Friday 22 August 2014

Melanie Phillips missing the point

Melanie Phillips in the Jerusalem Post is in the right ball park but missing a few obvious points.
For four weeks during Operation Protective Edge, Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and who has called Israel’s armed forces “the most moral army in the history of warfare,” was in Israel watching the conflict unfold. Over and over again he offered his services as an informed commentator to the BBC, Sky and other British broadcasting outlets. They asked him for his views about other world events – but not once did they ask this military expert to speak about Gaza.
Well there's something to be thankful for. His arguments are hackneyed and flawed and one should always be cautious of an "expert" actively hawking their rent-a-quote views, especially if they happen to be ex-British Army. For some reason Melanie has latched on to Kemp as some kind of counter-insurgency expert, when Afghanistan was an abject failure politically and militarily, and if Kemp is making these arguments in the context of the IDF then it is clear he does not know what he is talking about.

But Melanie is right. Israel has shown a willful refusal to learn the lessons of 2006 and I'm starting to wonder if they ever will. "This is where Israel has so badly fallen down." complains Melanie. "For it has not sought to fill this information vacuum. Of course, it is hard to dent the impact of horrific images of dead Palestinian children shown night after night on the TV news." Well exactly. You cannot explain away a dead baby. A dead baby is a dead baby whatever the circumstances. No buts.
I have lost count of the number of Brits – including Jews – who repeat the mantra that “the overwhelming majority” of the casualties of Israel’s “disproportionate” air strikes on Gaza have been civilians. But weeks ago, Al Jazeera reported that the majority of casualties were in fact fighting-age men – even though half of Gaza’s population is female and half aged under 18.

In other words, these air strikes were targeted to avoid innocent civilians. It was the relentless concentration on pictures of dead children which was disproportionate. But only those who followed Al Jazeera would have been aware of this.
This report addresses that first argument, but it's not just about the body count. Israel has shelled thousands of people out of their homes (how moral is that?). While we do see the use of Precision Guided Missiles we also see the use of heavy artillery employed for what some call "grid square removal". The intent of this is to ensure that not just the launcher is destroyed but also the rockets as well. Various techniques are employed to inform residents that a strike is about to take place, but given the propensity of Hamas to use human shields, there is always more than a 50/50 chance that civilians will be killed. The decision to call a fire mission on those odds might as well be made on the flip of a coin. So how then can you call it the most moral army in the world? The pilots of Operation Unified Protector would certainly beg to differ.

Melanie argues that Israel should have a public media rebuttal unit, but there's no rebutting a massive black cloud over Gaza and piles of concrete rubble in what is touted as a "security operation", nor is there much excusing of a GBU10 captured on camera hitting an apartment block. Such is the power of images in war. Richard Kemp spins the line well, but is unable to grasp that casualty reduction is not the only consideration in media driven asymmetric warfare, and that proper observance of even the basic principles is not happening in practice. The ignorance on display is almost forgivable from amateur commentators, but from a British Army "Rupert" who is supposedly an expert in such matters it is eye-watering.

The mistake that Melanie Phillips makes is to assume this is all just a matter of media presentation. You can spin all the clever sophistry you like but you can't very well gloss over footage of M109 batteries, and those will be the lasting images of this conflict.

Melanie laments the Israeli attitude to media presentation. "It contemptuously dismisses the need to win Western hearts and minds, and is afraid to puncture the lies told by its allies about the conflict. Given to machismo bluster, the only strategic thinking it understands is military. As a result, it is being beaten on a battleground it can’t bring itself to accept it is even on."

I could not agree more, and there is no conventional military solution, but something doesn't stack up here. Israel can pick the time and place of battle, and if the threat was real the day before Protective Edge then that was true a month and even a year before. So why now?

The best way to avoid these incidents (and win the PR war) is not to launch these wholly unnecessary operations in the first place. Israel has known about the tunnel network for a long time. These things don't pop up overnight. The best way of stopping the rocket-fire is to ensure Hamas have no rockets to fire in the first place. So why was the tunnel network not destroyed sooner with more intelligent means?

Why is it not a permanent security operation to ensure they do not re-open? And why has Israel waited until now to make a massive meal of it? Perhaps Israel is well aware of what it looks like to the world, and their strategic objectives are just not apparent to the likes of Melanie and I. Perhaps there really is a PR strategy and the motive is lost on us? Or perhaps they have simply concluded the PR war is a war that they can't win in any eventuality. I cannot say for certain.

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