One man goes against the flow and challenges the majority view of Israel’s role in the Middle East.
by Paul Alster
Published in The Jerusalem Post, 12 May 2015
IT’S ALWAYS easier in life to go with the flow. Follow the crowd and keep your head down well beneath the parapet. That’s what most people do, regardless of whether or not they agree with the direction the flow is taking them.
One man who most certainly goes against the flow and challenges the majority view of Israel’s role in the Middle East, however, is Colonel Richard Kemp. The 55-year- old former commander of British forces in Afghanistan is possibly the highest profile non-Jewish advocate of Israel when it comes to defense matters and the manner in which the country’s various security services and intelligence agencies go about their work of protecting a nation surrounded by enemies.
Kemp first made headlines around the world in October 2009 when giving evidence to the UN Human Rights Council examining the controversial Goldstone Report. South African Judge Richard Goldstone had accused Israel of “war crimes and possible crimes against humanity” during the war in Gaza earlier that year.
“Of course innocent civilians were killed. War is chaos and full of mistakes,” Kemp stated. “There have been mistakes by the British, American and other forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq, many of which can be put down to human error. But mistakes are not war crimes… Based on my knowledge and experience, I can say this: During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in the combat zones than any other army in the history of warfare.”
Kemp’s testimony was warmly applauded in Israel, but dismissed as bizarre by many states, NGOs, and others around the world that preferred to base their opinions on Goldstone’s “evidence.” It was more palatable to accept the image of Israel as the wicked aggressor, and of the Palestinians as helpless, innocent victims of a bullying, far more powerful neighbor. When Goldstone later retracted his allegations and apologized for a biased and unfair report, Kemp’s testimony appeared vindicated, but those who prefer to believe only bad of Israel were anything but appeased.
As I began my conversation with the former high-ranking British army officer, I wondered what it was that triggered him to speak out, against the flow, in support of Israel? “I think I’ve had a certain amount of experience in dealing with the IDF and also the Israeli intelligence services during my military career and I developed quite a good understanding of how the IDF operates, their rules of engagement, and how they fight,” Kemp explains to The Jerusalem Report.
“I was quite horrified after I left the army to see how the media accounts of what they were doing were being distorted, and how they were coming under attack, in my view unfairly, as a result of political bias rather than objectivity. I knew it was wrong, and I felt I had to stand up and to try and redress the distortions.
“I am well aware of the benefits the British forces get from the IDF. Many, many British soldiers’ lives have been saved by Israeli battlefield medical technology, by counter- IED [improvised explosive device] technology, and by drone technology, as well as the sharing of intelligence.
“I’ve had a number of personal experiences, for example, when I was sent out to Afghanistan – I was commander of the British forces there in 2003 –and it was the first time that I had commanded forces that faced the threat of suicide attack. At that time, the British Army did not have a procedure for dealing with or the means of training soldiers to counter suicide bombers. I contacted the Israelis, and a brigadier general was sent from Israel to London to brief me on Israeli procedures for dealing with suicide bomb attack.”
KEMP BASED his policy and procedures for dealing with suicide bombers on the brigadier general’s advice. The guidelines, he says, saved many British soldiers’ lives. “They could have fobbed me off with somebody who knew a bit about it, but they actually sent their No. 1 expert from Israel specifically to London within days to help me formulate that policy.
“Another example,” Kemp continues, “is July 7, 2005, when we came under suicide bomb attack in London. At that time, I was coordinator of the UK National Intelligence Crisis Committee (COBR) and I got a phone call from the head of the Mossad station in London within minutes of these bomb attacks, offering me any form of assistance we wanted. Again, in that crisis situation where people were dying in the London underground and on the streets of London, that was the action of a true friend. In those circumstances, how would I stand by and watch people who are our friends and allies be abused in the way that they were?” Kemp had a near 30-year career in the British Army that included tours of duty in Northern Ireland, Germany, Cyprus, Kenya and Iraq. From 2001-2006, he was attached to Britain’s Cabinet Office and worked for the Joint Intelligence Committee and COBR. In 2003, he was appointed Commander of British forces in Afghanistan and promoted to colonel a year later before retiring from the army in 2006.
Following his much publicized defense of Israel in the media, he has come in for huge criticism from many quarters. Why do so many people in Britain choose to overlook his firsthand knowledge and understanding of Israel’s fight against terrorism? “In the British media, as in much other media in the world, there is institutionalized anti-Israeli bias,” he points out. “Usually, the automatic assumption within the media is that Israel is in the wrong, and the people that are trying to bring them down, organizations like Hamas and other Palestinian groups, are in the right. The problem is that most people in Britain have no idea at all about Israel. They know nothing about a very, very complicated situation. They take their opinions from media that is, on the whole, opposed to Israel.”
Kemp believes the overwhelming majority of British military people share his views because they, too, have faced radical Islamic militias in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We understand it, and that’s the big difference between the military perspective and the non-military perspective,” he explains.
I suggested that there was a time when Israel received widespread support from the international media, but that now seems a distant memory. What does he believe has caused such a change of direction? “Partly it’s because Israel was once seen as the underdog in the Middle East having been subjected to attacks by the massed Arab armies,” Kemp suggests. “Latterly, as Israel has defeated the Arabs, gained significance, and economic and military power, it is no longer seen as the underdog. It is the Palestinians who are seen as the underdogs. The media, which is dominated by the leftwing, are almost plagued by imperial guilt and they wrongly see Israel as an imperialist country, as an extension of Western imperialism, and they attack Israel from that perspective. Much of that may well be subconscious.
