Tag Archives: Israel National Security

Before the next war: Israel and the US should articulate a policy on proportionality

How can a democratic nation fight and defeat asymmetric enemies in the 21st century?

Previously published in the Jerusalem Report.

by Dr. Eric R. Mandel

The recent International Criminal Court decision to investigate Israel for “war crimes” in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) highlights not only the hypocrisy of the international community’s anti-Israel bias but the difficulty of militarily responding to terrorists who play by no rules.

Can America and Israel ever receive a fair hearing in analyzing the complexity and legality of their military actions against asymmetric actors? Especially when international bodies like the UN Human Rights Council are dominated by some of the worst human rights abusers in the world. These anti-American and anti-Zionist organizations have become weaponized political instruments in a war of lawfare against the US and the Jewish nation.

Israel faces asymmetric threats from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iranian-controlled militias in Syria and Iraq. America has at least a 40-year history of fighting non-state actors in the Middle East – from the Iranian-orchestrated bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut to one of the worst asymmetric actors, Islamic State.

Israel’s dilemma is that what the US did to ISIS, with civilians embedded within its terrorist network, would not be tolerated by a world with double standards for the Jewish state. Israel will continually be delegitimized
for its response to attacks from civilian areas, where its enemy cynically uses civilians as human shields.

Proportional responses are a matter of ongoing debate in this murky environment. Let’s be clear: “Proportionate” does not mean that if Hezbollah or Hamas sends 100 missiles indiscriminately into Israeli civilian communities, Israel should be expected to send 100 missiles into Palestinian or Lebanese communities. That is immoral and would never even be considered by any democracy, especially Israel or the US.

Articulating a policy on what constitutes a proportional response in asymmetric warfare is both in American and Israeli interests. This past February, the US struck Iranian-controlled weapons depots in Syria in retaliation for an attack on American soldiers at a US base near the Erbil international airport. One American soldier was injured, but 22 Iranian militiamen of the terrorist organizations Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Is that proportionate or disproportionate?

According to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, “The strikes were necessary to address the threat and proportionate to the prior attacks.”

What is not acknowledged by critics is that it is well within the bounds of international law to retaliate even if the number of casual ties turns out to be more than were incurred, especially if the enemy deliberately uses civilians’ lives for propaganda purposes.

When civilians are inadvertently killed in homes where missiles are stored or whose living room is used as an entrance for an attack tunnel, is it still legal to attack those homes as long as you try to minimize civilian casualties? How do you cope when your intelligence finds kindergartens or hospitals used by terrorist organizations to store weapons or mount operations against your civilians? Israel has called off many operations, walking the fine line between a nation’s obligation to protect its civilians and its moral responsibility to minimize danger to the enemy’s non-combatants.

What is a proportionate response? It behooves Israel, the US and all Western nations not to wait until after civilians are killed in confronting an enemy, but to clearly state what proportionality is, and in a very public way.

Proportionality is wholly misunderstood by democratic governments, the press and the public. It is not the number of causalities that determines proportionality but the necessity of the military action balanced against the potential civilian loss.

Source: Alma Research and Education Center

As Victor Davis Hanson said, “Every Hamas unguided rocket is launched in hopes of hitting an Israeli home and killing men, women, and children. Every guided Israeli air-launched missile is targeted at Hamas operatives, who deliberately work in the closest vicinity to women and children.”

According to Human Rights Watch, no fan of Israel, for a specific attack on a military objective to be lawful, it must discriminate between combatants and civilians. The expected loss of civilian life or property cannot be disproportionate to the attack’s anticipated military gain.

Does Israel take care to avoid civilian casualties, even when they are purposely placed in harm’s way?

Asa Kasher, the co-author of the first IDF Code of Ethics, said, “We can’t separate the terrorist from his neighbors. The terrorists have erased the difference between combatants and non-combatants. They operate from within residential areas. They attack civilians. The world doesn’t have a clue what proportionality is. Proportionality is not about numbers.”

According to international law, the question of proportionality is whether the military benefit justifies the collateral damage. As for B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, all have double standards. For them, there is the poor, pitiful side and the strong side. Testimony that comes from the pitiful side is taken at face value. They think it is immoral to give priority to the defense of the citizens of your state over the protection of the lives of the neighbors of the terrorists.”

The number of casualties, civilian or combatant, is not a determinate for proportionality. War crimes and proportionality are for those who target civilians, are indiscriminate in their attacks, or cause disproportionate civilian loss. Israel does not target civilians, but you would not know that from reading European newspapers or reports from so-called human rights organizations in which body counts determine proportionality.

Jeffery Goldberg, writing in 2014, hit the nail on the head in describing terrorist actors. “Hamas is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible. Dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas. It is perverse but true. It is also the best possible explanation for Hamas’s behavior because Hamas has no other plausible strategic goal here.” This is the strategy of Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah and ISIS.

As Middle East analyst, British Col. (ret) Richard Kemp said, “Of course innocent civilians are killed in every war; war is chaotic and confusing, and mistakes are frequent, but mistakes are not war crimes.”

