This submission to the UN Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict is based on observations on the ground during the conflict, 29 years’ military experience of conflicts of this type, intelligence work relating to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, knowledge of the IDF and Israeli intelligence services, study of the Israel-Palestine conflict and observations on the ground during the 2012 Gaza conflict. I should add that I have no formal, paid or unpaid, connection with the IDF or with any other organ of the Israeli government.Read the whole thing.
In my opinion the actions taken by the IDF were necessary to defend the people of Israel from the ongoing, intensive and lethal attacks by Hamas and other groups in Gaza. It is the inalienable duty of every government to use its armed forces to protect its citizens and its terrain from external attack.
...If, as I am asserting, it was necessary for Israel to conduct military action to defend its people against attack from Gaza; and if, as I am also asserting, the IDF conducted, in general terms, the most appropriate form of operations, namely precision air and artillery strikes against the command and control infrastructure and the missile launching infrastructure, and a limited ground incursion to locate and destroy the tunnels; the question then arises as to how these operations were conducted in relation to the Laws of Armed Conflict.
Much of the Hamas military infrastructure was located amongst the civilian population in Gaza. In these circumstances, neutralizing the threat from Hamas made civilian casualties unavoidable. Under the Laws of Armed Conflict this fact does not render such operations illegal assuming they were necessary. However the IDF had a duty to distinguish between legitimate military targets and civilians and to ensure that operations were conducted in accordance with the principle of proportionality as well as necessity.
It is worth emphasizing that proportionality is not, as often believed by critics of Israel, a relationship between the numbers of casualties on either side in a conflict, but a calculation that considers whether the incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated in an attack.
From my own research as well as briefings from and discussions with Israeli legal, military and political leaders, I understand and know well the ethos and operating principles of the IDF and I know that their commanders place great emphasis on adherence to the laws of armed conflict. This includes the principle of proportionality, which is set out in Israel’s manual of military law and is recognized by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
...I have frequently questioned senior and junior IDF personnel on these issues and I have found that communication of these directions is effective. In my experience the most junior soldiers in the IDF understand them and the imperative of adhering to them in conflict.
I questioned Israeli commanders and soldiers on the ground on their actions in combat on the Gaza border immediately before and immediately after they were fighting in Gaza and during ceasefire periods. I spoke to soldiers from infantry, tank, artillery and engineer forces.
Many of them expressed frustration at the restrictions imposed upon them by the rules of engagement, in the same way as British, US and other Western soldiers express such frustration. This was generally explained to me as frustration due to the additional risks imposed on their own lives and the lives of their fellow soldiers and also on the reduction in effectiveness against an enemy brought about by adherence to the highly restrictive IDF rules of engagement. The latter relates to restrictions that I was told frequently allowed enemy fighters to escape rather than take the risk that innocent civilians might be killed.
Nevertheless all of the soldiers that I questioned – including those who claimed they were frustrated by these restrictions – accepted and understood the need to adhere to the rules and told me that they and their comrades did adhere to the rules during combat in Gaza. I found this level of acceptance to be higher than would generally be found among soldiers from other Western armies that I have commanded or served alongside. The expressions of frustration also, in my view, tend to confirm adherence to the rules of engagement – even though they didn’t necessarily like the rules they still apparently complied with them.
Many soldiers that I questioned told me about encounters with Palestinian fighters among the civilian population and the steps they had taken to avoid civilian casualties. Soldiers told me that not only were they not permitted to kill, wound or mistreat innocent civilians but also that their own morality would not allow it. For example, one engineer soldier who had recently emerged from a Hamas attack tunnel told me that even while advancing along the tunnel, faced by a wide range of potential threats to his life, uppermost in his mind was the need to avoid killing innocent civilians. He explained that he knew Hamas sometimes used innocent civilians as human shields in the tunnels.
...I previously commented in relation to the 2008-09 Gaza conflict that no army in the history of warfare had taken greater steps than the IDF to minimise harm to civilians in a combat zone. My observations during the 2014 conflict confirmed this. No other army that I have served in or alongside or that I have studied and researched has yet taken such extensive precautions. This includes British and US forces. It is in part due to the specific circumstances of the Gaza conflict, which allow the IDF to go to such lengths whereas other armed forces in other situations may not be able to do so.
However, during some operations in Afghanistan, British and US forces adopted some methods developed by the IDF in Gaza. And in November 2014, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the IDF ‘went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties’ during the 2014 conflict in Gaza. He revealed that he had sent a delegation of US military officers to Israel to learn about the measures that the IDF took to prevent civilian casualties.
...In conclusion, in my opinion the IDF took exceptional measures to adhere to the Laws of Armed Conflict and to minimise civilian casualties in Gaza. During the conflict many politicians, UN leaders, human rights groups and NGOs called on the Israelis to take greater action to minimise civilian casualties in Gaza. Yet none of them suggested any additional ways of doing this. I conclude that this was because Israel was taking all feasible steps. I believe Israel to be world leaders in actions to minimise civilian casualties; and this is borne out by the efforts made by the US Army, the most sophisticated and powerful in the world, to learn from the IDF on this issue.
In my opinion Israel is also making strenuous efforts to investigate incidents where civilians were apparently unlawfully killed, wounded or ill-treated, and where civilian property was unlawfully damaged or stolen. I am not aware of any nation that has conducted more comprehensive or resolute investigations into its own military activities than Israel during and following the 2014 Gaza conflict.
On the other hand, Hamas and other groups in Gaza took the opposite approach to that of the IDF. Their entire strategy was based on flouting the Laws of Armed Conflict, deliberately targeting the Israeli civilian population, using their own civilian population as human shields and seeking to entice the IDF to take military action that would kill large numbers of Gaza civilians for their own propaganda purposes. There was and is of course no accountability or investigation of any allegations against Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza.
..Many people believe that your findings are a foregone conclusion, as the findings of the 2008-09 Commission regrettably proved to be. They believe that you will roundly and without foundation condemn Israel for war crimes while at best making only token criticism of Hamas and other Gaza extremist groups. If you genuinely want to contribute to peace and to improve human rights for the people of Gaza and of Israel then you must have the courage to reject the UN Human Rights Council’s persistent and discriminatory anti-Israel programme and produce a balanced and fair report into these tragic events.