Col. Richard Kemp CBE, a former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, is notorious among Israel-bashers for his robust defense of the morality of Israel’s army and his empathy for the challenges Israel faces from Hamas and other Islamic extremist groups seeking its destruction.
Kemp is in Israel at the moment and gave a lecture on Thursday afternoon in Jerusalem, arranged by the NGO Monitor organization. I spoke to him beforehand in the faint hope that this 30-year British army combat veteran, who served 14 operational tours of duty worldwide and who subsequently worked in the British Cabinet office on defense and intelligence issues, could offer clear-cut guidance on how Israel might decisively, and with a minimum of loss of life, prevail over Hamas in the current offensive. As we talked in the cafe of Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Kemp was astute and informed and wise. Unsurprisingly, unhappily, however, he echoed the words from the Prime Minister’s Office these past two weeks — you need to use a mixture of military and diplomatic strategies, but there are no 100 percent solutions. Actually, it was bleaker than that. Read on, but don’t expect to be uplifted.
I asked Kemp first, simply and unfairly, how Israel could win out over Hamas in the military, diplomatic and public opinion arenas, and left it for him to choose where to start. He began with the military aspects. “It’s possible to use different military operations to defeat Hamas as a viable military entity,” he opened, promisingly enough. “It can’t be done from the air. It can be done from the ground. At the moment you’re attacking the tunnels. You could move further into Gaza, to the rocket launchers and the infrastructure and the underground tunnels there.”
And here’s where things started to go downhill. “But that means a protracted operation, which is likely to be costly,” he warned. “There’s already been significant cost to Israel in the ground operation. There’d be more clashes with those the Israeli troops are assaulting. As with British forces in Afghanistan, you’re facing suicide attacks, roadside bombs, IEDs, booby traps, snipers. Except Hamas has had a lot more time to prepare than the Taliban had in any particular area of Afghanistan. You’re also operating in very heavily populated areas. This all means major advantages to the defenders. Tanks, artillery and aircraft are of more limited use. You’re fighting hand-to-hand.”
And that’s not all, said Kemp. The heavy civilian casualties among Gazans would raise world opprobrium. And the heavy casualties among Israeli troops would cause support to falter in Israel. Therefore, you need to bring in diplomatic resolution “at some stage along that path.”
Okay, but at which point along that path, I asked him.
“Military pressure at some point could cause Hamas to want a ceasefire, he said. “That’s more than possible at some point before its defeat. Or,” he went on, “diplomatic pressure [earlier on] could achieve the same effect.” But he cautioned, “it’s preferable to end with a diplomatic solution only if and when the IDF believes there has been sufficient damage to Hamas and/or you are confident that Hamas is so restricted as to significantly reduce the threat it poses.”
But, I responded, as he sipped his soda water, it’s hard to imagine Hamas seeking a ceasefire. Indeed, he agreed, and Israel has sustained so many casualties that it will not want a ceasefire without concrete assurances of long-term calm. At the same time, he said, “there’s media pressure” — reports of dead babies, dead boys on the Gaza beach, the UNHRC ordering a probe — “accumulating on the government to agree to a ceasefire short of what it really wants.”
If that all sounds unsatisfactory, Kemp readily acknowledged it. These are hard questions, he said.
I asked him how Israel might realistically achieve the demilitarized Gaza that it and the EU are calling for. He shook his head at the improbability of it all. “Some kind of peacekeeping force would be essential, but who’d do that? Not the US, not the UK, nobody.”
What is Israel to do about Hamas? ‘Recognize that it has a festering sore blistered onto the side of it’
So what, I asked him, at the risk of going round in circles, was a realistic exit? “Pillar of Defense-style assurances from Hamas that they won’t carry out attacks,” he suggested, “and assurances from Egypt that they’ll do what they can to prevent Hamas’s rearming.”
But the Pillar of Defense calm held for only 20 months, and Hamas was unlikely at present to offer any assurances, I noted. “I don’t have the solution,” said Kemp. “The fact that there’s a problem doesn’t mean there’s a solution.”
So what is Israel to do? Kemp was curt. “Recognize that it has a festering sore blistered onto the side of it.”
He did recommend something Israel could do to boost its security — encroaching deeper into Gaza to carve out “a more substantial buffer zone that would provide some defense against the cross border tunnels.” But he also then immediately acknowledged that there would be heavy international criticism for the removal of Gaza’s civilian population that this would entail.
