In an exclusive interview, Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, speaks about the conflict with Hamas, the ethics of war, the battle for public opinion, and the prospects for peace
• Peace is far from breaking out, he says.
Judith BergmanCol. Richard Kemp Photo credit: Yoni Reif, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies
Col. Richard Kemp, CBE, has been spending time in Israel, where he spoke at Shurat Hadin’s “Towards a New Laws of War” Conference, and at Bar-Ilan University, which bestowed him with an honorary doctorate in recognition of his stalwart battle against terrorism and terrorist organizations. Kemp, now retired from the British Army, was commander of the British forces in Afghanistan in 2003 and served in Iraq, the Balkans and Northern Ireland. For the last five years of his 30-year military career, Kemp served as top adviser to the British prime minister on questions of intelligence and counterterrorism.
Q: Can Israel win the asymmetric war launched against it by Hamas?
“I have no doubt that if the IDF had wanted to destroy Hamas it could have done so. The reality of finishing off Hamas, however, would have been that Israel would have had to take responsibility for Gaza. No one else would. Not the Palestinian Authority, not Egypt and not the international community. Gaza would have been on Israel’s shoulders. Running Gaza would have been a huge commitment and a thankless one, as well. Israel would not have received any gratitude from the people of Gaza — on the contrary. And all this at a time when there is a threat from Hezbollah in the north, Islamic State and al-Qaida in Syria, jihadist groups in the Sinai, and, above all, the threat from Iran. I think that was the main reason Israel did not finish off Hamas.
“Another reason Israel did not finish Hamas can be found if you compare Gaza to the battle of Fallujah, which is probably the most comparable situation to that in Gaza. Speaking very broadly, of course, but if you extrapolate from Fallujah into what would have happened if Israel had gone on to destroy Hamas in Gaza, it would most likely have cost several thousand lives of Israeli soldiers and many more wounded. It would have required an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. Probably tens of thousands of Gaza civilians would have died in that process, which would have resulted in massive pressure on Israel from the international community.”
Q: Retired IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has said that Operation Protective Edge lasted seven weeks, because Israel kept a steady flow of humanitarian supplies to the Gaza Strip. He stressed that this was the ethical thing to do. Would the U.S. or the U.K. have made a similar ethical choice?
“It is very hard to say, when you are talking about a hypothetical situation, but I do think that, compared to the way most countries would react, Israel is extremely patient and tolerant of attacks coming from Gaza. Not just the ones that came during Operation Protective Edge, but also the sporadic missiles shot at Israel since 2005, when Israel left the Gaza Strip, and which have been fired into Israel in the last couple of days. I do not think it is a situation that many countries would tolerate for as long as Israel has. The U.S. and the U.K. would not have put up with such attacks for so many years. They would have taken much stronger and more decisive action in order to ensure that these rocket attacks would not occur again.
“Israel is constrained in a way that other countries are not. I think there is a particular humanity within the nation of Israel and a particular desire not to kill people unnecessarily. It was summed up in Golda Meir’s words when she said that ‘we can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.’ I think that sums up the ethos and the morality of Israel.
“In addition to that, Israel is restrained by the international community, in particular by the United States, which affects Israel’s reactions. It has to because Israel depends, as every other country in the world does, on other nations to survive and so it has to take account of public and political opinion in the world. One of the problems, of course, is that the attitude of the Western world toward Israel is far harsher than it is toward any other nation and that is counterproductive, since it has the effect of constraining Israel more greatly and prevents it from acting decisively militarily speaking, which effectively only serves to prolong the conflict.”
Q: Is there a way out of this predicament for Israel and the repeated confrontations with Hamas?
“It is a situation that Israel will face time and time again. Israel obviously does whatever it can in terms of intelligence, diplomacy and political influence to make its case and to make the world understand the reality, but the real responsibility lies with the international community, which is so heavily engaged in the Israel-Palestine conflict, far more than in any other conflicts in the world.
“Rather than constantly trying to pressure Israel, the international community should take some responsibility for seeking to resolve this situation. Not by pushing Israel into another round of peace talks, which are not going to be productive, but by pressurizing the Palestinians and the nations that support the Palestinians into acting more responsibly. The only way out of this repeated cycle of violence is if the international community take concerted action to constrain the Palestinians.
“The reality, however, is that the international community’s response is the exact opposite. They encourage violence by condemning Israel constantly and by not condemning the real villains in this situation — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PA.”
Q: Nonmilitary people have little understanding of war, yet journalists and human rights activists pass judgment on Israel’s military actions all the time. How can you widen the understanding of the military challenges Israel faces?
“Conferences like Shurat Hadin are valuable, because they highlight the realities of armed conflict and the laws of armed conflict as they apply to modern day conflict as opposed to traditional conflict. The more lawyers and military people who understand military conflict make the case for Israel in the media and to political leaders — the more that happens, the more it will have of an effect. One example is José María Aznar’s group, Friends of Israel Initiative, which uses military experts to inform governments to make them realize the realities of war.
“I also gave evidence to the U.N. independent commission in Geneva that is investigating the Gaza conflict in February this year and I gave them a comprehensive briefing on my perception of the operations of the IDF based on my observations — I was here for the entire conflict — and on my wider military experience. The U.N. commission readily admitted that they have no military experience or knowledge. They did actually welcome the input that I gave them. In my case, they did not ask me to go there, I put myself forward and I think that kind of action is helpful for military observers and legal experts, who want truth to come out rather than a distorted picture — to impose themselves on the situation. The U.N. were resistant initially, but they did eventually agree to it.”
Q: In explaining its case to the world, what obstacles does the IDF face compared to British forces?
“The real problem is the media — I say it as a blanket term, but obviously it does not apply to all. Western politicians in the U.S., U.K. and other countries are heavily influenced by the media. Many media organizations are anti-Israel and they do not want to report the news objectively. They shape the news in terms of their own agendas, which are anti-Israeli. That is the biggest factor influencing the behavior of the international community. The media organizations are themselves influenced and manipulated by the Palestinians and their supporters, but that is only because they allow themselves to be manipulated by them.
“However, there are other factors. In European countries, there are significant Muslim populations. Large percentages are strongly anti-Israel, and most politicians, in addition to being heavily influenced by the media, are influenced by their perception of needing to appease these populations and their views.
“It is so easy for the media to influence public opinion against Israel and to control what is happening. Israel can extoll its virtues as much as it wants — none of it matters when you show a photograph of dead children from an Israeli bombing attack. That trumps everything. The fact that all the deaths in these conflicts are ultimately the responsibility of the Palestinian terror groups that force an Israeli response is normally not considered.
“In comparison, British troops overall have the benefit of the doubt. It is not media driven in the same way against British soldiers. Take the BBC, as an example. If British forces carry out an airstrike on a Taliban position in Afghanistan and during that airstrike 10 civilians are killed, it will be talked about, but it will not be automatically condemned as a war crime and reported in that way. There will not be a media outcry against them.
“If Israel does the same thing, it will be condemned and it will often be reported in a very biased way. The IDF is not given the benefit of the doubt. It is just a completely different and distorted method of reporting Israeli actions and it has a huge effect. Those things mean that Israel as a Western democracy is in a much more difficult position than any other country.”
Q: Is there a viable short-term solution to the troubles of the region or are we looking at a perpetual continuation of the status quo?
“There is no short-term, no medium-term, and not even a long-term solution. The fact that there is a problem does not mean that there is a solution. I am not optimistic. Israel’s neighbors have deliberately perpetuated this conflict over many decades by holding hostage Palestinian refugees, facilitated by the U.N., keeping them in perpetual refugee status and not allowing them to integrate into the countries that they have gone to. Meaning that they and their descendants, children and grandchildren, are political hostages. This situation has not occurred anywhere else in the world; it is only in relation to the Palestinians and it is an indication of how much governments in the region wish to use the Palestinians as a political weapon.