There are fascinating parallels between Britain’s defense against rocket attacks in the 1940s and Israel’s defense against rocket attacks today.
Over 2,600 rockets and mortars launched from Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip have landed in Israel since January 2012.
Rockets and Restraint
A summary of recent attacks gives only a hint of the impact of these attacks on Israeli civilians who live in Gaza area communities. After weeks of Gazan riots and attempted incursions into Israel, on June 20, terror groups in Gaza fired 45 rockets at Israel. No Israelis were injured but thousands were forced to spend the night in shelters, as they have done many times before. Earlier on May 29 at least 30 mortars and rockets were fired at Israel. Shrapnel from the rockets injured five Israelis. One rocket exploded in the play yard of an Israeli kindergarten. Thankfully, the children had not yet arrived, otherwise many might have died.
Any reader who takes the trouble to peruse a list of rocket and mortar attacks on Israel will see that these attacks have been frequent, intense and years-long.
How has Israel responded to these attacks?
If Israel were to use its military might without restraint, tens of thousands of Gazans would be dead and communities in Gaza would be leveled.
Instead, Israel has consistently responded to these attacks in a measured way, carefully choosing military targets such as munitions factories, training camps, observation towers and terror tunnels. Israel takes excruciating care to avoid civilian casualties. This is no easy task because Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza fire missiles from within civilian areas: schools, hospitals, mosques, and dense residential neighborhoods. When the terror groups are not launching rockets, they produce and store them in civilian areas.
If Israel did not respond forcefully to these attacks they would increase and make it impossible for Israeli communities to survive.
As predictable as rocket attacks from Gaza have become, European responses have also been predictable. When Israel defends itself from attacks, many European journalists, politicians and non-governmental officials denounce Israel for using “disproportionate force.” That was the case during Operation Protective Edge, a defensive war that Israel fought in 2014 with Gaza’s Hamas rulers in an attempt to stop repeated deadly barrages of rockets from Gaza
The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, showed restraint. Netanyahu made repeated truce offers to Hamas, but these calls went unheeded, forcing Israel to send troops into the Strip. The Israelis used air strikes to support their troops. The strikes also took out launching sites and other military assets that Hamas used to attack Israel.
Typical of European responses to Israel’s defensive actions, Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, accused Israel of using a “deliberately disproportionate form of collective punishment” against the people of Gaza. To my knowledge, Mr. Clegg did not describe the barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israel as collective punishment. This, even though Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired these rockets indiscriminately at Israeli population centers.
Although criminal law makes use of the term “disproportionate force” in situations of self-defense, this term has never been used in international law. And in any case, “disproportionate force” has no accepted definition within or outside of international law.1
Observers who use the term “disproportionate force” generally mean that a state should use only a level of force sufficient to neutralize the threat. This has the effect of minimizing civilian casualties and preventing state actors from using a limited enemy attack as a pretext for causing devastating damage to the enemy. That is a reasonable idea.
But the Europeans who condemn Israel for the use of disproportionate force never explain exactly how Israel could stop the rocket attacks with less force.
What would they do in Israel’s place? History gives us some idea.
The V-Rocket Attacks on Britain
Brits who condemn Israel for its defensive actions against rocket attacks from Gaza have forgotten their own history.
By the summer of 1944 Britain had already been at war with Germany for almost five years. In the early years of the war, Britain had survived the German blitzkrieg—the aerial bombing campaign against British industrial targets, towns and cities. And the British Royal Air Force bombers had already attacked many targets in Germany.
The V1, and later V2, rockets were a new German “wonder-bomb” to be used as retaliation for the British bombing campaign against Germany. German scientists had designed this weapon especially for use in aerial bombing of cities. The bombs were used to strike terror in the population as a way to demoralize the enemy. The German V-Rocket campaign against Britain lasted from June 13, 1944 to March 27, 1945, almost the end of the war.
By the end of the V-Rocket campaign, over 10,000 British civilians had been killed and over 24,000 wounded. In one deadly attack at the residential complex of Hughes Mansions, 134 people were killed, including many Jewish families and children.
The British Response to German Attacks
To defend itself against Germany, the British joined the Americans in a massive joint bombing campaign against Germany.
