OpinionIsrael at War

100 days after Oct. 7, Part 3: Culpable ignorance

Israel did not bring war on Oct. 7. It has just cause, is fighting by just means and has clear precedent.

IDF soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip, Jan. 28, 2024. Credit: IDF.
IDF soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip, Jan. 28, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Gwythian Prins
Gwythian Prins
Gwythian Prins is Research Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics and a past member of the British Chief of the Defence Staff's Strategy Advisory Panel.

For 10 days after Oct. 7, 2023, the jihadist-leftist alliance of Jew-haters in Great Britain was quiet. On the one hand, there are the truculently non-integrated Salafist Muslim immigrants centered on many mosques, including Hamas leaders who, incredibly, have been allowed to settle in Britain since 1997. The scale of this group has been long known to the intelligence services; but it is Sir William Shawcross’s much delayed and now recent report on “Prevent”—the British Government anti-radicalization program—which has documented the failure of efforts at integration and the degree of risk residing within Muslim extremism. It has secured this disturbing knowledge its place on the public record.

On the other hand, since Oct. 7 this jihadi leadership has directed phalanxes of ignorant British members of the “woke” movement, expressing support as the latest radical-chic virtue signal. That this second part of the alliance is ignorant is not difficult to deduce: random inquiry by journalists found people on the well-organized street-marches “for Gaza” who could identify neither the river nor the sea in their Israelophobic chanting, and who, indignantly and (one hopes) equally ignorantly, shouted ancient anti-Semitic blood libels.

Initially, this alliance had found it hard to blame the Hamas massacres of Israelis on the Israelis. They soon discovered a way. On Oct. 17, in the evening, Gaza’s Al-Ahli Hospital—actually its car-park—was hit by some sort of weapon. Some people died, but not the many hundreds initially claimed by Al-Jazeera. Nonetheless, Israel could once more be blamed for killing women and children—especially children. In that subliminal echo from medieval times, this became the new blood libel. The London street-protesters had their green light.

Pretty quickly, all serious Western analysts confirmed the Israel Defence Force’s telemetry analysis, pointing to a Palestinian Islamic Jihad missile that fell short, as they frequently do, and that casualties were much lower than the initial claims. Yet all that was swept aside. The “Arab street” exploded across the region. Arab states, that had been in the process of normalizing relations with Israel through the Abraham Accords, fell silent; and, to its shame, the BBC played a central role.

In an instant, despite the IDF denial, later substantiated in evidence, one of the BBC‘s reporters, Jon Donnison, pronounced, “It’s hard to see what else this could be really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli airstrike or several airstrikes,” thus conferring on the Arab claims the BBC‘s inherited but nowadays undeserved authority. Lies went around the world before, as the saying goes, the truth had got its boots on. From the very start, the BBC refused to describe Hamas as terrorists, despite the organization being widely proscribed as a terrorist organization, and even now will not go beyond the circumlocutory formula: “which is proscribed by the British Government.”

As U.K. Minister of State for Security Tom Tugendhat reproved the BBC‘s flagship radio news show, the “Today” program, the BBC‘s rush to judgment was “not the BBC‘s finest hour”—and even then (if you listen to the interview) presenter Nick Robinson tried, rather pompously, to push back. Some moral clarity from the BBC would be welcome, not to mention journalistic competence, instead of misapplied moral equivalence and the endless dog whistle of “collective punishment” used obnoxiously to portray the victim of a genocidal attack as the perpetrator of one.

So too, in these days after the world turned upside-down, we need to recollect the currently active obligations of High Contracting Parties—the state signatories to the conventions—to pursue and punish Hamas, the proven genocidaires, within their sovereign jurisdictions under the Fourth Geneva Convention. In a climate of Israelophobia, where moral compasses go haywire, Hamas is not being held to account. Predictably, the BBC has presented international law as superior to national law and the International Court of Justice as a higher court than any national court. Neither is true. Under the guise of “human interest,” the BBC repeatedly broadcasts prurient details of injuries to individual children in Gaza. Why? It is designed to shock and anger the listener and to demonize Israel; and it leaves those implications unspoken, hence deniable.

