Operation Defensive Shield and the Battle for Jenin, 2002 Part II

Aerial photograph of the battle area in Jenin, taken two days after the battle ended

IDF special forces conducted two broad types of missions in the urban fight. One type of mission was in direct support of the attacking conventional infantry brigade. In that role the special forces would overwatch the regular infantry and armor movement with snipers. Typically, snipers were deployed in a good vantage point 500 meters (1,640ft) or more to the rear of the conventional troops moving forward. From their position they were able to engage any opposing snipers or gunmen firing at the conventional force. They were also in an ideal position to engage any militants attempting to flee in front of the conventional infantry attack. This type of mission was conducted by either an elite army-level special forces unit or, more typically, the brigade reconnaissance company which was an elite unit in all Israeli brigades and had special forces training and capabilities.

The other type of missions conducted by special forces as part of the urban battle were much more specialized, and generally limited to the elite national-level special forces units. These types of missions could include assaults to capture or kill major militant leaders, or to rescue hostages. Israeli special forces also conducted covert missions. In these missions they drove specially outfitted civilian cars, wore civilian clothes, and blended in with the Palestinian civilian population. Usually, but not always, in this covert role the missions were limited to reconnaissance and information gathering.

Two other important units employed as part of the Jenin operation were army engineers equipped with Caterpillar-built D9 armored bulldozers, and Merkava tanks of the armored corps. These heavy armored elements were employed in a manner similar to their use in Nablus. The D9R dozer made by the US Caterpillar Corporation was not a purpose-built military vehicle but rather a very powerful civilian construction bulldozer. The vehicle was 13 feet tall, and 14.7 feet wide with its standard blade; it weighed 54 tons, and was powered by a 405hp engine. The D9’s first major military use was during the Vietnam War when the US Army used them to clear jungle. The Israeli military added massive armored plating to the machines to give them the capability to work while under fire. Israeli soldiers nicknamed the giant bulldozers “doobi,” which translates to “teddy bear.” Its armor protection could deflect all small-arms fire and even rocket-propelled grenades. There are reports that D9R dozers survived improvised explosive device (IED) attacks by bombs weighing as much as 440lb and 1,100lb. The initial advance into the refugee camp began with an armored bulldozer clearing the three-quarter mile approach to the camp. During that operation an engineer officer noted that the dozer set off over 120 IEDs without sustaining significant damage.

The 5th Brigade entered the camp dismounted. The Palestinian militants were surprised, and pleased, that the Israelis did not lead with armored vehicles. The decision to begin the attack on foot was to minimize civilian casualties. For three days the Israeli infantry slowly and methodically advanced. Their movement was greatly hampered by the extensive mining that the Palestinians did on all approaches into the camp. Militant fighters reported that they deployed 1,000–2,000 IEDs. Some were large antivehicle devices but most were small, about the size of a water bottle, designed to kill infantry. The militants’ objective was to inflict as many casualties as possible on the IDF, and their main method of doing that was by setting up booby-traps throughout the camps. In particular the Palestinians booby-trapped the major alleyways, doors and windows to houses, cars, and the interior of houses. Inside houses IEDs were placed in doorways, cabinets, closets, under and inside furniture. They concentrated their booby-traps in abandoned houses, or in the homes of prominent militants that they were sure the Israelis would search. In the first three days of the battle little progress was made into the camp, seven IDF soldiers were killed, and in some cases units only advanced at a rate of 50 yards a day.

The IDF estimated that the Jenin operation would take 48–72 hours to complete. By April 6 they were four days into the operation, units were still only advancing very slowly against very stiff opposition, and casualty rates were much higher than expected. Israeli army headquarters began to put pressure on the division commander to pick up the pace of operations. The IDF had a long history of rapid, decisive operations. Speed was a highly valued quality because with it came surprise and the shock effect. The IDF was also concerned with speed for strategic reasons. The history of the wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors indicated that in any major military operation, especially if it was successful, international and United States diplomatic pressure would be put on the Israeli government to end the operation. This pressure would steadily mount until invariably the Israeli prime minister halted the operations. Thus, the Israeli senior commanders understood that the IDF had an unknown but finite amount of time to clear and seize Jenin. If that did not occur before the diplomats halted operations then the operation would fail.

