Article published by Ynetnews.com, 13 October 2023. © Richard Kemp
Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi showed me the rubble of his city’s police station, where just a few days ago 25 police officers were brutally murdered. He reckoned around 200 of his citizens had been butchered by Hamas terrorists as they rampaged through the streets last weekend, gunning down men, women, children and babies. The grizzly remnants of this 21st-century pogrom were all over Sderot, including crashed and bullet-riddled cars with smashed windows and blood smears inside and out.
Next to the police station a couple of bloated terrorist corpses lay with cloths thrown over their faces. Someone had clearly offered respect to the dead, but I found it hard to feel anything but contempt even for the cadavers of savages who had wrought such hell on the innocent people of a city I have visited many times in the past. Today, Sderot is not much more than a ghost town: most of its surviving citizens have sought safe haven elsewhere.
The mayor asked me to relay a message to the British people, and by extension, everyone in the civilized world: ‘Let the IDF get on with it; don’t attempt to pressure us into stopping before the terrorists are attacked so hard they can’t raise a finger against us ever again.’
After another rocket slammed into a Sderot house, wounding a resident and sending a pillar of black smoke into the sky, I moved closer to the Gaza border and spent time in a field base, chatting to young infantrymen of the Givati Brigade, some of whom were at pains to point out that theirs is the best unit in the whole of the IDF.
I’ve spent most of my life with soldiers like that, fiercely proud of their own regiment, joshing each other and joking around, even on the eve of what they expect to be a violent assault into enemy territory. Knowing the perils they face when they are sent into a world of lethal booby traps, hidden bombs, landmines, snipers, ambushes, drones and attack tunnels, they remained grimly resolute, ready to go in when the order is given. To me, these men embody the definition of courage: not an absence of fear but the moral strength to overcome that fear.
A question one young Givati asked troubled, but did not surprise, me. ‘Will the world turn against us again when we go into Gaza?’ His words echoed the sentiments of the mayor of Sderot. I have seen for years how Israeli soldiers must endure the slurs that other Western forces do not have to put up with: the ill-informed but loudly vocalized insistence of so many foreign commentators that they are callous killers, willing to open fire on Palestinians whether terrorists or civilians. Of course the soldiers know that’s a lie, as in combat they often expose themselves to great danger, and sometimes even give their own lives, to abide by the laws of war that require protection of innocent civilians on the battlefield.
Whether or not the Givati Brigade, with much of its distinguished history forged inside Gaza, go in on the ground, more civilians will certainly die as Israeli operations unfold. That is the tragic inevitability of warfare conducted within civilian areas and especially so when fighting Hamas, whose baseline tactic is to use human shields.
In fact, it goes beyond tactics; it is the bedrock of their entire strategy. Hamas doesn’t fire missiles, dig attack tunnels or carry out massacres because they think they stand a chance of defeating Israel militarily. Yes, they want to kill as many Jews as possible, and they want to leverage more of the Palestinian people’s support away from the PLO by satiating their ingrained lust for Israeli blood. But the strategic reason they attack is to compel Israel to fight back, unavoidably killing Palestinian civilians, in order to isolate, vilify and delegitimize Israel on the world stage. Hamas is the only ‘army’ in history to deliberately provoke the killing of the very civilians it purports to protect.
This strategy has worked well for them for years. It has incited condemnation of Israel in the EU and many national governments, among so-called human rights groups and often institutionally anti-Israel Western media, as well as widespread defamation campaigns in universities across the world. I have sat through repeated emergency sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva as its commissions of inquiry unjustly condemn Israel in the aftermath of successive defensive operations in Gaza. Each of these ‘useful idiots’ that dance to the terrorists’ tune have blood on their hands as they encourage Hamas to round after round of vicious assaults, culminating in the horrors of last weekend.
So entrenched is this anti-Israel hate movement, that even in the face of footage and reports of butchered civilians, beheadings, rapes and distressed souls dragged away to incarceration and worse in Gaza, media coverage has still only too frequently sought to blame Israelis for the crimes committed against them. Even as the news was coming in on Saturday morning, an analyst on the BBC cynically declared the attack would ‘give Israel an excuse’ to retaliate against Gaza, going so far as to suggest the IDF’s response would be ‘demonic’. The day I visited Sderot I took part in a deliberately unbalanced discussion on the BBC with two other panelists: one an academic who parroted Hamas propaganda; the other a Palestinian living in the UK who repeatedly refused to condemn Hamas atrocities.
If that sort of feeling is still possible in the immediate aftermath of such horrific events, then wait until memories quickly begin to fade and we return to the full-blooded vilification and distortion that accompanies every IDF operation in Gaza or anywhere else. It is early days but, so far, most political leaders, including in the US and Britain, have remained staunchly behind Israel.
It is essential that the US in particular does not conform to the fears expressed by the mayor of Sderot and the young Givati soldier at the Gaza border. Instead, Washington must remain steadfast as the war develops and, despite inevitable pressure from the anti-Israel movement, must not contemplate trying to restrain the violent actions necessary to crush Hamas’s will to fight.