Israeli attacks on Damascus and Gaza show strengths and limitations of precision

At about 5pm on Monday, Israeli warplanes crossed the Syrian border, hitting an embassy building in Damascus and killing a group of senior Iranian military commanders with the kind of pinpoint precision that has earned the fear and military respect of Israel throughout the Middle East.

Several hours later, the same Israeli army fired rockets at a humanitarian convoy on a coastal road in the Gaza Strip, a botched operation that left seven foreign aid workers dead and Israel’s reputation in tatters. Its leaders have been forced to admit a series of lethal mistakes and misjudgments.

How one of the best-equipped and best-trained armies in the world could carry out a dangerous attack on foreign soil and then stumble with such tragic consequences in Gaza raises a number of difficult questions, not least how the Israeli military enforces the rules of employment in Israel. his war against Hamas.

Israeli officials attribute the attack on the aid group World Central Kitchen to factors common in war: a complex battlefield, where fighters mix with civilians; reduced visibility because it was night; and a moving target, which gave commanders only a few minutes to make decisions.

The Damascus raid was its mirror image: a meticulously planned and precisely timed operation against a stationary target, most likely approved at the highest levels of the Israeli military and government.

Details provided by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps suggest that Israel had information up until the time of the attack, including when the ambassador and other civilians had left the building, and that top Iranian commanders were there to meet with Palestinian militants to discuss the war in Gaza. .

By contrast, military analysts in Israel and the United States said Israeli explanations do not fully account for what happened Monday night along the Gaza coast. The accidental killing of the aid workers, many say, was the predictable result of a fighting style that Israeli troops used in their military campaign after the October 7 Hamas attacks.

“It wasn’t a question of precision because it was extremely accurate,” said Yagil Levy, a professor and expert on the Israel Defense Forces at the Open University of Israel. “It was not a matter of negligence, because the action was taken after careful consideration of the circumstances.”

“In Gaza,” he continued, “the IDF is committed to killing as many Hamas fighters as possible. In many cases, targeting Hamas fighters runs counter to the principle of respecting civilian immunity.”

Professor Levy said aid convoys into Hamas-controlled Gaza were often led by armed locals with links to the militants to prevent their supplies from being damaged or stolen. For the Israeli military, which uses drones to monitor convoys, this raises the possibility that some passengers constitute legitimate combat targets.

The Israelis struck the World Central Kitchen convoy after it delivered supplies from a dock to a warehouse. The three vehicles were returning when the IDF launched three attacks. Two of the vehicles were destroyed and a third had a hole in its roof next to the seal identifying it as belonging to World Central Kitchen, the charity founded by chef José Andrés.

Mr Andrés said the military would know where his workers were because he was in communication with them. “It wasn’t just an unfortunate situation where, ‘oops,’ we dropped the bomb in the wrong place,” he told Reuters.

“This was an error resulting from misidentification, at night during the war, in very complex conditions,” Israel’s military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, said on Tuesday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised: “We will do everything to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Some have compared the episode to an errant American drone strike in Afghanistan in 2022 that killed 10 innocent people, including seven children. As in Gaza, the attack relied on aerial video images. This came after a suicide bombing killed at least 182 people, including 13 American soldiers, during the Franco-American withdrawal from the country.

Under intense pressure to avert another attack, the U.S. military believed it was tracking a terrorist who might imminently detonate another bomb. Instead it killed an Afghan aid worker and nine members of his family.

“We had just lost troops to a bomb, and there was fear of another bomb,” said John Nagl, a professor of warfighting studies at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “The Israelis felt their troops were in danger. Danger. “The desire to protect troops trumps the decision to protect civilians.”

By contrast, Professor Nagl said, the attack on the embassy in Damascus was “impeccably executed”. The Israelis, he said, “controlled the time and place of the action, and it occurred at a fixed location. The difficult part of that mission was the intelligence gathering, not the military operation.”

Israel still faces international repercussions from the attack, which inflicted severe damage on Iran’s Quds Force, the external military and intelligence service of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Both Syria and Iran have expressed outrage, while American officials have expressed fears that the country could react promptly with attacks against Israel or its allies, the United States.

The failed raid on Gaza, however, brought a global wave of contempt towards Israel, which was already becoming increasingly isolated diplomatically. In Britain, the family of one of the slain aid workers, John Chapman, said in a statement: “he died trying to help people and was the victim of an inhumane act.”

This is not the first time that Israeli soldiers accidentally hit civilians. In December they mistakenly killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza City, causing outrage in Israel. In January, an Israeli tank opened fire on a convoy of Paltel, Gaza’s largest telecommunications company, killing two technicians, according to the company. The Israeli army said it was investigating the incident but did not announce any conclusions.

These incidents only increase pressure on Israel in light of the growing death toll in Gaza. More than 32,000 people, including many children, have been killed in six months of war, according to health officials in the Hamas-controlled enclave. The Gaza Health Ministry’s count includes both civilians and fighters.

Professor Nagl said he believes the Israeli army should tighten its rules of engagement – the conditions under which soldiers can open fire – especially as the number of Hamas fighters among the civilian population has declined since the fighting began in October. Israeli experts said the IDF should learn to better identify targets.

“Tens of thousands of targets have been successfully identified,” said Michael B. Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who was once an IDF spokesman. “WCK workers, tragically, were not. The IDF will investigate, conclude how and why the error occurred, and draw lessons that will help prevent similar errors in the future.”

But Oren and other Israelis rejected the idea that the Damascus raid was a useful comparison.

“Outside Gaza – in Syria, for example – Israel faces far fewer complexities,” he said. “Targets are identified and eliminated much more easily, with much less room for human error.”

Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser and now critic, also rejected the comparison, saying the “sheer intensity” of the fighting in Gaza led Israeli soldiers to open fire on each other. “Mistakes happen,” he said. “The situation is constantly changing; it is not static. “It’s very dynamic.”

Arad, who is also a former official in the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, said everything possible should be done to prevent such mistakes, but suggested they were inevitable on a battlefield like Gaza.

Amos Harel, a military affairs columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, acknowledged the challenges of fighting a war in Gaza, but said even the deadly convoy attacks were simply the result of attrition.

“After fighting for so long, more and more mistakes and problems occur,” Mr. Harel said. “It is not justified in any way, but it is the price of ongoing war in these extreme circumstances.”