old people and
innocent civilians would be left. Once the forces were withdrawn, the
terrorists would return to the city and a week later would again attack
cities in the heart of Israel. The enemy was well organized in orderly
terrorist cells that would sit back while the IDF was in control of the area
and attack at a later time.

The IDF studied the failed attempts, drew the necessary conclusions, and
then operated in a simple, effective manner. Some sort of relatively small
distracting action would be carried out within the city, sending the
terrorists fleeing into the refugee camps on Tul Karm’s outskirts. At the
same time, large IDF forces would surround the refugee camps. This created a
situation in which the ?ght was contained in a very small area. The idea was
to press the enemy into surrender, and it proved successful. Using this
pattern, some 500 terrorists were surrounded and forced to surrender. The
operational achievement was striking.

The experience in the Jenin refugee camp differed. The complexity of the
situation and the conditions on the ground required the IDF to enter the
camp again and again in order to clear it of hostile activity. Every IDF
entry was meant to deal with only a certain part of the camp, so the
terrorist cells would simply move and operate from a different location, not
unlike the movement of a liquid inside a closed system: pressure on one side
causes the liquid to move far from the pressure point. Only effective
pressure on several points at once forces the liquid to the center. In such
an operation of occupying an area the most important aspect is to fortify
and protect the attacking force. In addition, the IDF applied the tactic of
leveling the ground and using non-precision ?re to cover the attacking

At the time of all these actions, the houses were full of civilians. As
such, the attacking force faced complex challenges, in its drive to minimize
harm to the civilian population. Early assessments were that the number of
non-combatant casualties would be high, but the results were less
devastating and relatively few civilians were harmed. However, such data and
assessments are of no importance to the commanding of?cer in place who has
to decide whether or not to launch an attack in the heart of a civilian
population and risk causing non-combatant casualties. The rule of thumb in
?ghting in densely populated civilian areas is a ratio of one civilian
casualty to two terrorist casualties. The ratio rises signi?cantly when the
choice of tactic is use of ground troops. The moment ground troops go in,
the complexity is even greater and the ratio between civilian and terrorist
casualties is commensurately higher. The success of the mission of taking
such an area depends on the attacking force’s determination, i.e., clearing
the area effectively, patiently, and consistently. The occupation of an area
in the heart of the civilian population is an important achievement in this
type of asymmetrical ?ghting.

As Operation Defensive Shield ended and areas were brought under control,
the regular brigades were charged with identifying and destroying the
terrorist infrastructures. The Golani Brigade was put in charge of the Jenin
sector, a particularly active and complex area that sent many operatives to
carry out acts of terrorism in the heart of Israel. Unlike other sectors,
not only the city center but also the more rural area around the city served
as a terrorism operations base. In addition, it appeared that the terrorist
organizations prepared themselves for an IDF occupation and were ready well
in advance. The Golani Brigade was supposed to carry out two missions: one,
to secure the area and prevent terrorists from leaving,
and two, to destroy terrorist infrastructures. The second was successfully
accomplished; in ?ve and a half months of activity, the brigade managed to
shatter the infrastructures almost completely. But the ?rst and more complex
mission was not fully achieved, and during this period the terrorist
organizations still managed to send several terrorists into Israeli
Another factor is the presence of Israeli settlements within the sector, a
factor complicating the ?ghting even more. Many tend to compare this type of
IDF activity to that of the American army. In Baghdad there was an area
called the Green Zone. Civilians, including American contractors and foreign
citizens working for international organizations, resided in this area.
Defensive procedures were very rigid there in terms of procedures for
opening ?re on the one hand, and in terms of defending against an incursion
on the other. The situation in Israel is different: in many cases, there is
no distinction between civilian and military areas, e.g., a military force
stationed in the city of Sderot takes heavy ?re from the Gaza Strip. This
?re does not distinguish between the military force and the residents’
homes, schools, and the children attending them. I believe, therefore, that
we must change the rules and the international laws of war. The
international law for a regular army opening ?re does not distinguish
between defending military forces and defending civilians. From the
perspective of international law, it is impossible to punish people who ?re
at civilians with disproportionate and inaccurate standoff ?re. Every such
action intended to defend the civilians under attack is prohibited. This
approach creates an absurd situation when the enemy is a terrorist
organization with the a priori intention of killing civilians. The tactic of
Hamas, as predicted by the IDF, was opening ?re at precisely 7:45 AM, when
Israeli schoolchildren waited for their school buses. This situation is not
similar to ?re aimed at American soldiers stationed on bases in Iraq or even
at civilian contractors who operate there to serve these soldiers.

