Anaylsis: Mistakes and confusion do not amount to war crimes

By Richard Kemp, March 26, 2009

Last week, during a parade in Luton, a group of protestors howled accusations of war crimes at the soldiers of my regiment, the Royal Anglians, who had just returned from six months in Iraq.

This week, following features in the Guardian and the Israeli dailies Haaretz and Maariv, some sections of the world media as well as humanitarian bodies have again been screeching allegations of war crimes against the Israeli Defence Forces.

The newspaper reports must be taken seriously, flowing as they do from both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian citizens. But I do not take them at face value, any more than I do the insults levelled at my own regiment.

Analysis of the testimonies of seven Israeli Gaza veterans shows some worrying allegations but they do not add up to anything approaching proof of war crimes. Three of the seven soldiers make no accusations whatever. The others talk non-specifically about the high number of Palestinian deaths. Two of the soldiers disagree over whether the killing of a seemingly unarmed Palestinian woman was or was not lawful. Another describes confusion over orders which led to the accidental killing of three Palestinian civilians.

The Guardian investigation is based on interviews with Palestinians, and suggests that the IDF targeted civilians with precision-guided missiles; that Palestinian ambulances and hospitals were targeted by the Israelis; and that three teenage brothers were used by the IDF as human shields. In considering these allegations we must remember that in many cases, witnesses in Gaza speak in the knowledge that Hamas is listening.

But if we assume the Guardian report and the Israeli soldiers’ testimonies are accurate, should we conclude that they represent war crimes?

There is no disputing that, despite unprecedented measures by Israel to minimise civilian casualties, a tragically high number of innocent civilians were killed and wounded in Gaza. That is the inevitability of Hamas’s way of fighting. Avoiding civilian casualties when fighting among the people is notoriously difficult; when combating an enemy that uses human shields as the major element of its battle tactics and which uses hospitals, mosques and schools as battle positions, it is impossible.

Every commander knows that in the ever-present chaos of battle there will inevitably be mistakes. Mistakes may be tragic, but they are not war crimes. There will also be times when a military commander must make a snap judgement between the safety of his own troops and that of others. Human nature dictates that he will usually choose his own men.

There will always be bad soldiers, who wilfully or through incompetence disobey orders. If true, it seems likely the Guardian’s allegation of three teenage boys used as human shields was the work of a maverick commander. That does not make it less worthy of investigation, but an isolated incident is very different from a policy.

The Haaretz material highlights a problem that is faced in modern conflict by all armies. It reveals troops who show little regard for Palestinian people, place a low value on their lives and abuse their property. It is not easy to counter. When they go into battle, soldiers have to be put into the right frame of mind to fight, with blood, fire and death a daily reality.

No civilian can understand the vital bonds forged between soldiers in combat. And the effect on fighting troops of seeing their mates killed or wounded should not be underestimated. In these circumstances it can be hard to avoid outright hostility towards the people who you think are sheltering and supporting your enemies.

Colonel Richard Kemp is former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010