Issue 56 - Article 7

Humanitarian civil-military coordination in the occupied Palestinian territory

January 10, 2013
Ruben Stewart and Ana Zaidenwerg
Coordinating with IDF officers near Gaza

This article discusses how experience from the 2008 Israeli military operation in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, resulted in important changes to humanitarian civil–-military coordination strategies in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). The civil–-military component of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is called COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories), a small specialist unit with responsibility for the daily coordination of humanitarian and development activities with the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian population and international organisations in the oPt. COGAT has its own courses and career progression and, unlike many other militaries, which use reserve officers, is staffed by active duty officers and soldiers.

Lessons learned from recent IDF operations in Lebanon and Gaza suggest that, while COGAT was able to handle day-to-day coordination, it did not have sufficient capacity to manage civil-–military coordination during large-scale military operations. The IDF has, consequently, established dedicated coordination mechanisms, staffed by military personnel trained and deployed specifically to coordinate with humanitarian organisations. For their part, the UN and its NGO partners were also ad hoc in their engagement with the IDF – primarily sharing information on locations of UN facilities.

Operation Cast Lead

Operation Cast Lead began on 27 December 2008, when Israel launched a 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip. The operating environment for humanitarian actors was complex. The closure of the borders with both Egypt and Israel resulted in the internal displacement of between 150,000 and 200,000 people at the height of the operation. OCHA – oPt, Fragmented Lives: Humanitarian Overview 2011, May 2012.  The Gaza Strip was effectively divided between the conflict  parties; humanitarian convoys and ambulance movements originating in the southern part of the Gaza Strip (where the majority of relief items could enter) thus had to pass through at least two areas under Israeli control, three areas under Hamas control and contested areas in between. High population density (1.5 million people in an area of only 365km2) and security-related restrictions meant that the civilian population of Gaza and humanitarian actors shared a very small geographic space with belligerents, and as such were forced to coordinate closely with the military in order to function effectively on the ground.

Once Operation Cast Lead began, it quickly became apparent that more regular and formal coordination between the IDF and the humanitarian community was necessary. As a result, the UN deployed additional staff to Gaza and Jerusalem to manage engagement with the IDF. The IDF moved COGAT staff from the West Bank and other locations to work within military units inside Gaza to coordinate humanitarian assistance. Ten days into the operation, the IDF established, under emergency orders, a Joint Humanitarian Coordination Centre (JHCC) which answered directly to IDF Headquarters. The UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs were partners in the centre, which aimed ‘to assist the organizations in carrying out and improving their work vis-a-vis the civilian population in Gaza. OCHA – oPt, Situation Report on the Humanitarian Situation in the Gaza Strip – No. 10, 2009.  The decision to establish the centre was made partly in response to pressure from the humanitarian community, but also because of the IDF’s interest in minimising civilian casualties and property damage (in accordance with IDF doctrine) and improving its public image. It was ‘also due to the realization that, if a battalion does not have someone taking care of these matters, it will delay us [IDF] from carrying out our missions and hamper the army on a strategic level. Anshel Pfeffer, ‘IDF Warns Next Cast Lead “Urban Warfare”’, Jewish Chronicle online, 29 December 2011.

Coordination between the IDF and humanitarian organisations on the ground was the responsibility of 25 COGAT officers, who reported directly to the Brigadier General commanding the JHCC. These officers, mostly reservist colonels and majors from COGAT attached to the operational forces and headquarters inside Gaza, had responsibility for facilitating the humanitarian response. Being Arabic speakers they could communicate with Gaza residents and with the Palestinian employees of humanitarian organisations. COGAT officers also occasionally intervened during the fighting to resolve humanitarian access issues. In one example, a UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) convoy en route to southern Gaza to pick up humanitarian supplies was blocked by a tank. The JHCC contacted the COGAT officer closest to the commander responsible, who immediately ensured that the tank was moved and the convoy cleared to continue. Following a request from the UN and the diplomatic community, the IDF also initiated a daily three-hour ceasefire allowing the movement of relief convoys, the delivery of relief items to civilians surrounded by military forces and the recovery of bodies. This enabled the entry of over 1,500 truckloads of humanitarian supplies from Israel to Gaza and the movement of 500 trucks carrying humanitarian aid and 131 ambulances within Gaza. Despite these efforts problems still occurred. For example, on 8 January 2009 a UN convoy was shot at in an incident that Israeli officials acknowledged was probably due to a communications error. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Operation in Gaza: Factual and Legal Aspects, 2009.