The BBC‘s past reputation, especially heroic during the war against the Nazis, is one of supreme objectivity. Its reporting, therefore, is uniquely influential. Today, however, something seems to have gone seriously wrong.

In an extraordinary intervention, the former director of BBC Television, Danny Cohen, asked:

“When do individual errors add up to something more? When do ‘mistakes’ become a clear pattern of institutional bias? These are questions the BBC must answer when it comes to its reporting of Israel’s conflict with the terrorist group Hamas.”

He then lists nine other cases of gross error since Oct. 7 where the bias has been always the same, namely anti-Israel.

“Is the BBC just unlucky that this keeps happening? The answer is no. The sheer volume of these incidents instead tells us something highly significant about institutional bias at the corporation and its management’s failure to get to grips with it,” he said.

In sum, the BBC‘s institutional bias is the most serious because of its unique world-wide influence. This makes it the most influential case of culpable ignorance, although it is by no means alone in this respect.

The Al-Ahli Hospital episode was not unique. Two months later, on Dec. 16, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem instantly blamed IDF “snipers” for killing two Gazan Christian women, Nahida Khalil Anton and her daughter, Samar, “in cold blood” at the Holy Family Church, the only Catholic Church in Gaza. The Cardinal furthermore stated unequivocally that no Hamas terrorists were present. This report was taken at face value—more culpable ignorance—and immediately retransmitted by Cardinal Vincent Nichol in London and by the pope himself, who described the alleged IDF shooting as “terrorism.”

Once again, after investigation by the IDF, facts showed differently. Hamas guerrillas and “spotters” were present, using the Church precinct as a shield—thereby removing the legal protection of the protected site as explained in Article 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of Aug. 12, 1949 (Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War). Israeli troops had been attacked by Hamas with RPGs fired from the precinct. Positive identification of the terrorists had been made and they were all killed. The two women were not killed by Israeli gunfire. But even if they had been, it would not have been in breach of the laws of war. Hamas was in grave breach of Geneva IV while the IDF has complied throughout. But, once more, moral equivalence was ascribed to Hamas the genocidaire and the IDF and this time, most ignobly, by the pope.

Therefore the Holy Family Church episode is not just a question of evidence and ignorance. It is deeper. It is a matter of moral and legal judgment about how a country with high moral standards wages war against a terrorist enemy that has none. The framework for such an assessment has not been satisfactorily spelled out.

The Oct. 7 pogrom compelled the IDF to embark on intensive, high-precision urban warfare against an enemy that as a matter of deliberate tactics and in flagrant breach of the laws of armed conflict hides among civilians and in tunnels underneath the civilian Arab population that it holds hostage and, specifically, in and under protected places such as hospitals, schools, religious sites as defined in Geneva IV, Article 18 and Annex 1.

Hamas’s attacks of Oct. 7 were in specific breach of Geneva IV Article 27 (protecting women) and the perpetrators are in breach of the most serious of the “grave breaches” of Geneva IV set out in Article 147, namely willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment and the taking of hostages. For this they stand liable to severe punishment. Nuremberg established long ago that following orders is no defense. So, Hamas members from leadership downwards are all miscreant with consequent obligations for all signatory states, if the laws of armed conflict are to mean anything anymore. Hamas are enemies of all mankind: international outlaws.

Hamas has nowhere to hide under Geneva IV. Its are war crimes of the highest order. Article 146 lays down those obligations of pursuit, trial and punishment incumbent on every High Contracting Party, singly or together, as follows:

“Each High Contracting Party shall be under the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and shall bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts. It may also, if it prefers, and in accordance with the provisions of its own legislation, hand such persons over for trial to another High Contracting Party concerned, provided such High Contracting Party has made out a prima facie case….”

