Kirya Military Base, Israel
For three straight days starting on July 15, 2014, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) made thousands of phone calls to the residents of Shejaiya in northern Gaza. The locals were encouraged to evacuate their homes before IDF tanks rolled across the border. Tens of thousands of leaflets were dropped into the village. These leaflets suggested both a safe evacuation route and safe destinations to head for within Gaza City. The IDF sent similar messages daily via local television and radio. But that’s not all. The IDF also made dozens of phone calls to Shejaiya’s influential citizens, asking them to get out the word of the impending IDF incursion.
Thousands and thousands of warnings were given. The Israeli military authorities essentially told the enemy where the IDF troops would enter the village and when. And for three days, Hamas fighters, no dummies, took full advantage. They dug their own forces in deeper. They activated booby-traps. They hid IEDs. They got snipers into perfect positions. They brought in additional fighters. They pre-positioned weapons. They readied their terror tunnels.
At this point, it was abundantly clear that IDF commanders had gone beyond any mandates that international law requires to avoid civilian casualties. No matter. Putting their own troops at even greater risk, IDF commanders decided to wait yet another day to allow more time for civilians to get out.
Then all hell broke loose. Shejaiya was the location of nasty urban fighting between Hamas and the IDF during the 2014 summer conflict. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers would die in that war, and many of the injured are still in hospitals.
One who survived is Ben, a deft-thinking IDF attorney who grew up outside Sydney, Australia, swimming off Bondi Beach. Ben (IDF policy does not allow the use of some last names) is standing today on a hillside near the Israeli village of Mefalsim, looking some 500 yards across a verdant field into the Gaza strip. He’s viewing a peaceful scene—the very same Gazan town of Shejaiya. Ben ponders the $64,000 question; namely, Does he think the IDF does too much to prevent civilian casualties? He stares into Gaza for a long time. A very long time. “Who knows? I can tell you that I am proud that we do what we do.”
What exactly is it that Ben and his colleagues do? Ben works in the IDF’s international law department, essentially the best little niche law firm you’ve never heard of. These distinguished attorneys carry assault rifles, get shot at frequently, and sit at the cutting edge of the law of armed conflict. The unit goes by “Dabla,” the acronym for the Hebrew name of the international law department; Dabla, in turn, sits inside Israel’s equivalent of the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps.
“Dabla is the Harvard Law School of the international legal community in Israel,” says Joel Singer, a partner at Sidley Austin in Washington, D.C., and a former head of this prestigious unit. “But it’s more than that. Alumni of this unit go on to be the elite of the elite.” The Dabla attorneys are a remarkable, if under-recognized, breed of officers—extremely well educated and able to provide real-time advice on a range of international legal issues. Dabla has never lifted up its skirts and let a journalist peek inside the unit’s decision-making operation before.
But to understand Dabla is to understand the insanity of the avalanche of criticism raining down on Israel for the way its military fights. Let’s start by looking at two extraordinary documents.
The IDF uses the first document—called a “target card”—when commanders prepare strikes against enemy targets. During the Gaza conflict, such targets included a weapons cache hidden on the second floor of a densely populated four-story residential building, a command-and-control center located in a mosque, and a surveillance platform hidden inside a hospital.
The cards contain a wealth of information about the targets from the intelligence and operations units. Before any attack can go forward, Ben and his fellow IDF legal advisers have to sign off. That’s when things get interesting. The lawyers must put their own check mark on the card—they call it a “tick”—indicating that it’s a lawful target.
Back to the Gaza conflict. After IDF professionals—weapons experts, operational planners, and so on—and the Dabla lawyers have all signed off on a target card, the strike is approved. As far as Dabla is concerned, anyway. The final decision rests with the commander.