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IDF soldier: Artillery fire in Gaza is like Russian roulette

During Operation Protective Edge the IDF has shot thousands of artillery shells into Gaza, the impact location of which are uncontrollable. As an ex-combat soldier in the artillery corps, I feel obligated to explain how artillery fire on a civilian population can be both dangerous and lethal.

By Idan Barir (translated by Hadas Leonov)

Amid the stream of terrible reports from Operation Protective Edge, two especially painful events captured my attention: The bombardment of an UNRWA school in Jabaliya that served as a shelter for families that had fled their homes due to the fighting, which resulted in the deaths of at least 20 people and injured dozens more; and the bombardment of a crowded market in Shejaiya that killed 17 people and injured roughly 160.

In response to fierce criticism directed at Israel following the school’s bombardment, Israeli spokespeople claimed, as usual, that the strike was directed at an area from which shooting was directed at IDF forces. Against reports that hundreds of the casualties in Gaza are innocent civilians, Israel repeatedly argues that it is doing all it can to avoid harming innocent civilians.

During my military service in the Israeli army I served in the artillery corps, and thus learned a thing or two about using shells. From the testimonies I have read and heard from the school and the marketplace bombardment, I am not sure if these were mortar or artillery shells that struck, but what’s clear from the photos and reports published by the IDF is that there was massive use of artillery fire. Artillery fire is statistical fire. It is the absolute opposite of precise sniper fire. The power of the sniper lies in the accuracy that his weapon provides him, while the power of the artillery shells being used in Gaza is based on both the extent and possibility of causing damage (impact).

An Israeli artillery fires a shell towards the Gaza Strip from their position near Israel's border with the Gaza strip on July 24, 2014. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

An Israeli artillery fires a shell towards the Gaza Strip from their position near Israel’s border with the Gaza strip on July 24, 2014. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

As someone who served as a combat soldier in the IDF I feel obligated to explain what is behind the numbers we hear about regarding the military operation in Gaza. A standard high-explosive shell weighs about 40 kg and is nothing but a large fragmentation grenade, which, at the time of explosion, is meant to kill everyone within a 50-meter radius and injure people located in an additional radius of 100 meters. It is impossible to aim the shells in an accurate manner and they are not meant to hit specific targets. Different factors such as the humidity of the air, the amount of heat in the barrel and the direction of the wind may determine whether the shell falls 30 or even 100 meters from the spot at which it was aimed. For that reason, a multi-barrel artillery battery fires a barrage of shells in a certain direction knowing that statistics will work their course, and that due to the scatter and the amount of damage caused by many shells, the target will indeed be hit.

There’s no way of knowing who is hit.

As a result of the inaccuracy of this weapon, the safety ranges used during war require us to aim at least 250 meters away from our troops while they are behind cover. In 2006 when the IDF first fired artillery shells into Gaza, I was surprised by the choice to use such an inaccurate weapon in such a densely populated region.

At the time, firing guidelines were changed so that the safety distance from Palestinian houses was reduced from 300 meters to 100 meters. Shortly thereafter, a shell hit the house of the Ghaben family in Beit Lahiya, killing 9-year-old Hadil and injuring 12 of her family members. Following the incident and several others related to artillery fire, human rights organizations appealed to the Israeli High Court to stop this lethal practice. In response, Israel stated that artillery fire would no longer be used in the Gaza Strip.

Only three years later, in Operation Cast Lead, artillery fire was used once again, even more extensively than before. Nowadays, since the launch of Operation Protective Edge, the IDF has already shot thousands of artillery shells at different parts of the Gaza Strip. The shells have caused unbearable damage to human life and tremendous destruction to infrastructure, the full scale of which will only be revealed when the fighting is over.

A classroom lies damaged following the overnight Israeli shelling of an UNRWA school where some 3,300 Palestinians were seeking shelter, Jabalia, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2014. At least 20 people were killed in the attack which injured more than 100.  (Basel Yazouri/Activestills.org)

A classroom lies damaged following the overnight Israeli shelling of an UNRWA school where some 3,300 Palestinians were seeking shelter, Jabaliya, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2014. At least 20 people were killed in the attack which injured more than 100. (Basel Yazouri/Activestills.org)

In some of the cases during this round of violence, the IDF notified the civilian population that it was going to attack a certain region and instructed people to evacuate the area. Announcements such as these and firing on densely populated neighborhoods has reportedly displaced one-third of Gaza’s population in recent weeks. The families hit in the UNRWA school attack in Jabaliya are one such example.

