Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images

Why Israel’s bombardment of Gaza neighborhood left US officers ‘stunned’

Analysis: Military sources say Pentagon’s assessment of Shujaiya shelling alarmed even Secretary of State John Kerry

The cease-fire announced Tuesday between Israel and Palestinian factions — if it holds — will end seven weeks of fighting that killed more than 2,200 Gazans and 69 Israelis. But as the rival camps seek to put their spin on the outcome, one assessment of Israel’s Gaza operation that won’t be publicized is the U.S. military’s. Though the Pentagon shies from publicly expressing judgments that might fall afoul of a decidedly pro-Israel Congress, senior U.S. military sources speaking on condition of anonymity offered scathing assessments of Israeli tactics, particularly in the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City.

One of the more curious moments in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge came on July 20, when a live microphone at Fox News caught U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commenting sarcastically on Israel’s military action. “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” Kerry said. “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation.”

Rain of high-explosive shells

Kerry’s comment followed the heaviest bombardment of the war to that point, as Israeli artillery rained thousands of high-explosive shells on Shujaiya, a residential area on the eastern edge of Gaza City. A high-ranking U.S. military officer said that the source of Kerry’s apparent consternation was almost certainly a Pentagon summary report assessing the Israeli barrage on which he had been briefed by an aide moments earlier.

According to this senior U.S. officer, who had access to the July 21 Pentagon summary of the previous 24 hours of Israeli operations, the internal report showed that 11 Israeli artillery battalions — a minimum of 258 artillery pieces, according to the officer’s estimate — pumped at least 7,000 high explosive shells into the Gaza neighborhood, which included a barrage of some 4,800 shells during a seven-hour period at the height of the operation. Senior U.S. officers were stunned by the report.

Twice daily throughout the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) operation, a select group of senior U.S. military and intelligence officers at the Pentagon received lengthy written summaries of Israeli military action in Gaza. The reports — compiled from information gleaned from open sources, Israeli military officers with whom U.S. officials speak and satellite images — offered a detailed assessment of Israel’s battlefield tactics and the performance of its weaponry, a considerable portion of it supplied by the United States.

Although these reports shy from offering political judgments on the operation, a number of senior U.S. military officers who spoke about the contents of those daily reports were highly critical of some of the IDF’s tactics, particularly in the Israeli ground invasion of Shujaiya. An official spokesman at the Pentagon declined to comment on the contents of this article.

On July 16, the IDF dropped leaflets into Shujaiya, warning residents of an imminent Israeli attack and urging them to evacuate the area. The next day, after a short artillery preparation, three IDF units, led by the Golani Brigade, began a ground assault into the neighborhood to destroy Hamas bunkers and break up Hamas formations.

‘Take off the gloves’

The incursion went well at first, with Golani soldiers meeting little resistance. But by late on Saturday afternoon, July 19, forward elements of the brigade were running head on into well-organized Hamas units, and some IDF formations were pinned down in vicious fighting in Shujaiya’s streets and alleys. What had been envisaged as a limited ground operation was not going as planned, with Hamas units emerging from tunnels and bunkers in attempts to exploit IDF weaknesses. The Hamas units were well prepared and trained, with their formations hidden so well that Israeli soldiers were rarely able to pinpoint their locations.

“The ground assault was poorly handled into eastern Gaza City,” an Israel civilian adviser to the IDF’s chief of staff said at the time. “The Hamas fighters showed an unexpected tenacity and were far more effective against our armored units than we’d anticipated.”

By late Saturday night and into Sunday morning, the fight had devolved into a series of vicious small unit clashes, with IDF squads facing off against Hamas squads, sniper units and teams carrying lethal anti-tank rockets. In one eight-hour period starting early on July 20, the IDF suffered 13 dead, seven of them in an armored personnel carrier that caught fire after a Hamas sapper team detonated an anti-tank mine beneath it. When the IDF moved to retrieve the bodies and the stricken APC, Hamas fighters targeted the rescue vehicles and engaged in gun battles with IDF combat teams as the rescue convoy retreated.

In the early hours of that Sunday morning, with IDF casualties mounting, senior officers directed IDF tank commanders to “take off the gloves” and “to open fire at anything that moves,” according to reports in the Israeli press.

