The Rules of Engagement...
By Ken Halliwell (October 5, 2006)
In the Israeli Government's "Ram Ron Report," it's cited that "the [Israeli] Air Force was permitted to attack the [unidentified] ship should it be identified as a warship".
This attack 'permission' was governed, in part, by a Rule of Engagement, by the IDF (Israel Defense Force) Navy, and cited in the report: "When there is knowledge of an enemy in the area and the radar picks up a ship or ships traveling at a speed exceeding 20 knots, such ship(s) shall be deemed an enemy [warship] and no further identification shall be carried out".
By itself, this Rule of Engagement was extremely reckless because it totally ignored the possibility of a 20 knot ship being a neutral ship, and left wide-open the interpretation of "knowledge of an enemy in the area".
Fortunately, there was another IDF Rule of Engagement, cited in the report, that served to moderate the previous rule: "...the [IDF] forces should at all cost avoid attacks on any neutral merchant ship or warships." Thus, the '20 knot rule' allowed IDF forces to declare an unidentified, high-speed ship as an enemy warship, but it did not relieve IDF forces of responsibility and duty to follow other Rules of Engagement -- and International Law of War -- regarding neutral vessels. Specifically, to avoid at all cost attacks on any neutral vessels; i.e., positively identify vessels as not neutral before attacking.
So, the purported attack 'permission' given to the pilots implicitly meant, according the IDF's Rules of Engagement and International Laws of War, that the ship must be positively identified as an enemy vessel before attacking. Therefore, a rational interpretation of the order should have been: You may attack the ship if it's positively identified as an enemy warship.
Regardless and even though the Ram Ron report, as well as all other IDF reports on this matter, clearly explain that the pilots were not able to identify the ship's nationality as neutral or enemy (with ideal visibility conditions and no urgent or exigent circumstances), they willfully and brutally attacked it anyway. Clearly, the pilots were reckless and grossly negligent in attacking an unidentified ship, in international waters; by violating their own Rules of Engagement, as well as International Law of War.
To rebuke this type of argument, the Ram Ron report argues that one of the Standing Orders of IDF Naval Forces, "An enemy vessel should be attacked in any waters provided such vessel attacks an Israeli vessel or shells a coast of Israel.", effectively trumped the 'avoid at all cost attacks on any neutral vessel' rule. And, thus, rendered it technically permissible for the attack to proceed. Indeed, this is a legitimate argument. After all, a vessel attacking Israeli vessels or territory is no longer a neutral vessel, by definition. Thus, any concern regarding neutrality is rendered moot, under these conditions.
But, there's a catch: at no time, prior to the attack, did any member of the IDF witness USS Liberty (the unidentified ship) attack any Israeli vessel or territory. There may have been a vague notion that this was the case, but none of the attacking forces, their controllers, or the people who reported the shelling of El Arish's coast -- which was not Israeli territory -- had knowledge that USS Liberty (the unidentified ship) was responsible for the purported shelling. Thus, there was no evidence -- absolutely none -- that USS Liberty was the ship that purportedly shelled the coast. And considering that USS Liberty had no large guns mounted on her decks, it was highly unlikely that she was the target the IDF was seeking.
Some have attempted to build on this very thin thread, woven of the IDF's mixed bag of engagement rules yarn, in an effort to justify the attack, or to support it being the result of mistaken identity. There are claims that the pilots believed the forward or aft dish-antennas appeared like large deck guns. There is nothing in any IDF document or report that supports this argument -- except a parenthetical note by Colonel Ram Ron where he questions the pilots report of seeing a single mast as possibly being a gun. Here's how it was written: "...the ship was identified by the aeroplanes as a military ship with a single mast (gun?) and a single funnel." Common sense dictates that the pilots knew the difference between a tall mast and a large deck gun, and there is no evidence that the pilots stated possibly seeing large guns the ship's decks.
This is simply an example of Colonel Ram Ron and others grasping at straws. Besides, even if the pilots did see or thought they saw large guns on the ship, they had absolutely no evidence before them that USS Liberty was the ship that purportedly shelled the coast. For all they knew, if the coast was truly shelled, it may have been by a submarine that had long since submerged and left the area. Simply because USS Liberty was the only unidentified ship in sight, it did not automatically mean she must be an enemy ship.
In the final analysis, the fact of the matter is that the pilots (and Torpedo boat captains) had a clearly defined duty under the IDF's Rules of Engagement and the International Law of War to "at all cost avoid attacks on any neutral merchant ship or warships" -- especially in international waters.
The attack scenario presented by the IDF shows clearly that the pilots and their controllers failed to perform their duty. Their reckless and grossly negligent behavior, and brutal attack resulted the deaths of 34 and the wounding of 173 Americans -- a crime under both American and International law.