The Debate over Military Rules of Engagement

by October 2022
Mural depicting journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Bethlehem. Photo credit: REUTERS

Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist for Al Jazeera, was killed on May 11 during a firefight between Israeli soldiers and armed Palestinians in the streets of the West Bank city of Jenin. This led to a firestorm of claims: pro-Palestinian accusations of a premeditated murder and pro-Israeli arguments of a killing by Palestinian fire. The Israel Defense Forces took its time investigating the incident and nearly four months later published a report that did not rule out the possibility that she was inadvertently shot by an Israeli soldier. In response, the US Department of State suggested that the IDF should review its rules of engagement—a comment that aroused the anger of many in Israel, from Prime Minister Lapid on down. To understand the sequence and the consequences, it is necessary to revisit the role and the significance of the rules of engagement. 

Rules of engagement are needed for many reasons, especially in asymmetric warfare.  The careless use of fire in urban settings can lead to losses by friendly fire as well as civilian casualties. There is at work a moral imperative, which the IDF seeks to maintain. In his pioneering work of the mid-1990s, Edward Luttwak described the tension between the need to avoid casualties to one’s own side for the sake of maintaining public legitimacy and the need to prevent civilian casualties. In a reality where combat takes place in dense urban terrain, the ability to balance these two imperatives is often nearly impossible.

At the same time, the war does need to be fought. In recent months, the Palestinian Authority has gradually lost control in the northern West Bank area of Jenin. Both Iran (via its proxy, Palestinian Islamic Jihad) and Hamas actively seek to exploit this weakness and turn the area into a launching pad for a renewed wave of terror against Israeli civilian targets. The IDF has responded with dozens of raids and arrests which often involve firefights—like the one in which Shireen Abu-Akleh was killed. 

The resulting dilemma is brutal. Bind the hands of soldiers and they could become targets. Some commentators in Israel are already claiming that the death of Major Bar Falah, killed in a clash with terrorists on the night of September 13, was due to over-caution in the use of firepower and a lawyerly approach to warfare. Unbind them, and Israel could become the target of an aggressive campaign of delegitimization. In the US, some voices in Congress described the journalist’s death as a war crime and a premeditated act of murder; hence the involvement of the highest levels of command, all the way to the chief of staff and the political echelon, in monitoring the rules of engagement for specific operations and missions. 

When harm does come to the uninvolved, how can an open society, with its democratic institutions and its inquisitive media, react to the immediate accusations of “murder” and “massacre”? Denial cannot be upheld for long, but an early admission of presumed guilt can also turn out to be a mistake (as in the case of the child Muhammad al-Dura, killed during a firefight in Gaza in the autumn of 2000: It took a while for the evidence to be gathered indicating that he could not have been hit by an Israeli bullet, but by then the public harm was done). 

Lies spread fast. But democracies shouldn’t counter by resorting to the methods of fake news and disinformation such as their adversaries do. Perhaps the Abu-Akleh case shows once again, as in the steady work done in 2002 to disprove the lie about a “massacre” in Jenin, that in an open society in dialogue with other open societies, it is best for an institution like the IDF to take its time, drill down on the details, take responsibility where it is due and avoid the temptation to compete with their accusers in putting out instant reports.  

Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman is a former senior intelligence officer. He served as Israel’s deputy national security adviser (2009–2015), and prior to that as director, AJC Israel and ME office (2001–2009). He is currently the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a lecturer at Shalem College. @EranLerman
Pnina Shuker
Deputy editor
Dr. Pnina Shuker is a national security expert and a research fellow at JISS (Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security). She is also lecturer at the IDF military colleges and at "Shalem" College. @pnina_shuker
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