Shijaiyah: In one of history’s most treacherous battlefields, friendly fire is almost a given

Article published by,  18 December 2023. © Richard Kemp

I can’t envisage a more terrible military tragedy in this situation than the killing of Israeli hostages by IDF soldiers last week in Shijaiyah. It is of course unimaginably heartbreaking for the three men’s families and friends, but also for the soldiers that pulled the trigger. Now all of them will have to live with this nightmare for the rest of their lives.

And, sickeningly, the usual suspects in the media have gleefully rushed to judgment, wheeling out so-called experts to say how this tragedy shows just how trigger-happy, ill-disciplined and gung-ho the IDF is. That’s because they don’t understand the situation in Gaza, have limited understanding of hard fighting on the ground and only too often want the IDF to be the bad guys.

As for myself, I am always surprised that disasters like this don’t happen more often when you think about the confusion, danger, fear, speed and unpredictability of events as well as the sheer number of sometimes uncontrollable moving parts that make up ground combat. Indeed, I was involved in a blue-on-blue some years ago when my troops and I opened fire on some of our own soldiers. As with the hostages in Gaza we had misidentified them as terrorists.

Like Hamas, the terrorists we faced were fighting on their own turf and adept at sophisticated deception to drag us into their killing zones. In Gaza, the hostages were waving a makeshift white flag and calling out in Hebrew. One escaped into a building and then re-emerged before running back. Each of these actions could easily have been read as a dangerous terrorist ploy and presumably were by the soldiers on the ground.

There is every reason for that. Hamas has previously feigned surrender and then tried to kill IDF troops moving to capture them. In this same area and elsewhere, terrorists have also used Hebrew voices to simulate hostages in order to lure soldiers into a trap. In one example that I’ve been told about, also in Shijaiyah, they used a speaker inside a building with a recording of a child’s voice crying out for ‘abba’ (father). The soldiers, knowing every second could count, rapidly entered the booby-trapped building and some were killed and wounded. Just a couple of days ago terrorists used a talking doll stolen from a child hostage for the same lethally cynical purpose.

Armed Hamas fighters have also appeared fleetingly in front of advancing troops before dashing into nearby buildings, again to entice them to follow up into an ambush. A few days ago, I was in Shijaiyah. A soldier pointed out to me a tunnel entrance in a house in a cleared area from which a terrorist had suddenly emerged with an RPG anti-tank missile. In this campaign, terrorists frequently appear from nowhere in places that have already been cleared and open fire on the IDF.

None of this is to condone the killing of these hostages, which the IDF has said went against their rules of engagement and is under detailed investigation. But it is important to avoid leaping to uninformed conclusions that fit an anti-Israel agenda while lacking insight into the extremely challenging situation the IDF faces in Gaza today. The reality is this may be the most treacherous and formidable battleground any soldiers have ever fought on.

Inside Gaza, I watched two tunnel entrances being blown up, both inside civilian houses. This extensive tunnel network, estimated to be over 300 miles long, brings another incomparable challenge to urban warfare, which is already widely recognized by soldiers as the most difficult battle environment that exists. Fighting in built-up areas diminishes the advantage of tanks, renders air and artillery support much more difficult and is characterized by exceptionally high casualty rates, especially for attacking forces.

I’ve been into Hamas’s tunnels. They are heavily fortified, concrete-lined and with electric lighting and air supply. Pre-prepared with concealed sniper positions and rigged with explosives, some are fitted with heavy blast doors which further complicate any assault.

But that’s not all. IDF Spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari has reported that Hamas have been using suicide attackers, a uniquely difficult and lethal enemy to counter. An opponent who wears civilian clothes and operates within the civilian population can only really be identified if he is carrying or firing a weapon. If you don’t make the right split-second decision when someone appears in front of you in civilian clothes, without a rifle, with his hands up and with an unseen suicide vest beneath his outer clothing, you and your comrades could be vaporized. Or if there is no suicide vest you might just have killed an innocent civilian. There is no tougher call.

Inside Gaza, I witnessed scenes of destruction the like of which I had only before seen first-hand in Mostar in Bosnia nearly 30 years ago and in Bakhmut in Ukraine earlier this year. Most of the houses and other buildings were either totally destroyed or badly smashed up. Why has such devastation been necessary? You will have a better idea when I tell you that in almost every alleyway and something like every other house in Shijaiyah the IDF have found explosives, weapons and booby-traps, not to mention terror tunnel entrances. I entered one partly destroyed house and saw boxes of Iranian-supplied hand grenades that had been stored in a child’s bedroom.

In the midst of this hell, IDF soldiers are daily risking their lives to hunt down Hamas terrorists and to find and rescue Israeli hostages held at gunpoint. I spoke to many of them inside the Strip and saw some of them in action. What I found deeply impressed me. The standards of professionalism and battle discipline of these young conscripts are remarkable, especially when you consider that most are straight out of high school, as well as the older reservists who dropped what they were doing in their offices and factories, grabbing rifles and uniforms to answer the call of duty.

I was struck also by their sky-high morale and incredible fighting spirit, virtues that are so vital in any fighting army. They know only too well the risks they face each day, with death just one bullet or bomb away, and too often they see their comrades maimed and killed beside them. Yet every single one I met, with images of October 7 burned into their minds, remains utterly committed to protecting their families, friends and countrymen, some only a few miles from where they are fighting.

Consequently, they have been exceptionally successful so far in this fight, killing terrorists in large numbers and forcing many of them to surrender. But at the same time, they have inevitably made mistakes like the tragic killing of Yotam Haim, Samer Talalka and Alon Shamriz. That is the tragic nature of war and must not be allowed to cause the IDF to waver in its vital mission of destroying Hamas and rescuing the remaining hostages.

Image: Richard Kemp with 614th Battalion troops in Shijaiyah