Subsequent developments

Hostilities ceased on 18 January 2009, when Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza. Three days later the JHCC was closed, with all future coordination between the IDF and international organisations to be handled through existing COGAT channels. However, as a result of the experience during Operation Cast Lead, the IDF, the UN and international NGOs all recognised that there was a need for enhanced humanitarian–military coordination during large-scale military operations. The IDF has since made a series of significant changes to its approach, and has made humanitarian affairs an integral part of its operations. It has assigned a Humanitarian Affairs Officer (IDF HAO) to every battalion, brigade and division as the deputy Operations Officer. The HAO’s role is to promote the protection of civilians as an integral part of a commander’s mission and increase the attention paid to civilian matters in operational planning. New combat guidelines have been developed outlining that the HAO is now responsible for advising the commanding officer and educating soldiers on the protection of civilians, property and infrastructure; the planning of humanitarian assistance; the coordination of humanitarian movements; and the documentation of humanitarian safeguards employed by the IDF. The State of Israel, Gaza Operation Investigations: Second Update, 19 July 2010.  HAOs are experienced officers with extensive command experience, Harriet Sherwood, ‘Israeli Army To Get Humanitarian Affairs Officers in Wake of Gaza War’, The Guardian, 21 July 2010.  and they are put through intensive training and tests of their knowledge and skills in supporting humanitarian response. Pfeffer, ‘IDF Warns Next Cast Lead “Urban Warfare”’.

The UN and its partners also changed strategies of engagement with the IDF after the Cast Lead experience. The UN has developed a more comprehensive humanitarian Inter-Agency Contingency Plan, which includes an expanded humanitarian–military coordination mechanism, developed and tested in coordination with the IDF. The Access Coordination Unit (ACU) was established in 2008 to support the UN Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator in developing and implementing an access strategy aimed at facilitating the movement of humanitarian staff and goods. Following Cast Lead, the ACU, staffed by experienced personnel with Arabic and Hebrew language skills, leads humanitarian civil–-military coordination in the oPt on behalf of the UN and its partners. It coordinates daily with the IDF and other key interlocutors to facilitate humanitarian access, and is a key feature of the Inter-Agency Contingency Plan for future large-scale emergencies. The ACU participates in all IDF HAO training at the COGAT School, delivering presentations on the role and functions of UN agencies and other humanitarian actors in the oPt and the modalities of and principles underpinning humanitarian action. The constructive relationship the ACU has built with the IDF not only facilitates current operations but also builds a solid foundation for the more intense civil–-military coordination that will be needed during any future large-scale IDF military operations in the oPt.

The ACU’s involvement in COGAT training is the cornerstone of its strategy. The objective of the dialogue with the IDF (as a belligerent) is to remind, encourage and help it to fulfil its obligations to protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian operations. Allowing ACU’s liaison officers and the IDF’s HAOs to engage, exchange ideas and understand their respective roles is essential to ensuring more constructive engagement between the IDF and humanitarian actors, to support more effective humanitarian operations and enhanced protection of civilians. Options for expanding joint training and interaction between the ACU and the IDF HAOs are currently being discussed, including the execution of joint drills for the evacuation of humanitarian personnel and access for humanitarian assistance during any escalation in conflict.


Operation Cast Lead shows that civil–-military coordination in the oPt is best achieved by establishing clear channels of communication between the humanitarian community and COGAT at operational and headquarters levels. Ongoing dialogue has also resulted in agreed procedures and planning for augmented coordination between humanitarian actors and the IDF in the event of a large-scale emergency. The ACU has also established liaison with other Israeli security actors, such as the police and the Home Front Command, which is responsible for civil defence in Israel. By creating the HAO function and embedding it at the operational level, the IDF has increased the number of officers tasked with dealing with affected populations and improved channels of communication in its own chain of command, as well as with humanitarian actors. The UN system has also incorporated lessons learnt during Cast Lead in its planning processes by developing a more comprehensive humanitarian Inter-Agency Contingency Plan and tasking the ACU with the civil–-military coordination function. The central coordinating role of the ACU during emergencies at the operational level simplifies the UN system by channelling all humanitarian access requests through a specialised unit familiar with the HAO function and IDF operations in general.

This is a positive example of a military that has recognised the need to deploy extra capacities beyond standard civil–-military coordination staff and mechanisms to engage with humanitarian operations. It is also an example of how humanitarian actors can organise themselves to engage with the military in an effective and coordinated manner. The ACU has developed highly effective coordination mechanisms, while consistent engagement between ACU staff, the IDF and COGAT officers on everything from training to operations helps to maintain trust and understanding, even when staff change. This model, consisting of a dedicated team of experienced staff tasked exclusively with engaging with the Israeli military and security institutions, should be considered in complex emergencies when coordinating humanitarian access with a national military that is party to the conflict.

Ruben Stewart and Ana Zaidenwerg are with the Access Coordination Unit, Office of the Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator, Jerusalem.


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