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‘Friendly fire,’ that horrific oxymoron

Casualties in these tragic accidents are doubled: those who are killed, and those who must live with their fatal mistakes

By Michael Oren

The announcement Friday night that IDF troops had shot and killed three Israelis who had managed to escape Hamas captivity, pitched the nation into a despondency it had not known since October 7. The incident seemed to symbolize the madness, the nightmarishness, and the hopelessness of this entire war. Just when it appeared that the IDF was making serious headway and Hamas showing signs of disintegration, when reports were circulating of another round of hostage releases, the killing of Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka, and Alon Lulu Shamriz – all reportedly stripped to the waist and waving a white flag – made many Israelis question the conduct, if not the fundamental sense, of the war.

Nobly, Israeli defense leaders took responsibility for the incident. They noted the “complex” environment in which IDF soldiers were fighting, the Gaza killing zone in which virtually any moving silhouette could be that of a suicide bomber. Cited also were the 20 percent of all IDF casualties in Gaza attributed to what is popularly known as “friendly fire.”

Friendly fire: a deadly oxymoron that is familiar to anyone who has lived through a war, especially as a combatant. I have, several times, and have come to consider myself an involuntary expert on the topic. Yet I never spoke about it, at least not publicly, until the evening before Israel’s ground incursion into Gaza, when I went to meet with my old paratrooper unit.

The soldiers had taken part in the battles of October 7th and 8th, and though only eleven months in the army, had seen and experienced things that had visibly aged them. Still, the knowledge that they would soon be in prolonged and brutal combat haunted them. They were afraid, these beautiful children-turned-overnight-to-adults, and kept asking me, “In war, what is it you feared most?”

I didn’t have to consider my answer. Cowardice in the face of the enemy was not my greatest fear, and neither was letting my buddies down. My nightmare, I confessed to them, was shooting one of our own.

I almost did, once. An error I never even admitted to my family. How, in the fighting around Beirut in the First Lebanon War of 1982, I spotted a squad of Syrian commandos running across a distant ridge. I was manning a 50 caliber machine gun and had a clear shot and so I took it. I was still firing when a commander ordered me to stop, shouting that there were Israeli troops just under that ridge. I couldn’t see any of our men, but in my zeal to kill those who were killing us, I almost helped them.

Had I done so, the Israelis I killed would have been among the 20 percent of friendly fire casualties that are common in any war, not just in Lebanon, not just in Gaza. The cliché is true: war is fog, war is confusion. The Hollywood version of war in which soldiers shoot at other soldiers who are shooting at them almost never happens. Rather, it is soldiers who realize they are under fire but have no idea of the source of that fire and so they shoot randomly, insensately, at everything: windows, doors, rumble, and, yes, at people.

Military communications have vastly improved since 1982, yet units can still lose sight of one another or misjudge their relative positions. The danger is particularly acute in densely built urban areas, in darkness, in dust. Factor in weeks of relentless fighting against an enemy who rarely shows his face, preferring to fire a single RPG or anti-tank rocket then disappear down some tunnel, and you have the perfect setup for friendly fire incidents. Factor in a large number of troops – Israel has tens of thousands at any given moment in Gaza – the greater the chances for mistakes, especially when air power is involved.

Here, too, I bear the scars. On another morning on another ridge outside of Beirut, my column came under enemy fire. Suddenly, thankfully, a squadron of IAF Skyhawks appeared and dove down to bomb our ambushers. Only they dropped their payloads prematurely, the high explosives landing smack in the middle of our men. Some two dozen were killed. Years later, I asked an Israeli pilot how such a disaster could occur when our vehicles were clearly marked with bright orange panels.

“We can’t see those panels,” the pilot replied. “Imagine sitting on a train going 700 miles an hour and a small orange panel zips past your window. Do you see it? Do you register that it’s a panel at all? That it’s orange?”

Friendly fire, the inescapable oxymoron, that horrific contradiction in terms. And yet, despite the pilot’s explanation, no such incident is unavoidable. Had I known about our soldiers’ presence near that ridge, I never would have shot that machinegun. Had the pilots of those Skyhawks been better informed about the exact location of our column, those two dozen men would today be playing with their grandchildren. And had the soldiers who killed the three escaped hostages heeded their officer’s command to let them approach, had those soldiers been less exhausted and traumatized and briefed about the possibility of not just terrorists but of Israelis emerging from the ruins, then Yotam, Samar, and Alon would today be celebrating with their families.

Quite naturally, such tragedies lead us to focus on the victims. But what about the perpetrators? For, in truth, each case of friendly fire causes two casualties: the dead and those who are sentenced for life. Though I blessedly missed hitting any Israelis on that ridge, the thought that I could have was enough to keep me jolting awake many nights still, more than forty years later, dabbled in sweat. By contrast, the pilots who flew the Skyhawks were informed immediately on landing about the carnage they caused. Some soldiers, such as the trigger-happy reservist who gunned down Yuval Castleman, mistaking him for one of the terrorists Castleman had just killed after a November 30 attack at Jerusalem’s entrance, will likely face charges. So, too, might the soldiers who killed the three fleeing hostages if it is proven that they indeed disobeyed orders. Either way, those who released the bombs and those who pulled the triggers will have to live with that moment perpetually.

And what about Israeli society? Should the unspeakably tragic death of the three hostages, and the indescribable torment of the estimated 115 hostages who remain, overshadow the agony of the 1,200 Israelis massacred on October 7th? Should it obscure the sacrifices of the 121 IDF soldiers, among them several of those young paratroopers from my old unit, who have given their lives to safeguard us against another October 7th?

No matter how frequent, friendly fire incidents have never stood in the way of pursuing justified wartime goals. Neither the death by American anti-aircraft fire of US Army pilot John L. Dains, the first to shoot down a Japanese bomber over Pearl Harbor, nor the unintended massacre of 7,000 POWs in a British bombing raid on a German harbor just days before the end of World War II, prevented the Allies from completing the Axis’s defeat.

So, too, must Israel persist in achieving its objective of destroying Hamas. By increasing the pressure on the terrorists, Israel succeeded in negotiating the first temporary ceasefires-for-hostages deals, and further such arrangements are possible. But Hamas will never release all its captives without ending the war and regaining the ability to rebuild, rearm, and reignite a new one. Notwithstanding the exquisite pain involved, Israel must not let friendly fire consume our will and determination to defend ourselves against an enemy sworn to annihilate us.

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