By Col. Richard Kemp
During an operation in Gaza last week, the Israel Defence Forces attacked a Hamas tunnel complex with 12 squadrons of 160 combat planes striking over 150 targets with hundreds of bunker-busting JDAMs [Joint Direct Attack Munitions] in less than an hour. Although the battle damage assessment is still underway, the raid destroyed perhaps the most critical element of Hamas infrastructure, wiping out vast stocks of munitions and likely killing dozens if not hundreds of fighters. This was a hammer blow to Hamas and may prove to be a turning point in the conflict. It also sent a powerful message to Iran and Hizballah, foretelling the consequences of an assault on Israel with their arsenal of tens of thousands of missiles in southern Lebanon.
The IDF operation was a carefully coordinated combination of intelligence, surveillance, knowledge of enemy tactics, … surprise and precisely targeted, overwhelming force. Of all these, … surprise [was] key. Surprise is a principle of war in the American, British and many other forces, defined in the US Army Field Manual as “striking the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which he is unprepared.” The manual goes on to say: “Deception can aid the probability of achieving surprise”. Throughout the history of warfare, surprise achieved through deception has led to many stunning military victories — often against the odds.
The IDF’s operation was reminiscent of the biblical Israelite leader Gideon’s famous stratagem against the Midianites. He had his men blow trumpets, light torches and yell battle cries, simulating a much larger force and causing the vastly superior enemy army to flee the field.
Last Thursday, the IDF massed tanks, artillery and infantry combat vehicles on the Gaza border, engines roaring like Gideon’s trumpets. The build-up was observed by Hamas and widely reported in international media as an imminent ground invasion. Like the Midianites, hundreds of Hamas fighters rushed to take shelter inside the “metro” tunnel network. Built by Hamas after the 2014 conflict to house command facilities, store weapons and facilitate protected movement, these tunnels covered dozens of kilometres beneath the Gaza Strip. There the fighters were trapped as JDAM after JDAM thundered in from above. Emerging to fight the invasion that never came, the surviving anti-tank teams and mortar squads were then also hit from the air.
This masterpiece of tactical synchronisation, with all its complex elements, symbolises the IDF’s precision attacks during this campaign, Operation Guardian of the Walls, which have already inflicted damage from which Hamas will not recover for years. The IDF learnt many lessons from previous engagements in Gaza and since 2014 have vigorously collected intelligence and worked to develop battle plans and technological solutions to deal with Hamas and their Palestinian Islamic Jihad bedfellows.
Hamas is no match for the IDF and could be quickly and much more cheaply defeated by blunt and crushing military force were it not for one thing — the Israeli need to minimise loss of civilian life. Hamas know that. They know they cannot prevail over the IDF and have no intention of trying. Their entire strategy is to attack Israeli population centres using rockets, kamikaze drones and tunnels, aimed at luring IDF counter attacks that will kill their own civilians in order to vilify and isolate Israel around the world and gain international support for their cause. With human shields as the fundamental element of every operation, Hamas are the first “army” in history to use the lives of their own civilian population as weapons of war.
Their strategy has been woefully successful. Over many years of conflict in Gaza, the majority of the world’s media have enthusiastically reported the deaths of Palestinian civilians as though they were the deliberate object of Israel’s callous and uncaring way of war. This blatantly false propaganda has been taken up by Hamas supporters and “useful idiots” in the West. In the US, Britain and Europe, last week we have seen hundreds of anti-Israel demonstrators brandishing Palestinian banners, burning Israeli flags, spitting out their hate for the Jewish state and screaming about IDF baby-killers. Hamas’s calumny is a prime motivator among Israel-loathing academics in Western universities and high schools who have mined their false allegations as rich seams of material to indoctrinate generations of students.
Human rights groups around the world have been doing the same. There have been dozens of anti-Israel resolutions at the UN, often drawing on Hamas’s narrative, twisting every aspect of the conflicts in Gaza. The prize has been the International Criminal Court’s decision this year to launch a full investigation with the hope of dragging Israeli soldiers, officials and politicians into the dock at The Hague.
I have taken part in every UN Human Rights Council evidence session and emergency debate on Gaza conflicts in the last 15 years. The wilful ignorance combined with malice has always been breathtaking. Every commission of inquiry determined Israel’s guilt before it even met for the first time. Every debate and vote has overwhelmingly and of course falsely affirmed Israel’s supposed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Meanwhile Hamas’s actual multiple war crimes have been brushed aside.
The reality is very different from the lies emanating from these modern-day Towers of Babel. The IDF attack on the “metro” tunnels this week depended on lightning action and the coordination of 160 planes attacking a small area in a very short space of time. Alongside these awesome complexities, the IDF did all they could to ensure minimum loss of civilian life by selecting targets where the lowest levels of innocents would be harmed, such as empty roadways under which tunnels ran, and maintaining close surveillance to confirm a bus load of civilians didn’t suddenly appear. The IDF have so far destroyed several high-rise buildings containing critical Hamas military infrastructure as well as civilian offices and apartments. Remarkably all of these have been smashed down without any reported civilian casualties.
As in previous conflicts in Gaza the IDF has made radio broadcasts in Arabic, sent SMS messages and even phoned civilians inside the Strip to warn them of impending strikes, where to go for their own safety and which routes to take. Gazans have given interviews confirming this.
When civilians do not leave an intended target building, the IDF sometimes drop specially designed low-power munitions (“knock on the roof”) to encourage them to get out. With careful surveillance of target areas, the Israeli air force frequently aborts planned sorties if there is a risk of civilian casualties.
In a conflict designed by Hamas to maximise civilian deaths, some are inevitable. It is too early to accurately assess casualty figures or ratios of civilians to fighters killed, but current assessments suggest the IDF have been even more successful in minimising civilian casualties during this campaign than in previous engagements in Gaza. Many in the media, human rights groups and international bodies have rushed to characterise all civilian casualties (other than those inflicted by Hamas, of course) as war crimes. But the Geneva Conventions disagree. Inflicting civilian casualties is not illegal provided a military operation is necessary for the prosecution of a war, they are not disproportionate to the planned military gain and that combatant commanders do not intentionally target civilians while doing all they can to avoid hitting them.
The media takes reports from the Gaza health ministry as authoritative and objective. That is disingenuous and they know it. The health ministry is controlled by Hamas and follows their every order. For example, of around 2,000 rockets fired so far by Hamas during this conflict, approximately 400 have fallen short, landing inside Gaza. Some of these have killed civilians and the health ministry has attributed all of them to IDF action.
Counterintuitively, the most effective means of saving Gazan civilian lives has been Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. Despite Hamas efforts to overwhelm it, Iron Dome has had a 90% success rate in preventing missiles from Gaza hitting their targets. Not only has this saved the lives of countless Israeli civilians but it has also meant the IDF campaign can be more deliberate, discriminating and precise. If hundreds of Israelis were dying under Hamas rockets, the IDF would have no choice other than to strike Gaza with much greater ferocity and ground forces would already have entered the Gaza Strip, unavoidably inflicting vastly more civilian casualties than we have seen so far.
Despite all of this, as the media unceasingly show us, the real victims in this campaign have indeed been Gaza civilians. But they usually get the cause wrong. Every one is due to Hamas’s unprovoked aggression against Israel. None would have occurred without it. Once this round of fighting is over, Hamas will work to build back better for next time — that is, to regenerate their military capability rather than civilian infrastructure. If Western governments, international bodies and human rights groups are genuinely interested in avoiding suffering in Gaza, they should start now, striving to end Hamas’s reign of terror rather than support it by parroting their baleful narrative.
Colonel Richard Kemp is a former British Army Commander. He was also head of the international terrorism team in the U.K. Cabinet Office and is now a writer and speaker on international and military affairs. He is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.