March 4, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
The United Nations issued a report last week saying it believes Israel committed “war crimes” in responding to ongoing violence on the Gaza border. The accusations include Israel Defense Forces shooting at non-combatants “knowing they were clearly recognizable as such.” Certainly this is not the UN’s first condemnation of Israel, but the accusations remain unjustified. The IDF does a remarkable job minimizing harm to civilians — on all sides.
I’ve inspected Israel’s Gaza border from several locations. I just returned with other recently retired U.S. generals from an in-depth study of Israel’s security situation coordinated by the Jewish Institute of National Security for America, and I’ve witnessed the opposite firsthand. The IDF showed great discernment and restraint in employing lawful military force.
By contrast, Gaza’s jihadist Hamas regime, funded and influenced by Iran, mandates on supposedly Islamic grounds murdering Jews and destroying Israel at any cost. To this end, Hamas treats Gazans like any other expendable weapon.
And telegenic weaponry, at that. Hamas cynically broadcasts Gazan death and suffering to generate international condemnation of Israel for supposed war crimes. It also leads to infusions of humanitarian aid that Hamas hijacks for distinctly non-humanitarian uses.
Therefore the “war crimes” accusation is ironic, since Hamas uses human shields — an actual war crime — to exploit Israel’s respect for life and the Law of Armed Conflict. Hamas hides its operatives, arsenals, terror tunnels and rocket launchers in or next to hospitals, homes, schools, mosques and playgrounds, knowing Israel won’t risk the high loss of civilian life even if it means allowing those weapons to remain a lethal threat to Israeli civilians.
With its ongoing “March of Return,” Hamas now uses human shields as a mobile operational tool. Every Friday for the past 46 weeks, Hamas dispatches “peacefully protesting” Gazans — often over 10,000 in number — to surge toward the fence at Israel’s border, aiming to breach it.
Interspersed among civilians are many Hamas fighters also wearing civilian clothes. From behind a heavy smokescreen of burning tires, operatives throw grenades, plant IEDs along the fence or launch incendiaries that destroy farms, reserves and other Israeli civilian property. Snipers hide behind the crowd, shooting at Israeli soldiers. The throng effectively becomes a portable human shield.
Using these protests as operational cover for violent attacks turns the LOAC on its head. Hamas knows Israel simply cannot permit the border fence to be breached, nor allow a Hamas takeover of the border space. Hamas purposely presents Israel with no choice but to respond to the surging crowd in a way that harms Gazans, no matter how legally justified or proportionate the response, then broadcasts the images of casualties to delegitimize Israel. The IDF has intercepted conversations of Hamas leaders lamenting “not enough” Gazan casualties.
Thus, Israel faces the dilemma of defending its border while also sparing human life. It has developed admirably restrained processes and rules of engagement that accomplish both goals as much as possible.
Israel attempts to disperse the crowds with non-lethal means before they reach the fence, since any “military event” at a crowded border fence would likely cause vastly more casualties. Israel issues warnings by loudspeakers and leaflets. Tear gas is used near the fence to keep the crowd at bay — but the same prevailing winds which carry the smokescreen toward Israel blow the tear gas back at Israeli soldiers.
Other non-lethal options are limited. Indeed, a senior IDF official told us told us his one wish would be for better non-lethal weapons. Any decision to shoot — a last resort, always at legs first — is made by the senior commander on the scene.
The slightest hesitation by the IDF to use greater force can lead to increased IDF casualties. Thus, from my perspective, IDF precautions to limit Gazan casualties are extraordinary — the very opposite of war crimes.
UN condemnations of Israel give Hamas license to violate the LOAC with impunity, eroding these standards for all. Israel’s Gaza defense, by contrast, scrupulously complies with the LOAC, and allegations of non-compliance are investigated. In previous Gaza conflicts, this Israeli approach was called “a model” by U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey — yet was still condemned by the UN’s Human Rights Council.
Anyone truly interested in addressing war crimes should start by focusing on Hamas’ conduct on the Gaza side of the border.
Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. John Toolan Jr. is a former commanding general of the Marine Corps Pacific Forces and a member of the Hybrid Warfare Task Force at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.
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