At the start of the action in Jenin, the area was saturated with terrorist
cells. High ranking terrorists wanted by Israel, trying to impersonate
innocent civilians, were caught almost daily at one of the roadblocks in the
sector. Terrorist cells were caught almost at random. But this pressure made
the cells split into tougher, smaller, and more independent units, making it
harder for the IDF to identify and apprehend them. Therefore, the IDF
boosted its efforts, placing more roadblocks and leveling more extended
curfews. In such complex situations and lacking intelligence, there was no
choice but to operate in ways that also harm civilians. These steps blocked
traf?c to schools, and made it hard for civilians to acquire basic
foodstuffs and receive medical attention. Consequently, serious friction
with the local population developed, and indeed, the damage to freedom of
movement and the routine life of the civilians led to a boomerang effect:
the civilian population supported the terrorist organizations even more
strongly than before and opposition to the IDF grew. At the same time, the
Jenin sector dispatched terrorists who carried out two attacks in which 32
Israelis were killed. A situation in which a military force is charged with
preventing the dispatch of terrorists while operating within the civilian
population is very complex. This asymmetry, with Israelis hostage to the
terrorist organizations, complicates military operations.

It was only long after Operation Defensive Shield ended that the correct
conclusions were drawn about the most effective modus operandi for complex
situations involving warfare in densely populated areas:
a. Gathering as much intelligence as possible.
b. Using infantry rather than armored personnel.
c. On the one hand, making life as easy as possible for the civilians,
while on the other hand, ?ghting in a focused, uncompromising way against
terrorist cells.

As for standoff ?ghting: The history of Israeli warfare on terrorism
includes many commanding of?cers who felt this was the most effective way to
?ght within civilian populations. At present, the common understanding is
that this is not the right method. Whatever the intensity of the ?re
applied, it will never be enough to render it unnecessary for the attacking
force to use its infantry in the area and cleanse it. In addition, it is
necessary to take the price the civilian population has to pay into account
when operating heavy ?re. Expelling the civilians is a tool not only to
defend the population but also a means to motivate it to influence the
regime. The methods of standoff ?ghting have failed over and over again. In
asymmetrical warfare in densely populated areas there are no shortcuts.

Many speak of the tactic of deterrence in confrontations with terrorist
organizations. However, one ought perhaps to relate to the situation as an
equation with two players rather than as deterrence of the other side. In
order to deter terrorist organizations from ?ring, the IDF ?rst fought them
in pinpoint fashion and created the rules for the ?ghting. When one of the
organizations would violate a rule, the IDF would take control over a
civilian area and put the enemy’s civilians into the same equation. However,
this was at best a mixed blessing: taking control or any other extreme
action would lead to terrorist organizations ?ring on Israeli citizens. As a
result, Israelis became hostages of the situation. The IDF found itself
caught in an impossible bind: on the one hand, an attempt to ?ght what
proved to be an insuf?ciently effective tactical battle without full use of
its military capabilities, and on the other hand, an attempt to minimize
damage to the civilians on both sides. The only advantage of this situation
is minimizing the harm to IDF soldiers because the activity is of relatively
small scope. Nonetheless, the ineffectiveness made it hard to achieve the
mission as a whole because it extended the duration of the ?ghting and
therefore also added to the attrition of the force. It is therefore
necessary to know when to change the rules of the game. One can clarify the
complexity of the situation by means of the following ?gure:

The mission
/ \
/ \
/_______ \
Collateral damage Defense of own forces

Completing the mission, defending the force, and minimizing damage to the
civilian population are the three points of the triangle. Concentrating
effort on one point comes at the expense of the other two. All along, one
must remember that the IDF is charged with one clear task: defending the
citizens of Israel. When a decision is made to embark on an operation in
order to ful?ll this task, it stems from the fact that life for Israelis in
a particular area has become unbearable and that one cannot allow the
situation to continue without taking some action.