FIBUA (fighting in built-up areas) is the most difficult type of warfare and the IDF is probably the world’s most meticulously trained and best equipped modern army for this sort of fighting. Technical military capabilities plus their modes of operation are not irrelevant details: they are material demonstration of intent. Israel’s Merkava Mk IV tanks and huge Namer armoured personnel carriers both field revolutionary automatic close-in protection from the “Trophy” system. They integrate with combat engineering units deploying Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozers in novel combinations. In fact, Israel’s entire ground force is part of an interactive all-arms cyber/air/sea/land concept of operations optimized for precision targeting to minimize collateral casualties, maximize the extinction of Hamas terrorists and ensure the effectiveness of its own force protection. Technical military capabilities and their modes of operation demonstrate intent.

Hamas, conversely, has only a homicidal interest in Gaza civilian residents. Bluntly, for its purposes, the more that are killed, the better: their deaths can then be blamed on the IDF and added to the undifferentiated butcher’s bill in which Western media take the figures issued by Hamas uncritically as being all civilian. Hamas repeatedly obstructed Gazans trying to evacuate south of Wadi Gaza, blocking the route—even shooting them—when, before the first phase of ground operations began, the IDF gave civilians notice to move.

In contrast, the IDF “kill ratio” of civilian collateral victims to terrorists since Oct. 7 is reckoned by British military expertise to be more likely 2:1, which is less sparing that the 0.6:1 ratio achieved by the IDF during the May 2023 “Operation Shield and Arrow”—a world record for precision—but more sparing than was ever achieved by U.S. or British forces in Iraq or Afghanistan (3:1 to 5:1). 7:1 to 9:1 is the norm. David Miliband’s International Rescue Committee calculated that 87% of casualties in modern wars are civilian.

Thus, in another perverse inversion, far from being an agent of indiscriminate warfare, the IDF is probably the most successfully discriminate modern army. Has the comparison with other modern armies been heard or discussed in BBC analyses? The genocide case was just an attempt to smear with loose language, imperiling the special status of genocide, the “crime of crimes” and has no relevance to Israeli conduct, which will not stop attempts to claim that it has.

There, is, however, an even worse episode of perverse inversion fresh before us.

In Part 1 of this series, I predicted that the South African attempt to tar Israel with the implication of genocide risked putting the ICJ in the dock rather than Israel if it did not throw out the case as being without merit; and so it has proved. The ICJ’s interim ruling is vexatious. While unable to make an objective finding, the court disgraced itself by implying that Israel might in the future commit “genocide” when there is neither evidence of intention, as was noted in Part 1, nor a community which meets the criteria to be victims of genocide. This second reason was implied in Part 2 and was stated by Melanie Phillips, who deserves to be quoted in full. In terms of the Genocide Convention and within the logic of pan-Arabism:

“[T]he Palestinians are not a discrete ‘national, ethnical, racial or religious group’ but—as many of their own leaders have acknowledged in the past—they are an indissoluble part of the broader Arab nation. They have no culture, language or religion that makes them distinct from that broader Arab nation; many if not most of their ancestors in the last century immigrated into Palestine from neighbouring states such as Egypt and Syria; their ‘Palestinian’ identity was forged in the 1960s purely as a weapon of war to destroy Israel and to appropriate Jewish history as their own. By this standard, they aren’t covered by the Genocide Convention at all.”

Matters then got even worse for the reputation of the ICJ. The very day that its ruling was pronounced, evidence arrived that UNRWA, on whose evidence in part it had relied, had itself now been discredited by verified intelligence of its operatives’ involvement in the Oct. 7 massacre. Furthermore, U.N. Watch has published documentation that not one of 3,000 UNRWA teachers on their Telegram chat group dissented from celebrating the pogrom. This, as Phillips writes, is the latest form of Holocaust denial. Little wonder than many major state funders of UNRWA, aghast, are withdrawing their support.

Tugendhat also reminded “Today” on Jan. 19 that Hamas has exploited Gazans as forced labor to build its tunnels, using concrete and steel stolen in breach of Geneva IV Art. 23, Exception (a) from aid intended for relief of the non-combatant population.

