by Alisa Roberts.
Beth Jacob opened its Modern Minds on Jewish Matters series by welcoming Colonel Richard Kemp this past Wednesday. Colonel Kemp, a decorated commander from the British armed forces, is an expert in military ethics, laws of warfare, and military history. He gave an engaging talk on this summer’s conflict in Gaza and his expert opinion on the ethics of the IDF. He also explained his long relationship and respect for the IDF.
“When I was working in Downing Street for the Prime Minister’s office … I was told suddenly, ‘You’re going to command British forces in Afghanistan.’ I was given about two weeks’ notice that I was going to go over there for 6 months. And what immediately struck me, was this was the first time in my military career that I was going to be commanding troops who would be facing the threat of suicide bomb attack.
I had been out of the army system for a while, working in Downing Street, which is not within the military. I spoke to the British training organization, and I said, ‘What can we do? How can we train soldiers to cope with the threat of suicide bombers?’ And the answer was, ‘You don’t. It’s too difficult. It’s very complicated. You can’t tell them what to do, you just send them out and tell them they have to do whatever they think.’
I knew this was ridiculous. So I spoke to one of my contacts who was the head of the Mossad station in London. I said to him, ‘Could you get the defense attaché from the Israeli embassy to come and tell me what the Israelis do about suicide attacks?’ And he said, ‘No, I’ll do better than that.’ And he sent to Israel for a Brigadier General who was considered to be the number one expert in Israel in countering suicide attacks. He brought him to London two days later, flew him in. He and I sat in a hotel lobby in West London. He spoke for four hours, I wrote for four hours. And from that discussion I produced the policy that’s used by the British Army up to this day in countering suicide bomb attacks. That saved the lives of many British soldiers. That was a very significant thing for me. Mossad didn’t need to help me like that; I’d have settled for the defense attaché.”
Colonel Kemp began the evening’s topic by discussing rocket attacks. “People often ask me, ‘What would Britain do if it had rockets fired on it from…another country?’ I can tell you what they did do. In 1943, Winston Churchill received intelligence that the Nazis were preparing rocket attacks on Britain. The intelligence told him where the factory was where they were being manufactured, and it was a town called Peenemünde in North Germany. Did he say, “Oh, we’ve got to wait and see if many get killed, we’ll see what the United Nations say…?” No. He immediately sent to Peenemünde, in one night, 600 bombers. And they destroyed the factory. During the destruction of the factory, they killed 723 innocent civilians nearby. Completely by mistake, but it was not a major issue, because Churchill knew that those rockets, when they were made, would threaten his civilian population. And he had to balance, as he did, the risk of killing civilians with protecting his own and, of course, the priority was clear.”
Of course, Hitler did manage to build those rockets and fire them on Britain, leading to another interesting comparison: “The average number of rockets fired at the Israeli civilian population during the last Gaza conflict was 130 per day. The Nazis only managed 100 per day… So the rate of fire was even less by the Third Reich than it was by Hamas, that poor little downtrodden terrorist group.”
Colonel Kemp spoke about a funeral he attended for one of the 66 Israeli soldiers who died in the conflict. “I don’t think we should forget the significance of a soldier laying down his life for his country. … The contribution that you make, or I make, to our society is nothing compared to the contribution made by a man who lays down his life for his country. He gives everything. That’s his contribution – everything he ever had, everything he ever hoped for, everything he ever dreamed of, everything he ever could be. He’s given it all away for his country.” He also reminded the audience of the personal loss; Israelis injured, Israeli civilians killed, as well as Palestinians killed. “But all those people who were killed, they were killed as a result of Hamas’ aggression. We mustn’t forget that either.”
Colonel Kemp explained the morals and ethics of the Israeli war machine. He explained that he was in Israel for the duration of the conflict, and had access to all levels of the Israeli military. “The Security Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Netanyahu, met every day. The first item on the agenda of every Security Cabinet meeting was Palestinian civilian casualties. Number one item.” Then he told a story of a young IDF pilot who had aborted the mission he was flying 17 times before cancelling it, because he could never get a shot clear of civilians. “And I said to him, ‘Wasn’t that very, very frustrating for you?’ And he said, ‘It is the best thing about the Israeli Air Force, that we will not attack a target knowing that there are civilian there. I’m a religious Jew. I’ve got a family. I’ve got children. How could I live with myself if I had knowingly and deliberately killed women and children? How would I serve as an example to my own children if I had done that?’ I spoke to many soldiers, pilots, and members of the navy who shared that attitude.”
In addition to the regular precautions to clear targets of civilians, including leaflets and ‘knock on the roof’ bombs, Colonel Kemp explained other precautions taken by the IDF, including the use of intelligence from inside Gaza, required approval of an attack by the commander of the IDF, or one of his two deputies, surveillance of the target, and the practice of having a secondary target so that even after a missile is launched the pilot can divert it if he suspects civilian presence at the original target. “The combination of all those things is quite remarkable.”
Surprisingly, he listed Israel’s own defense systems as part of these same precautions, because “If Israeli civilians were being killed by the dozen, as they would have been without Iron Dome, Israel would be far more ferocious, far less discriminating about its attacks. It would have to be more proactive. So Iron Dome not only protects Israeli civilians, it also protects Palestinian civilians.”
Dismissing the 80% civilian casualty rate announced by Hamas, he numbered the civilian deaths at approximately 50% of those killed, which is far below average for civilian casualty rates in similar conflicts. “This is a very low rate. It’s a horrible number, but it’s a low rate.” Added to this is the fact that Hamas does everything it can to try to get Israel to kill Gazan civilians, as propaganda is their only effective weapon. “When you consider that the enemy’s aim is to lure Israeli’s to kill innocent civilians – the numbers are phenomenal.”
His opinion on the close of the conflict was that continuing to destroy Hamas in Gaza would have meant thousands more Israeli deaths and exponentially more Palestinian civilian deaths. In the end, it would have created a power vacuum that would have necessitated more Israeli resources than were practical.
What were his conclusions about the IDF? That they were strikingly moral. While soldiers in other countries often join the armed forces out of an eagerness to fight, it’s entirely different in Israel. “You don’t join because you want to fight. You join the IDF because you have to protect and defend your country. You might want to, you might not want to. But you do it anyway. The second factor, I think, is Judaism. I know that the majority of Israeli people are not religious. But in Israel, Judaism permeates so much, and in a way it underpins most people one way or another. So I think that’s the second reason why Israeli soldiers have a greater degree of humanity, and a greater concern for saving the lives of civilians while killing their enemy, than other soldiers do.”