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Secret US State Department documents reveal how senior Israeli figures involved in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) campaign in Gaza, Operation Swords of Iron, played key roles in IDF military doctrines justifying the use of “disproportionate force” against civilians, with the knowledge and support of senior US Government officials.

The documents show that US officials have known for over a decade that a deliberate IDF policy of using disproportionate violence against civilians could result in targeting of civilian aid convoys, but worked to conceal this, creating a climate of impunity that has led to what many UN experts consider genocide in Gaza.

As early as 2010, in the wake of Operation Cast Lead’s destruction of significant swathes of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, US officials were privately told by independent Israeli legal and human rights experts that the IDF was incapable of conducting meaningful reforms to avoid breaches of international humanitarian law and that only “international pressure” on the Israeli Government could hold the IDF’s “senior leadership accountable”.

As early as 2008, the State Department was closely monitoring how incumbent Israeli War Cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot played a crucial role in enshrining the controversial ‘Dahiya Doctrine’ – which calls for the use of disproportionate mass killing of civilians – into core Israeli military strategy, Byline Times can exclusively reveal.

People search for victims in the rubble of houses hit by Israeli bombing in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, in November 2023. Photo: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

The doctrine was implemented with devastating consequences in Operation Cast Lead, whose war crimes were documented by the UN inquiry led by Justice Richard Goldstone. The inquiry found that Israel committed actions “amounting to war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity”. Yet in 2009, the Obama administration worked secretly with senior Israeli military leaders – including current Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant – to “refute” Goldstone’s findings.

US officials advised the IDF to use internal inquiries and reviews as a way to undermine the report despite receiving credible information from independent experts in Israel vindicating Goldstone’s main criticisms of Israeli policy.

US Government officials were specifically advised by the Israel division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that the IDF was implementing an indiscriminate shoot-to-kill policy in zones where leaflets had been dropped – an alarming precursor of the “kill zones” established in Gaza during the current war according to Ha’aretz. The policy had resulted in ICRC aid worker vehicles being targeted twice by the IDF.

The documents examined by Byline Times and obtained via the Wikileaks archive suggest that the systematic targeting of civilians became entrenched into IDF military practices with increasing impunity under the Obama administration’s watch. They also show that IDF procedures resulting in the potential targeting of aid vehicles have been in place for over a decade – and were effectively reinforced with US support.

They throw new light on how IDF military doctrine has intentionally widened the parameters of ‘proportionality’ to justify the disproportionate destruction of Palestinian civilians. These parameters mean that the larger the defined threat against Israel, the larger the military objective and therefore the wider the scope for disproportionate destruction of Palestinian civilians.

Israel’s Current War Cabinet and the Dahiya Doctrine

The inherently disproportionate targeting of Palestinian civilians enabled by the IDF’s new AI ‘Lavender’ technology in the current war on Gaza has been exposed in a recent report by +972 magazine and Local Call. The report shows how AI programming run by the IDF’s cyber-intelligence division, Unit 8200, permits the killing of up to 20 Palestinian civilians as ‘proportionate’ to the goal of targeting a single Hamas operative.

Yet the secret and confidential diplomatic cables unearthed by Byline Times show that the disproportionality built into the IDF’s deployment of AI in Gaza is a direct consequence of Israeli military doctrines. Disproportionate violence can therefore be traced back to intentional IDF military decisions which see Palestinian civilian life as expendable in the pursuit of military goals to counter Hamas.

One document marked ‘secret’, from 15 October 2008, provided US Government officials with a detailed summary of communications from IDF regional commanders to local Hebrew media. Sent from Tel Aviv to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Council, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State, the cable reveals how US officials were intimately monitoring the IDF’s development of what it now openly called the “Dahiya doctrine”.

The document describes statements made in 2008 by Gadi Eisenkot, currently a minister within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s War Cabinet who previously served as IDF chief of staff from 2015 to 2019. Eisenkot’s Israeli National Unity party joined Netanyahu’s coalition government after the 7 October terror attack to form an emergency unity government. In 2008, Eisenkot was a regional commander in the IDF.

“On the northern border, Major General Gadi Eisenkot described a GOI [Government of Israel] policy to respond with indiscriminate force against Lebanon should hostilities resume”, notes the secret State Department cable.

Although Eisenkot’s statements about the Dahiya doctrine in 2008 are well-known, Byline Times can reveal for the first time that his stated confirmation of the doctrine’s formal approval by the IDF was being closely observed by the Obama administration: “OC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot described a tense situation along the northern Israeli border – and suggested a crushing Israeli response should fighting resume… Eisenkot labeled any Israeli response to resumed conflict the ‘Dahiya doctrine’ in reference to the levelled Dahiya quarter in Beirut during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. He said Israel will use disproportionate force upon any village that fires upon Israel, ‘causing great damage and destruction.’ Eisenkot made very clear: this is not a recommendation, but an already approved plan – from the Israeli perspective, these are ‘not civilian villages, they are military bases.’”

