Israelis and their supporters make much of the Israel Defense Force’s policy of self-restraint, “Tohar HaNeshek,” purity of arms. Speaking at the Jewish Theological Seminary in late November, Prof. Moshe Halbertal, a co-author of the IDF’s military code of ethics, called accusations of indiscriminate attacks targeting civilians during last summer’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip “nonsense.” Halbertal, a professor of law at New York University and of Jewish thought and philosophy at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, affirmed that Israeli forces largely upheld the principles of military necessity, distinction, responsibility and proportionality. In combat, especially in built-up areas like much of Gaza, some collateral damage is unavoidable. The principles Halbertal outlined are meant to minimize it.
But what if the priority given military restraint obstructs Israel’s strategic goals? Certainly it is unlikely to discourage “lone wolf” attacks in Jerusalem, rocket fire from the Gaza Strip or any other type of Palestinian terrorism, let alone larger threats. Might it inadvertently encourage them?
A colonel who led troops against Hamas and its allies in the Strip did not examine that possibility when he spoke to students at three Washington, D.C.-area universities in November. He screened video from Operation Protective Edge to support his assertion that Israeli forces go out of their way to avoid non-combatant casualties.
One clip featured an Israeli rocket fired at a truck. A drone camera showed the terrorist driver ducking his vehicle into a garage.
“We don’t know who’s in the building. More terrorists, or someone else? We have seconds to decide,” the commander says. On screen the diverted rocket explodes in an empty lot.
Another clip shows an armed man approaching boys on a sidewalk. “The terrorist wants to cross the street into that alley, but thinks one of our snipers or a drone might hit him.” The gunman gestures to a boy perhaps 12 or 13 years old. The child shakes his head “no,” whereupon the man grabs a smaller boy by his collar and drags the kid, kicking and flailing, across the street. The man darts into the alley, dropping the child as he goes.
“Human shield, so we didn’t fire.”
The commander screens similar videos—including one of Palestinian gunmen climbing unhindered into a United Nations Relief and Works Agency ambulance like circus clowns into a midget auto—to back his claim about IDF self-restraint. It’s an assertion supported by, among others, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dempsey, also speaking in November said “Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.” He conceded that “in this kind of conflict, where you are held to a standard that your enemy is not held to, you’re going to be criticized for civilian casualties.” Regardless, Reuters reported, the Pentagon had sent a “lessons-learned” team Israel to review, among other things, the measures Israelis took to minimize non-combatant casualties.
The State Department discounted Dempsey. Associated Press asked spokeswoman Jen Psaki whether, given the general’s view, the Obama administration had reconsidered its criticism of Israel last summer. Psaki said “no. … We believed that Israel could have done more to prevent civilian casualties and it was important that they hold themselves to a high standard. That remains our view and position about this summer’s events.” This specifically included Washington’s description as “appalling” of an Israeli strike, in response to terrorist shelling, that killed noncombatants sheltering in a U.N. facility.
Amnesty International, which morphed from a Cold War human rights organization into part of the obsessively anti-Israel left, issued a report on November 5. It accused Israel of “war crimes” during the Gaza fighting. AI never mentioned Hamas’ terror tunnels into the Jewish state or used the word terror in connection with Hamas, which during the 50-day war fired nearly 4,600 mortars and rockets at Israel, each launch an actual war crime. (Hundreds fell short, exploding in the Strip itself.)
Lessons not learned
After identifying Palestinian fatalities by name, age, gender and organizational affiliation, Israeli sources have estimated the ratio of combatant/non-combatant Arab fatalities in Gaza this year, in the December 2008 – January 2009 Operation Cast Lead fighting and 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon at roughly 1:1. The United Nations, whose investigation of possible Israeli war crimes Jerusalem is refusing to cooperate with, has guessed the proportion of U.S. and Allied-caused non-combatant/combatant fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq at 3:1 and 4:1 respectively.
No matter. Lessons not learned by the State Department and Amnesty filter to campus. When the IDF officer spoke at George Mason University in suburban Fairfax, Va., about 15 kefiyeh-wearing students and their fellow-travelers stood, silently displayed signs reading “No Ethics in the IDF,” and walked out.
“There are 1.8 million people in the Gaza Strip. Only 35,000 are terrorists. They are my enemy, not the others,” the IDF officer told the remaining 60 or so audience members. Dempsey put it this way: “The IDF is not interested in creating civilian casualties. They’re interested in stopping the shooting of rockets and missiles out of the Gaza strip and into Israel.”
The general echoed Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, who said during last summer’s fighting that “we’re not looking for a Band-Aid solution but a long-term plan that will neutralize and take off the table all possible threats of rocket fire from Gaza.”
