Israel showed care in a just Gaza war
The Australian, June 1o, 2015
By Major-General Jim Molan (Ret.)
We sat in the Israeli kibbutz 800m from the closest Gaza Strip buildings. Four Israeli women told stories of life during Operation Protective Edge, the 50-day conflict last year between Israel and Hamas, of the rain of rockets and mortars, 15 seconds’ warning, days in shelters and of a four-year-old child killed by shrapnel.
The rockets impacted on every aspect of life but the effect of finding one of the many sophisticated tunnels dug over several years at the very door step of the kibbutz for Hamas fighters to kill civilians more precisely and personally was an even greater shock.
“It is not the people of Gaza,” the woman said still visibly disturbed. “It is Hamas. We are of the Left of Israeli politics and want peace so much. The sound of our planes flying overhead to bomb Gaza challenged every belief I have. But we will not live with terror. Before Hamas we had Palestinian friends in Gaza and we care for those people, it is not their fault. Perhaps we will be friends again one day.”
Having spent a week in Israel courtesy of a pro-Israel organisation, I found myself saying rather gratuitously: “As a foreigner with only a week in Israel, I say that your military truly reflects your care for the people of Gaza.” I meant well, knowing that perhaps 2200 Gazans died of all causes in the latest clash, but she turned on me, saying: “Of course they do. They reflect our values. They are our sons.”
A week before I would not have been prepared to make the statement that the Israeli military “cared”. Despite the negative inference of most reporting, I had expected that Israel observed international law. This requires that wars be just, and fought in accordance with principles of proportionality, humanity, discrimination and necessity. Of course there is vast room for interpretation, with one man’s proportionality being the Human Rights Council’s war crime.
I suspect that I was invited to Israel because I had publicly criticised the bizarre 2010 UN Goldstone Report on a previous war in Gaza, and I was as a general in Iraq experienced in the practical application of the laws of armed conflict on a similar battlefield.
Now having spent a week in Israel with a group of senior military, police and lawyers researching Israel’s moral approach to warfighting, the results exceeded my expectation. I do not take a position on Israel’s legitimacy, the two-state solution, settlements or the occupation. With a moral and professional eye, I focused on this one conflict.
As a result, I am much more comfortable now that I can make the case I expected to make, although our assessment process still has some time to go.
I can say that Israel’s prosecution of Operation Protective Edge not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, it exceeded them significantly, often at cost to Israeli soldiers and citizens. It did this to preserve the life and property of those trying to kill Israeli citizens. Where there were individual failures, Israel is taking transparent legal action.
In war any military can exceed the “reasonable” standard. According to the strict internal review methods that were applied to my conduct of military operations back in Iraq, my actions were always legal, and where I could, I exceeded them. The IDF did this and more.
Many will still question how Israel can have acted legally given its losses were markedly less in soldiers and civilians. Israel is so strong and Hamas so weak. We all saw the grainy videos of houses being demolished by bombs.
Those who hate Israel will continue to make the case that everything Israel does is bad and that Hamas was struggling nobly for Palestinian freedom. I do not ask anyone to necessarily believe what I say, but at least there is an obligation to be equally sceptical of what Hamas says.
Given our examination of the cause of Operation Protective Edge, it would be indefensible to argue that Israel wanted it, initiated it or sustained it, or that Israel acted in anything other than defence of its citizens. On this basis alone, Israel’s war was just. It will be interesting to see if the imminent UNHRC report and the ICC inquiry can deliver fairness. Many do not understand it is not illegal to kill civilians in war as long as that is not the purpose of your actions, hence the appalling term “collateral damage”. Unlike our fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, Israel fights repeatedly in the same neighbourhood, and so its understanding and its intelligence is far superior to anything that I have enjoyed in similar targeting decisions that I have made.
While acknowledging the tragedy of death in war and given the immense capability of the IDF, it stands to Israel’s everlasting credit that far more did not die. But from the very top of the command chain down to the infantry and pilots, the personal moral position that individuals took was mirrored in the targeting processes, decisions on the ground and in the real care taken.
War can brutalise, but the Israelis scrupulously “cared” for the Palestinians. By contrast, Hamas was an enemy whose central strategy was to directly target the Israeli population and who repeatedly used their own population as human shields, both of which in any fair system would constitute major war crimes.
The women of the kibbutz were proud of their sons, but they would also be proud of what one senior Israeli commander whose soldier son was about to deploy to Gaza, recounted.
“Come back alive,” he said in farewell, “but come back human.” I wonder what the Hamas version of this farewell would be.
Jim Molan is a retired major-general in the Australian Army.