Furthermore, he firmly instructed the interviewer Robinson on what “proportionality” means in such a war. It is not a “devil’s spreadsheet” of body count for body count. It is proportionality in war aims. The complete neutralization of an enemy is legally and ethically a proportionate objective when the enemy’s aims are neither territory nor the welfare of civilians (Gazan in this case) but genocide, as the Hamas Charter states in black and white, trailing its Nazi-inspired pedigree.

The devil’s spreadsheet therefore brings the ethical terms of engagement squarely front and centre. Israel did not bring war on Oct. 7. It has just cause, is fighting by just means and has clear precedent.

As one of his case studies in his classic study, “Just and Unjust Wars,” Michael Walzer relates the history of the siege and burning of Atlanta during America’s Civil War, a crucial Confederate supply base and rail hub. The Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had ordered Confederate General John Bell Hood to evacuate the city, so that it could be burned.

Those were more literate days. Hood replied to Sherman’s order:

“The unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.”

Sherman was having none it and wrote back in careful but forceful terms:

“War is cruelty and you cannot refine it…those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war.”

That is just cause. Yet, like the IDF, Sherman offered his enemy the chance to evacuate before he acted firmly the more quickly to end the war. That is right conduct. The IDF calls it “tohar haneshek”—purity of arms—and practices it, often sacrificing surprise, for example with the “roof knock” to warn occupants of buildings about to be targeted to vacate them, and at a cost to itself of endangering its own troops.

Sherman torched Atlanta on Nov. 15, 1864, wrecked the Confederate rail system hub and then laid waste to Georgia in his “March to the Sea,” a military undertaking which proved to be efficient in obtaining swift surrenders, thereby materially shortening the war.

Sherman, however, was no reveller in bloodshed or destruction. His purpose was in his letter to Hood. After the war he often said in lectures that “war is hell.” So the relevant ethical compass is all too clear. It is Hamas and by extension its supporters wherever they are—on the world’s streets, even in the BBC, it seems—who carry all moral blame for the fate of Gaza and its people.

To end the evil of an unjust war that Israel did not initiate as soon and as humanely as possible, the IDF is applying maximum focused force, without interruption, for both operational and moral reasons, just as Sherman did. If there is a proven patron and co-ordinator of its proxies’ actions, as in this instance Iran, then, by extension, to touch that state is also both legitimate and germane. Moreover, toppling the mullahs would be a blessing to the brave Iranians, especially the women protesting against restrictive veiling and being savagely flogged incarcerated or killed for so doing. It was noteworthy that at the march against anti-Semitism in London on Nov. 26 there were many supporters of a secular Iran along with tens of thousands of other non-Jews.

At Nuremberg, SS Commander Otto Ohlendorf’s penultimate throw of the dice was to invoke a tu quoque defence (“you too,” discrediting an opponent’s character rather than his argument), but pre-emptively: his 91,000 murders well preceded large-scale Allied bombing of German cities. When pressed to justify his actions in 1941 in ordering and overseeing the systematic murder of defenseless civilians and in particular of Jewish and Gypsy children, he first sought to place the actions of his death squads on a par with the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945:

“I cannot imagine that those planes which systematically covered a city…square meter for square meter, with incendiaries and explosive bombs and again with phosphorous bombs…in Dresden…could possibly hope not to kill any civilian population, and no children.”

That was his Dresden Defence.

The analogous Hamas defense, which is often heard more by implication than directly and repeatedly by implication on the BBC, would be that the actions of Oct. 7 were justified by children killed as unintended collateral victims in subsequent (or indeed any) IDF air strikes. In the modern trope of woke “intersectionality,” as victims of purported “white, Jewish colonialism,” Arabs are licensed to do freely any depraved act; and by definition Jews can never be victims.

The double helix hovers over law and ethics too.

Originally published by The Gatestone Insitute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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