As previously reported by Byline Times, the implications of the Dahiya doctrine were further spelled out by several other IDF officials that year in papers published by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). In one, Colonel Gabi Siboni, who is now Chief Methodologist for the IDF’s Research Centre for Force Utilisation, a military planner for the IDF’s Northern Command and a consultant for the Israeli Ministry of Defence, explained that the IDF’s response to hostilities “aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand a long and expensive reconstruction processes. The strike… must prioritise damaging assets over seeking out each and every launcher. Punishment must be aimed at decision makers and the power elite… and should target economic interests and the centres of civilian power that support the organisation… This approach is applicable to the Gaza Strip as well.”

The implications of the Dahiya doctrine for the IDF’s rules of engagement were presented to the Knesset Committee for Foreign and Security Affairs during the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza: “The troops will be preceded by a ferocious pillar of fire. After the shooting, the warnings, anyone remaining in the area, in one of the most densely populated urban sites in the world is either a terrorist or knows the price to pay.”

The Dahiya doctrine was therefore behind the IDF’s policy of broadcasting evacuation orders to local civilian districts in Gaza, followed by massive military bombardments.

Dahiya Doctrine and the IDF’s Artificial Intelligence Unit

Another senior Israeli military figure directly linked to the current use of AI targeting technology across the Gaza Strip was also involved in developing the Dahiya doctrine as a key plank of IDF policy.

In a paper published in 2009 shortly after Colonel Siboni’s intervention, then IDF Major General Giora Eiland, who had previously served as head of the Israeli National Security Council from 2004 to 2006, explained how Israel would fight another war with Lebanon through a policy of collective punishment of the entire nation: “Such a war will lead to the elimination of the Lebanese military, the destruction of the national infrastructure, and intense suffering among the population. There will be no recurrence of the situation where Beirut residents (not including the Dahiye quarter) go to the beach and cafes while Haifa residents sit in bomb shelters. Serious damage to the Republic of Lebanon, the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people are consequences that can influence Hezbollah’s behaviour more than anything else.”

According to the INSS at the time, these papers were not simply academic musings but represented the fact that the Dahiya doctrine was now formally part of “the IDF’s new response policy”.

In other words, Eiland’s argument that deliberately and disproportionately targeting the entire civilian population of the enemy’s national or ethnic group is a legitimate strategy to deter further attacks was not merely his opinion, but an integral part of Israeli military strategy.

Although retired, Eiland is currently serving as an adviser to Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant. He is also director of an Israeli company supplying AI technology to the IDF for military targeting across the Gaza Strip.

Since 2021, Eiland has served on the board of directors of Corsight, an AI facial recognition company whose technology is being used by Israel’s military intelligence unit (including Unit 8200 running Lavender) to collect information about Palestinians. Corsight’s mass surveillance capabilities use Google Photos to create a database of Palestinian faces. This is used by the IDF to identify alleged Hamas operatives and people connected to them from drone footage and other imagery.

On 5 April, BBC News television interviewed Eiland about the findings of the IDF’s internal inquiry into the killings of WCK aid workers.

Eiland told the broadcaster that “errors” were common and “regrettable” in IDF targeting. The BBC did not mention Eiland’s firm’s role in supporting the IDF’s targeting processes across Gaza.

Eiland’s narrative of regrettable errors is, however, deceptive given that in November 2023, he published an op-ed in Yedioth Aharonot calling for the IDF to target the entirety of the Gazan population, articulating the same logic as the Dahiya doctrine. He stated that Israel is fighting the entire “State of Gaza”, saying: “Who are the ‘poor’ women of Gaza? They are all the mothers, sisters or wives of Hamas murderers. On the one hand, they are part of the infrastructure that supports the organisation, and on the other hand, if they go through a humanitarian disaster; then presumably, some Hamas fighters and more junior commanders will begin to understand that the war is futile and that it is better to prevent irreversible harm to their families.”

Eiland added that “we do not support suffering on the other side as an end, but as a means” and urged that Israel “must not… fight only Hamas fighters”, but must wage war “against the opposing system in its entirety, because it is precisely the civilian collapse that will bring the end of the war closer.”

According to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, Eiland’s “statements are an accurate reflection” of the “strategy pursued in the Gaza Strip at present”.