The three Israeli units assaulting Shujaiya were never in danger of being defeated, but the losses the IDF suffered in the four-day house-to-house battle embarrassed IDF commanders. By the afternoon of July 19, even before Israel had suffered most of its casualties, the scale of resistance prompted Israeli battlefield commanders to blanket Shujaiya with high-explosive artillery rounds, rockets fired from helicopters and bombs dropped by F-16s. The decision was confirmed at the highest levels of the IDF.

By Sunday night, Palestinian officials were denouncing the bombardment of Shujaiya as a massacre, and international pressure mounted on the Israeli government to explain the heavy casualty toll being inflicted on Gaza civilians. The IDF told the press that Shujaiya had been a “fortress for Hamas terrorists” and reiterated that while Israel had “warned civilians” to evacuate, “Hamas ordered them to stay. Hamas put them in the line of fire.”

‘The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible … It’s not mowing the lawn. It’s removing the topsoil.’

a senior U.S. military officer

Kerry’s hot-microphone comments reflect the shock among U.S. observers at the scale and lethality of the Israeli bombardment.

“Eleven battalions of IDF artillery is equivalent to the artillery we deploy to support two divisions of U.S. infantry,” a senior Pentagon officer with access to the daily briefings said. “That’s a massive amount of firepower, and it’s absolutely deadly.” Another officer, a retired artillery commander who served in Iraq, said the Pentagon’s assessment might well have underestimated the firepower the IDF brought to bear on Shujaiya. “This is the equivalent of the artillery we deploy to support a full corps,” he said. “It’s just a huge number of weapons.”

Artillery pieces used during the operation included a mix of Soltam M71 guns and U.S.-manufactured Paladin M109s (a 155-mm howitzer), each of which can fire three shells per minute. “The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible,” said the senior U.S. military officer. “It’s not mowing the lawn,” he added, referring to a popular IDF term for periodic military operations against Hamas in Gaza. “It’s removing the topsoil.”

“Holy bejeezus,” exclaimed retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard when told the numbers of artillery pieces and rounds fired during the July 21 action. “That rate of fire over that period of time is astonishing. If the figures are even half right, Israel’s response was absolutely disproportionate.” A West Point graduate who is a veteran of two wars and is the chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C., he added that even if Israeli artillery units fired guided munitions, it would have made little difference.

Even the most sophisticated munitions have a circular area of probability, Gard explained, with a certain percentage of shells landing dozens or even hundreds of feet from intended targets. Highly trained artillery commanders know this and compensate for their misses by firing more shells. So if even 10 percent of the shells fired at combatants in Shujaiya landed close to but did not hit their targets — a higher than average rate of accuracy — that would have meant at least 700 lethal shells landing among the civilian population of Shujaiya during the night of July 20 into June 21. And the kill radius of even the most precisely targeted 155-mm shell is 164 feet. Put another way, as Gard said, “precision weapons aren’t all that precise.”

Senior U.S. officers who are familiar with the battle and Israeli artillery operations, which are modeled on U.S. doctrine, assessed that, given that rate of artillery fire into Shujaiya, IDF commanders were not precisely targeting Palestinian military formations as much as laying down an indiscriminate barrage aimed at cratering the neighborhood. The cratering operation was designed to collapse the Hamas tunnels discovered when IDF ground units came under fire in the neighborhood. Initially, said the senior Pentagon officer, Israel’s artillery used “suppressing fire to protect their forward units but then poured in everything they had, in a kind of walking barrage. Suppressing fire is perfectly defensible. A walking barrage isn’t.”

That the Israelis explained the civilian casualty toll by saying the neighborhood’s noncombatant population had been ordered to stay in their homes and were used as human shields by Hamas reinforced the belief among some senior U.S. officers that artillery fire into Shujaiya was indiscriminate. 

“Listen, we know what it’s like to kill civilians in war,” said the senior U.S. officer. “Hell, we even put it on the front pages. We call it collateral damage. We absolutely try to minimize it, because we know it turns people against you. Killing civilians is a sure prescription for defeat. But that’s not what the IDF did in Shujaiya on July 21. Human shields? C’mon, just own up to it.”

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