I write this with great sorrow: great sorrow for the civilians who were hurt on both sides, great sorrow for our soldiers who died in the operation, and sorrow for the future of my country and of the entire region. I know that right now soldiers like myself are firing shells into Gaza, and they have no way of knowing who or what they’ll hit. The statistics that this type of fire relies upon maintain that in a densely populated region innocent civilians will be harmed. As a soldier and as an Israeli citizen, I feel obligated to ask: Have we not crossed a line?

Today, when the number of Palestinian casualties has climbed above 1,800 men, women and children – most of whom are innocent civilians – it is time to say in plain language: The use of a statistical weapon is like a game of Russian roulette. Those who use artillery weapons in Gaza cannot honestly say that they are doing all they can to avoid harming innocent civilians.

Idan Barir served in the artillery corps during the Second Intifada. Today he is a Ph.D candidate in history, and an activist with Breaking the Silence.

Related:
Gaza ground invasion: Shedding the pretense of ‘precision’
Scenes of devastation from deadliest day in Gaza
What Israel’s precision bombing of Gaza looks like

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    COMMENTS

    1. As someone who served as a draftee in a 155 mm battalion of a European army (using the EXACT same pieces Israel uses) I can confirm Idan’s analysis. For years I’ve been amazed at Israel’s use of this inaccurate weapon it its assaults on Gaza. 155 mm artillery is not supposed to be used in this way. Typically it is used to ‘mollify’ advancing/retreating enemy infantry (in a classic battlefield situation) by carpet shelling a small area or to pound enemy artillery batteries with.

      Thank you Idan for your candour.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        Strategy Page reports:

        “March 21, 2014: Over the past few years the Israeli army has been changing its approach to artillery. This began in 2011 when Israel decided to replace most of its 155mm artillery with GPS guided rockets.”

        Reply to Comment
    2. Pedro X

      The writer makes an inexact comparison between sniper and artillery fire. Sniper fire has limited distance and destructive capabilities. Sniper fire will not take out an enemy tank or underground missile launcher 25 kilometers away. Artillery systems assisted by computers, gps and lasers can be very accurate. The Raytheon BAE system has an error accuracy of only 5 meters. Israel Military Industries Accular GPS system has accuracy subject to error within 10 meters.

      Since the second intifada, Israel has also replaced its older radar system for acquiring and targeting areas with the more accurate EL/M-2448 Multimission Radar (Raz) system.

      Israel is also working on the Romach rocket which only has an error ratio of 5 meters.

      However, one must recognize that artillery is not meant as a stand alone system but as part of an integrated armed force supporting troops on the ground. Sometimes artillery is used to lay down a withering barrage to support troops on the ground to allow them to better attack and destroy enemy targets. This has consequences when the battlefield is in an urban environment. It means civilians will be collateral damage.

      This is the price of war started by a terrorist organization using its own civilians as human shields while attacking Israeli forces and firing rockets at Israeli civilians.

      If your neighbor held his children in front of him and shot to kill your children would you not shoot back even though his children might be killed?

      Reply to Comment
      • Memo

        No, i would not bomb innocent persons to “protect” my family, specially when i know that there there are more persons dying from car accidents than from rockets in Israel (not that it is “ok” for them to use them but they rarely hit anything).

        Reply to Comment
        • Whiplash

          If your analogy was correct then we would not try to stop rapists, child molesters, bank robbers, thieves, break and enter rings, because these crimes kill less people than car accidents.

          The rockets, mortars and other missiles do hit and injure or kill people. These acts are not only criminal but are acts of war. The director of Sapir College was hit by shrapnel from a rocket this morning. He was initially listed in serious condition. Over 600 Israelis have been wounded in the current war and substantial damages have been sustained, such as houses, businesses, schools, day cares, kindergartens, hospitals, gas stations, roads, and shelters have been hit. The life and economy of Israel has been affected.

          Most of Israel’s 8 million population is in the range or rockets and have to seek shelter. Many communities in Southern Israel evacuated parts of their population. The entire nation is held hostage to the threats of rockets, mortars and tunnel attacks.

          Israel has an obligation to respond to these acts of war and defend their people. It is no answer to say that more people die in traffic accidents when another people are making war upon you trying to kill and injure as many people as possible.

          Reply to Comment
      • Goldmarx

        “Following the incident and several others related to artillery fire, human rights organizations appealed to the Israeli High Court to stop this lethal practice. In response, Israel stated that artillery fire would no longer be used in the Gaza Strip.”

