While Israeli forces were engaged in what many termed a brutal some even say criminal campaign to crush Palestinian militants and terrorist cells in West Bank towns, U.S. military officials were in Israel seeing what they could learn from that urban fight.
Likewise, just weeks after the vicious fight in the Jenin refugee camp that ended April 15 with 75 Israelis and Palestinians dead and nearly 150 buildings in rubble, a senior Israeli Defense Force intelligence officer visited the United States to watch U.S. Marines experiment with new urban-warfare tactics.
All this military-to-military contact comes at a sensitive time, one in which the Bush administration is taking pains to appear as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. Moreover, human-rights groups and State Department officials have expressed concerns about the IDFs urban counterterror tactics that U.S. military officials now are studying.
A top Palestinian representative in Washington said the military visits could adversely affect a resolution to the Middle East conflict.
As far as it affects the Palestinians we think that it is unwise, said Abdul Rahman, chief PLO representative in the United States. Because at least the declared objective of the United States is to achieve a permanent peace in the Middle East. Therefore they need to judge how it really enhances this declared objective or hinders it.
The U.S. and Israeli armed forces were trading urban war-fighting tips gleaned from a campaign that even U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had labeled troubling for its brutality. In an April 21 interview with ABC News, Powell said U.S. diplomats played a leading role in calling for a United Nations investigation of potential Israeli war crimes in the refugee camps an investigation that ultimately never got off the ground.
Powell told ABC News that reports from U.S. diplomats who went into Jenin were disturbing the loss of life, collapsed buildings, potential for disease.
Were doing what we can to relieve suffering in Jenin.
A State Department official said the department was aware of the military visits, but declined to comment on the potential diplomatic fallout such visits could cause.
Officials from the Israeli embassy, the Pentagon and Marine Corps all are unapologetic about the exchange of information about tactics, saying they are the result of a long-standing partnership.
The United States maintains an active security cooperation program with its friends and allies throughout the Middle East, a Pentagon spokesman, Army Maj. Tim Blair, said May 31. These programs are intended to enhance regional security and enhance stability.
Service officials meet with their counterparts from many countries, including Israel, and the exchange of experience and information between them is valuable in the development of war-fighting strategies, said Marine Lt. Col. Dave Booth, who oversees the Marine Corps-Israeli Defense Force exchanges.
Were interested in what theyre developing, especially since Sept. 11, Booth said. Were interested in their past experience in fighting terrorism. So theres a lot of things we could learn from them.
Though Pentagon officials say the U.S. military now has no formal relations with the Palestinian Authority, Rahman said he wouldnt object to U.S.Palestinian military exchanges.
We have always been receptive to cooperation with the United States and coordination in the area of security, Rahman said. Its part of our bilateral relationship.
Israel waged its campaign on one of the toughest battlefields on earth: a heavily populated city. The U.S. military, including the Marine Corps, is eager to learn what it can from the Israeli Defense Forces successes and failures during the house-to-house fighting while those memories still are fresh.
Marine Corps Warfighting Lab officials plan to examine closely Israels tactics and make changes to the Corps urban war-fighting doctrine to reflect what worked for the Israelis.
For instance, the use of armor and air power in urban warfare always has been challenging, given its potential for collateral damage, so the Marines are looking closely at how the Israelis employed tanks and helicopters in their fight.
Beyond Marine-specific efforts to gather lessons from the Israeli-Palestinian fighting, a Pentagon official confirmed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a delegation of more than a dozen officials to Israel for a trip of about a week that wrapped up May 23. Led by the Joint Staffs deputy director for international negotiations and politico-military affairs for the Middle East, Rear Adm. Carlton Jewett, the group gathered lessons from the fighting and other tips to help in the ongoing war on terrorism, according to Israeli officials.
The Joint Staffs visit was meant in part to plan an upcoming Defense Policy Advisory Group meeting. That session, involving Israeli and Pentagon officials, is planned for early June in Washington and led by Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith.
Earlier, on May 8, the head of the Israeli Armys Combat Intelligence Corps, Brig. Gen. Amnon Sufrin accompanied by two Israeli military attachés from Washington watched a Marine Corps urban-warfare reconnaissance experiment in Boise, Idaho. Sufrin was invited to visit the Warfighting Lab event by Marine Corps headquarters as he made his way to visit Fort Lewis, Wash., home of an Army cutting-edge Interim Combat Brigade team, Marine officials said.
The Corps put several new surveillance technologies and tactics to the test in Boise. Marines clad in civilian clothing to aid their infiltration into the city used handheld satellite phones and rugged laptop computers to transmit up-to-the-minute intelligence on enemy movement through the streets of the city.
Sufrins trip came just weeks after Operation Defensive Shield, as the Israeli counterterrorism operation was known, ended April 21. But Israeli military incursions have continued in smaller form since, with soldiers staging quick raids on West Bank villages, searching for weapons, explosives and suspected Palestinian militants.
