Israeli military officials signal they are fully briefed on upcoming talks with Iran about its nuclear program

In advance of important talks with Iran about its nuclear program on 13 [or 14?] April [apparently in Istanbul, after all] Israeli Maj-Gen (res) Amos Gilad said in a briefing in Jerusalem this week that Iran, today, has ability to put together a nuclear weapon [but probably won’t].

Iran does “have the know-how to assemble a nuclear warhead, if they want to do it … it depends on their decision”, he said.

Gilad spoke on Tuesday 2 April to diplomats, military attaches, ranking UNTSO “blue beret” military observers, and journalists at a briefing at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs [JCPA].

He suggested in his talk that he is enjoying some sort of retirement [at least, from direct responsibility for intelligence, he implied] — but he is still described as the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs.

“I agree there’s no existential threat to Israel [now], but if Iran develops nuclear weapons, that could change. It [the threat to Israel from Iran] becomes serious”, Gilad said.

About Iran’s leadership, Gilad said, “We need to be humble. They are not stupid… Consider your enemy as more intelligent than you. If Israel tells them something, they will ignore it — unless they come to the same conclusion themselves. And [Iran knows] there is a consensus now”.

He said, “the moment they feel immune, they will [might] cross the Rubicon”. But, he noted, even if they do the opposite, and pull back from the brink, “they will keep the capability”.

Gilad spoke on Tuesday.

By Friday [allowing time for translations, reaction, and reportage], there appeared to be confirmation of this from Iran itself.

The Associated Press published a headline-making story, datelined Tehran, picked up by media from around the world, reporting that prominent Iranian parliamentarian Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghadam “said Iran can easily produce the highly enriched uranium that is used to build atomic bombs but it is not Tehran’s policy to go that route”. According to AP, Moghadam told that “There is a possibility for Iran to easily achieve more than 90 (percent) enrichment”. One place this report was published was here.

But, the Iranian politician said more than that. He said that Iran can also actually produce a nuclear weapon — and that takes more than just highly-enriched uranium: “‘Iran has the scientific and technological capability to produce (a) nuclear weapon, but will never choose this path’, Moghadam told the parliament’s news website,, late Friday”.

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius [@IgnatiusPost on Twitter] reported that Obama sent message to Iran via Turkey last week [but “delicate issue” of enrichment not clear]. Ignatius’ WPost story [see below] is posted here.

Amos Gilad [IDF Maj-Gen res] said Iran has 5,5 tons of Lightly Enriched Uranium and is “dealing with” 20% enrichment [warheads need higher, over 90% enrichment].

Iran’s stock of Lightly Enriched Uranium at 3-4% is the degree used to run civilian nuclear power plants, as Iran says it’s preparing to do.

It seems that this Iranian claim now being accepted … or, at least, it is not considered as alarming as it previously was, in recent years.

But 20% enrichment of uranium [Iran has experimented with at least two different technologies to arrive at this level] is another matter. Iran has explained that its 20% enriched uranium is for medical usage [in a research reactor that will produce medical isotopes to treat cancer, etc.]

Amos Gilad [IDF Maj-Gen res] furrowed his brow and shook his head, when he spoke about Iran’s uranium enrichment program…

Apparently, 20% enrichment is too much — perhaps because once there’s capability to enrich uranium to 20% level, it becomes possible to do more or less the same to arrive at military grade +90%.

Continue reading Israeli military officials signal they are fully briefed on upcoming talks with Iran about its nuclear program

Israeli international law expert discusses naval blockade of Gaza

If Israel was ambivalent (or of several minds) about the applicability of international law, prior to the Israeli naval assault on the Freedom Flotilla in the pre-dawn hours of 31 May, the Israeli government has now rediscovered its value.

Professor Ruth Lapidot, a former legal adviser to Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is one of — if not the – preeminent Israeli expert on international law [also known as public international law]. Her views are taken extremely seriously in official Israeli circles.

She recently [on 16 June] discussed Israel’s announced naval blockade of Gaza’s maritime space in a meeting with diplomats and journalists at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs [run by Israel’s former Ambassador Dore Gold.

Some of the more interesting things she said are: Israel has declared a formal naval blockade of Gaza’s coastline, in January 2009 [as we have reported here]. The area which is blockaded has to be clearly defined, and there has to be clear notification. The blockade must be applied without discrimination (though limited specific exceptions can be permitted).  Humanitarian assistance must be permitted — but not goods which may increase the war capacity of, in this case, Hamas.  If there is a suspicion that a ship is carrying arms or personnel to , in this case, Hamas, Israel may capture, visit, or search a ship that enters the blockaded zone, and can try to persuade them to leave. But, if a ship tries to run the blockade, there is a clear difference between how it is possible to treat a merchant ship (military force can be used) or a warship (only protests are allowed).

