“Civilitary Battlefields” in Gaza and Mosul – What Should the International Community do? Gil Avriel’s Speech at Harvard Law School

Gil Avriel, the Legal Advisor to the Israeli National Security Council (and a Harvard/Wexner Fellow graduate) delivered a speech yesterday at Harvard Law School on the subject of ISIS and the spread of “Civilitary Battlefields”. Gil came to Harvard Law after speaking in West Point Military Academy on this issue. His speech was not meant to persuade the audience but rather make us think about the international community’s role in addressing the moern urban battlefield. Here are my notes from his talk (as they are my notes, I won’t claim they perfectly reflect Gil’s thoughts but I think I captured most of what he said pretty accurately):

Gil poses 4 questions to the international community with respect to the changing nature of the battlefield: Are we using the right terminology to describe the challenge? Do we adequately capture the severity, magnate and geographic spread of the challenge? Do the Laws of Armed Conflict help safeguard civilians or do they help terrorists organizations exploit the lives of civilians and last who should care about this challenge and at what point? And when?

Gil argues that terrorists have changed the modern battlefield, yet the words we use remain mostly the same. As a result, there is a gap between what you see and what you say, and everyone – from leaders to diplomats to scholars to journalists – uses outdated terminology to describe new phenomena. Bridging this definitional gap is important because using the wrong words can create wrong perceptions, which can then lead to wrong decision making and wrong judgement at the highest levels.

In the course of a project that Gil led at the Harvard Kennedy School, he explored six terrorist groups and found that all of them have similar patterns of evolution. They have then developed a new theory that led Gil to coin a new term “the Civilitary Theory” or the “Civilitary Battlefield”. This is a combination of the words “Civil” and “Military” that aims to better capture the state of play imposed on the international community by ISIS and others groups that have deliberately and systematically placed, or kept, civilians at the heart of military conflict. The Civilitary Battlefield” Theory aims to demonstrate these evolution of terrorist groups and to bridge the gap between outdated words and this new reality. (The “Civilitary Battlefield” project was published at the Harvard National Security Journal and mentioned by the media. More information can be found on their website civilitary.org)

To begin with, terrorist groups are not alike, although technically they are all labeled under the general term “terrorist groups.”  ISIS, for example, is different in many ways from a small terrorist group on the other side of the world. Grouping them all together under one plain category of “terrorist groups” does not make sense and does not adequately capture the changing nature and evolution of groups like ISIS.

The “Civilitary Battlefield” theory classifies terrorist organizations into two groups: the traditional type of terrorist organizations and terrorist groups that are now controlling vast territory and also administering the lives of civilians in those territories (for example ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Boko Harm in northern Nigeria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza). All these latter groups should be labeled as “Territorial Terrorist Groups.”

We also need to carefully think about the terminology when we talk about the territorial dimension of terrorism. Unfortunately, the international community has not yet properly addressed this issue.  After the horrible terrorist attack in Paris the UN Security Council called member states to “eradicate the safe haven they [ISIS] have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.” Even the term “Safe Haven” is stale and problematic, because the Syrian regime does not provide shelter or a “safe haven” for ISIS but clashes with them over Syrian territory

It is important to recognize the trends in the development of these new battlefields. As Gil explained, it is expected that democratic states that clash with territorial terrorist groups would observe the laws of armed conflict more and more because their democratic nature pushes them towards public accountability (which is a very good thing). This trend happens, among other reasons, because democratic states care about public legitimacy (both by their own folks at home but also on the international level) and also because the growing (justified) sensitivity for civilian casualties. At the same time, Territorial Terrorist Groups (such as ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah) don’t have the same concerns about civilian deaths or public legitimacy. They actually exploit the same laws of war and use civilians as a tool to shelter their operations. These two trends are developing in different trajectories which complicate things for democratic states.

Gil noted that almost 50% of the 2 million people living in the Gaza Strip are below the age of 15 (that means that Gaza is LOADED with young kids) and that the civilian population there is often forced by Hamas not to leave the area when the military clashes begins.  He then presented a “Civilitary” map showing thousands of red dots that covered almost the entire Gaza. Each red dot represented a place from which Hamas had shot missiles from densely populated Gaza locations into densely populated Israel populations. He notes that in 2014 Hamas had launched around 5500 missiles from places where Palestinian young folks just want to pray, get their kids to school and try to live their own lives. The concentration of rocket launching areas, hideouts, defensive posts, underground tunnels and so forth in densely civilian areas impacts the local civilians in a huge and often dangerous way.

Gil also noted that it is not just Gaza, it’s also Mosul. The “Civilitary Battlefield” spreads fast, and like a viral disease it duplicates itself to other places around the world and therefore puts the lives of more and more civilians at great risk. It poses a growing challenge for many democratic states because the lessons learned in Gaza will replicate themselves in Mosul. As indicated by news reports from Mosul, ISIS had few years to prepare for the arrival of American troops, and soldiers will find the same underground tunnels that could help ISIS move terrorists below houses, schools, mosques, hospitals and others densely populated area in Mosul. Like in Gaza the civilian population in Mosul may be forced by ISIS not to leave the area when the military clashes begin.

The comparison between Gaza and Mosul is striking. The fact that “Civilitary Battlefield” spreads and duplicates is alarming. Gil explained that the magnitude and severity of this problem could no longer be ignored or overlooked. The main problem is the creation of the Civilitary battlefield by territorial terrorist groups. Because it moves fast, duplicates itself and places many civilians at risk, it poses a growing threat to international peace and security. It should therefore not be left at the national level; rather it must be addressed on an international level.

Gil then asked what the international community should do about this challenge. What can the international community do to help those civilians under this threat (of being coopted into a battlefield by territorial terrorist groups under assault by sovereign states) before the conflicts and crises break out? Gil isn’t proposing a solution; he’s just raising this important question in order to increase awareness of the issue. Gil then turn the discussion towards the concept of prevention. He echoed a statement by the UN Secretary General that “the international community spends much more time and resources managing crises than preventing them”. He hopes that the international community would mobilize the UN system and Member States to think how to prevent, halt and respond to the creation and the spread of Civilitary Battlefields by territorial terrorist groups. The first stage is relatively simple- the international community should increase awareness, develop a stronger sense of responsibility and learn more about the challenge. It can collect more information and assess the situation worldwide in order to evaluate the risk to civilians from different territorial terrorist groups. These steps should help the international community to shape a strategy that will address these risks.

It is clear that when the battle starts, it is often be much harder and sometimes too late to challenge this problem. Like many other truths in life, prevention is always better then cure. Therefore preventative strategy is needed to counter the spread and evolution of “Civilitary battlefields” by territorial terrorist groups across the world.

My take on Gil’s talk was that, independent of ones feelings about Israel, Palestine, the US, Hamas Iraq or any other nation state or non-nation state involved in current conflicts, he has identified and helped redefine a problem as old as conflict itself but which has been magnified by improved communication and increased destructive capabilities of everyone involved. Finding a way to move conflict not just out of densely populated areas (which would be both tactically and strategically disastrous for most territorial terrorist groups and is thus going to be tough to achieve) but away from violence completely is a crucial task for all of us. Using the right terms for what is going on is an important step in mitigating the dangerous posed by the evolving urban Civilitarian battlefield.

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