“There are various other factors, of course, affecting the anti-Israel stance and one of those is anti-Semitism. There is certainly anti-Semitic influence among the media and among certain British government institutions.”
“There is a desire to appease militant Islam, as well,” Kemp adds. “There is an increasing Islamic population in the UK, and the overwhelming majority of them are anti- Israel and anti-Semitic. Politicians and opinion leaders in the UK wish to appease those militant Muslims in order to prevent them from carrying out attacks against us.”
Kemp makes the point that this trend in Britain is also reflected further afield. “It is certainly a Europe-wide attitude which dominates a Europe with an increasing Islamic population,” he says. “I’m not suggesting all Muslims are extremists, or support violence and terrorism. But, what I would say is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims is opposed to Israel and is anti-Semitic.
“AS THEY gain dominance in different Western countries and threaten us with violence that they sometimes carry out – we’ve seen it in Paris, in Denmark, in London, where a British soldier was decapitated by Islamic extremists – there is an inclination among many people, who maybe ought to know better, to appease that violence and appease that dominance, and therefore side with them against Israel.”
Kemp’s challenging of mainstream notions of a demonic Jewish state and his views on the British media’s perceived left-wing, pro-Arab, anti-Israel bias, have set him up as a target for attack, both verbal and physical. “I’ve had a large number of threats made against me as a result of my stance,” Kemp reveals. “It’s been discovered that my name is on the Al Shabab [jihadist terrorist group] death list, for example, but I’ve had numerous other threats made against me. I’ve had my stance attacked in the media. They’re perfectly justified in doing that if they disagree with me.”
“However, for example, when I was in Israel during last summer’s Gaza conflict, very few British media stations would interview me. When you consider that I am often considered a military expert and analyst who is interviewed on Iraq, Afghanistan and many other security and defense issues, there can only be one explanation for their unwillingness to interview me on Israel, and that is because they have a very strong anti-Israel agenda and they know that my perspective on Israel is objective.”
The debate over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to US Congress in March raged fiercely both at home and abroad. Does Kemp believe that Netanyahu’s uncompromising stance on negotiations with Iran was really worth risking a deterioration in Israel’s essential relationship with the US? His response was a robust a defense of Netanyahu.
“I was in Congress when he made the speech. I saw the reaction of Congress and felt it was very similar to the reaction to Winston Churchill in 1941, when he spoke to the joint congressional session. It wasn’t so much [Netanyahu’s] right to make that speech having been invited; it was his duty, his obligation. He recognizes the existential threat to his country of a nuclear armed Iran – it’s been described, I think very aptly, as a nuclear Auschwitz – a threat that could result in the murder of thousands, if not millions of Israelis. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are also worried by a potential Iranian nuclear deal and it is likely to lead to an arms race.
“I know that the Israeli-US relationship in defense and intelligence is extremely close and will continue to be extremely close. Yes, of course, the relationship between the White House and the Israeli government has been affected adversely by what’s happened, but I don’t think that’s as important as the need for that speech.”
Our discussion turned to the United Nations, where his opinions have more than once ruffled a few feathers. Does he believe that Israel is right to be wholly skeptical about the UN? “Entirely. The UN, in particular the UN Human Rights Council, seems to me to be an instrument to attack Israel. They seem to devote a disproportionate amount of their efforts into trying to undermine Israel and that is partly as a result of many of the member states being vehemently opposed to Israel. I think Israel is right to be concerned about that.”
KEMP EXPLAINS that he had recently given evidence to the Geneva-based UN commission of investigation on Gaza where he had been “well received.” They listened to what he had to say, and their report on last year’s Gaza conflict may be delayed until June to take into account his testimony and that of other experts. The colonel is not overly confident, though, that it will make a huge difference.
“I think their staff is going to be so heavily biased against Israel that it will be quite a struggle for them to produce a fair report,” he suggests.
Does he believe that it would take a major terrorist atrocity in Europe before Europeans finally understand Israel’s situation? “Actually,” he responds, “I believe it’s worse than that. Don’t forget we’ve already had some catastrophic terror attacks in Europe, and we’ve had numerous other attacks and many attempted attacks that have all been publicized. Too many people – and, I’m afraid, too many people in positions of authority who should know better – actually blame Israel for these attacks. Israel is often blamed for all the Islamic terror in the world. Many people will tell you that if Israel makes peace with the Palestinians there will no longer be any terrorism, which is, of course, naive and ridiculous.
“I suspect there will be many people, even in the event of a greater catastrophic terrorist attack in Europe, who will probably blame Israel for that as well,” Kemp sighs.
So, despite the opposing view still being the majority view in most parts of the world, does Kemp still stand by his famous 2009 assertion that Israel’s army is the most moral, and will he continue to be an advocate for Israel in the future? “I do stand by that, and my experiences in Israel and on the Gaza border last summer confirmed to me that I was right. Israel’s procedures and methods of preventing civilian casualties have improved and been refined since Cast Lead, when I first made that statement.
“But if people don’t believe me,” Kemp concludes, “then they can also listen to General Dempsey, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most powerful military man in the world. He sent his own staff to learn lessons from Israel, to get ideas for the US forces on how to prevent casualties in a civilian combat zone.
“In a recent statement, Dempsey said that Israel took immense steps to minimize civilian casualties. I definitely stand by what I said.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. His website is www.paulalster.com and he can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster