CIVILIAN deaths — collateral damage, as the Americans would put it — in Israeli Defence Force (IDF) military activities in Gaza are extraordinary. They don't only raise humanitarian questions; they have led to calls for investigations into possible war crimes by both sides.
In an effort to understand the military options available to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF, I spoke to Col Chris Judge, who is on active duty in the US Army. He served as an infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and is experienced in urban warfare and counter-insurgency. Judge is a graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies and has an MA in international security and strategy from King's College London.
What military tactical options are available to Israel in a high-density urban area?
Before you start moving human beings, roads have to be cleared and must remain cleared at all costs, because they are such a danger. But that will require that you kill your opponent’s ability to kill you. For Israel, there is no magic wand around that. The question will always be, ‘am I killing what’s killing me?' Unfortunately, if you look at Hamas tactics, they use civilians as body armour. They keep civilians as close as possible to them. They remain near schools and hide in hospitals and mosques where it is readily apparent that whatever tactics the Israelis use, there will be civilian casualties.
How does Hamas get heavy armaments into Gaza? The Israelis control all the borders and they patrol the coastline heavily. Where are the entry points?
If you go to any prison system you will find the most ingenious ways that people use to smuggle contraband. The prison system in the US is probably the harshest in the Western world, but if you ask a warden how drugs and guns get in they will say the whole prison population is focused towards undermining the security system. In Gaza, because of the prevailing conditions, every inhabitant has a vested interest in defeating the security system of the Israelis. If a single human wants to do something and you multiply that by two million humans with shared interests, it becomes a momentum that is impossible to contain. That has been the dominant collective disposition of Palestinians for decades, if not millennia. They have an institutional memory of ingenious ways to challenge Israel. Regardless of Israeli sea patrols, Hamas will find a way to offload arms or smuggle whatever is required for the war with Israel via a complex network of tunnels. Israel can prevent some of it but you can never stop all of it. And Hamas succeeds because there are people throughout the world who wish to help it.
From your experience of urban warfare, is the aerial bombing of Gaza the only military strategy for Israel or are there other ways to fight Hamas without the Palestinians having to pay this unbearable price?
Strategy is derived from political policy and execution is a form of tactics. If you lose sight of the relationship between policy and strategy, which are theoretical constructs, you will fail because, in war, things don’t happen in a vacuum.
But it is the strategy of Netanyahu and the IDF that is being questioned.
When you come up with a strategy, the first thing you look at is the end state: what you want to achieve. The stated policy goal of Benjamin Netanyahu is to destroy Hamas. From backroom discussions, I gather he might have support from at least some Arab countries in the region, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, regarding that policy goal.
If Netanyahu asked you to suggest a strategy that will lower the loss of civilian lives in a limited time frame, how would you advise him?
I would emphasise that every minute, every hour, every day that you provide me with will allow me to plan better, to get better intelligence and to communicate the plan more effectively to my soldiers, which will allow me to be more successful in preventing unnecessary civilian casualties.
What is the aim with bombing buildings from the air?
Fighting in urban areas is casualty-intensive, and the more you get in close proximity to your enemy, the more soldiers you will lose. At a certain point, bullets from the enemy will find their mark. The answer is in the intelligence at your disposal. The question is, what is in the building and to what extent is that structure used to hide the presence of your enemy? In terms of strategy, Hamas obviously also endeavours to occupy high ground and they will hide in the upper floors of buildings. Rather than risking their soldiers’ lives by fighting from below, the IDF will bomb the building from the air. Some Hamas snipers have been trained by Iran. They will avoid windows and use “loopholes" (small holes through which snipers can shoot), and the only view of the battlefield will be what they see through their scopes. The creative use of loopholes makes plotting the presence of a sniper guesswork. From an IDF perspective, it makes sense to destroy the building. Again, civilians might become collateral damage in the process, but in protecting the lives of its soldiers Israel ends up with the reality of being accused of targeting civilians.
Before you move your forces around in Gaza you have to establish high-ground positions?
Yes, and in Gaza that means you have to get on top of buildings; it is always better to work top-down from a building. If you fly your forces in, you have to be sure you do not expose yourself to anti-aircraft fire. To achieve that, you have to kill any target you can see and at times you may have to fire at positions where you think the enemy might be hiding. With Hamas integrating themselves with human shields, it inevitably leads to collateral damage. Every civilian who dies in that war is a win for Hamas and because the end-state is so important to them, the loss of civilian lives becomes a means to an end. Compare that to Israel, which understands every soldier’s life as precious.
