The Morality of IDF Maneuvers in Gaza

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Richard Kemp

Richard Kemp

Other than hardened anti-Israel zealots and supporters of Hamas, few have questioned the need for Israel to take military action to defend its citizens after the depredations of Oct. 7.

But the Israel Defense Forces have come under intense criticism about the way it is conducting the war in the Gaza Strip, with allegations of excessive force and even indiscriminate attacks. Some former Western military officers have joined the chorus of condemnation, suggesting the IDF should adopt the tactics of coalition forces in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.


Given the outcomes of both campaigns, perhaps neither provides the ideal template for how jihadists can be defeated.

Amid this growing reproof from afar, I have not yet heard one single realistic proposal for an alternative way of operating that would reduce civilian harm while still achieving the necessary objectives. That tells me that the IDF has no choice but to prosecute this conflict along current lines. But given the ill-informed accusations and wide-ranging misunderstanding of how the IDF is operating in Gaza, it is worth a closer look at what the IDF has been doing to mitigate harm to civilians.

I have been in Israel since the start of this war in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter, rape, torture and kidnapping spree three months ago. During that time, I have been extensively briefed on the conduct of operations by IDF commanders and staff and visited a wide range of IDF air and ground combat units, including inside the Gaza Strip, on several occasions, when I have been able to observe military operations firsthand.

During “Operation Swords of Iron,” the IDF has faced and continues to face one of the most difficult and complex combat environments any armed forces have ever had to deal with. Hamas and its fellow Gaza terrorists has, over several years, been preparing the territory with weapons and ammo caches, booby traps, mines, kill zones, and ambush and sniper positions.

They have an armory that includes sophisticated ground combat systems including thermobaric anti-armor missiles, explosively formed penetrator IEDs, long-range sniper rifles, explosive suicide vests, remote detonation equipment, attack drones, surveillance drones and ground-mounted surveillance cameras. In addition, they have positioned a vast array of mobile rocket launchers that continue to attack Israel’s civilian population.

Hamas fighters and their infrastructure are comprehensively embedded in all populated areas of the Gaza Strip, and frequently relocate both above and below ground according to the movements of the IDF and the civilian population. The terrorists have used predominantly urban areas to afford maximum cover and facilitate concealed approach and escape routes.

Hamas has constructed an extensive network of underground tunnels to gain protection for terrorists, to move fighters and equipment, to store weapons, to house command and control facilities, as well as to launch attacks and carry out ambushes. Some of these tunnels have been fitted with heavy blast doors to afford greater protection and frustrate assaulting troops. They are booby-trapped and rigged with explosives, early-warning devices and surveillance cameras. I have been into the tunnels during this conflict and can confirm that this network adds exponentially to the already immense challenges of fighting in urban areas, recognized by military professionals as perhaps the most demanding of all battle environments.

Hamas’ tactics are based on the exploitation of the civilian population of Gaza. Their above-ground infrastructure uses protected locations, including a large number of schools, hospitals and mosques for weapons storage, fighting positions, and tunnel access and egress. They have similarly used office and commercial facilities, shops and residential buildings. I have been briefed by combat troops on the ground that in some areas as much as every house and in other areas every other house contains elements of terrorist infrastructure.

It is a standard Hamas tactic for terrorists to move unarmed, in civilian clothing, among the civilian population, collecting weapons stashed in civilian buildings and then carrying out attacks against IDF troops. Hamas often compels civilians to remain in positions that the IDF is likely to attack, seeking to either deter an assault or exploit civilian deaths for international propaganda purposes if an attack is carried out.

In addition, Hamas is holding a large number of hostages in the Gaza Strip, which adds significant complications as the IDF seeks to find and rescue them and to avoid inadvertently killing them. Hamas has used the presence of their captives, including simulated and recorded hostage voices and related markings, to lure IDF soldiers into ambushes. Along with the tunnels, this adds yet another unique dimension to this conflict.
No place devoid of terrorists, munitions

This daunting combination of concurrent and conflicting challenges, coupled with the fact that Hamas systematically uses Gazans as human shields, and operates within and beneath civilian infrastructure, means that it is literally not possible to achieve the objectives of defeating Hamas and rescuing the hostages without the tragic consequence of civilian casualties and the regrettable destruction of civilian property from both ground and air.
Furthermore, Hamas’ form of operations — most of which directly and intentionally contravene the laws of armed conflict — explains the necessity for the IDF to act with immense combat power when required and to operate with force across all areas of Gaza. No place in the Strip is devoid of terrorists and their munitions unless and until the IDF has cleared and secured them.

I have been briefed on IDF techniques and training for mitigating harm to civilians by commanders, staff officers and lawyers. Measures that the IDF routinely take include selection of munitions to achieve the necessary effect on enemy targets while reducing the prospects of civilian casualties, especially in air operations where such calibration is more practicable; calculating proportionality; discriminating between combatants and non-combatants; and warning and enabling civilians to leave areas that are to be targeted.

That includes airdropping 6 million leaflets warning civilians to leave specified areas and indicating places of greater safety. In addition, the IDF has made 14 million pre-recorded phone calls and 72,000 personal calls warning civilians to leave targeted areas. The IDF monitors target areas from the air and ground to confirm the departure of civilians where possible before striking.

With these and other measures, the IDF has done all it can to warn civilians of impending attacks. Temporary evacuation of civilians from areas of intense fighting into places of relative safety is the best way to keep civilians as far as possible out of harm’s way when fighting an enemy that has no regard for its population and actively seeks to cause their deaths to bring pressure on Israel to cease its defensive operations inside Gaza.

The IDF is also working hard to alleviate civilian suffering by facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid. That includes daily pauses in fighting and the opening of humanitarian corridors and humanitarian relief zones. The IDF enables the supply of hundreds of tons of aid each day, and current constraints on aid delivery are due not to IDF-imposed restrictions but to the capacity of U.N. aid organizations. The IDF is striving to make the flow of aid more effective than it has been so far, including potentially opening an additional crossing point into Gaza.

Information and intelligence shortcomings, operational mistakes, human error, miscalculations and technical malfunctions occur in all wars and sometimes tragically lead to the loss of civilian life and indeed to fratricide.

Based on my military experience in similar types of conflict and on my direct observations throughout the first three months of this war, in my opinion, the IDF has taken all reasonable measures to achieve its mission while minimizing harm to the civilian population and maximizing humanitarian relief. Nor are Israel’s military objectives optional or negotiable.

To eliminate the potential for a recurrence of another Oct. 7-like massacre, which Hamas’ leaders have repeatedly threatened, Hamas’ fighting capabilities must be destroyed; its ability to continue firing lethal rockets into the Israeli population must be denied; and every possible effort must be made to rescue the hostages.

Col. Richard Kemp is a former British Army commander who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Ireland and the Balkans wars

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