A FoII Board Member
Personal Update On Operation Protective Edge Israel/Gaza
Richard Kemp, one of the FoII Board members is in Israel playing a key role with his military expertise.
2014-07-19 by Richard Kemp
Since my arrival on Monday I have done a large number of international TV, radio and newspaper interviews, and some domestic interviews, on the Gaza conflict. I have more planned over the coming days and am also planning to write some articles for newspapers and websites. My priority has been to provide balance, military expertise and international context to the debate about the IDF’s and Hamas’s actions, and as far as possible counter some of the distorted reporting and assessment that predominates in the international media.
I have been based in Tel Aviv but have spent considerable time also close to the Gaza border. I have witnessed many rocket alarms and Iron Dome intercepts overhead, both in Tel Aviv and in the South. I have spoken to many troops preparing to deploy and am trying to get approval to visit military units engaged in or preparing for the operations.
On Wednesday I visited a house in Ashkelon that had sustained a direct rocket attack around an hour beforehand. I met and spoke to the family and neighbours and did TV interviews at the scene. The house underwent substantial internal and external damage. I met the 17-year-old daughter of the house owners, who was at home when the rocket struck. Hearing the warning siren, she got into the internal shelter room immediately before the explosion. In my assessment had she not done so she would have been killed by shrapnel, blast, flying glass and debris.
The combination of shelters, an efficient warning system, and above all, the Iron Dome, has undoubtedly been the only reason that a far larger number of Israeli civilian casualties have been prevented. Although I have not been to Gaza during this visit it is clear that not only does Hamas reserve its own shelters for its terrorist leaders and fighters, but also deliberately sites munitions and firing points in the heart of civilian areas and even encourages and compels civilians to remain in their buildings when advised by the IDF to leave.
The obsession of the international media with the imbalance of Israeli versus Palestinian casualties is disgraceful and amounts to an attempt to discredit Israel by distortion of the facts. It is cited as evidence of the Israeli use of disproportionate force, which would be a valid criticism of Israel’s conduct. Patently it is no such thing.
I have met with the Israeli government Public Security Minister, Itzhak Aharonovitch and have had meetings with government officials and senior military officers.
In my professional opinion the Israeli government and IDF have conducted this operation in a virtually textbook fashion, in terms of the difficult balance between optimal effect upon the enemy, protection of Israeli civilians and forces, protection and humanitarian support to Palestinian civilians, domestic political handling and management of international diplomacy and the international media.
Operation Protective Edge began only after an intolerable level of rocket attacks from Gaza had been reached and warnings given by Israel to the perpetrators. Israel immediately embraced and adhered to a ceasefire proposal from Egypt while Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad rejected it. Israel also embraced a UN-proposed humanitarian ceasefire, which was broken after only two hours by rocket fire by Gaza terrorists.
The Israelis have employed well-developed measures to preserve the lives of innocent civilians in Gaza. These include phone and SMS warnings, leaflet drops, radio messages and the dropping of warning munitions (‘knock on the roof’). The IDF have aborted many strike missions against Hamas targets due to the presence of civilians. This includes allowing the escape of at least 14 high value terrorist leaders who could have been eliminated. These measures certainly discharge Israel’s responsibility under the Laws of Armed Conflict, which permit attack on legitimate enemy targets even when there is an incidental risk of killing or wounding of civilians.
The UN estimates that approximately 80·/. of all casualties inflicted by Israel in Gaza are innocent civilians. I have been given an authoritative Israeli assessment of 50·/.. This conforms approximately with the accepted casualty ratios in Operation Cast Lead (2008) and Pillar of Defense (2012). It is significantly lower than the casualty rate for civilians in this type of conflict. The UN Secretary General has previously found that in asymmetrical conflict since the Second World War, three civilians, on average, have been killed for every fighter killed. In some theatres, eg Iraq from 2003 and Chechnya, the figure was as high as 5 to one.
Conversely, as mentioned above, Hamas has used their civilian population as human shields, unlawful under the Laws of Armed Conflict. Their indiscriminate targeting of Israel’s civilian population by rocket attack is also of course a war crime. Hamas has been found to conceal and store munitions in protected buildings, including mosques, schools and hospitals. The UN discovered a cache of 20 terrorist rockets inside a UN school in the Gaza Strip. While this should of course have been intrinsically damaging to Gaza terrorists in the eyes of the world, Chris Gunness, the spokesman for UNRWA in Gaza, used this incident as an opportunity to attack the State of Israel. He did this in a live TV interview last night in which I was a participant.
In the last few days Hamas have made a number of attempts to infiltrate their terrorists via tunnel beneath the Gaza border, some dressed in military uniform, including a group of 13 armed terrorists. Such infiltration is clearly a grave threat to military forces and civilians in the border area. Israel was quite right to launch a limited ground offensive to deal with this threat, which is in progress now.
This is an extremely dangerous operation for the IDF, deploying troops into ground well-prepared by Hamas with mines, booby traps, IEDs and other pre-planned and opportunity forms of attack. One IDF soldier has already been killed. In previous months, the IDF sustained a casualty in a tunnel-clearance operation in Gaza, in which an engineer officer was very seriously wounded and permanently blinded by terrorist explosives. An alterative to the current ground operation could have been heavy bombing, but this would have potentially risked significant civilian deaths in Gaza.
Prime Minister Netanyahu today announced that the IDF were preparing to expand this ground operation, which is at present limited to neutralizing the infiltration tunnels along the border and terrorists and munitions in the immediate vicinity. It is not intended to neutralize the wider threat, which is still being suppressed from the air.
If Israel decides to launch an expanded operation to neutralize the missile threat against Israel from Gaza, this will be a significantly longer and even more dangerous operation, which could potentially take many months. If Israel decides to press such an operation to the extent of completely extinguishing the threat and eradicating Hamas’s infrastructure, then it will have to be prepared to establish a military government in Gaza and as you would expect plans are in place for this eventuality.
I would doubt the Israeli government wish to do this. However if Hamas are not deterred by incremental military action and international pressure to the extent that they are prepared to reach a peace agreement then Israel may have little choice. The reality is that, without a detailed ground operation it is likely that Hamas could continue to attack the Israeli population with rockets, at around current rates of intensity, for months to come, even without any further resupply. They are unlikely to be able to locally manufacture significant numbers of additional missiles as the IDF has severely damaged their capability to do so. While stocks of longer range missiles in Gaza are limited, they have very large numbers of shorter range munitions in place.
From my perspective, for reasons including those mentioned earlier, Israel now has an unprecedented level of international support for this operation; including, privately, among some Arab countries. This is of course not without major political and media criticism and many exceptions. But the existing support is likely to be steadily eroded as Operation Protective Shield proceeds and civilian casualties mount. Support is also undermined by distorted and ignorant media reporting and analysis, which is far too common. Such reporting not only engenders anti-Israeli feelings and serves to restrict Israel’s freedom of action, but also helps incite anti-semitic hatred and violence as we have seen in recent days in Europe, especially France and Germany.
We must counter these distortions to the maximum extent possible and FOII Board members can play a key role here, either by direct media intervention or, more in line with the objectives of the group, by harnessing their own wide and influential range of contacts. The voice of FOII is already being heard here in Israel and more importantly internationally, by information published on the internet and other ongoing work.