When Israel launched Operation Protective Edge to stop the flood of rockets being launched at its cities, and particularly when it mounted a short ground operation to locate and destroy infiltration tunnels under the border, there was the predictable response from the UN, the NGOs and Israel’s usual critics that it was causing ‘disproportionate’ civilian casualties in Gaza. Surprisingly (or not), the Obama Administration and State Department joined the chorus.
You probably recall John Kerry’s sarcastic remark that Israel had carried out a “hell of a pinpoint operation.” And you may remember that back in July, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that “there’s more that could be done [by Israel]” to reduce civilian casualties. There are also reports of a particularly ‘combative’ phone call from President Obama to PM Netanyahu during the war.
All along, Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, was saying that as a matter of fact, the IDF was doing an unprecedentedly good job in protecting Gaza civilians, even to the point of limiting its effectiveness against Hamas fighters:
Israel’s ratio of civilian to military casualties in Operation Protective Edge was only one-fourth of the average in warfare around the world, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan Col. (res.) Richard Kemp told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee [on Sept. 3, 2014].
Kemp pointed out that, during the operation, there was approximately one civilian casualty for ever terrorist killed by the IDF, whereas the average in the world is four civilians for every combatant, and that, when taking into consideration Hamas’s use of human shields, this shows how careful the IDF is.
“No army in the world acts with as much discretion and great care as the IDF in order to minimize damage. The US and the UK are careful, but not as much as Israel,” he told the committee.
On Thursday, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, added his endorsement of the IDF’s attempt to limit civilian casualties in Gaza:
I actually do think that Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties. In fact, about 3 months ago we sent, we asked [IDF Chief of Staff] Benny [Gantz] if we could send a lessons learned team – one of the things we do better than anybody I think is learn – and we sent a team of senior officers and non-commissioned officers over to work with the IDF to get the lessons from that particular operation in Gaza. To include the measures they took to prevent civilian casualties and what they did with tunneling, because Hamas had become very nearly a subterranean society. And so, that caused the IDF some significant challenges. But they did some extraordinary things to try to limit civilian casualties to include calling out, making it known that they were going to destroy a particular structure. Even developed some techniques, they call it roof knocking, to have something knock on the roof, they would display leaflets to warn citizens and population to move away from where these tunnels. But look in this kind of conflict, where you are held to a standard that your enemy is not held to, you’re going to be criticized for civilian casualties. So I think if Benny were sitting here right now he would say to you we did everything we could and now we’ve learned from that mission and we think there are some other things we could do in the future and we will do those. The IDF is not interested in creating civilian casualties they’re interested in stopping the shooting of rockets and missiles, out of the Gaza Strip and in to Israel, and its an incredibly difficult environment, and I can say to you with confidence that I think that … they acted responsible.
These are military men with experience in urban warfare, and I think that if anyone can be called ‘experts’, they are the ones. With all due respect, I think their judgment on this subject is better than that of Ms. Psaki, Secretary Kerry and President Obama.
So yesterday, the intrepid Matt Lee of the AP asked Psaki whether the Chairman of the JCS knew what he was talking about:
QUESTION: Yesterday, the ICC made its decision that there was no case to prosecute for war crimes in Gaza. But also yesterday – and you spoke about that very briefly here. But also yesterday, General Dempsey, who is no slouch when it comes to military things, told an audience in New York that the Israelis went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage during the Gaza war.
And I’m puzzled, because I thought it was the position of the Administration – or maybe it was just the position of the State Department and the White House – that Israel was not doing enough to live up to its – what you called its own high standards. Back on August 3rd, there was the statement you put out after the UNRWA school incident, saying that the U.S. “is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling.” And that was some pretty fierce criticism.
How do you reconcile these two apparent divergent points of view? When this statement came out, the United States was appalled? Did that just mean the State Department was appalled?
MS. PSAKI: No, that is the position of the Administration; it remains the position of the Administration. As we made clear throughout the summer’s conflict, we supported Israel’s right to self-defense and strongly condemned Hamas’s rocket attacks that deliberately targeted civilians, and the use of tunnels, of course, of attacks into Israel. However, we also expressed deep concern and heartbreak for the civilian death toll in Gaza and made clear, as you noted in the statement you pointed to, that we believed that Israel could have done more to prevent civilian casualties, and it was important that they held their selves to a high standard. So that remains our view and position about this summer’s events.
QUESTION: Okay. But I’m still confused as to how you can reconcile the fact that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – who knows a bit about how military operations work, I would venture to guess; I don’t know him, but I assume that he wouldn’t be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff if he was – if he didn’t —
MS. PSAKI: Correct.
QUESTION: — says that the Israelis essentially did the best that they could and lived up to – by extension lived up to their high standards by taking – by going to, quote, “extraordinary lengths” to limit the collateral damage.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I would point you to the chairman’s team for his – more specifics on his comments. But it remains the broad view of the entire Administration that they could have done more and they should have taken more – all feasible precautions to prevent civilian casualties.
Apparently they don’t think much of Gen. Dempsey’s expertise. Or they don’t care.