A warfare expert speaks into the wind

A warfare expert speaks into the wind

Even before Israel began its assault on Rafah this week, surveys were showing that half of adults in the United States — including a growing number of Republicans and independents — were saying that it had “gone too far” in its war to defeat Hamas.

Israel is also losing support globally. According to one study, support for Israel decreased since December in 42 out of the 43 countries surveyed.

Egypt and other Arab states are threatening to suspend or cancel their peace treaties with Israel, while Saudi Arabia is threatening it with “dire consequences.”

Even President Biden, in what the Washington Post characterized as “a stunning turnaround” because of his “emotional attachment to Israel,” now says its war has been “over the top.”

According to a new report by the business intelligence company Morning Consult, global support for Israel dropped by an average of 18.5 percentage points between September and December. Support for Israel decreased in 42 out of the 43 countries surveyed.

It seems no one is paying any attention to John Spencer, the U.S. Army’s internationally recognized go-to expert on urban warfare, who has been challenging the claims that Israel is guilty of war crimes in Gaza since early November.

His latest attempt at swaying public opinion was posted on Newsweek’s website on January 31. He, too, is “outraged by the civilian casualties in Gaza,” he wrote, as indeed we all should be, but it is “crucial,” he wrote, that this outrage be directed “at the right target. And that target is Hamas.”

“Hamas,” Spencer wrote, “spent decades and billions of dollars building tunnels under civilian homes and protected areas for the sole purpose of using Palestinian civilians as human shields…, [but] does not allow civilians in their tunnels…, takes actions to create as many civilian deaths as possible…, [and] fights in civilian clothes, intermixed [with] civilians….”

Israel, for its part, “has taken more measures to avoid needless civilian harm than virtually any other nation that’s fought an urban war,” Spencer bluntly stated. In fact, “Israel has taken precautionary measures even the United States did not do during its recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Spencer’s urban warfare expertise is beyond dispute. He served as an infantry soldier for 25 years. That includes two combat tours in Iraq, where he was an infantry platoon leader and later a company commander. A retired major, his career has included being an instructor with the Army’s Ranger School, a stint as an intern with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a fellow with the Army Chief of Staff’s Strategic Studies Group.

Today, Spencer chairs the urban warfare studies department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Modern War Institute, which he helped design and create. He is also co-director of its Urban Warfare Project, hosts the Urban Warfare Project podcast, and is the author of “Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connection in Modern War” and the co-author of “Understanding Urban Warfare.”

Spencer also consults for the U.S. Army Forces Command, its Training and Doctrine Command, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as well as several international consultancies.

The Newsweek article was not meant to defend Israel, Spencer wrote, but rather “to correct a number of misperceptions when it comes to urban warfare,” especially including this one: “No military fighting an entrenched enemy in dense urban terrain in an area barely twice the size of Washington, D.C., can avoid all civilian casualties.”

Another misperception concerns the use of precision-guided munitions, the kind that pinpoint their targets to avoid as much collateral damage as possible. Spencer wrote that the “simplistic notion that a military must use more PGMs versus non-PGMs in a war is false.”

During the Gulf War, Spencer wrote, “the U.S. fired 250,000 individual bombs and missiles in just 43 days,” but only a very small fraction “would fit the definition of PGMs.” And yet, dropping so many non-precision-guided bombs “did not ignite anywhere near the same level of outrage internationally” as Israel is being subjected to in the Gaza war. That outrage is unfounded in Israel’s case because the IDF uses “many types of PGMs to avoid civilian harm” and relies on “technologies and tactics that increase the accuracy of non-PGMs.”

Among other tactics employed by the IDF to more accurately pinpoint targeting to avoid civilian deaths is “gathering pre-strike intelligence on the presence of civilians from satellite imagery, scans of cell phone presence, and other target observation techniques.”