        This is what Idan Barir said. If, as you say, Pedro, “Artillery systems assisted by computers, gps and lasers can be very accurate”, then why did Israel say that artillery fire would no longer be used?

        “This is the price of war started by a terrorist organization using its own civilians as human shields”

        Perhaps Hamas is learning from Israel. After all, the IDF Command Center in Tel Aviv is close to a ‘civilian’ hospital. Since military service is compulsory for every adult Israeli Jew, most of them are simultaneously military and civilian. So they are their own ‘human shields’ – quite a timesaver!

        “If your neighbor held his children in front of him and shot to kill your children would you not shoot back even though his children might be killed?”

        I would get him to stop shooting by immediately ending my occupation of his house.

        Reply to Comment
        • JohnW

          No you would not be able to get Hamas to stop shooting because they claim that my house is their house. They claim all of Israel too.

          Reply to Comment
          • Goldmarx

            Its charter might, but in practice, nope.

            Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          @Steven

          Keep up the good work. You are getting under their skin.

          It’s about time someone does. God knows the Piotr’s and the Goldmarxes have long been under our skin.

          Reply to Comment
          • Goldmarx

            How charming that you admire Steve Plaut.

            larry Derfner recently referred to him as a rabid dog. They way one deals with such dogs is to put them to sleep.

            Reply to Comment
      • “The Raytheon BAE system has an error accuracy of only 5 meters. Israel Military Industries Accular GPS system has accuracy subject to error within 10 meters. ”

        If you understood ballistics better you’d understand that this is either marketing gobbledigook or a plain lie.

        Lobbing shells (free flying projectiles, NOT guided missiles) over several miles is inherently inaccurate, no amount of computers or GPS changes that.

        Reply to Comment
        • Whiplash

          These artillery shells have the ability to self correct in flight, making them very precise or at least capable of being precise. Canada used the Raytheon BAE system in Afghanistan.

          Reply to Comment
          • Goldmarx

            The fact that Afghanistan is an ongoing quagmire does not speak well for the effectiveness of the Raytheon BAE System.

            I’m sure the system has the ‘potential’ to self-correct. Lots of things have potential.

            Reply to Comment
          • Whiplash

            Goldmarx, it is not potential, it is ability. The missile, because of its design will correct in the air to hit the target.

            Reply to Comment
          • The shells I’ve seen used against Gaza were ordinary, non self-correcting ones.

            Reply to Comment
          • Goldmarx

            Let’s look at what you actually wrote:

            “These artillery shells have the ability to self correct in flight, making them very precise or at least capable of being precise.”

            To rephrase my point, lots of things have the potential to be precise. But that’s just a marketing ploy offered by defense contractors.

            Reply to Comment
          • JohnW

            “The fact that Afghanistan is an ongoing quagmire does not speak well for the effectiveness of the Raytheon BAE System.”

            The fact that Israel/Gaza is nothing like Afghanistan, makes your comment irrelevant.

            Afghanistan is a quagmire? NATO can just get out, go home and let the natives sort it out.

            Israel/Gaza is a quagmire? Israel can’t just go somewhere else nor can the Gazans. So something will give, sooner or later when the Gazans will be made to see reality and realise that the hated Jews are not going anywhere.

            In the meanwhile, the Gazans will go on suffering and we will too, to a lesser extent.

            Reply to Comment
          • Goldmarx

            “The fact that Israel/Gaza is nothing like Afghanistan, makes your comment irrelevant.”

            My comment was spot-on since I was responding to this comment by Whiplash: “Canada used the Raytheon BAE system in Afghanistan.

            “Afghanistan is a quagmire? NATO can just get out, go home and let the natives sort it out.”

            –> Gee, everything’s so easy. Just snap your fingers, and – presto! Well, NATO isn’t playing along with your magic realism. And that’s part of makes the conflict there a quagmire.

            Reply to Comment
          • JohnW

            “My comment was spot-on since I was responding to this comment by Whiplash: “Canada used the Raytheon BAE system in Afghanistan.”

            No, it was not spot on because Gaza/Israel is nothing like Afghanistan/NATO.

            J:“Afghanistan is a quagmire? NATO can just get out, go home and let the natives sort it out.”

            G:”Gee, everything’s so easy. Just snap your fingers, and – presto! Well, NATO isn’t playing along with your magic realism. And that’s part of makes the conflict there a quagmire.”

