“Hi, my name is Danny. I’m an officer in Israeli military intelligence. In one hour we will blow up your house.“
Thus began the phone call to Mohammed Deeb, resident of Gaza City in 2006. According to the Guardian report from which the quote comes, an hour later and as promised an IDF helicopter fired three missiles at the four-storey building, destroying the ground floor and damaging the upper storeys.
The tactic, known as ‘knock on door’, was first used by the IDF in Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 but I first heard about it in 2009 when it was used extensively in ‘Operation Cast Lead’. It was Eyal Weizman writing at Open Democracy who first brought my attention to what he called the IDF’s ‘technologies of warning’ (see his longer paper here). These technologies involved warning the residents of Gaza to evacuate their homes and they took various forms. A cousin of the ‘knock on door’ tactic is the controversial ‘knock on roof’ method whereby a warning missile is fired at a house to indicate the seriousness of an impending ‘real’ missile. The IDF also dropped leaflets over large areas warning residents to evacuate the area (they never told them where they should go).
The standard Israeli narrative is that these warnings represent an unprecedented moral and humanitarian effort to spare the lives of the innocent. I have lost count of the times that an Israeli has told me “we could do so much worse” or “we don’t have to warn them: we could just bomb them without warning”. The former is a weak moral argument that Weizman has taken direct aim at and, pace Hannah Arendt, he has argued that those who elect the path of the ‘lesser evil‘ tend to easily forget that they still chose evil:
The communicative dimension of military threats can function only if gaps are maintained between the possible destruction that an army is able to inflict and the actual destruction that it does inflict. It is through the constant demonstration of the existence and size of this gap that the military communicates with the people it fights and occupies. Sometimes the gap opens wide, such as when the military governs the territories it occupies – its violence in a state of potential, existing as a set of threats and possibilities that are not, for the time being, actualized. In a state of war the gap closes – but rarely does it do so completely.
The latter is simply factually incorrect. Taking precaution not to injure and kill civilians is not a moral bonus but a legal requirement. As Article 57 (iii) of the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 states, all parties to a conflict must:
take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects
So while the IDF would have us believe that it is the ‘most moral army in the world’ there are quite different ways to read these warning technologies. In a 2009 letter to former IDF Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, Human Rights Watch:
found that the flyers dropped from Israeli fighter jets – addressed to “Inhabitants of the Area” from IDF Command, stating “For the sake of your safety you are asked to evacuate the area immediately” – were too vague to be effective and gave no sense either of the timing of a pending attack or where the attack would take place. Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous Gaza residents who said they received IDF warning leaflets during the hostilities but did not evacuate because the fliers were spread over very wide areas, leaving them unsure if their area would be attacked or where it would be safe to go. Gaza residents also told Human Rights Watch that they received warning phone calls to leave their homes because of “terrorist activity” in the area, but that these calls did not inform them of safe routes by which to evacuate. Gazans also said they received Israeli warnings, in some cases delivered by radio or television broadcasts, to “go to city centers,” but that Israeli forces subsequently attacked those areas.
Weizman, over at London Review of Books and commenting on the 2012 operation, goes even further:
Of course, many inhabitants of Gaza don’t have a landline or a mobile phone. In these cases, an IDF spokesperson recently explained, the military’s legal experts recommend the use of leaflets to encourage people to leave their houses before they are destroyed. Teaser bombs are just another means of sending a warning. In 2009, an IDF lawyer said: ‘People who go into a house despite a warning do not have to be taken into account in terms of injury to civilians … From the legal point of view, I do not have to show consideration for them.’ To communicate a warning can indeed save a life. But the strategy is also aimed at changing the legal designation of anyone who is killed. According to this interpretation of the law, if a warning has been issued, and not heeded, the victim is no longer a ‘non-combatant’ but a voluntary ‘human shield’.
There is little new here and I’m likely telling readers what they already know but what prompted me to write about this are the following two videos. This is the first footage I have ever seen of the controversial knock on roof tactic in practice (the IDF aerial videos show far less even though they can see a far larger space). There are many things to say about the videos but I’d like to draw attention to just one: the time lapse between the first ’empty’ rocket and the massive blast that follows it. In the first video I counted 34 seconds; little over half a minute. Now suppose you’re sitting on the toilet, or down in the basement fixing the car – or even asleep (it is summer in Gaza and it is not impossible that residents could be taking an afternoon nap or work night shifts and so sleep during the daytime). The first rocket comes. How quick are you? How able are you? Which children are you going to take with you? And once you’ve fled – if you were able and quick enough – where will you go? When – and to what – will you return?
One family miscalculated the answer to that last question earlier this week according to the IDF. The Kaware family evacuated their house as instructed by the IDF but unfortunately for them they returned “prematurely” (to use the words of a Haaretz report) and were all killed:
“There was nothing to be done, the munition was in the air and could not be diverted,” a senior air force officer said. “Although you see [the family members] running back into the house, there was no way to divert the missile”
For the best reconstruction and deconstruction of the attack available so far see Sixteen Minutes to Palestine, which I’ve just discovered. A ‘preliminary investigation’ carried out by the IDF – not yet published – admitted that the strike was a mistake. Though if the rest of the testimony from the unnamed source in the above quote is anything to go by, there may well be more mistakes around the corner:
“If these people, like those yesterday, try to confront a plane in the air, and the pilot signals [that he plans to blow up the house] – get out, because that house will fall,”