Ties that Bind: Canadian military seeking lessons from Israeli occupying army
by Yavar Hameed and Jeffrey Monaghan, from The Dominion, August 25, 2010. (Link via D.B.)
OTTAWA—Canadian military officials have undertaken a comprehensive effort with their Israeli counterparts to “pursue deeper relationships,” to borrow from Israel’s weapons, war training, and counter-insurgency strategies, and to strengthen diplomatic ties, according to documents obtained through access to information (ATI) requests.
The documents from the Department of National Defence (DND) detail an October 2009 visit to Israel by General Walter Natynczyk, chief of the Canadian Forces (CF).
“Your trip to Israel…will also offer you insight into broader regional issues, the multitude of threats facing Israel, the lessons learned from IDF [Israeli Defence Force] operations, and Israeli strategic thinking and military equipment,” states one briefing note.
Although Israel has found itself increasingly isolated diplomatically in recent years, support from successive Canadian governments has grown.
“It is harder to find a country friendlier to Israel than Canada these days,” ultra right-wing Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on a trip to Canada last year. “No other country in the world has demonstrated such a full understanding of us.”
Canadian government and military officials appear ready to disregard what critics like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu refer to as Israel’s apartheid practices in order to maintain, as the documents put it, a “robust and rich” bilateral relationship.
The DND refused repeated requests for an interview.
The series of formal high-level meetings between figures in the Canadian military and the IDF have gone under the name of “Strategic Dialogue,” according to the disclosed documents. The first of these meetings, described in the documents as being “very successful” took place in Tel Aviv in February 2008.
“Overall, the trip solidified existing friendships, uncovered further opportunities for military-military cooperation, and, perhaps most importantly, revealed that DND/CF is well situated to pursue deeper relationships,” states a memo written after the meetings. Since February, 2008, there have been a number of formal “staff talks” between the upper echelons of Canada and Israel’s defence establishments.
Comprised mostly of briefing notes and backgrounders, the documents explain contentious issues, outline strict talking points, and, under heavy redaction, disclose “future considerations” for improving Canadian bilateral relations with Israel and the IDF. Several briefing notes deal exclusively with particular issues of cooperation, such as Science and Technology Cooperation, Military Medical Cooperation, and Defence Material Relations.
Documents prepared for Natynczyk’s trip in October, 2009, note that one of the “key objectives” was to “examine IDF equipment, tactics, doctrine, procedures, that might have operational benefits for the Canadian Forces.” To that end, Natynczyk met with a host of IDF senior generals, as well as Defence Minister Ehud Barak. The meetings focussed on gaining access to Israeli areas of “expertise,” including gaining insights into Israeli military strategies and tactics.
While meeting Brigadier General Harel Knafo, Natynczyk received a briefing on “the lessons learned from [2008’s] Gaza War.” Knafo commanded Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s aerial bombardment and ground invasion during the Gaza War that killed more than 1380 Palestinians, 400 of them children, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
The visit came on the heels of the Goldstone Report, a UN investigation into the Gaza War by former South African Supreme Court judge Richard Goldstone.
In his report, Goldstone criticized both Hamas and Israel for crimes of war during the conflict, but the report singled out Israel for the most serious condemnation. Goldstone documented the IDF’s use of Palestinians as human shields – itself a war crime – and warned that the Israeli blockade of Gaza amounted to “collective punishment intentionally inflicted by the government of Israel on the people of the Gaza Strip.”
Israel’s war, according to Goldstone, was designed to “punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population.”
Natynczyk also discussed counter-insurgency operations with top Israeli General Gabi Ashkenazi.
“[Ashkenazi] suggested further military-military cooperation with Canada, including regarding doctrines and tactics that enable forces to switch conduct both asymmetric and conventional operations and switch between the two,” recounts a summary note of the meeting.
The switch between “asymmetric” and “conventional” operations is a reference to Israel’s special brand of counter-insurgency: the unconventional, often urban warfare Israel engages in against Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Presiding over one of the longest military occupations in modern times, Israel is an acknowledged leader in innovating new tactics of urban warfare. As Israeli scholar and architect Eyal Weizman has documented, the Israeli military reshape the battleground to meet their objectives in the densely populated and often impenetrable cities and refugee camps of the West Bank: rather than fight in the streets, for instance, they blast holes through the walls and ceilings of houses, moving in this manner often through entire streets.
Battles in half-demolished living rooms, bedrooms and corridors of refugee camp homes have blurred the lines between civilian and military – or private and public – space.
This is the military laboratory in which the “doctrines and tactics” mentioned by Ashkenazi are studied and, as the memo indicates, exported to other urban environments.
Canadian military officials have clearly stated their strategy in Afghanistan has focused on developing stronger counterinsurgency tactics. Canada has said it will withdraw its military presence in the country in 2011, but Canadian Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie has said Canada’s military future is based on counterinsurgency measures.
“It’s not going to be peacemaking anymore, it’s going to be counter-insurgency because the odds of us doing peacemaking between two functional states are probably pretty low, ergo COIN (counter-insurgency),” he told the Toronto Star in 2009.
