Readers may have seen retired Australian Major General Jim Molan’s article in the Australian, in which he argued that Operation “Protective Edge” – Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza last year – was a just war: “Given our examination of the cause of Operation Protective Edge, it would be indefensible to argue that Israel wanted it, initiated it or sustained it, or that Israel acted in anything other than defence of its citizens,” Molan wrote. “On this basis alone, Israel’s war was just.”
Molan concluded that “Israel’s prosecution of Operation Protective Edge not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, it exceeded them significantly, often at cost to Israeli soldiers and citizens.”
Molan also told ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill in an interview on Monday that Israel went to great lengths to adhere to international law during Operation Protective Edge:
“They held off for as long as they could in the face of provocation that represents war crimes, in my view…Israel’s air attacks were carefully planned and executed. We’ve all seen reports about the amount of messaging they do. The amount of ringing to make sure civilians are out of the way. As someone who has practically applied the laws of armed conflict in modern warfare, I was very impressed.”
However, readers should note that Molan’s conclusions are not solely his own; in fact, they represent the findings of an 11-person group of senior military and political leaders, including Molan, that visited Israel in May.
Molan and his colleagues comprised the High Level International Military Group, which was led by General Klaus Naumann, former Chief of Staff of the Germany army, the Bundeswehr, and Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, and Giulio Terzi, former Foreign Minister of Italy. Terzi also represented Italy at the United Nations from 2008 to 2009 and served as Italian Ambassador to Israel from 2002 to 2004.
The Group contained several high-ranking military leaders including not only Naumann and Molan, who formerly served as the Chief of Operations for the Headquarters Multinational Force in Iraq and Commander of the Australian Defence College, but also Admiral Jose Maria Teran, former Chief of the Joint Staff of Spain; General Vincenzo Camporini, former Chief of the Defence Staff of Italy; and Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of British forces in Afghanistan.
Readers may remember the dramas that accompanied Colonel Kemp’s visit to Australia in March 2015: during a talk given by Kemp at Sydney University, protestors-including Jake Lynch, director of the University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies-disrupted the event and clashed with security guards. Lynch subsequently came under investigation by the university for allegedly unprofessional conduct at the event, where-in what was perceived by some observers as an act tinged with antisemitic overtones-he waved money in the face of a Jewish woman (though he was subsequently cleared by the university of the antisemitism charge, while alleged to have committed other breaches of the University code of conduct.)
The group also included other serious and experienced military specialists and experts in the law of war, such as Colonel Eduardo Ramirez, former Chief of Security, Colombia; Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, former US State Department Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues; Colonel Vincent Alcazar, former United States Air Force Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Lieutenant General David A. Deptula, former Standing Joint Force Air Component Commander, United States Pacific Command.
Rafael Bardaji, former National Security Advisor to the Spanish government and executive director of the Friends of Israel Initiative, had coordinated the trip.
In a letter to Judge Mary McGowan Davis, Chair of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, the Group wrote of its main findings, namely, that Israel acted within the international confines of armed conflict and that many of Hamas’-rather than Israel’s-actions in fact constituted war crimes:
“We examined the circumstances that led to the tragic conflict last summer and are in no doubt that this was not a war that Israel wanted. In reality Israel sought to avoid the conflict and exercised great restraint over a period of months before the war when its citizens were targeted by sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza. Once the war had begun, Israel made repeated efforts to terminate the fighting. The war that Israel was eventually compelled to fight against Hamas and other Gaza extremists was a legitimate war, necessary to defend its citizens and its territory against sustained attack from beyond its borders.”
The letter also made note of numerous instances in which Hamas committed war crimes, including deliberate and indiscriminate rocket fire at southern Israeli civilian communities, construction of a tunnel network (using materials diverted from humanitarian aid, no less) intended to breach Israeli territory and harm Israeli civilians, and clear evidence of Hamas’ use of human shields and UN facilities as weapons stockpiles.
Finally, the letter emphasised the extent of the IDF’s proportionality measures and humanitarian efforts to reduce Gazan suffering, noting that they surpassed the standards set by international treaties and at times may have undermined the security of Israel’s own citizens:
“The measures taken were often far in excess of the requirements of the Geneva Conventions. They sometimes placed Israeli lives at risk. To an extent these steps also undermined the effectiveness of the IDF’s operations by pausing military action and thus allowing Hamas to re-group and replenish…A measure of the seriousness with which Israel took its moral duties and its responsibilities under the laws of armed conflict is that in some cases Israel’s scrupulous adherence to the laws of war cost Israeli soldiers’ and civilians’ lives.”
The verdict echoes that of other experienced Western military officers and experts when looking at what happened in Gaza. US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, America’s most senior soldier, said in November 2014, “Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.” The findings also corroborate other studies of the IDF’s conduct during the conflict, including a report by American law of war scholars Michael Schmitt and John Merriam, who found that the IDF’s “approach to targeting is consistent with the law and, in many cases, worthy of emulation.”
Meanwhile, it is clear that most of the criticism of Israel’s conduct of the 2014 Gaza war comes from those with little or no actual military experience – journalists, armchair intellectuals, NGOs and the politicised and reflexively anti-Israel organs of the United Nations, long dominated by the Arab and Islamic states and their proxies and allies.