What about the tunnel system? It seems the IDF floods the tunnels in an effort flush out Hamas.
The Israelis have training areas to familiarise themselves with war in tunnels. They have a fairly elaborate sensor system that they use to track and trace inside the tunnels. Hamas obviously uses booby traps in an effort to collapse the tunnels and trap the IDF on the inside. With the Mediterranean nearby, it makes sense to use water and flood the tunnels. But water will also damage electronic devices that Hamas may use in the tunnels. To drown them is easier than to engage them person by person. The IDF could use smoke or tear gas but the likelihood of being accused of using chemical weapons acts as a deterrent.
Somehow, we always thought Israel had impeccable intelligence sources in Gaza and in Hamas. However, the failure to preempt October 7 confirms that Israel’s intelligence service has failed catastrophically?
It has. But no matter how good your intelligence is, you are going to get it wrong sometimes. That does not mean the whole system is faulty, even if it failed at a critical moment. The aim of intelligence is to get into the mind of your opponents and to understand the way they think. Hamas went into kibbutzes and murdered, raped and maimed all forms of life, women, children and the elderly. That is an incredibly difficult and even unthinkable tactic to envisage. What intelligence can prepare you for that? As unlikely as it may sound, I think what happened on October 7 was inconceivable for anyone trained in the warfare of Western political systems and certainly also for the Israelis, and in this particular case, their intelligence structures. Hamas used low-tech means to execute its plan very well, and the Israeli defence failed to detect it. Ironically, that is often what happens with human interaction; it is rather common.
What do you think is the collective state of mind in the IDF?
Israel has a conscript army and right now they are at full mobilisation. But they can only keep full mobilisation for a limited period. That will impact their tactics. Israel will also ponder what exactly it is that Hamas seeks to achieve. Hamas not only wants to win the war, it also wants the destruction of the state of Israel, and that includes the ideal that no person other than those of Muslim faith should control or occupy Palestinian land. In other words, no “infidel" is allowed to be on Muslim territory, and Israel is Muslim territory. In pursuit of that religious or policy goal, Hamas puts no self-restrictions on the ways and means to achieve it. In pursuit of its violent goals, if you consider some of the international reactions, it is doing better than the Israelis.
If the IDF loses a significant number of people, the government of Netanyahu might lose support for the war?
True. Israel has to protect its forces. It doesn’t have very many people, and every person or soldier is critically important and precious. To the Israelis, it is fundamentally important to protect their population. Naturally, they put more of an imperative on protecting their own soldiers and people than they would be concerned about the lives of Palestinians. It sounds horrific but in conflict it is an unavoidable logic. If you don’t understand the context of war, it is very easy to come up with solutions that are just very academic.
Do you think all Palestinians support Hamas and will further the interests of the organisation?
Support is one thing, but if you live in Gaza and you do not support the aims and interests of Hamas, what are your chances of surviving in such a closed and confined space? Hamas has no restrictions on how it enforces its form of justice.
From a military perspective, where is this war going to end?
That is crystal ball stuff, I wouldn’t want to engage in that. Hamas has an interest in a prolonged war, Israel not. The more difficult Hamas can make it for Israel to make any progress, knowing that it can’t win the war against the IDF, the more likely it is that it will win the hearts and minds of the millions marching in the streets of New York and London. Israelis will have to find a way to allow Palestinians who oppose Hamas to do so. Hopefully, they will then replace Hamas with something less threatening to the Israelis. It will not be the best possible scenario for Israel but less threatening. Also, Netanyahu has to start thinking about what will replace Israel in Gaza if and when Hamas has been defeated.
What about a United Nations force?
Absolutely not. That would be the worst ever. Apart from them being outsiders, Hamas would manipulate them in the same way it is manipulating the UN now. Just ask the people of Srebrenica who were massacred with the UN protection forces around them. Have you seen what a disaster the UN forces are in Africa?
Who will it be then?
It will have to be Palestinians. It has to be Arab Muslims. That is all the Palestinian people will accept. But this force must not act like or be as corrupt as Hamas. Then peace is possible.
* The views of Chris Judge do not reflect the official policy of the United States government, specifically the US Department of Defense.
♦ VWB ♦
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