The British and Americans could have limited their bombing to military targets and air support for troops. Instead, they decided to pursue “strategic” rather than purely military bombing. In strategic bombing, air forces attack industrial and political sites and often target civilians in order to terrorize the population and disrupt normal life. The British made a deliberate decision to bomb civilian targets. In this they were aided by the absence of a prohibition in international law against the bombing of cities. This led to a massive loss of civilian life.
The most controversial bombing was the firebombing of the German city of Dresden in February of 1945. The Royal Air Force alone employed 722 heavy bombers. The combined British and US Air Forces dropped over 3,900 tons of explosive bombs and incendiary devices. The incendiary devices created huge firestorms that engulfed entire blocks of residential apartments. Thousands of civilians passed out from lack of oxygen and then burned to death in the firestorms.
Over 1,600 acres of Dresden’s city center were destroyed by the Allied bombings and the resulting firestorms. The Allies intended to kill civilians and demoralize the German population—and they succeeded.
The city of Dresden had many factories, and it was a major communications and rail transport center. But critics of the bombing pointed out that Dresden was mostly a historic city with little strategic war value. Germany’s surrender was just three months away. It is not clear that the targeting of civilians was necessary to win the war.
Just as critics today accuse Israel of use of disproportionate force, critics of that time accused the US and Britain of the same offense.
Comparison of British and Israeli Actions
There are fascinating parallels between Britain’s defense against rocket attacks in the 1940s and Israel’s defense against rocket attacks today.2
In particular, Germany’s V-rocket attacks and the rocket attacks of Gaza terrorists are similar. Some years ago, the rockets launched by terrorists in Gaza were crude, inaccurate devices with small payloads (although even the earliest Gaza rockets were lethal). However, in recent years the rockets launched from Gaza into Israel have become more sophisticated and deadlier. I do not know the technical details of V-rockets and Gaza rockets and it may be that the V-rockets were a greater threat. Still, I can’t help but notice the similarities.
The British lost somewhat over 10,000 civilians to the V-rockets. The Israelis have lost a relatively small number of victims to Gaza rockets. The difference is largely due to the failure of the British to develop any defenses against German rockets, and the technical success of Israel in developing relatively effective missile defenses such as the Iron Dome.
On the defense side, Britain emerged as a far more lethal foe than Israel. In Dresden the Allies managed to kill 23,000 to 25,000 civilians. The entire allied air campaign against Germany killed between 353,000 and 635,000 civilians.
In Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge, about 2,200 Gazans were killed.
Most significant, I could find no record that in the Second World War the British made any effort to avoid killing civilians. Many of the bombing campaigns, like that over Dresden, were deliberately intended to kill large numbers of civilians.
By contrast, Israel has consistently made great efforts to minimize civilian casualties, even when those efforts have caused military disadvantage or danger to its own troops. Israel’s methods for protecting civilians are well known and include: warning telephone calls, leaflet drops, social media warnings, and “knock-on-the-roof” devices to announce an impending attack. To its military disadvantage, Israel has aborted countless air strikes when it appeared that children or other civilians were in the target area. Israel gets little or no credit for this in the international press, but it is nevertheless an integral part of Israel’s Code of Purity of Arms.3 Despite this, many Brits have taken to scolding Israel for its defensive attacks against Gaza rockets.
The Brits have either forgotten their own history….or they are hypocrites.
- Frantzman, S. A Short History of ‘Disproportionate’ Force. Canadian Jewish News, January 22, 2009. Retrieved June 24, 2018 from: http://www.cjnews.com/news/short-history-disproportionate-force
- Britain’s 2003 invasion of Iraq—-as a major partner in a US-led coalition—-provides a more recent comparison between British and Israeli defensive actions. According to the monitoring organization Iraq Body Count, over 15,000 Iraqi civilians were killed by coalition forces. Unlike Israelis, who were repeatedly and incessantly attacked by their enemies, neither the Iraqi government nor Iraqi-backed terrorists ever attacked British non-combatants. And unlike Israel, with communities that are just a short walk from a hostile enemy border, the British are safely situated thousands of miles from Iraq.
And yet many British commentators see fit to condemn Israel for its defensive actions.
- Purity of Arms. Wikipedia. Retrieved June 24, 2018 from:
The code of Purity of Arms is part of the official doctrine of ethics in the Israel Defense Forces. According to this code, “the soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.”