While the 5th Brigade slowly moved ahead, in the southwest Battalion 51 was making better progress. This difference was because the Battalion 51 commander determined to use the same tactics that the Golani Brigade had used in Nablus: leading with D9 dozers, then mechanized infantry in their carriers, and finally, tanks firing in support. However, the slow progress of the 5th Brigade allowed the Palestinians to focus on Battalion 51, and thus, despite the battalion’s aggressive tactics, it was fighting fiercely for every building. On April 8, as fighting ended in Nablus, the Golani Brigade commander, Colonel Moshe Tamir, visited and assessed the situation in Jenin. He recommended that more aggressive tactics, similar to those of Battalion 51, be adopted. Division headquarters continued to emphasize speed to the commanders in Jenin, and set the next day, April 9, as the date the mission had to be completed.

Early on the morning of April 9, a 5th Brigade Infantry Company from Reserve Battalion 7020 moved forward to occupy a building to serve as the base for the day’s operations. As they moved forward, wearing their night-vision devices in the early morning darkness, they diverted from their planned route. As they moved down a 3ft-wide alley between buildings they were suddenly attacked by bombs thrown at them, and small-arms fire. Within seconds, a half dozen soldiers were hit and down, including the company commander. The ambushed element of the 5th Brigade found itself cut off, surrounded, and under intense fire from militant gunmen shooting from upper-story windows. All but three men in the unit were killed or wounded as they sought cover in a small open courtyard. An initial effort to rescue the element inadvertently stumbled into a booby-trapped room and set off an IED that killed two more men and wounded several others.

Unmanned aerial reconnaissance loitered over the firefight and sent real-time images of the plight of the troops to IDF headquarters but the close range of the engagement – the combatants were within 30 feet – prevented the Israeli command from supporting their troops with heavy weapons. In the midst of the fight the Palestinians dashed forward and dragged off the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed in the fight, with the intent of using the bodies as a negotiating lever at a later date. After several hours of frustrating combat, Shayetet 13 entered the battle and counterattacked to retrieve the bodies. The naval commandos quickly overran the Palestinian militants, retrieved the bodies of the fallen soldiers, and relieved the surrounded force. In total, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed and many more were wounded. It was the largest loss of life in a single day for the IDF in 20 years.

The ambush of April 9 consumed the energy of the Israeli command on that day, and put it further behind its timetable for securing the camp. It also demonstrated that careful, dismounted work in the tight confines of the camp could lead to unacceptable casualties. Thus, when the command renewed the attack the next day the 5th Brigade adopted a much more aggressive approach. On April 10 the Israeli attack was led by D9 bulldozers, followed by infantry mounted in the heavily armored Achzarit personnel carriers. Tanks and attack helicopters fired into buildings ahead of the dozers and infantry to force militants out. The dozers were extremely effective and literally buried any militants who tried to stay and fight in the rubble of their building. Several civilians who were unable to evacuate the area also became victims of the relentless destructive power of the armored bulldozers. When the Israelis estimated that they had arrived at the center of the Palestinian defensive network, they unleashed the full capabilities of the dozers which, under the covering fire of infantry and tanks, systematically eradicated a 200m by 200m (650ft by 650ft) square of two- and three-story buildings that formed the heart of the refugee camp. By the end of April 10 the central urban complex of the refugee camp, the center of the militants’ defensive scheme, was reduced to a flat, featureless open area devoid of any structures or cover. The Palestinian fighters had no choice but to retreat in front of the Israeli attack into the last remaining unoccupied neighborhood of the camp.

On April 11 the Israeli forces in Jenin prepared to continue the ruthless onslaught which had carried them into the heart of the camp the previous day. However, as the Israel armored vehicles and infantry prepared to attack, the Palestinian militants in the camp began to surrender. During the day approximately 200 fighters gave themselves up to the Israeli forces. A small number managed to flee though the surrounding Israeli security ring and a few die-hards continued to fight on in isolated pockets, until they were crushed in their buildings by bulldozers. By the end of April 11 the battle for Jenin was over.

