The morality of IDF maneuvers in Gaza

Dec 14, 2023 | History, Read Now

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, despite the terrible loss of civilian life. But given the ill-informed accusations and wide-ranging misunderstanding of how the IDF is actually operating in Gaza, it is worth a closer look at what the IDF has been doing to mitigate harm to civilians.

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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 utilized the 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. Indeed, I am not aware of any comparable purposely built underground complex that any armed forces have had to tackle in any other conflict.

Hamas’s tactics are based on the exploitation of the civilian population of Gaza. Their above-ground infrastructure utilizes 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; and I have been shown, for example, children’s bedrooms used to store grenades, anti-tank missiles and other munitions.

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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. No army in the world would be able to do so, no matter what tactics they employed, and indeed no other army has ever done so in any comparable conflict.

Furthermore, Hamas’s form of operations—most of which directly and intentionally contravene the laws of armed conflict—also explain 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. I have also spoken to a large number of air and ground combat troops, and all have shown a clear understanding of the IDF rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict, as well as the personal and unit dedication to adhere to them. For example, I was present recently at a conference of operational commanders inside the Gaza Strip at which they discussed in great detail measures to avoid harm to civilians while attacking enemy positions in the close vicinity of a school that was being used for refuge by civilians. It was clear to me that the determination to protect civilian life was at the forefront of these commanders’ minds, in their planning and in their direction of tactical operations.

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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. These efforts show Israel’s commitment to humanitarian assistance, despite its often negative impact on military operations. The fact is that unilateral humanitarian pauses and creation of corridors provide a military advantage to Hamas; additionally, there is no doubt that some of the aid delivered into Gaza is appropriated by terrorists.

Information and intelligence shortcomings, operational mistakes, human error, miscalculations and technical malfunctions occur in all wars, and sometimes tragically lead to loss of civilian life and indeed to fratricide (“friendly fire” or “blue on blue”). I have witnessed and been involved in several such events in other conflicts. Inevitably, dreadful incidents of this nature have occurred in this war, too. When errors or unlawful activity are suspected, the IDF uses its Fact-Finding Assessment Mechanism (which I have observed in action) to learn lessons, prevent repetition, and, if appropriate, refer cases to the Military Advocate General for further investigation.

Based on my own 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’s leaders have repeatedly threatened, Hamas’s 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.

View this Jewish News Syndicate Report from December 14th