If so, perhaps the strategic wisdom and even moral justification of being a biblical “light unto the nations” when it comes to the ethics of forbearance should be reexamined. Waiting for the moment of least risk to bystanders in the present might intensify dangers to all Israelis, combatants and non-combatants alike, in the future. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah, recently boasted that his organization could fight for the Assad regime in Syria and simultaneously pound all of Israel with its missiles (estimated to have increased to approximately 100,000, notwithstanding two U.N. Security Council resolutions from the middle of the last decade calling for disarmament). Waiting for al-Qaeda or Islamic State forces to multiply on the other side of its Syrian border likewise could impose greater future costs on Israel. And hesitation from the United Sates, let alone Israel, regarding military action that might or might not be decisive has been the umbrella under which Iran seeks to fulfill its nuclear ambition.
Israel no sooner evacuated the Gaza Strip in 2005—8,000 civilians, 21 villages and its entire military presence—than mortar and rocket fire by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other groups escalated. Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day Gaza war in 2008-’09 and shorter Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 achieved only temporary “calm.” More than 18,000 projectiles have been launched from the Strip at Israel since the early 2000s. To minimize this aggression, unparalleled against a modern democracy in “peacetime,” Israel invested billions of dollars in defensive programs like the Iron Dome anti-rocket umbrella, the Red Alert alarm system and civilian shelters throughout the country. These provided Israeli civilians with a sense of near (if temporary) invincibility. They thereby lessened public pressure for more destructive “end it now!” military counter-attacks. They also seemed to fit Israeli policies that prolong rather than resolve the conflict.
In “More Small Wars,” part of a Foreign Affairs (November/December 2014) symposium on what the United States has learned from its Afghan and Iraqi wars, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations writes “when it comes to enforcing regime change, there is still no replacement for a rifleman on a street corner. Drone strikes and raids can eliminate terrorist leaders, but they cannot uproot entire terrorist organizations from regenerating themselves in the way that al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, and the Pakistani Taliban, among others, have after the loss of their leaders.”
Expanding on Boot’s observation, Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, and Joseph Raskas, a recent Israel Defense Forces veteran, assert in a Wall Street Journal commentary, “Europe Needs an anti-ISIS Playbook” (Dec. 18, 2014) that “European governments should launch devastating and unrelenting ground and air attacks to stamp out Islamic State. Visible and humiliating destruction and defeat of large elements of Islamic State is vital to discouraging more volunteers from joining and to dissuading their funders and supporters from strengthening them. The timorous and defeatist argument that killing jihadists serves as a recruiting sergeant for them can be dismissed, unless we are willing to simply surrender.”
Meanwhile, to no surprise, mortar and rocket fire at Israel from the Gaza Strip has resumed, if but sporadically, since the August ceasefire. Terrorists may comprise a small percentage of Gaza’s population, but Hamas took office via the ballot box. According to some Palestinian public opinion surveys, this U.S. designated terrorist organization remains more popular, or less unpopular, than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement. And those 35,000 combatants Hamas can field? More than the number of troops nearly 20 NATO countries reportedly are able, individually, to deploy.
In the West Bank, Fatah—Israel’s internationally designated “peace partner”—mimics Hamas by praising the “Jerusalem intifada” featuring Palestinian Arabs slamming cars into Israelis waiting at bus and light rail stops or hacking them to death in a synagogue. Six Israelis were murdered in such attacks during the days the IDF commander was speaking in the United States, and five more shortly after.
Israeli restraint, illustrated by video and argued by eminent professors, fails to offset cynical charges by Amnesty, the State Department or U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. That’s because the Zionist cause, a sovereign Jewish state on a portion of the land of Israel, has been delegitimized in much of the West, especially among members of the secular intelligentsia. So defending it, no matter how ethically, is a crime. If you do your best, even if better than anyone else, to avoid non-combatant casualties, but you are fighting to protect a racist, imperialist regime, then your ethics don’t matter. A Nazi who never committed a war crime was still a Nazi. As a result, both an Amnesty International official and students at the University of California-Los Angeles can rate Israel more abhorrent than the beheaders of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
As Gen. Dempsey noted but the Obama administration discounted, Israel goes to extremes—leaflets, phone calls, text messages, even “roof knocking” dummy or low-explosives rockets—to warn civilians of impending attack. But by sacrificing the element of surprise, a violation of basic military principles, it risks perhaps unjustified Israeli casualties to avoid collateral damage among an enemy population.
“Tohar haNesek” might decrease the chances of a type of post-traumatic stress syndrome for troops and the general public. We don’t want unnecessary civilian deaths on our consciences decades after the war, the IDF commander told student listeners. But such restraint may well prolong conflicts and feed low-grade demoralization. There are several causes, including expensive rents and a sometimes difficult job market, but for a prosperous democracy the Jewish state has a relatively large percentage of its citizens living abroad.
