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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

April 02, 2003

Send in the bulldozers: what Israel told marines about urban battles

Advice from a place that has known terrorism for a long long time

Martin van Creveld's advice to the US marines on what lessons to draw from Israel's bloody urban battle in Jenin was precise: Forget the helicopters, invest in armoured bulldozers.
For months now, the Pentagon has been taking notes from the Israelis in preparation for what looks increasingly likely to be an arduous house by house, street by street, fight for Baghdad. Pentagon strategists have pored over videos of the Israeli military's assault on Jenin a year ago, when 150 lightly armed but determined Palestinians kept the army at bay for 11 days and killed 23 soldiers.

US officers watched Israeli tank raids into West Bank cities in February, and American soldiers have learned in the Israeli desert how to blow their way from house to house to avoid booby traps and street fighting. The Israeli insights build on years of exchanges of military technology and intelligence between the deeply intertwined armies. Among other things, the US is using Israeli-manufactured drones to scout across Iraqi lines.

But with the US army faced with fighting through Baghdad's sprawling maze of streets and alleyways, known intimately by its enemy, American technological superiority is probably worth less than the Israelis' bitter experience. And now there is the added factor of suicide bombers.

As the war with Iraq loomed, the US marines called in Mr Van Creveld, a military strategist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University with close ties to the Israeli army. At a briefing in North Carolina in September, he offered some lessons.

"There were three key things," he said. "How to clear streets house by house, particularly using bulldozers. They're very useful in this kind of war to break houses.

"How and when to use helicopters to take out snipers. And when not to, and I'd say Baghdad is one of those situations. And how to avoid civilian casualties."


The Israeli army used giant armoured Caterpillar bulldozers and helicopter gunships to crush and rocket a square kilometre of Jenin, killing dozens of Palestinian fighters and civilians and destroying hundreds of homes. The American-made bulldozers - originally used in Vietnam - are in themselves weapons, bringing buildings crashing down on an enemy without having to engage him room by room. It was a widely condemned tactic in Jenin, which the Israelis claim saved civilian lives even though, like bombs, the killing is not selective.

But US forces have also been receiving insights into how to fight room by room if it becomes necessary. Close to 1,000 American soldiers were sent to Israel for joint manoeuvres at the beginning of the year. Some were sent to a mock Arab town in the Negev desert to draw on Israeli experience. Among other things, they were shown how Israeli soldiers avoid having to show themselves on the street by moving from inside one house to another by blowing a hole in the wall without bringing the building down. [more]