Friday, November 24, 2023

By Daled Amos

Colonel Richard Kemp is a retired British Army Commander who served from 1977 to 2006. He has spoken out in defense of Israel against Hamas, against those who have accused it of violating international law. I had an opportunity to talk with him about what he thought about the ceasefire with Hamas.

Colonel Richard Kemp

You don't have to have a military background to see the military benefits of this ceasefire for Hamas, but what about Israel? Other than rescuing the hostages, Does Israel get any benefit out of this ceasefire? 

I think there is nothing really that Israel can do as a result of this ceasefire that they wouldn't have been able to do anyway. There is no direct on-the-ground military advantage for Israel.

So is there any upside at all to this cease-fire for Israel?

The upside for Israel is that obviously, many people are sympathetic to the families, and a lot of pressure on the government to agree to arrange for the release of the hostages. That is important because of what Israel is going through. There are a lot of soldiers being killed and a huge amount of disruption to the society in Israel. It is extremely important that the population is kept supporting the government's actions. And I think this ceasefire and the release of hostages helps with that. That is one of the upsides. 

The other upside is there is a lot of pressure from the United States on Israel to agree to this cease-fire, and it is important for Israel to take into account the opinions of the White House because the continued support of the US president is extremely important to Israel.

Those are the only two upsides, besides getting the hostages back, which obviously is important.

On the flip side, does Hamas lose anything by this ceasefire, or is it a pure win for them?

Hamas doesn't lose anything. They can only benefit. They get breathing room in which to regroup, recover, maybe replenish weaponry, and reorganize themselves for what is going to come next. That is obviously an advantage for them, but equally a disadvantage for Israel. 

And the other benefit is for those who are already sympathetic to Hamas and opposed to Israel. Hamas's humanitarian image is going to be improved. They will be seen as willing to release some of these hostages. That doesn't add up for any rational person, but it will be portrayed in that way by some in the media who oppose Israel. So I think that is a pretty big benefit to them. And it is a pretty big drawback for Israel. There is obviously a lot of public support for what Israel is doing in light of the horrors of the seventh of October but memories fade, and they fade very quickly if you are not directly involved. I think there will be a bit of a shift of sympathy toward Hamas's image on this.

So Hamas is not going to look weak or desperate?

To me personally, it makes Hamas look very weak. It is a sign of desperation by Hamas and I hope that other people will see it that way as well. To release these hostages in exchange for 150 Hamas prisoners is an unprecedented deal by Hamas. Normally, they would want a lot more prisoners. It just shows how weak they are because frankly, the 150 prisoners who are being released -- Hamas couldn't care less about them. Whereas Israel gains the release of 50 hostages, Hamas doesn't gain these 150 prisoners because Hamas doesn't get any real benefit from them. So all Hamas is getting out of the ceasefire is that breathing room. 

There are other downsides for Israel as well, not military but geopolitical or strategic downsides. When the ceasefire goes into effect, there will be a great deal of pressure on Israel to extend it. People have been watching a large number of civilians getting killed and the destruction inside Gaza. Many people don't understand why that is necessary and are determined it should end. They will be pressuring Israel on this ceasefire to extend and extend and extend. And of course, Hamas will try to do the same thing by offering a further drip-feed of hostage releases, which if Israel does not have sufficient resolve to withstand could be very detrimental to the long-term campaign.

The second major strategic downside is that some Arab countries will see this as a sign of Israeli weakness because most Arab countries want to see Israel destroy Hamas. Hamas threatens them, maybe indirectly, but it threatens them. They want to see Israel smash Hamas. And they will see this ceasefire maybe as an Israeli weakness. I'm talking about countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. They want a strong Israel, an Israel that can defend itself and can also help defend them. So I think that this could be an undermining of confidence in Israel. 

Along those lines, some suggest that a goal of Iran on October 7 could have been to undercut the Abraham Accords as a joint front against Iran. Would you agree?

Yes, I would agree that one of the reasons for the attack was that Iran wanted to disrupt and terminate the normalization, particularly between Israel and Saudi Arabia. I think the Abraham Accords has held together during this conflict. I do think that it is quite likely that after the conflict in Gaza is over, it is likely there will be a resumption to get normalization between Israel and the Saudis. The ceasefire might delay this,  but it is likely to go ahead. The Saudis are not fools; they know very well why Iran directed this attack to happen. 

I do not believe this hostage release alone is going to be pivotal in any of these Arab relationships. It doesn't help matters because the Accords are not just about economic benefits. It is about military strength and support by Israel. Israel just has to be extremely careful to conclude this war effectively and successfully and guard against any further actions that could be seen as weakness by the Arab countries.

So taking into account the hostage deal, Israel really cannot afford to stop short of the complete elimination of Hamas?