Yet another misperception “is a military’s choice of munitions and how they apply the proportionality principle required by the laws of armed conflict,” Spencer wrote. This includes weighing “the value of the military target,” such as a Hamas official, against the estimated collateral damage such an attack would cause.

It also includes the nature of the facility in which that target is located. Is the intended target hiding out in a deep tunnel beneath the facility being bombed, which “would require great penetration,” something that a small bomb cannot deliver? Because the public has no access to the kinds of information necessary to make such decisions, Spencer wrote, it has no right to “say such things as a 500-pound bomb would achieve the military mission of a 2,000-pound bomb.”

The public also errs in believing that the rules of urban warfare require providing civilians with ample advance warning of an impending strike so they may safely evacuate the area. Such warnings are rare “for obvious reasons,” Spencer wrote, meaning that it allows the enemy “to prepare for the attack.” He noted, for example, that the United States gave no such advance warnings when it invaded Iraq in 2003, among other battles.

Israel, on the other hand, “provided days and then weeks of warnings, as well as time for civilians to evacuate multiple cities in northern Gaza before starting the main air-ground attack of urban areas.” Among the methods the IDF employed was “calling and texting ahead of an air strike as well as roof-knocking, where they drop small munitions on the roof of a building notifying everyone to evacuate the building before a strike.”

Then Spencer wrote this: “No military has ever implemented any of these practices in war before.”

The IDF, Spencer wrote, “dropped over 520,000 pamphlets, and broadcast over radio and through social media messages to provide instruction for civilians to leave combat areas.” Israel made 19,734 “real phone calls,” almost six million robocalls, and sent 64,399 text messages “to civilians in combat areas” that provided instructions on evacuations. This, Spencer wrote, is “unprecedented.”

Also unprecedented are the IDF’s “daily four-hour pauses over multiple consecutive days of the war to allow civilians to leave active combat areas.” While such pauses are not unheard of, Spencer wrote, the “frequency and predictability of these in Gaza have been historic.”

Another “historical first” was “Israel’s distribution of IDF military maps and urban warfare graphics to assist civilians with day-to-day evacuations and alerting them to where the IDF will be operating. No military in history has ever done this.”

Spencer concluded his Newsweek article with these observations:

“The reality is that when it comes to avoiding civilian harm, there is no modern comparison to Israel’s war against Hamas…. No military in modern history has faced over 30,000 urban defenders in more than seven cities using human shields and hiding in hundreds of miles of underground networks purposely built under civilian sites while holding hundreds of hostages.

“Despite the unique challenges Israel faces in its war against Hamas, it has implemented more measures to prevent civilian casualties than any other military in history…. The sole reason for civilian deaths in Gaza is Hamas. For Israel’s part, it’s taken more care to prevent them than any other army in human history.”

As I have noted in previous columns, often critically, Israel does not always get it right in its attacks, which Spencer argues is not possible in urban warfare. His point, though, is that Israel goes above and beyond what other countries, including the United States, do to get it right.

Spencer’s review of Israel’s tactics comports favorably with Judaism’s rules of engagement as summarized by Maimonides, the Rambam, in Chapters 6, 8, and 10 of his Mishneh Torah, the Laws of Kings and Their Wars.

Among other things, the enemy first must be offered a chance to make peace. Israel has offered peace to the Palestinian leadership several times, only to be rebuffed each time. There also must be a way for innocent civilians to escape once an enemy is surrounded, something Israel does with its many advance warnings.

The immense devastation Israel caused in Gaza would seem to violate the wanton destruction ban found in Deuteronomy 20:19. This ban, however, does not apply when there is a legitimate reason for any destruction, such as blowing up a building that is used as a staging area for terrorist attacks.

As Spencer has repeatedly noted since November, Israel is the only nation to go beyond what every other state has ever done to limit civilian casualties. How sad it is, then, that his reasoned arguments go unnoticed, and that Israel is demonized rather than the world recognizing who the true demons are — the terrorists of Hamas.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed–a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.

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