Those who oppose this blockade only say that it’s against international law, without saying why, Professor Lapidot said.

UPDATE: In a just-published interview, Greta Berlin of the Free Gaza movement said that “Israel has no right to stop us under international law UNLESS it wants to admit that it occupies Gaza. Since Israel says it no longer occupies Gaza and Gaza is free, they have no right to stop us. In addition, the blockade is collective punishment against a civilian population that is WAY out of line. International law, Amnesty International and the International Red Cross have all said the same thing. Israel’s blockade is illegal”… This is published here.

Professor Lapidot explained at the JCPA discussion that she believed Gaza is a sui generis entity, a special case. Because Gaza was never annexed by Israel, and because Israel does not control the entire territory of Gaza, she argued, it is not occupied. However, since Israel controls the air and sea space [criteria that many if not most other international law experts say are confirmation of an occupation], it has a special responsibility in case of accidents. She noted that the former Israeli Supreme Court head Justice Barak ruled that Israel also has a moral responsibility because it did previously occupy Gaza for so long.

Continue reading Israeli international law expert discusses naval blockade of Gaza

Human Rights Watch Report denounces Israeli military's use of drones that killed civilians in Gaza

Yes, it is different this time. There is much more sustained international criticism than ever before of how the Israeli military operated during its 22-day Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (27 December – 18 January).

Human Rights Watch has just released another in its series of investigations into the Israeli military operation, entitled: “Precisely Wrong – Gaza Civilians Killed by Israeli Drone-Launched Missiles”. It can be viewed in full here

The drones (also know as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) are “one of the most precise weapons in Israel’s arsenal” — yet during Operation Cast Lead drones “killed civilians who were not taking part in hostilities and were far from any fighting”, Human Rights Watch said.

As a result, Human Rights Watch concluded that “Israeli forces failed to take all feasible precautions to verify that these targets were combatants, as required by the laws of war, or that they failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians”.

Gazans call the drones “zanana” because of the constant buzzing noise they make when hovering overhead. They also reportedly fly over the West Bank, and interfere with television reception when they do.

Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report, said that “When used properly, drones and their precision missiles can help a military minimize civilian casualties … But drones are only as good at sparing civilians as the people who command and operate them.”

“Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch … Given these capabilities, Israel needs to explain why these civilian deaths took place.”

Human Rights Watch said that “One Israeli drone operator who flew missions in Gaza during the recent fighting told an Israeli military journal that he was able to detect clothing colors, a large radio, and a weapon … Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars, electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children and adults … The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the weapon elsewhere”.

Given all these capabilities, the drone attacks in Gaza appear to have been, according to Human Rights Watch, “in violation of the laws of war”.

Human Rights Watch added that “The Israel Defense Forces turned down repeated Human Rights Watch requests for a meeting and did not respond to questions submitted in writing*.

“Precisely Wrong”, the new 39-page report from HRW, is “based on field research in Gaza, where Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed victims and witnesses, examined attack sites, collected missile debris for testing, and reviewed medical records”. The organization said it examined in detail six incidents resulting in 29 civilian deaths (among them 8 children). There were a reported total of 42 drone attacks that killed 87 civilian.

“In the six cases documented in the report, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Palestinian fighters were present in the immediate area of the attack at the time. None of the civilians who were killed were moving quickly or fleeing the area, so the drone operators would have had time to determine whether they were observing civilians or combatants, and to hold fire if they were unable to tell the difference. In three of the cases, drones fired missiles at children playing on rooftops in residential neighborhoods, far from any ground fighting at the time. Human Rights Watch found no evidence to suggest that the children were acting as spotters, relaying Israeli troop locations, or trying to launch a rocket from the roof”.

In addition, “On December 27, 2008, the first day of the Israeli offensive called “Operation Cast Lead,” a drone-launched missile hit a group of university students as they waited for a bus on a crowded residential street in central Gaza City, killing 12 civilians. The Israeli military has failed to explain why it targeted the group on a crowded downtown street with no known military activity in the area at the time. On December 29, the Israeli military struck a truck that it said was transporting Grad rockets, killing nine civilians. The military released video footage here of the attack to support its case, but the video raises serious doubts that the target constituted a military objective – doubts that should have guided the drone operator to hold fire. The alleged rockets, the military later admitted, proved to be oxygen canisters”.