I agree. I think it is essential that Israel achieves that and has a minimum delay in doing it. Obviously, the longer the delay, the more problematic it is. Also, I think that Israel has to look very carefully at what is happening in the north with Hezbollah. It has to be dealt with. If Israel doesn't address Hezbollah and act against Hezbollah after what Hezbollah has been doing during the last few weeks, that too will be seen as a sign of weakness. 

It is not only the Arab countries that will get that message about Israeli weakness, but also the US. The US wants to see a strong Israel. Whether that is the agenda of President Biden or was the agenda of President Obama, I do not know, but I think that in broader terms the US needs a strong Israel because the US has other major concerns outside the Middle East, including what is going on in Europe, China and Taiwan, etc. and needs a strong Israel that is not overly dependent on the US and also bolsters the security of other Arab countries against Iran. 

You wouldn't necessarily be able to tell that from Biden's actions in relation to Iran, but I think more broadly in the longer term that is important for the US and Israel.

So the repercussions of this ceasefire and hostage deal extend beyond the Middle East?

The Biden administration has had a track record of weakness, going back to the very start of his presidency, which was soon followed by the withdrawal from Afghanistan. That was a major sign of weakness. We have also seen the Biden administration's weakness over Ukraine, failing to give enough support to Ukraine to enable it to succeed against Russia. The ceasefire is good for Russia and China and the other enemies of the US. The last thing that the US needs now is further signs of weakness. The pressure on Israel not to take the war to its obvious conclusion and the pressure on Israel not to deal with Hezbollah -- play straight into the hands of Russia, China, and Iran. 

Netanyahu is in a weak position, both because of accusations that he is partly responsible for Oct 7 and because of the backlash against his judicial reforms. And that weakens Israel as well -- True, Oct 7 has unified Israel, but now with the ceasefire -- what is the mood in Israel, now?

I've been here, In Israel, since a few days following the October massacre, and I've seen what is going on here. I think that Israel is very closely united in seeking to destroy Hamas. There is not much dissent, if any, among people in Israel. I think there has been more division in terms of the hostages. I've spoken to a lot of people in different positions in the government, in the military, and the ordinary people in the street about what their views are, and obviously there are quite a few different perspectives. I would say the majority have reservations about the ceasefire to enable the release of the hostages, but I think the majority -- though they may have reservations -- also think this is the right thing to do. I haven't done my own poll, but my impression is the majority is behind what is happening. 

In straight military terms, I see the ceasefire for the hostages as a military negative for Israel, but Netanyahu has more important things to concern himself with than just the military campaign. He has to take into account public opinion and public pressure, plus pressure from the US. You have to look at the perspective of how much Israel needs the US, both politically and militarily. Israel has stood up to the US on some things but there has to be some give-and-take.

 Putting aside the geopolitical, what about the protests in the West -- how might the ceasefire affect them? 

The protestors are not going to be calmed by a short ceasefire. They are going to seize on it as something they can work on to try and continue and apply pressure on their political leaders to get the ceasefire extended. I think if anything it could lead to an upsurge. And then assuming the hostilities continue in Gaza, we could see an upsurge in protests and violence. I think it is going to get worse than it has been so far. I think the ceasefire is going to have a more inflammatory effect on the protests.

What will Gaza look like post-Hamas -- who will be in charge?

I think the IDF will have to retain overall security responsibility in Gaza, which will either require a permanent presence there or the ability to move in and out at will. Maybe they will have to take over the immediate general management of the Strip as well unless the UN steps up to the mark quickly. I suspect Israel and its partners will be trying to identify someone from within Gaza who can be empowered to take over the reconstruction as soon as possible, backed by international money. The other alternative is the PA, but I suspect this is unlikely.

Finishing up, from a military perspective is there anything that you would like to see Israel do differently? 

I don't think so. I think Israel's tactics have been remarkably successful in their military operations inside Gaza, probably exceeding the expectations of the IDF commanders. Fundamentally, I would not see an alternative to what they are doing. 

And things like the civilian death rates, we have no idea what they are because we don't believe the Hamas figures on that, though they are significant, I'm sure. But Israel is taking the most effective possible steps to minimize civilian casualties. However, it is impossible to prevent them altogether when you are fighting an enemy that hides behind the civilian population. You have two choices. You can either say you cannot attack the enemy because civilians might die and you will allow the enemy to remain a threat, or you say that it is unfortunate that some civilians are going to die -- we cannot stop it, but that is just the way it is.

The actions of the UN, particularly the Human Rights Council, the NGOs, the universities, the politicians in some cases -- their activities going back to the Goldstone Report have led to this situation. The whole objective of Hamas has been the delegitimization of Israel by carrying out attacks that force Israel to respond in ways that result in the deaths of civilians, which are then condemned as war crimes. So all of that is playing directly into Hamas's hands. That is the cycle of violence that exists in the Middle East. It is not the cycle of violence in which Israel is involved. Instead, it is the cycle of violence in which Hamas, the UN, other international bodies, and other political leaders are involved. These people who have condemned Israel unjustly of war crimes over the years have blood on their hands. They have directly led to what is going on today.

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