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Under fire: Israel’s artillery policies scrutinised

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New report shows changes in Israel’s use of artillery raises risks to civilians

New research by London-based NGO, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), has revealed that recent changes to Israel’s military rules of engagement have increased the risk to civilians in Gaza.

In “Under Fire,” AOAV scrutinised the rules that dictate how and where the Israel Defense Force (IDF) have used explosive weapons since 2005, the year the IDF withdrew from the Gaza strip. AOAV examined claims made by Israeli officials that the IDF have made great strides in improving the protection of civilians from the wide-area effect of their artillery shells.

Artillery is often referred to as a ‘statistical weapon’ by Israeli military experts. This term captures the inherent inaccuracy of an explosive weapon that fires multiple numbers of heavy, unguided shells. The use of this weapon in and near populated areas puts civilians at grave risk of death and injury.

It therefore needs particularly strong rules to protect from unintended ‘collateral damage’.

AOAV’s findings show, however, that rather than reducing the risk of civilians dying from Israeli explosive weapons, the IDF’s previously quite strict rules regulating artillery practice have been relaxed since 2005. Civilians are now more at risk from Israeli artillery shelling than before 2005.

The report found that despite a stated commitment by the IDF to civilian protection, and much advertised measures such as pre-strike warnings, when it comes to the use of Israeli artillery on Palestinians there is a wide gap between public rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

Key Findings:

2014 saw the heaviest use of Israeli high-explosive artillery shells in eight years. Despite investment in guided alternatives to traditional artillery, at least 34,000 unguided shells were launched into Gaza in 2014. This is more than any IDF operation since the 2006 Lebanon war. There was a 533% increase in the number of high explosive artillery shells launched from Israel in 2014 compared to 2008-09 (Operation Cast Lead, the last major use of artillery). There was a daily average of 680 artillery shells fired into Gaza in the 2014 operation. This was almost a doubling of the 348 per day seen in 2008-09. In 2005, the safety distances that dictated how close artillery shells could land next to residential homes was 300 metres. This was reduced by the IDF in April 2006 to 100 metres. It does not appear to have been tightened since. As the expected casualty-producing radius of a 155mm artillery shell is close to 300 metres, this limitation put civilians at greater risk. The most substantive measure taken to protect civilians from artillery came in December 2006, when the IDF imposed a moratorium on artillery shelling in Gaza. This remains the only policy to have seen a clear and measurable improvement in civilian protection from artillery shells, but after 2008 this measure fell into disuse.

“Unguided artillery shells are a relic of a bygone day, but our report shows that if anything the IDF is more reliant on them now than they were almost a decade ago,” said Iain Overton, AOAV’s Director of Policy. “There’s no reason why Israel can’t stop using such damaging weaponry in populated areas.”

“In recent years the IDF has shifted away from using other devastating weapons like multiple rocket launchers or globally-banned cluster bombs,” said Robert Perkins, Senior Researcher at AOAV. “It doesn’t seem like this shift has extended to unguided heavy artillery, but these wide-area effect explosive weapons have no place in an urban populated area, where their effects cannot be controlled.”