However, the task of defending the citizens of the state implies damage to
the enemy’s civilian population. Any ?re of any intensity immediately
affects the civilians on the other side; the extent of the effect on the
civilians is determined by the intensity of the ?re. The bombing of an
entire neighborhood in the Gaza Strip in response to a mortar bomb ?red at
Sderot creates a different effect than that created by using precision
weapons with limited collateral damage. To be sure, such weapons are not
always available and cannot always be used, but in general the key is to use
weapons with the least potential for damage in densely populated areas and
minimize the effect on the civilians.

Another component is defending one’s troops, which prompts a very serious
dilemma: to what level of risk can one’s forces be exposed in order to
minimize damage to enemy civilians?

No military force in general, and the IDF in particular, is interested in
targeting civilians or ignores the rami?cations of ?ring on civilians.
Nonetheless, foregoing support ?re as described above in the case in Jenin
will lead to ?re directed at one’s forces from the buildings located in the
area of the battle?eld, which house both terrorist cells and innocent
civilians. The decision on how to act in such situations is a real dilemma.

In Jenin, for example, there was initially no plan to take control of the
refugee camp, but the circumstances on the ground – including the enemy’s
resolve to ?ght without regard for casualties to its own civilians –
dictated the IDF’s methods of operation. This operation of force of such
large proportions had commensurate results. The triangle sketched above is
the key for operating force in asymmetrical warfare within densely populated
areas. In complex situations of this kind, it is possible to operate most
effectively and optimally only by being exactly in the center. The political
and decision making echelons must internalize that without understanding
this triangle, the ?ghting will not succeed and the mission will fail.

In this sense Operation Cast Lead was unusual. Hamas was patently unprepared
and unorganized; in terms of functioning like an organization, it was still
in its infancy and was certainly not ready for the force brought to bear
against it. One must consider that this was a one-time occurrence; next
time, the enemy will be much better prepared.

There are three key issues, then, in asymmetrical ?ghting in densely
populated areas. The ?rst is to understand the challenges. If the IDF as
well as Israel’s decision makers understand the challenges, they will be
able to prepare better for this type of warfare. As a conventional army, the
IDF is still captive to the paradigm of conventional use of force. It is
imperative to change this way of thinking and paradigm and understand the
nature of warfare in densely populated areas and prepare for it. A different
way of organizing the force – from preparing operational units to operating
more effective means of contact with the civilian population – will ensure
better results in the future. Some of the positive results of Operation Cast
Lead stemmed from the lessons learned through less successful efforts during
Operation Defensive Shield.

The second key issue is to instill behavioral norms and rules of engagement.
The IDF is used to operating in the format of army versus army, a much
simpler and straightforward format. When the civilian factor enters the
equation, the attacking force must be prepared not only operationally but
also mentally. The level of friction with the civilians and the complexity
and dif?culties described above often result in uncontrolled use of ?re by
soldiers towards civilians. Restraining the force and handling these
responses are critical to success.

The third key issue in asymmetric warfare is intelligence. Commanding
of?cers and decision makers must understand that when they look through
their binoculars, the true picture of the battle is not the tank battalion
they’re seeing at a distance, rather the huddle of civilian houses in the
background. Therefore, it is their responsibility to prevent ?re coming from
those houses. The picture seen through the binoculars, in which there doesn’t
seem to be an enemy, must – using the means currently at our disposal – be
turned into a picture in which the enemy is de?ned as clearly as possible.

The success of Operation Cast Lead lay precisely in this picture of the
battle. At ?rst glance, all that was seen was a civilian neighborhood, but
in practice, every soldier who participated in the mission knew very well
how the enemy was organized within it: which building had mortar bombs
underneath it and which house had an attic full of ammunition. This is the
capability that determined the outcome.

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