Human Rights Watch said “it found that Israeli forces failed to take all feasible precautions to verify that these targets were combatants, as required by the laws of war, or that they failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians. Israel has failed to conduct credible investigations into its actions during Operation Cast Lead. On April 22, the military released the results of an internal investigation, which concluded that its forces ‘operated in accordance with international law’ throughout the fighting and that ‘a very small number’ of ‘unavoidable’ incidents occurred due to ‘intelligence or operational errors’.

But, Human Rights Watch noted, “Individuals who have committed serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, intentionally or recklessly – are responsible for war crimes”.

The organization called on Israel to release its recorded video footage and other documentation of its attacks in which civilians were wounded or killed: “The drones deployed by the Israeli military – the Israeli-produced Hermes and Heron drones – have video-recording devices so that everything viewed by the operator is recorded. Every Israeli drone missile strike during Operation Cast Lead would therefore be registered on video”

The Israeli military issued a response on Tuesday evening, saying that “The credibility of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report is questionable, given that it is based on anonymous Palestinian sources, who lack credibility, whose knowledge of military issues is doubtful, and on the other hand are clearly not impartial observers, and form part of the Gazan propaganda system”.

The Israeli military statement added that: “It is surprising that HRW chose to ignore the extensive efforts made by the IDF to avoid causing harm to non-combatants, and chose to base its report entirely on reports by Palestinian witnesses. The actions taken by the IDF in general, and in particular those taken during Operation Cast Lead, conform to international law, as do the weapons and munitions used by the IDF. Furthermore, when using these weapons the IDF strictly adheres to the principles of distinction and proportionality. During operation Cast Lead the IDF made use of advanced technology, tactics and weapon systems which minimized the risk to non-combatants and civilian property. This was done while confronting terrorists, who intentionally operated from within the Gaza Strip’s densely populated areas and used civilians as human shields. The IDF acted exclusively against military targets, and strived to minimize the harm caused to civilian population, at times at the expense of its own military interests.  The IDF is committed to honoring its obligations under international humanitarian law and is examining allegations that it breached these obligations during Operation Cast Lead. As a result, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff, appointed five investigative teams, each headed by an officer of the rank of Colonel, to thoroughly examine several issues, including claims regarding incidents in which many uninvolved civilians were harmed which were raised by NGOs and international human rights organizations, including HRW as well as Israeli and international media outlets. A summary of the results of these investigations were released by the IDF, and showed that, as a rule, the IDF’s actions during the operation conformed with international law, and that the IDF maintained high professional and moral standards. In addition the investigations showed that in all of the incidents which were examined, the IDF did not directly target non-combatants. In those incidents where IDF activity did cause injury to non-combatants, it was not as the result of an intentional strike on those non-combatants, but rather the unfortunate result of circumstances which were beyond the control of the IDF forces involved, or the result of an unexpected operational failure. As noted, many of the incidents resulted from the deplorable and intentional use that Hamas made of civilians as ‘cover’, blending with the civilian population and using civilian buildings and facilities while launching terror attacks against Israel”.

At a recent conference organized in Jerusalem by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) to evaluate the Gaza war, the world-class Israeli international law expert Professor Yoram Dinstein, the author of War, Aggression, and Self-Defence and The Conduct of Hostilities Under the Law of International Armed Conflict as well as of The International Law of Belligerent Occupation, and a former President of Tel Aviv University and head of the law school who still lectures there as Professor Emeritus, said that “the law of armed conflict is a very difficult field … and, with international humanitarian law, often issues very harsh criteria.  Can you drop a bomb of half a ton on one Hamas activist even tough civilians are in the building?  Is it allowed or not?  This is debated.  But Israel is making a mistake in not going to this forum.  We cannot be satisfied with five military investigatîve teams conducting inquiries [into various aspects of Operation Cast Lead], and then concluding that ‘Israel has the most moral army in the world’.  How is this measured?  How do you measure it?  We indict soldiers for looting — we should also do this if there is data indicating that maybe a war crime was committed.  Maybe they would be acquitted in the end, but we cannot issue five repourts that say at the wnd we are the best military in the world — and then say the world [when it is sceptical] is anti-semitic, though maybe it is, but we are losing the public relations battle”, Dinsein added.