In the eight-day battle for the control of the Jenin Refugee Camp the Israeli forces lost 23 soldiers killed and 52 wounded. From a casualty point of view it was the most significant combat action of IDF since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Detailed analysis by non-Israeli investigators determined that the defending Palestinian militants lost 27 fighters killed, hundreds wounded, and over 200 were taken prisoner by the IDF. The civilians who remained in the city suffered as well: 23 civilians were killed in the battle, unknown hundreds were wounded, well over 100 buildings were completely destroyed and another 200 rendered uninhabitable, and over a quarter of the camp’s population, over 4,000 people, was made homeless. Still, the IDF was satisfied with the results of the operation. They had killed or captured several key militant leaders, taken into custody hundreds of fighters, and destroyed several bomb and rocket factories. They had also gleaned a wealth of intelligence from interrogations, and captured documents and equipment. Despite their success, however, the IDF made a critical mistake in the operation which would have effects well beyond the immediate objectives of Defensive Shield.

The Massacre and Information Operations

Before the battle of Jenin was over, the international press began reporting allegations of a major massacre of civilians in the city. As the battle raged, Palestinian officials, citing reports from civilians who evacuated the camp, claimed that the IDF was executing civilians, burying families in their homes, burying bodies in mass graves, summarily executing fighters and civilians alike, and firing rockets into homes. The accusations were widely reported in the international press and though it was reported that the accounts were not verified, they were widely accepted as being at least based on truth. Lending credibility to the accusations was the IDF’s complete exclusion of the media from the battlefield. Several early inaccurate statements by Israeli officials alluding to significant civilian casualties fueled media speculation and Palestinian accusations. Vague official statements from the IDF did nothing to put down the rumors. Several international organizations including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) began to collect witness statements from civilians before the battle was over and had teams prepared to enter the camp as soon as the IDF permitted. On April 18, the first team from AI entered the camp and made an initial assessment that there was a strong possibility that the accusations were true. Over the two months following the battle, AI, HRW, the UN, and several news services including CNN and the BBC all did detailed investigations. The systematic and thorough investigations revealed that rather than a massacre, the IDF description of events as a battle between the IDF and Palestinian militants was substantially true. The independent organizations all confirmed that the casualties, of all types, reported by the IDF were generally accurate.

Though the investigations eventually confirmed the IDF version of events, the fact that the investigations were necessary was a result of the IDF policy of isolating the battlefield from media coverage. Denied the ability to cover the battle, the media reported the only information it had available, which was the sensational and ultimately highly inaccurate accounts of a massacre presented by the Palestinians. Once the story made headlines around the world, the damage was done. International pressure on the Israeli government increased dramatically and the legitimacy of the mission was questioned by many countries, including Israel’s chief ally, the United States. Once the massacre stories were published they became the accepted narrative of the battle for many audiences, despite the findings of subsequent investigations. For the Palestinians the massacre story was generally accepted as true and Jenin became a rallying cry for the Palestinian cause, a source of endless propaganda, and a major recruiting tool for the ranks of militant fighters.

Battle Tactics in the Casbah

In the battles of Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli Defense Forces demonstrated a solid basic capability to conduct operations within the extremely dense urban environment of West Bank cities and refugee camps. Many tried and true urban combat techniques continued to be effective and necessary to success. The battles in the refugee camps also demonstrated new capabilities and threats in the urban environment. Finally, they reflected the continued importance and growing necessity of urban combat.

The Israeli military had very powerful and professional armored forces, as necessary to fight the conventional threats presented by the Arab countries on its borders. The traditions of armored combat influenced the Israeli tendency to prefer armored forces in the urban environment. The successes of Israeli armor and mechanized forces in 2002 demonstrated that the protection, firepower, and psychological effect of armor in a city remained a great advantage. Using armor also mitigated the number of casualties suffered by the attacking forces, a critical consideration for a small force like the IDF. Unlike the Russian initial deployment in Grozny, however, Israeli tanks operated in close coordination with a screen of protective infantry. Operation Defensive Shield also demonstrated one particularly important disadvantage of armor in a world dominated by global news coverage: the amount of collateral damage, including civilian casualties, that results whenever armor is operated aggressively in a city where a civilian population is still present.

The extensive use of D9 bulldozers by the Israeli military was a unique characteristic of Israeli urban warfare. The IDF used the dozers to somewhat compensate for the lack of available artillery and airpower. The dozers gave the Israelis the ability to precisely destroy enemy positions which, in a less constrained combat environment, would have routinely been subject to artillery and air attack. The D9s proved, however, to be highly controversial. Many civilian casualties were attributed to the bulldozers and they also destroyed a large number of buildings during the campaign leaving thousands of civilians homeless. The use of the D9 dozers meant that the IDF incurred the animosity of the Palestinian population for many years to come.