If Israel does not force a choice, many if not most in the population of Gaza and the West Bank retain the luxury of supporting or at least tolerating anti-Israeli terrorism by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade of Fatah and so on. The Allies demanded unconditional surrender from the Axis and reduced Germany, Japan and parts of Italy to rubble to get it. The Confederacy fought fiercely in the summer of 1864, but surrendered in the spring of ’65. One reason was Union Gen. William Sherman’s march from Atlanta to the sea and then into North Carolina, destroying a 40-mile wide swath of Dixie. The devastation didn’t convince Southerners that slavery or secession were wrong, but did help make it impossible for them to continue.
Military analyst Mark David Mandeles, author of The Future of War; Organizations as Weapons (Potomac Books, 2005), suggests that some suicides of U.S. personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan can be traced to psychological stress stimulated by conducting complex combat operations under restrictive rules of engagement. (“Maybe I could have saved my buddy if I’d shot first and asked questions later ….”) In his book, Mandeles cites the late psychologist and former RAND researcher Irving L. Janis—credited with introducing the concept of “groupthink”—who noted that populations surrendered and accepted defeat when 1) destruction and death were widespread and 2) such populations had no means to resist the attacks hitting them.
In the latest Gaza fighting, notwithstanding Al-Jazeera, CNN and similar television footage and countless newspaper photographs of bombed out urban blocks, virtually all the destruction occurred in five percent of the Strip, mostly in Hamas strongholds within two or three miles of the Israeli frontier.
War is hell, Sherman famously noted. But an Israeli general, speaking in Washington in November, stressed that the hell of Operation Protective Edge was “quite limited.” Asked if such an approach did not prolong conflicts, he responded by noting that strategy is up to the country’s civilian leaders. They determine objectives and the military plans accordingly. In the Gaza Strip last summer, Israel’s strategy supported a political-diplomatic policy of fighting to “restore calm” to its southern and central population centers. It did not attempt to destroy Hamas, let alone discredit Islamic fundamentalism or Palestinian nationalism.
Nevertheless, it received a crescendo of international obloquy, one that builds with each “war for calm.”
The Obama administration—and American people—wanted out of Iraq and Afghanistan, “mission accomplished” or not. Israelis don’t want to reoccupy the Gaza Strip or West Bank population centers. So in Iraq, al-Qaeda revived and metastasized into the Islamic State, et. al. and pulls America back, half-measure by half-measure. In Afghanistan, a Taliban rescued from the brink of defeat partly by premature U.S. draw-down and withdrawal, probes to see how much damage it can inflict as a residual American force attempts to bolster an uncertain new Afghan government and its shaky military. In Gaza, Hamas tries to rearm for the next round. In the West Bank, Fatah continues its old fight-talk-delegitimize campaign.
Israel emphasizes restraint and expects a world enamored of the “Palestinian narrative” of dispossession and oppression (serial rejection and self-inflicted damage are more accurate) to approve. It periodically releases hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many with the blood of murdered Israelis on their hands, in exchange for one or two captured soldiers or their bodies. This is done both to keep faith with the prisoners of war and their families and ostensibly to “build Palestinian confidence” in negotiations for a “two-state solution.”
Both actions apparently miss the point. Except for Egypt, particularly in 1967 and 1973, war has not yet been hell for Israel’s enemies. Allowed to keep thinking that time is on their side, that provocation won’t spark an overwhelming response a la “the Powell doctrine” against Iraqi forces in Kuwait in 1991, and able to use images of destruction caused by Israeli self-defense to demonize the Jewish state, they keep fighting.
“Tohar haNeshek?” Of course—as proportionately applied to a legitimate military objective. But what if, over time, fighting for “calm” instead of victory contributes to domestic weariness and international hostility to the exercise of the right of self-defense, no matter how proportional?
When it comes to Hamas, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority and their supporters, who and what is the enemy and what is the military-political objective? Is it a series of truces broken by the Palestinian side, serially re-imposed by Israel, each forcible re-imposition providing selected fodder for the enemy’s psychological warfare objectives? Repeated, indecisive “wars for calm” can dispirit the Israeli home front and contribute to delegitimizing the state abroad. If the objective is renewing the Jewish state’s legitimacy and at last securing it against implacable foes, the level of what’s militarily proportional may need to be raised, the bar for corresponding restraint lowered, say to the standard at which the United States and coalition allies operate elsewhere in the greater Middle East.
The writer is a Washington, D.C.-based news media analyst. Any opinions expressed above are solely his own.