No decent person could remain unmoved by the images of children bleeding in the street and dead babies on the mortuary slab. I have seen such sights in the flesh and feel the horror as much as anybody.
The deaths of these children and of innocent men and women is nothing short of a war crime. But contrary to the distorted views pedalled by Hamas supporters, media commentators, human rights groups and political leaders, it is not a war crime perpetrated by Israel but by Hamas.
Hamas started this war by missile attacks against Israeli civilians. They have specifically targeted a nuclear installation and fired at Ben Gurion international airport prompting airlines to suspend flights in and out.
Some have called these rockets fireworks. Last week I visited a house in Ashkelon that had taken a direct hit one hour before. The terrified 17-year-old girl who was at home told me she made it to the internal shelter with seconds to spare. If she had not she would certainly have been killed by blast, shrapnel, debris or lethal shards of flying glass.
Israel had no choice but to react to this as it did. No country in the world would sit back and take this unprovoked, lethal aggression against its civilians and its critical infrastructure.
As he rightly launched drone strikes against Islamist terrorists among the civilian population in the Pakistan tribal areas, President Obama told Israel to take greater steps to protect the lives of civilians. His words have been echoed in the UN and in capitals around the world — including London. But no-one has said what those greater steps should be. That is because Israel has been doing everything possible to minimize loss of civilian life, short of sitting back and allowing Hamas to terrorise its civilians with impunity.
Comments such as Obama’s, as well as Ban Ki Moon’s recent characterization of IDF operations as atrocities, play into the hands of Hamas. Hamas’s main reason for using human shields is not to protect their military installations but to force the IDF to kill innocent civilians.
Described by Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard as the ‘dead baby strategy’, the intention is to compel world leaders to repudiate Israel’s action and bring about unendurable international diplomatic pressure. A key element of the strategy is to stir up anti-Israel hatred among western populations. We have seen this manifested in recent days with mass protests in Europe’s capital cities.
Those who condemn Israel’s necessary and just war give succour to Hamas, a proscribed terrorist group. They encourage Hamas to keep fighting and to continue using human shields. They encourage extremists everywhere to follow this murderous policy. And such encouragement leads to further loss of innocent lives.
Firing rockets at civilians and using human shields are not the only war crimes Hamas have committed and planned. They have used protected locations and vehicles — schools, mosques, hospitals, ambulances — to store munitions and facilitate attacks.
They have constructed attack tunnels to massacre civilians and equipped them to abduct, drug and bind innocent Israelis. They have breached agreed humanitarian cease-fires intended to bring respite and relief to their suffering civilians.
Though not specifically a war crime, Hamas have also been using child “soldiers” to attack IDF troops. These tactics are only too familiar to British soldiers because they are used extensively by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Israel’s responses have been lawful under the Geneva Conventions. Every IDF air attack is designed to destroy military objectives while minimizing civilian casualties. But with Hamas’s way of fighting, such casualties, tragically, are unavoidable.
Hamas have learnt many lessons from their defeat in the two previous Israeli operations in Gaza. They are better at concealing their rocket launchers and have developed a vast complex of concrete lined underground tunnels using resources that could have been spent on alleviating the plight of their hapless civilian population.
These tunnels protect their munitions from air attack and allow rockets and launchers to be moved about the battlefield immune from air attack. Their commanders also skulk underground while their fighters and civilians die in the mayhem above.
Because of this, only so much can be achieved from the air. The current Israeli ground assault is restricted to locating, clearing and destroying attack tunnels that threaten civilians across the border. If Hamas do not agree to cease their rocket fire, the IDF may well have to expand the operation to take on the network of rocket launchers and command bunkers deep inside the Gaza Strip.
I have spent time in the last week speaking to IDF soldiers on the Gaza border. Their job is extremely dangerous and they know it. Yet, like their British counterparts whom they so closely resemble, every one was stoical, good-humoured and ready to close with the enemy to defend their families at home.
I pay tribute to the more than 30 soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. They have made the greatest contribution to their country that is possible. We owe them our support. Not just out of respect for their courage and sacrifice but because their war is our war, too. They are fighting the 21st century scourge of Islamist terrorism at democracy’s front line.
Col Richard Kemp was Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan