The U.S. has just started to use a unique Israeli battlefield tactic in its fight against ISIS: exploding a missile above a building to warn civilians inside that the building is about to be bombed.

Israeli forces have heavily used the so-called knock-on-the-roof operations in Gaza attacks in recent years to attempt to evacuate civilians before they are hit.

The first public revelation of the U.S. using a “knock operation” came on April 26 at a press briefing by Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter E. Gersten, deputy commander for operations and intelligence for the anti-ISIS Operation Inherent Resolve.

Gersten described a strike against an ISIS financial storage center on April 5 in southern Mosul, Iraq. The U.S. had been closely watching the house of an ISIS finance operative, or as Gersten called it, a “finance emir.”

“He was the major distributor of funds to Daesh fighters,” Gersten said, using another name for ISIS. “We watched him come and go from his house, we watched his supplies, we watched the security that was involved in it. And we also watched occasionally a female and her children in and out of the quarters.”

Gersten said that the U.S., using reconnaissance aircraft and other intelligence assets to keep watch, then created a plan to evacuate women, children, and other civilians from the building.

“We went as far as actually to put a Hellfire on top of the building and air-burst it so it wouldn’t destroy the building, simply knock on the roof to ensure that she and the children were out of the building,” he recounted. “And then we proceeded with our operations.”

Gersten acknowledged that the Israelis influenced this tactic, saying, “That’s exactly where we took the tactics and technique and procedure from.”

Gersten did not indicate that the Israeli military had formally briefed U.S. commanders on how to orchestrate a knock operation.
However, Gersten noted, “We’ve certainly watched and observed their procedure. As we formulated the way to get the civilians out of the house, this was brought forward from one of our experts.”

Gersten also said that leaflets were dropped to warn of an upcoming attack. In some Israeli missions, phone calls have been made to houses about to be hit as well.

However, Israel has come under fire from human rights groups for use of this tactic.

“There is no way that firing a missile at a civilian home can constitute an effective ‘warning,'” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International, about the Israeli practice in 2014. “Amnesty International has documented cases of civilians killed or injured by such missiles in previous Israeli military operations on the Gaza Strip.”

Human rights groups in Gaza agreed.

“There is no way that firing a missile at a civilian home can constitute an effective ‘warning,'” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International, about the Israeli practice in 2014. “Amnesty International has documented cases of civilians killed or injured by such missiles in previous Israeli military operations on the Gaza Strip.”

“Imagine you are in Gaza and there are airstrikes everywhere, and many families are in the bottom floor of their home,” Abu Rahma added. “Families miss the sound of the ‘warning’ missile because it sounds like just another explosion.”

The U.N. weighed in on this Israeli tactic as well, finding in a 2015 report that, “In a number of incidents examined, the concerned persons either did not understand that their house had been the subject of a ‘roof-knock,’ or the time given for evacuation between the warning and the actual strike was insufficient,” alluding to an incident in which several children died after being given just a few minutes to evacuate at a time when most were sleeping.

“‘Roof knocks’ cannot be considered an effective warning given the confusion they often cause to building residents and the short time allowed to evacuate before the actual strike,” the U.N. said.

It is unclear as to how much time the U.S. provided between the knock operation on April 5 and the actual attack. However, the U.S. initially believed that the approach had worked to save the woman whom the U.S. had observed inside the building.

According to Gersten, despite the fact that “the men that were in that building — multiple men — literally trampled over her to get out of that building,” the woman was able to get out.

Gersten continued, “We watched her and observed her leaving the building. And she cleared the building, and we began to process the strike.”

However, Gersten said, the woman then ran back in the building.

It was “very difficult for us to watch, and it was within the final seconds of the actual impact,” Gersten recalled.

According to a defense official, there is video of the entire incident, but it is unlikely to be released by the Pentagon because it shows a civilian being killed.

The U.S. has not seen any evidence that the finance official has re-emerged and believes that he is dead. Gersten did not further identify the man or the other ISIS members or the civilians killed in the incident.

Gersten, in his press briefing, emphasized that ISIS is suffering from morale problems among its fighters, partially due to a cash shortage after more than a dozen airstrikes against money centers. Gersten noted that the number of foreign fighters coming into Iraq and Syria has now dropped to about 200 a month, as opposed to the more than 1,500 a month a year ago, although that may be due to morale problems and stronger border controls.

Gersten also said that the U.S. is installing a long-range artillery system in southern Turkey to conduct more airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria.

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