That month, in a separate TV interview on Israel’s Channel 12, Eiland described Gaza as “a Nazi state, in which they have managed to recruit the entire civil society in support of the struggle against Israel.” He criticised the idea that there is “Hamas, bad people, and civilians in Gaza, who are innocent and need to be saved.”

“That is not the reality in Gaza… Every other home in Gaza has an entrance down to the tunnels below,” he said, adding: “These are private homes. All the hospital and school administrators are Hamas workers. There is a great effort by all Gazans against Israel. They are united around their leadership, not opposed to the leadership.”

Israeli Defence Minister: Pushing for War in Gaza

In the same month that his own advisor publicly supported Israel’s targeting of civilians across Gaza, Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant made a direct reference to the logic of the Dahiya doctrine when he threatened Lebanese citizens in the context of IDF practices in Gaza: “I am saying here to the citizens of Lebanon, I already see the citizens in Gaza walking with white flags along the coast… If Hezbollah makes mistakes of this kind, the ones who will pay the price are first of all the citizens of Lebanon. What we are doing in Gaza, we know how to do in Beirut.”

Gallant’s comments appear to confirm that Israel’s military strategy in Gaza has been precisely what his advisor Eiland described.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant shakes hands with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken at The Kirya in Tel Aviv, In 2023. Photo: American Photo Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The State Department documents examined by Byline Times show that Gallant was also one of the earliest supporters of a large-scale IDF military intervention in Gaza to eliminate Hamas. Within the 2008 diplomatic cable, US Government officials noted statements by Gallant during his tenure as head of the IDF’s Southern Command: “In the south, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant [sic] suggested Israel could retake the Gaza Strip at any time – but with a heavy price.”

Galant argued that the decision to militarily disengage from Gaza was creating a deteriorating security situation: “Nevertheless, Galant argued that the balance of power remains in Israel’s favour – Hamas is ‘still a thousandth of Israel’s military might.’ As such, he suggests the IDF can do ‘almost anything it feels like in the Gaza Strip.’”

In 2007, another State Department document marked ‘confidential’, sent to the US National Security Council, Secretary of Defence, Secretary of State and US European Command, records how Yoav Gallant “is pushing for a large-scale campaign in Gaza” although this was opposed at the time by then IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi on the grounds that the IDF “would suffer casualties, and large numbers of Palestinian civilians would be injured and killed… under intense international media coverage”.

US Hears Evidence of how IDF Policy Facilitates War Crimes

It was not long before Gallant got his wish when the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. Further State Department documents reveal how the US Government received compelling evidence from independent observers in Israel of IDF complicity in war crimes during the operation – but actively sought to sanitise it. Incumbent defence minister Gallant participated in that historic process.

Over 1,400 Palestinians were killed, more than 5,000 injured, and some 100,000 left homeless with numerous schools, hospitals and other civilian structures destroyed. Goldstone’s report in 2009 concluded that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. In particular, the report concluded that the IDF had implemented a military doctrine involving “the application of disproportionate force and the causing of great damage and destruction to civilian property and infrastructure, and suffering to civilian populations”.

This was, in other words, the Dahiya doctrine applied to the Gaza Strip.

In April 2011, Goldstone wrote an op-ed recanting the idea that the use of disproportionate force was the result of a “deliberate” policy. Three co-authors of his UN report, however, affirmed that “nothing of substance has appeared that would in any way change the context, findings or conclusions of that report”. They also noted that the UN team had been subjected to significant pressure to “sanitise” their findings: “Had we given in to pressures from any quarter to sanitise our conclusions, we would be doing a serious injustice to the hundreds of innocent civilians killed during the Gaza conflict, the thousands injured, and the hundreds of thousands whose lives continue to be deeply affected by the conflict and the blockade… To deny modes of accountability reinforces impunity.” The Obama administration appears to have been a significant force in pushing for the report to be changed.

The State Department already knew that the “Dahiya doctrine” was an “approved plan” of the IDF since Major General Gadi Eisenkot had first articulated it in 2008. After the publication of the Goldstone report, the US Government continued to receive information on the IDF’s strategy of disproportionate force, and knew it could result in the targeting of civilian aid convoys.

One US government cable, from 27 January 2010 and marked ‘confidential’, reported here for the first time, shows how then Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner met with a range of Israeli and international NGOs, as well as UN agencies, who all questioned the credibility of ongoing IDF investigations into the crimes documented by the Goldstone report. The State Department cable was sent to the National Security Council, Secretary of State, and United Nations offices in Geneva and New York.