            NATO isn’t playing along with my magic realism? Then I must be just imagining that Obama announced the withdrawal of UN troops from Afghanistan?

            Of course he has Goldie, you know that. You just want to argue for arguing’s sake, you little child.

            Reply to Comment
      • Eliza

        I would hope that I would understand that my neighbour is deserving of freedom of movement, of trade and that I have no right to imprison him and his family into his little house; or that I would covet his house and land for my own simply because he is of a different religious faith.

        And no I would not shot him, let alone his children.

        I would make it clear that I do not support his imprisonment and would do everything I could to give him and his family the freedoms that I and my family enjoy.

        I sorta don’t want my children to grow up to be armed guards against another people.

        Reply to Comment
        • JohnW

          “I would hope that I would understand that my neighbour is deserving of freedom of movement, of trade”

          Not if they want to use that freedom of movement to get weapons so they can kill me.

          “and that I have no right to imprison him and his family into his little house;”

          And I would hope that my neighbor wouldn’t want to kill me. Otherwise I would stop him whatever it takes even if it means imprisoning him.

          “or that I would covet his house and land for my own simply because he is of a different religious faith.”

          But he covets MY house because of HIS faith. Is that oalright with you Lizzie?

          “And no I would not shot him, let alone his children.”

          Unless he shoots me and my children.

          “I would make it clear that I do not support his imprisonment and would do everything I could to give him and his family the freedoms that I and my family enjoy.”

          No you wouldn’t if he would make it clear that he wants to kill you and your children.

          “I sorta don’t want my children to grow up to be armed guards against another people.”

          OK, so you would sorta prefer to be you and your children dead? I don’t believe ya. Talk is cheap when you preach to others.

          Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          In 2001, Israel’s then Labor prime Minister, offered the Palestinians a peaace deal which would have allowed the Palestinians to establish their own state on 97% of the West Bank and 100% of Gaza.

          The response of the Palestinians was? The second Intifada. Wave upon wave of Hamas suicide bombers swooped on Israel and they maied or murdered thousands of innocent Israeli civilians. That’s when Hamas also started shooting their rockets at us.

          In 2005,the then Prime Minister of Israel, organised a unilateral withdrawal from 100% of Gaza. The Hamas rockets continued.

          In 2006, as a vote of thanks for Hamas, the majority of Palestinian voters voted for Hamas in the only democratic elections ever held among Palestinians. The rockets from Gaza continued.

          In 2007, after an internal dispute between Hamas and the PLO, Hamas rounded up PLO fighters and murdered many of them. The Hamas rocket bombardment of Israel continued.

          After that, Israel had enough. Seeing that it’s so called partners for peace, the PLO, were ousted from Gaza by Hamas, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza. This was to ensure that Hamas wouldn’t be able to import more advanced weapons to enable them to attack Israel more effectively. Unlike the PLO, Hamas clearly stated that it was not prepared to abide by signed agreements between Israel and the PLO, which prohibited the Palestinians from importing advanced weapons. Hence, the blockade was both a legal reaction by Israel and a necessary one.

          The rest is history. Hamas has been lobbing it’s rockets at us on and off, in between short cease fires which they keep on breaking.

          And now, that Israel reacted to it’s many provocations, they parade the sufferings of the people who voted Hamas in to the rest of the world. And they pretend that their rocket fire is just their reaction to the Israeli blockade.

          The fact however is the opposite. The blockade is the reaction of Israel to the rocket fire and to the refusal of Hamas to abide by past agreements between Israel and the PLO.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Piotr Berman

      Idan Barir: As a soldier and as an Israeli citizen, I feel obligated to ask: Have we not crossed a line?

      Zionist intellectual, Steven Plaut [Top Facebook Commenter · Haifa, Israel] Oh boo hoo,

      In the upside down society, Barir is one of few “degenerates”, with some defect in their digestive system that makes them unable to digest propaganda. Steven Plaut represents the healthy majority. Iron stomachs, well-ventilated crania, jokes made of lead.

      Reply to Comment
    4. bar

      Both of the attacks mentioned by the author may not be of IDF origin. Both may be of Hamas origin. Over 10% of Hamas rockets landed inside Gaza. Additionally, in many cases where IDF fire hit accurately, secondary explosions from arms hidden by Hamas caused great damage to those nearby.

      Perhaps Breaking the Silence could devote some energy to breaking the silence of the murderous irresponsibility of Hamas and its allies?

      Reply to Comment
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