WASHINGTON — Facing a bloody insurgency by guerrillas who label it an “occupier,” the U.S. military has quietly turned to an ally experienced with occupation and uprisings: Israel.
In the last six months, U.S. Army commanders, Pentagon officials and military trainers have sought advice from Israeli intelligence and security officials on everything from how to set up roadblocks to the best way to bomb suspected guerrilla hide-outs in an urban area.
“Those who have to deal with like problems tend to share information as best they can,” Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, said Friday at a defense writers breakfast here.
The contacts between the two governments on military tactics and strategies in Iraq are mostly classified, and officials are reluctant to give the impression that the U.S. is brainstorming with Israel on the best way to occupy Iraq. Cambone said there is no formal dialogue between the two allies on Iraq, but they are working together.
Indeed, the U.S. is loath to draw any comparison between what it says is its liberation of Iraq and what the international community has condemned as Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But Israeli and American officials confirm that with extremists carrying out suicide bombings and firing rocket-propelled grenades and missiles on U.S. forces in Iraq, the Pentagon is increasingly seeking advice from the Israeli military on how to defeat the sort of insurgency that Israel has long experience confronting.
The Israelis “certainly have a wealth of experience from a military standpoint in dealing with domestic terror, urban terror, military operations in urban terrain, and there is a great deal of intelligence and knowledge sharing going on right now, all of which makes sense,” a senior U.S. Army official said on condition of anonymity. “We are certainly tapping into their knowledge base to find out what you do in these kinds of situations.”
Many of the tactics recently adopted by the U.S. in Iraq — increased use of airpower, aerial surveillance by unmanned aircraft of suspected sites, increased use of pinpoint search and seizure operations, the leveling of buildings used by suspected insurgents — bear striking similarities to those regularly employed by Israel.
Two Israeli officials — one from the Jerusalem police force and a second from the Israel Defense Forces — confirmed on condition of anonymity that U.S. officials had visited Israel to gain insight into police and military tactics. They also said Israeli officials have visited Washington to discuss the issues.
U.S. officials were particularly interested in the “balancing act” that Israeli officials say they have tried to pursue between fighting armed groups and trying to spare civilians during decades of patrolling the occupied territories.
“There are routine channels that have been there for years, and those channels have been energized,” an Israeli official said of the communications. “The American military has been very interested in our lessons … in how do you do surgical strikes in an urban zone, how do you hit the bad guy with minimum collateral damage.”
Some U.S. officials acknowledge that they blanch at the idea of the Pentagon adopting tactics from Israel, a nation regularly criticized for security tactics it employs to battle armed groups it has never managed to quell. And even Israeli officials acknowledge that they are somewhat reluctant to give advice.
“After all,” one Israeli official said, “we’ve made plenty of mistakes ourselves.”
Indeed, criticism of the Israeli army’s tactics against Palestinians has been mounting within Israel. The current chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, along with a group of retired heads of the Shin Bet internal security service and even some active-duty soldiers say the methods have been unduly harsh and threaten to destroy Israeli and Palestinian society if no solution is found to the conflict.
But such concerns have not slowed the flow of information between Washington and Jerusalem.
When Iraqi insurgents began firing from vehicles on U.S. troops at checkpoints, U.S. officials were prompted to reinforce their ties to the Israeli military and glean tips on how to prevent such attacks, Israeli officials said.
Now, in frequent meetings with their American counterparts, Israeli army officials share ideas on how to protect soldiers from attacks and booby traps, Israeli officials said.
U.S. military officials also have reviewed a common Israeli tactic of conducting house-by-house searches for armed fighters by knocking down interior walls with a portable battering ram. The tactic eliminates the need to pass through doors and windows — one of the most dangerous aspects of urban combat, because of possible booby traps.
In the last week, U.S. soldiers began leveling houses and buildings used by suspected guerrillas, a tactic long employed by the Israeli military in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where they use bulldozers to knock down the homes of militants or their families.
“The Americans learned a lot from the Israelis’ use of them [bulldozers] in urban combat,” a former Israeli official said. “Israelis learned that if you have fighting in an urban area, you just take down the house.”
This spring, U.S. soldiers, anticipating that they could be fighting on the streets of Iraqi cities, traveled to Israel to train in a mock Arab town that the Israeli army uses to simulate the urban battlefields of the West Bank and Gaza, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
That training was an extension of the growing use of Israeli military ranges by the U.S. over the last decade. During that time, said Lenny Ben-David, a former Israeli deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Washington, Israeli military ranges have been increasingly used by American helicopter pilots for training, because they could not fly at night in places like Germany.
“There are bases in Israel that for the last couple of years would be turned over to a foreign army for a few days, a week or so. The Israelis would be hosts. The U.S. is one of them,” said Ben-David, now a private security consultant. “They could use equipment, they could use facilities, use the ranges. You’d get a mix of pilots and they would sit and talk tactics.”
After years of working closely together at all levels, the Israeli and U.S. militaries in some respects think increasingly alike, said Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a nonprofit group in Washington interested in links between U.S. and Israeli defense tactics and policy.
“Part of what’s going on here is the culmination of years of picking each other’s brains,” Bryen said. “There is no sudden alliance, but what you end up with over the long term is a lot of guys from both countries who think and look at things the same way. After 9/11 they discovered they had more things to talk about.”
For generations the Israeli military has enjoyed close relations with the Pentagon, which prides itself on its ability to learn from, not just preach to, the armed forces of its allies. At any time, dozens of Israeli officers are studying at Pentagon-run war colleges and training centers.
American special forces regularly train with their Israeli counterparts, both in the U.S. and in Israel. After the Israelis used unmanned drones in battlefield situations in Lebanon in 1982, the Pentagon studied the tactic. Some of the sensor technology that the United States military uses to protect the perimeters of its bases was pioneered by Israel.
Much of the information shared with the U.S. involves the defensive tactics and training that Israel has constantly updated for its troops and police in the occupied territories, where they are familiar not only with the most current tactics and code of ethics but the international laws that apply as well, the two Israeli officials said.
This month, for example, Lt. Col. Amos Guiora, the commandant of the Israeli army’s School of Military Law, was in Washington to demonstrate some new software developed by the Israelis to train commanders how to conduct themselves in the occupied territories. During his visit, he showed the software to a group of American officials, he said.
“I’ll say only this,” he said. “They saw it, and they were impressed.”
Israel’s defense minister typically visits the Pentagon three to four times a year. The current defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, met Nov. 10 with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Officials privy to the meeting said the subject of Iraq came up, but declined to elaborate.
The two nations also compare notes on battle operations and equipment, particularly if something goes wrong.
“After some incidents, if there is a failure in the system — an F-16 goes down — there is discussion, cooperation among the armies that use these and the United States,” Ben-David said.
“It used to be that generals and admirals would come by in almost state-like visits,” said Ben-David, who in his consulting works with Israeli and U.S. officials. “But the relationship is such that you now get line-type soldiers coming here to meet with their counterparts.”
Times staff writer Laura King in Jerusalem contributed to this report.