“All agreed on the need for an independent commission to review the credibility of IDF investigations”, the cable recorded. Limor Yehuda of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the country’s oldest and largest human rights organisation, warned Posner “that IDF internal investigations could not resolve the main issues of how Israel conducted the military operation, including its targeting and policy decisions”. Even as she expressed scepticism of some of the Goldstone’s findings, she said that “only international pressure could influence the GOI to create an independent investigation that could hold senior leadership accountable for alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during the armed conflict.”

A key focus of the cable is a confidential ‘Conduct of Hostilities’ report about Operation Cast Lead prepared in June 2009 by the Israel delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was submitted to the Israeli Government.

The ICRC report, according to the cable, identified “fundamental disagreements between the IDF and the ICRC regarding distinction” between combatants and non-combatants. For the IDF, “a policeman who was not engaged in hostilities against Israel” was still identified as a combatant, for instance, who could be legitimately targeted.

“Another disagreement was the targeting of civilian infrastructure”, noted the cable. “For the IDF… open agricultural land might be a legitimate target because at some point in the future it could be used for firing rockets at Israel; for the ICRC, this was a highly problematic assumption.”

Kill Zones

Similar IDF assumptions led to a ‘shoot-anything-that-moves’ policy in areas where the IDF had dropped leaflets, the confidential ICRC report revealed. The State Department document describes a crucial conversation between the head of the ICRC Israel delegation, Pierre Wettach, and Obama aide Michael Posner:

“Another ICRC concern was that for the IDF, ‘force protection’ meant a ‘zero casualty’ policy. Wettach commented that the GOI position as articulated by the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] was that force protection was a legitimate excuse for all actions by Israel. Wettach observed, however, that ‘dropping leaflets is fine, but it doesn’t mean that once it’s done, you can shoot at anything that moves.’”

The ICRC representatives told Posner that the tendency to permit disproportionate targeting of civilians was because the IDF gave “as much latitude as far down the chain of command as possible”, allowing IDF soldiers to make targeting decisions against civilians and civilian structures in zones where warnings had already been distributed.

This is consistent with reports of “kill zones” in relation to the current Israeli operation in Gaza, attributed to IDF sources, where soldiers do not distinguish between civilians and combatants in areas after orders to evacuate have already been delivered.

The State Department document used the IDF’s permissive approach to explain an incident during Operation Cast Lead similar to the IDF’s April targeting of WCK aid workers: “Wettach added that there had been two incidents during Cast Lead in which ICRC vehicles were fired on by the IDF, which should never have happened. Though the IDF fire did not cause any casualties, it led to the suspension of ICRC movement in Gaza for two days.”

Whitewashing War-Crimes

This document throws new light on a separate State Department cable which was previously discovered in 2019. The cable revealed how the Obama administration was secretly colluding with the IDF to refute the Goldstone report. Senior IDF commanders, including the current Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant, were coached by US officials in how to undermine the Goldstone report on the world stage. According to the cable: “During these meetings, A/S Posner stressed the purpose of his visit was to ‘listen and learn’ from Israeli interlocutors, and to confer about how the Government of Israel could most effectively tell its ‘story’ regarding Operation Cast Lead to the international community.”

Ignoring everything he was told by Israeli legal and human rights experts, the cable also shows how Posner instructed IDF officials to draw a “distinction between human rights law and international humanitarian law, stressing that the latter is the legal regime applicable to situations of armed conflict such as during the Israeli Cast Lead operation in Gaza”. He then claimed that “the United Nations and many state members of the Human Rights Council… want to apply human rights law, and not IHL, to the Gaza conflict, which he described as ‘wrong-headed.’”

During the meetings with IDF leaders, Posner reassured Israeli officials that the US would work to help the IDF communicate its claims of complying with international humanitarian law to the world. Describing the Goldstone report as a “fundamentally flawed report”, Posner told the IDF leaders that: “… the United States understood the complexities of operating in a densely populated area while facing an asymmetric threat. He stressed the importance of changing the public debate to better reflect a changing world in which tough decisions were made in the face of these asymmetric challenges.”

The documents unveiled here throw new light on the scale of violence in Gaza during Operation Swords of Iron. Rather than being a catalogue of regrettable errors, it has been the result of a deliberate policy of disproportionate force intentionally targeted against civilians and civilian infrastructure. Though formalised in 2006 during the war in Lebanon as the ‘Dahiya doctrine’, it was first tested and applied in Gaza via Operation Cast Lead. By colluding with Israeli military leaders to help the IDF justify this illegal form of asymmetrical warfare through new procedures and legal justifications, the Obama administration was complicit in the institutionalisation of the Dahiya doctrine as an integral component of IDF policy.

The Israeli Ministry of Defence and the IDF did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The US State Department and former Obama aide Michael Posner were contacted for comment but are yet to respond.

Source: Nafeez Ahmed

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