Tactics in Iraq familiar to Israelis and Palestinians

U.S. has sought to learn from ally's urban battles

April 06, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The scenes from the battlefield seem familiar to Israelis and Palestinians: military checkpoints, suicide bombers, paramilitary forces, ambushes and soldiers trying to sort friend from foe in the midst of a civilian population.

They are scenes not from the West Bank or Gaza Strip, but from Iraq, and the army trying to subdue the cities and countryside is American, not Israeli. But Israelis and Palestinians can't help but notice the similarities to their experiences.

In the months leading up to the Iraq war, U.S. military officials visited Israel to study the Israeli army's recent battles, in which Israeli troops took over Palestinian cities after street battles.

The Americans were particularly interested in Jenin and its Palestinian refugee camp of cinder-block homes, a stronghold for the Islamic Jihad militant group.

The Israeli army lost 23 soldiers in the camp, including 13 to a suicide bomber, and killed at least 57 Palestinians during intense firefights that ended only after soldiers bulldozed a wide swath of buildings.

Israeli army commanders and military observers agree that the best tactic for urban warfare is to avoid it. The best plan, they say, is to surround a city and strike targets repeatedly, or kill the enemy leadership.

"Hopefully, the U.S. will make a siege and from there jump quickly in and out," said Arnon Soffer, a professor at Haifa University who recently led a seminar on urban combat. "Our system is more or less the same. We don't want to permanently reoccupy the territories, so we jump inside to pick up people suspected of terrorism and jump back."

Israeli troops effectively control most Palestinian cities in the West Bank by encircling them with troops that enter and withdraw, meeting little or no resistance.

On Friday, the army ended an operation in Tulkarm, in the West Bank, in which soldiers rounded up 1,500 men and teen-agers, barring them from their homes for two days until the local leader of the Islamic Jihad was arrested.

Repeated raids in the densely populated refugee camps and cities in the Gaza Strip, where gunmen roam freely, still result in many casualties among militants and civilians.

The United States has often publicly scolded Israel and cautioned that country's army to limit harm to Palestinian bystanders. Now, U.S. soldiers must combat some of the same tactics used by Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza.

An Iraqi suicide bomber killed four U.S. soldiers; a man holding a white flag shot several others; weapons have been found in Iraqi schools; and the United States has accused Iraqis of turning mosques into military staging areas.

Such unconventional combat has made U.S. troops more cautious when approaching civilians. Twice, U.S. soldiers have opened fire on cars at checkpoints, killing civilians.

The Israeli newspaper Maariv published a two-page photo spread last week with photographs of soldiers from both conflicts performing similar tasks. The newspaper asked readers whether they could distinguish between the scenes without reading the captions.

"Over the years, the British and Americans have reprimanded Israel for the way in which it has fought terrorism," the newspaper said. "Now they are fighting in Iraq. Suddenly they are engaged with a civilian population and they have to get their hands dirty."

In recent days, Israeli officials say, their U.S. counterparts have asked for help in profiling suicide bombers, finding ways to isolate them and subduing them before they attack. Israelis say the United States should have anticipated such tactics months ago.

"I keep seeing American commanders complaining - they almost seem surprised - that the Iraqis are not fighting a fair war," an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said in an interview last week. "Of course they aren't."

A senior Israeli army commander said his troops have learned that they do not need to be stationed on every corner to control a city.

"We would have no problem occupying or conquering all of the Palestinian cities by tomorrow morning," the officer said. "We could take Ramallah, for instance, without losing one reservist. But for what? We prefer to be out of Ramallah, and when we have exact information about a suspect, we do what we have to do."

Palestinians also see similarities between the battles in Iraq and those in the West Bank. Israel has set the tone of urban combat with its repeated raids and air attacks, they said.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of a Palestinian international affairs policy group, said that when the Israeli army raided the marketplace in central Nablus two months ago and fought door to door, "it was seen by us as a rehearsal for the American entrance into Baghdad."

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