While clearly interested in borrowing from IDF technologies, briefing notes also indicate Canadian officials are eager to win recognition of their war-making capacities from both Israeli and U.S. authorities.
“In Israel, the IDF’s warm welcome and insistence [redacted] is open to Canada reflects both the deepening relations between our two militaries and the credibility and respect won by CF operations in Afghanistan,” says a briefing memo to Natynczyk.
In various notes, Natynczyk is reminded to highlight Canada’s military efforts in Afghanistan and stress Canada’s contributions to various U.S. and Israeli diplomatic initiatives.
In addition to advancing military cooperation through the Strategic Dialogue, documents reveal that Natynczyk’s trip is part diplomatic mission. An array of diplomatic initiatives are tied to the Strategic Dialogue, and Canada’s increased role in supporting a militarized international agenda premised on an aggressive and militarized Israel in the Middle East.
The Canadian military’s most significant operation in Israel is in support of US-led operations under the command of US Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton. Dayton, in close coordination with Israel, leads the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) program, initiated in 2005. It was created, according to then-US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in order to oversee the training of a new integrated Palestinian police force and to referee problems between rival political parties Hamas and Fatah. Under Dayton’s leadership, the program is closely coordinated with the Israelis. Canadian members make up the bulk of Dayton’s training team – with 18 Canadian officers alongside 10 American.
The USSC program has come under scrutiny, though. A 2008 exposé by Vanity Fair revealed that these security forces attempted to overthrow Hamas and prop up Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party following Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections.
US forces face restrictions around their movement in the West Bank, though, that Candian forces do not. Due in large part to Canada’s reputation as a “trusted, impartial third-party,” the notes claim that CF personnel enter the West Bank daily allowing them to offer a useful window of intelligence on the West Bank to the American army. As briefing notes indicate, Dayton is “an enthusiastic advocate of Canada’s support to his mission” with the US government.
Canada plays a similar conduit like role in respect to facilitating communication between NATO and Israel. In this regard, the Canadian Embassy in Tel Aviv is serving as Israel’s NATO Contact Point Embassy until 31 December 2010.
Beyond the role as a NATO contact, the documents reveal a small glimpse into Canada’s behind-the-scenes role in lobbying for Israel’s inclusion into NATO.
Canada serves as “the liaison between Israel and NATO, assists with visits of NATO officials...to Israel.” Canada is also the first country to speak at NATO meetings that involve Israel, details one briefing note.
The documents show Canada has been working with Israel towards its goal of a stronger partnership with NATO. This includes helping Israel in its “pursuit of a Status of Forces Agreement, getting access to the NATO Maintenance Supply Agency, [redacted].”
The fundamental principle of the Cold War NATO alliance is that an attack against one party is equivalent to an attack against all parties of the alliance. Hence bringing Israel into NATO could mean that Canada would automatically declare war on an aggressor that attacked Israel, whatever the definition of aggression.
These sentiments were recently made public when junior Foreign Affairs minister Peter Kent mused to the magazine Shalom Life that “an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on Canada.” Kent later apologized for the public comment but noted that Israel understood its substance.
The documents are only a small glimpse into the dialogue between the two nations’ militaries. A talking point laid out in a note to Natynczyk during his October 2009 visit confirm a strong commitment to increasing and future collaboration.
“I am pleased with the increased cooperation between Canadian Forces and the IDF and I am looking forward to future coordination and partnership between our armed forces.”
SIDEBAR: Recent Developments in Canada-Israel Relations
• Although Canada’s diplomatic support for an Israeli state predates Israel’s inception, policy toward the country became more friendly under Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, and veered further right under Stephen Harper.
• Among the long list of examples of Canada’s ardent pro-Israel turn was Harper’s response to the massive bombardment of Lebanon in 2006 following the Hezbollah abduction of two Israeli soldiers. While the international community decried Israel’s aberrant bombardment, Harper described it as a “measured response.”
• The conflict killed at least 1,500 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, and severely damaged Lebanese infrastructure. Among the accounts of widespread collateral damage was the death of Canadian soldier Major Paeta Hess-von Kruedener.
• Kruedener was among four UN Military Observers killed when the Israeli Air Force attacked a UN observation post in southern Lebanon. Briefing notes written for Natynczyk shed light on Canadian diplomatic actions in the aftermath of Kruedener’s death.
• The notes state Israel took responsibility for their deaths, but that the killings were unintentional. Unbeknownst to many, however, the notes mention that Harper subsequently wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Olmert accepting Israel’s account. While Harper presents himself as a defender of military personnel, it appears – in the face of widespread criticism of Israel following the attack on the UN position – that Canada was more inclined to defend the reputation of its ally than demand answers to uncomfortable questions on behalf of its soldiers.
• Revealing Israel’s sensitivity to the issue, Natynczyk is warned in the briefings: “Israel has made clear that it has answered all the questions it intends to with respect to the deaths of the four.”
Yavar Hameed is a human rights lawyer and sessional lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa. Jeff Monaghan works with Books to Prisoners in Ottawa.