The Israelis also made extensive use of Apache attack helicopters in support of their ground troops. In the IDF, helicopters are operated by the Israeli air force. There were no reports of helicopters being lost to ground fire which implies that the aircraft were employed very carefully, and fired from positions already secured by IDF ground forces. American experiences with helicopters in urban operations – Mogadishu, Somalia (1993), and Panama City, Panama (1989) – indicated the significant vulnerability of helicopters to ground fire when operating over cities. This different experience was likely because the Americans, whose helicopters are part of the army maneuver forces, integrate helicopter operations very closely into ground maneuver operations as both an attack platform and as transport, and thus expose the aircraft to greater risks.

As in all previous urban operations, intelligence was a key to success. The battle for Jenin demonstrated how difficult it is, for even an excellent intelligence service like that of the IDF, to penetrate into a hostile urban environment and accurately determine important tactical details. Remote sensors in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) greatly increased the tactical situational awareness of IDF commanders and allowed them to shift forces to meet threats. As the battle progressed, intelligence support to the attacking Israeli ground forces improved. This was because the IDF created tactical interrogation units that questioned captured militants and civilians as soon as they came under IDF control. These intelligence units were organized to both send the acquired information up the chain of command, and – importantly – quickly send new and important information directly back to the units in combat.

A final important aspect of the Israeli success in the urban battle of Operation Defensive Shieldwas the use of special forces. The Israelis employed relatively large numbers of special forces to the urban battles of March and April 2002, particularly the operations in Nablus and Jenin. These included the reconnaissance companies of each brigade which were trained in special forces tactics such as sniping and covert reconnaissance. Thus, the defending Palestinians had to not only contend with brute force conventional threats like the D9 bulldozers and Merkava tanks, but also the equally deadly special forces snipers and raiders.

The D9 dozer was a new urban weapon employed by the IDF. On the Palestinian side they employed an old weapon, the booby-trapped IED, but they did so in unprecedented numbers. With just a little time to prepare, the militants were able to distribute thousands of devices, and in doing so they significantly slowed the advance of the IDF infantry. IDF engineers, both dozer operators and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialists, were critical to maintaining the momentum of the attack. The IDF learned that they did not have enough specialist EOD personnel, and thus after the battle they increased the emphasis on EOD training among their infantry.

IDF Security Operations

Though the IDF was sensitive to civilian casualties, and no massacre occurred in Jenin, it is important to understand the type of military operation that the IDF was tasked to accomplish during Operation Defensive Shield. By going into the urban areas of the West Bank, the IDF was invading the urban centers of a foreign, and generally hostile, population. The West Bank was not part of Israel, and at the time of the operation it was under the political control of the Palestinian Authority. Thus, the operational context was more like the Russian army in Grozny than the British in Northern Ireland or even the French in Algeria. In both the latter cases, the military had the objective of eliminating the urban enemy while at the same time not alienating the urban population, who were citizens of the United Kingdom and France respectively. The IDF’s operational concern with civilian casualties was more out of respect for the law of war and international opinion, than the military and political objectives of the campaign. Thus, they were comfortable emphasizing speed, firepower, and armored forces, and destroying as many buildings as necessary to achieve the military objective, as long as the laws of war were observed. Thus, the IDF perspective of the battle was as a battle against a security threat to Israel. The enemy was a guerrilla force hiding among a sympathetic enemy population in a foreign city.

For their part, the Palestinian defenders, though hopelessly overmatched by Israeli military power, demonstrated – as the Chechen fighters had – that adroit manipulation of the information spectrum could yield some positive strategic results even when the outcome of the conventional military battle was a foregone conclusion. The Palestinians were aided in this by the Israeli forces, who demonstrated no understanding of the vital importance of engaging the enemy in the information spectrum of war.

The Palestinian capacity for attacking Israel was significantly diminished by the urban battles of 2002, but not eliminated. The battles were not meant to, and the IDF was not capable of, eliminating the reasons behind the Intifada. Therefore, as soon as the IDF withdrew, and the militants acquired and trained new recruits, the Intifada continued. The Israeli–Palestinian war would not end until 2005. The best that Operation Defensive Shield could accomplish was reducing the Palestinian militants’ capability to conduct terrorist attacks inside Israel. It accomplished that goal and therefore was a successful operation.