The mobilisation of Israeli forces around Gaza this week was strikingly reminiscent of the British and American build-up of troops along the Kuwait and Iraq borders before Operation Desert Storm, the massive armoured counter-attack that hurled Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991.
Talking to some of the men and women heading to the front – reservists and full-time soldiers alike – was just like talking to British soldiers. The same humour, the same stoicism, the same unspoken apprehension of the fighting man about to put his life on the line.
While I know many British Jews serve with the Israeli military, I was nevertheless taken aback to hear the dulcet, north-London tones of a couple of English lads in IDF khaki at a service station south of Ashkelon. After 30 years in the infantry, I am a good judge of soldiers. Like every one of their Israeli brothers-in-arms that I met, these men were absolutely not the bloodthirsty killers so often portrayed in the international media.
Yet much of the media, and many politicians, diplomats and human-rights activists believe there is an equivalence between the military actions of a Western democratic nation seeking to lawfully defend its people and a jihadist terrorist group indiscriminately attacking civilians and using its population as human shields. I recall no such equivalence being drawn between Allied forces attacking under international law, and the rape, plunder and callous violence of Saddam’s forces on the rampage in Kuwait.
Predictably enough, the media has been full of shrill accusations of indiscriminate Israeli air strikes and deliberate targeting of civilians. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Every strike in a civilian area is authorised in real time, personally, by the commander of the Israeli Air Force or one of his deputies. As in Cast Lead, extraordinary steps have been taken to minimise civilian casualties – leaflet drops, text and radio messages, phone calls. Israel has even developed live munitions that explode harmlessly above terrorist-occupied buildings before a strike, warning innocent civilians to leave.
Intelligence is vital for accurate targeting and minimising civilian casualties. The Israelis have refined technical intelligence collection as well as use of agents on the ground to a high degree of sophistication. Not without a heavy cost – suspected Israeli informants were publicly executed by Hamas this week.
Despite such immense efforts, innocent civilians, including women, children and old people have been killed in Israeli air strikes. Every one of these is a tragedy. But Hamas and its terrorist bedfellows Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committee must shoulder responsibility. They deliberately place their weapons, launch sites, communication centres and leaders right in the heart of civilian areas.
Thus Israel’s choice is stark: put up with terrorist missiles aimed at its civilian population, or attack and risk civilian casualties in Gaza.
What do other countries do? Turkey, faced with terrorist attacks by Kurdish separatists has repeatedly and viciously bombed what it believes to be Kurd strongholds in the sovereign territory of Iraq. Yet Turkey has been vehemently critical of Israel for taking similar – though far more discriminating – action. Many have criticised Israel for the surgical strike that killed Hamas terrorist commander Ahmed Jabari. Few levelled similar criticism against the Americans for eliminating Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.
Diplomats are horrified that Israel might launch a ground attack against Hamas. Our Foreign Secretary has warned that international support for Israel’s operations would fracture. Yet dozens of Western nations have taken part in 11 years of high intensity ground and air warfare among the civilian population in Iraq and Afghanistan since the 9/11 terror attacks. The scale is different, the principle the same.
So were the troops poised to go in? Everything I have seen shows that Jerusalem meant business. Yet, speaking to senior military and government officials, I sensed great reluctance. Rightly, too. Massed infantry, tanks and artillery are a very blunt instrument and would have led to significant civilian casualties. And ground troops are not as invulnerable as their comrades in the air.
But if the ceasefire does not result in Hamas ceasing its attacks on Israel’s civilian population and its military, and an end to weapons smuggling, the IDF may have no choice.
Colonel Richard Kemp is the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan