Best-case scenario

The former commander of British forces in Afghanistan says Israel has done the best it can to avoid civilian casualties while fighting a callous enemy

British Col. (ret.) Richard Kemp speaks to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ in Jerusalem last week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
British Col. (ret.) Richard Kemp speaks to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ in Jerusalem last week.
In 2003, British Col. (ret.) Richard Kemp’s forces in Afghanistan began facing a growing threat from suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. As more and more problems cropped up, he noticed that at each turn he was looking to Israelis for answers, increasingly seeing Israeli technology and innovations save lives among his troops fighting the Taliban.
“Israel and the UK are among the closest allies in sharing intelligence in the world. Israel has helped the UK in a number of important ways in saving lives,” says Kemp, who developed a manual for combating the suicide bomber threat with advice from Israeli colleagues.
Five years later, he found himself watching media coverage of Operation Cast Lead. “I saw the lies and distortions in the media; I wasn’t prepared just to sit and watch. My principles and loyalties would not allow those lies if they had been told about my soldiers, and the IDF was being heavily abused. I wasn’t in Gaza in 2008, but I knew from my experience [fighting terrorism] that what was being said was incorrect.”
Since then, he has worked tirelessly to shed light on Israel’s actions and provide insight into its “unprecedented” steps to avoid civilian casualties.
KEMP IS a fit, stocky man in his mid-50s who still carries himself as every bit the career soldier he was.
His career was spent in the Royal Anglian Regiment, a unit whose honors and tradition date to the 17th century.
Kemp’s baptism of fire confronting terror was spent in Northern Ireland from 1977 to 2000, with brief stints in the Balkans and Cyprus. He saw firsthand the Irish Republican Army’s terror campaign, which reached its height in the ’80s. “Northern Ireland, in some ways, is comparable and some ways different [from what Israel faces]. They are characterized as the ‘good terrorists,’ [but] they were evil, vile, vicious swine – though not involved in the same mass killing as Islamist terror.
“One difference, although they did sacrifice their civilian population, they were not intent on mass murder [of their own civilians].”
In contrast to Hamas, “the one overriding factor was always the survival of their terrorists. If anything happened in which they might be killed or captured, they would abandon car bombs, weapons, everything [to avoid being captured],” he says.
After Cast Lead, Kemp wrote a paper for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs analyzing international law and the conflict. In October 2009 he spoke before the UN Human Rights Council in the wake of the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes.
His takeaway, based on examination of the conflict through the lens of his own expertise and military background, was that Israel “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in the combat zones than any other army in the history of warfare.”
Considering himself an objective observer, Kemp flew into Israel to try to get as close to Protective Edge as possible. With the UN Human Rights Council passing a resolution on July 24 to form a commission to examine possible Israeli war crimes, the retired colonel believes he can once again shed light on what is really happening.
“The way I can do that is that I am not Jewish or Israeli, and I am not a liar… also, I have 30 years of experience in exactly this type of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, where the tactics were varied but similar.
I find that a great deal of media reporting from outside of Israel is grossly distorted, and doesn’t comprehend the reality of what’s happening.”
KEMP BEGAN his recent trip to Israel by visiting homes damaged by rocket fire in Ashkelon and the areas surrounding Gaza.
“I went into a house in Ashkelon after a direct hit and spoke to a 17-year-old girl, who showed me where she had been when the siren went off and how she got to the shelter in time to close the door, just as the rocket landed. If she had remained there, undoubtedly she would have been dead.”
Speaking on the same day an editorial in Britain’s Guardian called Hamas rockets “useless fireworks,” Kemp opines, “They can shove it.” His feeling from speaking to fellow Britons is that while the majority of people are either uninformed about Israel or tend to have a negative view, former British soldiers are more sympathetic. “They saw a similar enemy in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Kemp reflects on the impact his discussions with Israeli soldiers had on him, and his view of the value placed on morality within the IDF. In one conversation with pilots, Kemp recounts, “They told me the number of times that day they had been given a mission and had to keep aborting... due to presence of civilians.” Kemp asked a soldier if it was frustrating, this continuous circling back, and was astounded at the answer he received.
He quoted the soldier as saying, “‘I feel that the job I’m doing, which is a hard job, is being conducted in a moralistic fashion,’” to which Kemp added, “I felt that was an admirable sentiment and reflects the morality of the IDF.”
ONE OF the main accusations against the Jewish state is the use of disproportionate force against Hamas. On July 24, Brazil recalled its ambassador for the reason of “use of disproportionate force by Israel” in the Gaza Strip.
But the actual concept of the illegality of disproportionate force in wartime has been developed over a period of 60 years, between 1907 and 1977. In 2006, International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo noted that “a crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians [principle of distinction], or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage [principle of proportionality].”
For instance, Kemp explains, if a rocket launcher is in an area which when struck has the potential to kill five civilians, the army must weigh the proportionality of those civilian deaths. If the rocket has the potential to kill many more civilians on the other side, then it is a proportionate action to destroy the target. “They [the media] misunderstand the concept of proportionality,” he says. “It isn’t about the disparity of civilian deaths, it is about a military commander making a calculation about whether to attack a target.”
Critics cite the effectiveness of the Iron Dome missile defense system as a reason not to attack rocket launchers, he continues. “But one could say, what is the chance it could kill school kids – so it is a military judgment at the time. To make an allegation of war crimes based on proportionality must be an extreme thing, like hitting a military truck with 100 kids near it.”
EXAMINING ISRAEL’S actions in Protective Edge, Kemp argues that Hamas has shown “huge resilience.” He was impressed and surprised by the number of tunnels the movement had constructed.
“It is very difficult for intelligence to detect them; the IDF has found a more robust defense than they expected.” He also notes preparations by Hamas for the Israeli ground offensive, lacing urban areas with sniper positions, improvised explosive devices, booby traps and points of egress from which to retreat; this means Israel has to be prepared for casualties.
He looks back again at Afghanistan. “Sometimes we sustained larger causalities, like at Musa Qala, which was taken and held with the Taliban; fighting in this type of terrain does create casualties.”
The international community is sending the wrong message, Kemp maintains, by not acknowledging Hamas’s use of human shields. “It is win-win for them. The first win is if they can stop the IDF from attacking a target, whether it is headquarters or an ammunition point. Equally, if the IDF does attack the target [and civilians are harmed], they also win, because it means they scored a propaganda victory.”
Therefore, the world community “plays into the Hamas game” by criticizing Israel. Part of this is motivated by bias, he asserts, pointing to the 200,000 killed in the Syrian civil war – death on a much greater scale, whose perpetrators have not drawn the same level of condemnation.
Kemp sees it as highly problematic that US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have criticized the Jewish state for the civilian causalities. “They have told Israel to minimize civilian casualties, but not told it how to do so. By undermining Israel and the ability to defeat terrorists, what they are saying is the terrorists have won – as long as the terrorists use human shields.”
He thinks this will have blowback for the EU as well, because it will restrict other states’ ability to fight terrorists who adopt the Hamas method.
Based on discussions Kemp has had with soldiers and commanders, he concludes that the human shield method works on several levels. Some people are fanatics, he says, while others may not be terrorists, but think there is a better life in another world.
“Some don’t leave due to bravado, some are forced to stay,” he says. “I’ve been told that journalists and soldiers witnessed Hamas forcing people to stay at gunpoint, and that would accord with the way things operate.”
Kemp adds that the tactic of flooding an area with civilians is an overall pattern. In a story related to him by an Israeli naval captain, he was told that fishing boats would try to approach Israeli ships and ram them. The policy of the navy is to fire warning shots across the bow of the boats, so as not to explode the engine. The people would then crowd the bow of the fishing boat, sometimes holding children.
These are not Hamas boats, Kemp points out, but this is a working theory.
ON THE matter of putting a time line on the conflict, he says the public and politicians ask the wrong questions.
He recalls the Schlieffen Plan of World War I, a German plan that pinpointed down to the minute the German offensive preparations and logistics for moving the army into France. With unseen international and domestic factors coming into play, he argues, you cannot plan for every contingency.
“They [the commanders, politicians and defense officials] will look at whether they need to send in infantry against rocket launchers because it can’t be done from the air. [As of July 24, it was still an anti-tunnel operation around the urban areas.] They will ask if there should be a unilateral cease-fire, and whether they should get Hamas out of Gaza.”
Looking to the future, would Kemp would like to go to Gaza himself, investigate on his own?
“I would like to see [Gaza] up close. But I am on an al-Qaida killing list, Al-Shabab [terrorist group] has got me on their list of people they would like to kill; it is a compliment. I suspect with my profile, I wouldn’t be welcome.”