The problem is that the international community judges a disproportionate response by a body count. A democracy like Israel will always lose because its asymmetric enemy uses its citizens as human shields, hoping to
demonize Israel and deter legitimate use of force.

A few years ago, I spoke to the international medical director for Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, who told me that in the 300 villages he had visited in southern Lebanon, there was not one where missiles were not placed in civilian homes. This man was no Zionist.

All of this came to the fore in February when the ICC ruled that it is under its jurisdiction to investigate Israel for war crimes for its past military activity in the Gaza Strip. Also, it wants to determine if settlements in Judea and Samaria also constitute war crimes against the Palestinians.

The ICC is also supposedly looking into the potential war crimes of Hamas. Yet, it seems morally perverse to equate Hamas, a designated terrorist entity that indiscriminately targets Israeli civilians while using human shields to induce Israeli retaliation, with a democratic nation that tries as much as any other military on earth to minimize enemy civilian causalities. I have witnessed this firsthand along the Gaza border.

The three-judge panel ruling in favor of investigating Israel in 2021 is a far cry from former chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who said in 2006 that the ICC’s Rome Statute “permits belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur.”

The goal of Hamas and Hezbollah is to induce Israel to kill their civilians for political and diplomatic gain. Knowing international arbiters act only as bean counters plays right into their hands.

Whether from the north or south, Israel’s next war will again feature the use of human shields. This time it will be on a massive scale, with the inevitable international condemnation. Lt.-Col. Sarit Zehavi’s ALMA think tank, with the best expertise on Israel’s northern border, has documented many precision-guided missile factories purposely placed in civilian neighborhoods, next to schools, gas companies, and recreational facilities. It takes a herculean effort to fight UN officials and progressive media outlets who don’t hide their bias against Israel, choosing civilian body counts as their weapon to delegitimize Israel, knowing full well that Israel goes to extraordinary lengths to minimize civilians’ causalities.

Since the term “disproportionate” has been politicized and misused, it is appropriate to ask if an overwhelming response can be legal and justified if it acts as a deterrent to further attacks against your civilian population? What if it is the only effective deterrent against an asymmetric enemy that doesn’t play by international conflict rules, strategizing that it will not be on the receiving end of more missiles than it sends?

Can a case be made for a disproportionate response? Yes, it is called the Powell Doctrine and, in the long run, can decrease casualties by deterring the enemy. According to the late Charles Krauthammer’s interpretation of the
doctrine: “The key to success in a military conflict is the use of overwhelming force. For decades the US had followed a policy of proportionality: restraint because of fear of escalation. If you respond proportionately, you allow the enemy to set the parameters… you grant him the initiative.”

In 2006’s Second Lebanon War, Israel’s alleged use of disproportionate force deterred Hezbollah for nearly 16 years. Yet just two year later, the international community ganged up on Israel after Operation Cast Lead in 2008, alleging excessive force constituting war crimes that culminated in the infamous but now discredited and retracted Goldstone Report. The current ICC investigation against Israel for war crimes in 2014 is a continuation of the diplomatic war to discredit Israel and undermine its right to exist like every other nation in the world.

So what can US President Joe Biden’s administration do? It is in America’s interest to protect Israel and itself, so it shouldn’t wait until missiles fly in the next inevitable war. Being proactive before the next war, articulating an American policy on proportionality, would protect both your ally and yourself.

Sooner or later, the US will also be on the docket of the ICC for war crimes. In any war, bad things happen, and yes, war crimes occur. The difference is that for America and Israel, they are far and few between, are legitimately investigated, and punishment is meted out when warranted. Just ask the soldiers in Israeli or American military prisons.

The international community’s goal is to redefine proportionality and tar Israel and America by isolated incidents for political gain. Don’t be misled. Both nations follow the rule of law that is guided by their democratic values.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”

Examining Israel’s Security Challenges with Blue and White’s Ya’alon

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

How will Israel know when Iran will cross the threshold for nuclear weapons, and will it act?

One casualty of Israel’s electoral deadlock is the absence of a budget for the Israeli military. The current five-year plan, Gideon, negotiated by former defense minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon almost five years ago is ending without a new military plan to replace it. Although the IDF can continue to act against imminent threats, it is dangerous to hamper long-range planning.

So I decided to speak with Israel’s former defense minister, who presided over the last five-year plan when things in the government were more normal, to see how he analyzes Israel’s current security challenges. His perspective should be seen not only through his years of military service culminating as the IDF chief of staff, but as a leader of Israel’s Blue and White Party that may lead the next coalition government. I thought it would be instructive to ask Ya’alon to comment on some of the topics I discuss in Washington with foreign policy experts and members of Congress.

First, I wanted to know how Israel will fight a multi-front war with thousands of missiles aimed at Israeli communities and strategic locations, some with precision guidance that could overwhelm its current missile defenses.