An Israeli embassy spokeswoman confirmed there have been a number of visits between the U.S. and Israeli military both in America and Israel after Operation Defensive Shield began in April, but would not elaborate further.
It is as yet unclear just how the IDF urban-warfare lessons will be applied to the U.S. militarys training, but clearly, some of them are controversial.
A U.S.-based Islamic group was quick to condemn the close U.S.-Israeli cooperation in the wake of the fighting at Jenin.
Its troubling if it leads to the Israeli-ization of the war on terrorism, said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. The bottom line is weve seen how counterproductive these Israeli tactics have been in terms of bringing peace and justice to the region. They would hardly be something wed like to emulate.
A Human Rights Watch report published last month claimed witnesses to the April counterterrorist incursion saw Israeli troops used civilians as human shields who were forced to knock on the doors of apartments as the Israelis searched for hiding Palestinian militants.
Israeli army officials repeatedly have denied this and other claims of brutality and indiscriminate killing. In fact, Israeli army spokesmen have claimed they put their troops at increased risk in order to avoid hurting civilians.
On May 9, the Israeli Defense Force issued an unequivocal order to its troops prohibiting the use of human shields and promised to prosecute any soldiers who violated that order.
The Israeli army says it lost 29 soldiers in Operation Defensive Shield 23 of them in the brutal house-to-house fighting in Jenin alone but that hundreds more were wounded in nearly 60 days of clashes.
Human Rights Watch claims 52 Palestinians were killed in Jenin, only 27 of whom were militants.
The Marine Corps has taken a close look at the Jenin battle partly because some Marines train for urban combat at a range on George Air Force Base, Calif., that is about the same size as the Jenin camp but with half the structures, according to Randy Gangle, director of the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities. CETO is a partnership between the Warfighting Lab and the Potomac Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank.
According to news reports, the IDF surrounded Jenin with tanks and sent in its most seasoned reservists to rout armed militants and suspected terrorists. Despite the heavily booby-trapped alleyways and near-constant sniper attacks, the IDF met with moderate success and took relatively few casualties. The troops went from house to house, clearing whole apartment blocks of militants after the Israelis said they warned residents to leave.
Human Rights Watch and others dispute this, saying inadequate warning was given and that, in some cases, the IDF unleashed U.S.-built AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships in indiscriminate missile attacks on apartment blocks.
After Palestinian militants ambushed an Israeli patrol April 9, killing 13 soldiers, the IDF took the gloves off and sent in armored D-9 bulldozers to cut a swath through the city, demolishing entire apartment blocks as they went. Bracketed into the center of the city, the remaining militants were killed or captured in 19 days of brutal fighting.
Learning from the bloody urban-combat experiences of others is not new for the Corps. In the 1990s, Marine intelligence officers interviewed both Russian and Chechen veterans of Moscows attempt to pacify Muslim separatists in that former Soviet republic. Likewise, its no surprise the Corps takes a keen interest in how both sides fought in the most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Its important to share experiences because no one can know if the other will have to face the same kind of tactics and operations in the future, said retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom, former chief of Mossad, the Israeli counterpart to the CIA. He now serves as a national security advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Im sure some of the lessons were now learning during Operation Defensive Shield will prove useful to U.S. war planners, especially considering demographic realities and the trend of future threats, which point increasingly to terrorists using highly populated urban areas as their preferred base of operations.
Solving the urban puzzle
The Corps for years has sought ways to more effectively wage an urban war. In past urban-fighting experiments, the Corps suffered casualty rates as high as 70 percent. War games such as the one conducted in Boise and others are meant to flesh out techniques Marines can use to reduce casualties and emerge victorious in an urban fight.
So Corps planners are taking the fighting techniques used by the Israelis during their campaign seriously. Israeli lessons learned are to be compared against the Corps own Basic Urban Skills training doctrine.
Accounts of the Jenin fighting reflected everything that we have been saying for the last four years about the problems were going to face in the urban battle space, Gangle said.
Some Israeli tactics may be incorporated into the urban-warfare curriculum, Gangle said, but others may serve as examples of what not to do. For instance, the Israelis used two battalions to assault Jenin, which covers an area of approximately one square mile. When Marines train in similar spaces, they prefer to use only one battalion.
Moreover, the Israelis moved through Jenin in a linear sweep primarily from one direction, one block at a time. Gangle said that might not be the preferred tactic.
But incorporation of Israeli lessons still is in the early stages, and its unclear how they ultimately will manifest themselves. For instance, whether two controversial techniques the use of heavily armored bulldozers and the Israeli tactic of moving from house to house by blowing through adjacent walls will be adopted remains to be seen.
Regardless, the lessons of Jenin are more valuable to the Corps because they came so soon after the operation ended, Gangle said. The Warfighting Lab study should yield results by late summer.
This is a unique situation because we dont have the passing of time to alter the perception of those who fought there, he said.
Defense News senior correspondent Barbara Opall-Rome contributed to this report from Tel Aviv, Israel.