TEL AVIV — The Israel Defense Forces took disciplinary action Wednesday against commanders of two noncombatant soldiers whose use of a crowdsourced mapping app delivered them into a high-threat refugee camp near Jerusalem where they quickly became targets for angry rock- and firebomb-throwing Palestinian residents.
Fearing the wayward soldiers would be captured or killed, the IDF deployed special forces, major elements of a territorial brigade, Air Force and Border Police throughout the Kalandiya camp near Ramallah.
The ensuing Feb. 29 nighttime firefight left one Palestinian dead and more than a dozen wounded from both sides, yet succeeded in locating one soldier while the other safely made it to an adjacent Israeli settlement.
Both soldiers, who are staff members of the IDF’s K-9 force, used Waze, a locally developed smartphone navigational tool used in dozens of countries, which took them on the shortest route from point A to point B straight into the Kalandiya camp, where their vehicle came under attack, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman said.
According to Lerner, the IDF was concerned about a recurrence of a particularly traumatic event in October 2000 when two IDF reservists who mistakenly entered Ramallah were brutally tortured before their mutilated bodies were dragged through the city square.
“The lynch in 2000 was the scenario we were concerned about,” Lerner said of the large number of forces deployed for the rapid response, high-intensity rescue mission.
On Wednesday, the IDF announced that the immediate supervisor of the two soldiers was sentenced to seven days in prison. Their deputy company commander was given a suspended sentence while those higher up the chain – the company commander and the head of the K-9 unit – got off with a reprimand in their personal files.
“The soldiers erred...,” Lerner said. “But in this case, all the disciplinary measures were taken against the commanders, since it was the responsibility of the commanders to send these two noncombatants on this administrative task.”
Speaking Tuesday at a Tel Aviv conference, prior to conclusion of the after-action investigation, Israel Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the investigation would focus on “who sent [the soldiers] on the mission, what they knew and what they didn’t know and how to act in this modern era.”
He praised the rapid response of IDF rescue forces. “The minute it became clear there was an event, the reaction of our forces was certainly quick, proper and in the end led to the rescue of the two soldiers.”
According to Ya’alon, technology – or, rather undue reliance on technology – may have led to the unfortunate event, but it also allowed the IDF to locate one of the soldiers through his cell phone signal.
“A long time ago, I learned that even when GPS entered the arena, it is forbidden to forget how to navigate by way of maps. You especially need to know the environment and not be misled by routes served up by technological systems,” said Ya’alon.
In a March 1 assessment posted to his Technology and Security blog, Stephen Bryen, a former head of the US Defense and Technology Security Agency, warned against reliance on Waze by people and organizations that can be targeted for manipulation by criminal or terrorist elements.
“Waze is just one example of a social media app that brings with it considerable risks. The fact that two Israeli soldiers got into trouble shows just how serious the risks can be,” wrote Bryen.
Bryen noted that the Israeli designed app – purchased by Google for $1.1 billion in 2013 – contains safeguards that can warn about “no-go” areas if programs are properly activated by users. Nevertheless, he insisted Waze is not spoof-proof.
“It is possible, for example, for a hostile organization to set up a fake accident or other event and steer users from a popular route onto a route that could, potentially lead them into a trap,” he wrote.
In Israel, such traps could prove fatal, he maintains. “Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention the Syrian Electronic Army and its equivalent in Iran… can spoof an app like Waze and use it to lead both military, police and private citizens into ambushes,” he warns.
A spokesperson from Waze did not return calls by the time this article was published.
Retired Maj. Gen. Gershon Ha’cohen, a former commander of the IDF’s National Defense University and Command and Staff College, said this week’s incident in Kalandia illustrates the dangerous double-edged technological sword that threatens the IDF and all other highly integrated, networked military organizations.
“I’m not satisfied with the fact that forces today lack the natural instincts to navigate in the field,” said Ha’cohen. “This event could have ended very badly, with strategic consequences if they had managed to abduct a soldier who could then have been traded down the road for many hundreds of our own.”
In a March 2 interview, Ha’cohen said he remains concerned that the IDF’s “near-total” dependence on its digitized command and control network, which is vulnerable to cyber attack and is coming at the expense of traditional warfighting skills.
“A lot of mistakes happen due to disorientation. They happened in the days before the digital net and they’re happening today with all the high-tech systems…. The key is to learn from history and not to give up on basics, which includes basic navigation and the instinct to fight with your body and your hands. You cannot trust only your weapon.”