Ya’alon said that it must be remembered that the strategy of Israel’s enemies like Hezbollah and Hamas is to use missile attacks to target and terrorize Israeli civilians. They know Israel is militarily superior and cannot be defeated conventionally, so their strategy is to break the will of the Israeli people. He said Israelis have repeatedly stood the test of time under threat, revealing Israel’s true strength, combining the Jewish heart with Jewish values, intelligence and the spirit of Zionism.

However, the best defense is still a good offense provided by Israel’s superior intelligence gathering, which is also an indispensable American security asset. For Israel, this allows missiles, as well as precision-guided missile factories to be precisely targeted.

I asked whether Israel needs more anti-missile systems like Iron Dome. He said Israel could certainly use more anti-missile systems, but without an approved military plan and budget, it cannot happen.

I moved onto Israel’s northern Iranian border with Syria and Lebanon, and wanted to know if it is possible, short of a massive ground invasion, to diminish the Iranian presence.

Ya’alon said you need to begin by thinking of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iranian controlled Shi’ite militias in Syria not as independent entities, but as parts of a whole entity, with its brain center for all of its nefarious activities located in Tehran. The supreme leader has not changed his spots, and when the West claims Iran has become more moderate under its current President Rouhani compared to his predecessor, Ahmadinejad, it’s like thinking Jack the Ripper is more moderate than the Boston Strangler.

I told him that there is a debate in the US whether it is wise to publicly support the protesters in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, as some say overt US support would allow the Iranian regime to claim this is all an American plot to overthrow the regime, which would resonate with the Iranian people. He answered that supporting the protesters is the right thing to do for both of our countries’ interests, and America shouldn’t fail the Iranian people again as they did 10 years ago during the Green Revolution.

Ya’alon added that regime change by the people of Iran would create more stability in the region. However, economic pressure via sanctions is not enough to stop Iran; they need to be politically isolated. Unfortunately, Europe is reluctant, but must be convinced that this is in their interest, as they did before agreeing to the flawed Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), to reinstate political isolation.

It should be noted that no one I spoke to throughout the Israeli security or political establishment ever even hinted that America should consider boots on the ground to cause regime change, something that is disingenuously alleged by many of the supporters of the JCPOA.

Ya’alon said Iran’s leaders ultimately want to survive, and even if there is not a popularly inspired regime change, the regime can feel enough economic and political pressure to halt some of their expansionist activities, but only if both political isolation and hard-hitting sanctions are combined.

I ASKED if Israel is forced into a large-scale war with Iran from Syria and Lebanon, would Israel consider attacking Iran proper. Ya’alon didn’t answer directly but said it is counterproductive to speak openly about Israeli strikes against Iranian interests, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does now, finding it counterproductive, as ambiguity about military options better serves Israeli interests.

So how will Israel know when Iran will cross the threshold for nuclear weapons, and will it act?

Israel leaves all options on the table, and only a credible military threat will dissuade Iran. America, by not responding to the Iranian downing of its $100-million drone, or the unreciprocated attacks by Iran on international shipping in international waterways, or the lack of response to the Iranian attack on the Saudi oil facilities, has invited further Iranian aggression and increased instability in the region, undermining both American and Israeli interests.

The best way to decrease Iran’s threats is to respond with consequences when Iran acts. He wants America not to forget that it still has interests in the Middle East and that if it creates vacuums, it will eventually endanger America itself. America must remember that 9/11 came from the Middle East and that many attacks against American interests have come from the region.

Taking a step back to view the situation on a macro level, Ya’alon said there are three great threats in the Middle East: Iran; the Muslim Brotherhood, best exemplified by Turkish President Recep Erdogan; and Sunni Wahhabi radicalism in the form of al-Qaeda or Daesh (ISIS) that are both now somewhat in retreat. The only way America can counter these threats without sending in troops is to be supportive of Israel, which holds the front line against all the forms of radical Islam, from Shi’ite to Sunni jihadism.

Ya’alon is the number three in the Blue and White Party and is reportedly its choice for education minister. After his time as defense minister, he emphasized Israel’s internal challenges, so I asked him, if he became education minister, how he would approach the subject of Zionism in the secular Jewish school system.

As chief of staff of the IDF, Ya’alon made it a priority to teach young soldiers about the foundational core values of Zionism, defining Judaism as a religion, a national aspiration, a civilization and a people. He said these core values must be part of the educational system, as the nation must be rooted in a solid foundation to withstand its challenges. Israel’s four school systems: secular Jewish, religious Zionist, Arab and haredi (ultra-Orthodox), also need to be more integrated for both their benefit as well as the country’s. He emphasized the importance of avoiding confrontational coercion of the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, but his party is in favor of some form of mandatory civil service.

Let’s hope Israel’s politicians will put the people’s interest ahead of their own and finally form a government after this unprecedented third election. Everyone I spoke to, Right and Left, agreed that having to endure a third election is unfortunate, and Israelis need to agree to disagree where necessary, maintain their sense of unity and move forward, as a genuine, vibrant democracy requires. 

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisers, as well as White House advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to The Hill, i24TV, JTA, TheDefensePost.com, JNS, The Forward and has appeared on RealClearWorld.com.