Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 18 December 2023. © Richard Kemp
In his Telegraph article today, Ben Wallace repeatedly misunderstands the situation in Gaza. To accuse Israel of ‘a killing rage’ and ‘indiscriminate’ assaults is untrue and unfair to an army that surpasses all others in its ability to attack an enemy while doing everything possible to minimise civilian casualties. As General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a few years ago: ‘Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties. In fact, we sent a team of senior officers to get the lessons from the measures they took to prevent civilian casualties.’
I have been in Israel and in the Gaza Strip since this war began, and I know that the measures Israel took back then are the measures they are taking now; except they have been improved on by further battlefield experience in the intervening years.
Despite that, yes, many innocent civilians have been tragically killed. But Hamas plans all of its operations with one overriding aim: to force Israel to kill civilians in Gaza. That is an even higher priority for them than actually killing IDF soldiers and civilians, because it achieves their objective of delegitimising, vilifying and isolating Israel among the world community.
Wallace accuses the IDF of breaking the Geneva Conventions, using disproportionate force, collective punishment and forced movement of civilians. How can he know whether or not the force Israel uses is disproportionate?
Proportionality has a specific definition in the Geneva Conventions. It means that an attack may only be carried out if the expected harm to civilians is not excessive in relation to the expected military advantage. How is he in a position to judge that? Perhaps he is thinking about the civilian to combatant casualty ratio, in which Israel has a better track record than most other armies in the world – but that statistic is impossible for him to know. Unless of course he is working on Hamas figures, which are likely to be inflated, take no account of the many Palestinian civilian deaths they themselves have inflicted, and make no distinction between civilian and combatant deaths.
Where too is evidence of collective punishment? If military operations that bring death, suffering and destruction on civilians is collective punishment, then that applies to virtually every war that has ever been fought. If he means denying or restricting supply of commodities needed by civilians, but likely to be used by enemy forces, then that is permissible under the laws of war.
The idea that Israel is somehow breaking the Conventions by forced movement of civilians is also incorrect. Under the laws of war combatants on both sides are required, where possible, to warn civilians of an impending attack and take whatever steps they can to move them to safety or relative safety. Where Israel has planned to launch attacks, it has followed its obligations by warning civilians to leave. Hamas has done the opposite, giving no warning of attacks that endanger civilians and sometimes forcing them to remain in place in the face of an IDF attack.
According to Wallace “Israel needs to recognise it has time on its side”. It does not. Hamas has continued to fire missiles at Israeli civilians since the start. There was at least one barrage from Gaza today, and a few days ago Jerusalem itself came under fire. Rocket launches have only diminished in volume as the IDF has closed in. Although the Iron Dome missile defence system is highly effective, every single rocket fired out of Gaza will potentially kill or maim Israeli civilians.
And do the thousands of internally displaced Israeli citizens fleeing Hamas’s terror have time on their side? It is the Israeli government’s duty to protect them and create the necessary security for them to return to their homes in safety.
That Wallace should accuse Israel of ‘playing footsie with Putin, while Russian money fuelled the Iranian rocket and drone industry’ is misinformed. Israel has been navigating some of the most treacherous diplomatic waters with Moscow whose forces are deployed in Syria, to deconflict IDF air operations against Iranian proxies that have been trying to build a base of attack against Israel from inside that country.
Ultimately, whilst quick to criticise the IDF, Wallace offers no alternative solutions for eliminating the existential threat from Hamas. He does seem to suggest that Israel should take some kind of lessons from Northern Ireland. The reality is that the two situations couldn’t be further apart. And he misunderstands the way the Troubles were brought to an end. It did not happen, as he says, because ‘Nationalists recognised that the IRA didn’t have its wellbeing and economic interests at heart’, but because of military force combined with the almost total intelligence penetration of the terrorist networks. Regardless, the West did not adopt his definition of the Northern Ireland approach to destroying ISIS.
Israel must be allowed to defend itself with whatever military force is necessary. It simply has no other choice.