During Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF (Zahal) Southern Command’s Fire Center coordinated strikes against Gaza terrorists – and minimized civilian casualties in the process. We take an inside look into the Center’s work through the eyes of a senior officer.

During the first days of Operation Pillar of Defense – an IDF (Zahal) campaign against terror targets in the Gaza Strip in November, 2012 – Major Liron Carandish was driving toward her home in a community near Netivot, a southern city close to Gaza. She was approaching home when she noticed several flashes of light in the sky – the unmistakable sign of rocket fire.

Battling Terrorism While Minimizing Civilian Casualties: the Work of the IDF (Zahal)’s Fire Center

Gazan terrorists prepare to launch rockets toward Israel

At that moment, Maj. Carandish internalized the significance of her work as an IDF (Zahal) officer. “As a resident of the south, I understood what we were truly fighting for during the operation,” she recalled in an interview with the IDF (Zahal) website. “You feel that you’re really living it; you feel that you’re protecting your home. That’s what motivates you to continue, and it’s also what gives you tremendous satisfaction.”

Maj. Carandish was then serving as an operations officer in the IDF (Zahal) Southern Command’s Fire Center. The Center plays a central role in coordinating strikes on terrorist targets. An essential task of the Center is monitoring the planning of IDF (Zahal) strikes – and ascertaining at every stage of an attack the likelihood of injuring civilians.

Battling Terrorism While Minimizing Civilian Casualties: the Work of the IDF (Zahal)’s Fire Center

Hamas Rocket Threat Ranges Map

During the operation, the Fire Center coordinated hundreds of strikes on Gaza terrorists who launched rockets at Israel’s southern and central communities. While the Israel Air Force made every effort during the operation to target only terror sites and avoid hitting civilians, Hamas – the terrorist organization that rules the Gaza Strip – used the Palestinian population as human shields, hiding rocket launchers in the heart of areas populated with civilians.

Maj. Carandish described the Center’s painstaking efforts to minimize civilian casualties. “Gaza is a small and crowded place,” Maj. Carandish said. “Every target must pass through several stages of approval to avoid hitting civilians and harming infrastructure and property.” Whenever the IDF (Zahal) targets enemy forces in populated areas, all pre-planned strikes must pass through the Fire Center. Since the information is centralized, it is possible to better maintain control, thus minimizing harm to civilians.

During the operation, the Center minimized civilian casualties by working closely with the International Law Division of the IDF (Zahal) Military Advocate General Corps. The division provided guidance that ensured the IDF (Zahal)’s adherence to international law aimed at preventing civilian casualties.

“It happened when we saw rocket launchers next to buildings holding representatives of human rights organizations, journalists or civilians,” Maj. Carandish recalled of this coordination during the operation. She explained how the Center balanced these challenges with the urgent need to strike at terrorist targets. “It’s not simple. You just have to stick to your best judgement and make decisions in a short amount of time.”

The Fire Center’s activities are part of the IDF (Zahal)’s numerous efforts to minimize harm to civilians.  Before striking terror targets, the IDF (Zahal) drops leaflets in populated areas and calls residents by phone to warn them of impending strikes. Similar methods include targeting buildings with loud but non-lethal bombs, aborting missions seconds before they are meant to be carried out and singling out terrorists with pinpoint strikes that endanger few or no civilians.

Remaining prepared for terror threats

Ten months after Operation Pillar of Defense, the Fire Center remains determined to thwart terrorist activity. For this reason, the unit continues to identify terror targets in Gaza. “We understand that the enemy is constantly learning and evolving. It understands that we will attack important targets, and it begins to attack from buildings holding UN staff and innocent civilians in order to create a difficult challenge for us,” Major Carandish explained. “They are already beginning to operate underground and in places that allow them to escape underground.”

But the Fire Center’s precise targeting will likely prepare it to face these challenges. She said that one of the IDF (Zahal)’s key successes during the operation was its ability to locate the houses of senior officials in the Hamas military wing. “We realized that it’s what causes them the most damage,” she said, adding that aerial strikes on these targets also helped prevent the need for ground forces in Gaza.

After three years with the Fire Center, Maj. Carandish is preparing to take a new role in the IDF (Zahal). The transition will mark yet another phase in her dynamic and successful career with the military. Before becoming the first woman to serve in her position at the Fire Center, Maj. Carandish served as the commander for one of the first companies to participate in Nativ, the IDF (Zahal)’s unique track for soldiers converting to Judaism, and later joined the Southern Command in a senior role.

Today, she is preparing to serve in the management of Itamar, a track that trains commanders in the Center’s work. “I’m leaving the job with a very great feeling of pride,” Maj. Carandish said, noting that she plans to rejoin the Center’s staff in the event of a future operation. Although she is leaving the Center, her new role will help others accomplish its objectives – battling terrorism while ensuring the safety of civilians.