‘In the world today, it’s not possible for Israel, with its security needs, to withdraw its forces significantly from the West Bank’
It all sounds impossible, I suggested bleakly. He sighed and said that Western forces in Afghanistan and Iraq had found it very difficult to grapple with the tactics and strategies used by Islamic extremist forces. “Years ago it was possible for Western forces to use extreme violence,” he said. “The language of extreme violence has more leverage here [in this region]. But that’s not on the table in the 21st century… That’s not feasible or desirable.” And, therefore, he concluded, “You’re in an enduring situation.”
Worse than that of Western forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, I said, because we can’t withdraw back to distant Britain and the United States. We’re stuck here in this neighborhood. Said Kemp: “It’s a matter of containment, rather than resolution.”
I tried a different course. Perhaps a political solution? “Yes, of course,” replied Kemp. But it quickly became clear he was speaking theoretically. “But as the Gaza lessons show, how could Israel possibly come to any agreement with the Palestinian Authority which would allow them full sovereignty in the West Bank? Maybe in 20, 50 years. But in the world today, it’s not possible for Israel, with its security needs, to withdraw its forces significantly from the West Bank.”
Except that’s precisely what the international community, led by the United States, has been urging Israel to do. Kemp was withering. “The Allen Plan” — a proposal drawn up by General John Allen for Secretary of State John Kerry to provide security for Israel after a gradual West Bank withdrawal — “is a complete nonstarter and was from the very beginning,” he said. “The idea that you could expect technology to secure the area, to expect Israel to rely on monitoring perhaps by American forces, and thus to withdraw Israeli forces from the interior of the West Bank, and gradually from the border, [in a world] with the Islamic State (terror group), Gaza, the downing of the Ukrainian airliner…” Kemp tailed off.
“Even if your prime minister, any Israeli prime minister, wants to enable the PA to have a state without an internal Israeli military presence, they can’t. And will the PA accept an agreement on sovereignty with an Israeli military presence? Of course not.” So unless there’s a tectonic shift in the region, a political solution is “impossible.”
What he seemed to be saying, I summed up, is that Israel is, at best, doomed to have to continue intermittently conducting very costly military operations. The colonel agreed. “In the world today, and as it appears it will be, Israel is, if not fighting for its survival, certainly fighting people who will continue to attack it.”
Doesn’t the international failure to understand this constitute an existential danger, given the criticism and potential constraints on Israel’s room for maneuver when it resorts to these very costly military operations? Kemp said there was a strategic danger if international criticism became a profound economic problem for Israel. But he also thought the BDS campaign and some efforts by the EU to disrupt the economy had been “feeble” to date.
Israel deserves full support for what is a ‘legal, lawful operation, [a case of] Israel defending itself,’ Kemp said. When that full support is not forthcoming, that encourages the extremists
How did Kemp explain the international failure to understand what Israel is up against, I wondered. I cited British Labor opposition leader Ed Miliband’s harsh criticisms of Israel in recent days and President Barack Obama’s less than unconditional support as examples, while crediting British Prime Minister David Cameron for taking a more supportive position. But Kemp wasn’t even completely happy with Cameron. “Cameron said some good things, to an extent, but he also said that Israel needs to do more to reduce civilian casualties. Assuming he’s aware of how things are unfolding, that’s not a reasonable comment of an ally of Israel. The same goes for Obama (who expressed concern at the deaths of civilians), and for [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon’s use of the word ‘atrocious.’ All of that validates Hamas’s tactics and encourages Hamas to continue what it is doing,” he fumed. “It shows other jihadists that these tactics work — especially the use of human shields. If Miliband says ‘I can’t defend Israel,’ well, how would he fight terrorism? Our country Britain has been very lucky not to face the same thing. But these international jihadists learn from each other.”
The international response to Operation Protective Edge could have been worse, Kemp allowed. But Israel deserves full support for what is a “legal, lawful operation, [a case of] Israel defending itself,” he said. When that full support is not forthcoming, that encourages the extremists.
Lack of empathy for Israel in some quarters, certainly in Britain, Kemp posited, stems partly from a desire to avoid internalizing what is really going on. People are “self-indoctrinated with their own thinking” — their own inclinations to “compromise, reason and logic. They just can’t see how the situation really plays out,” he said.
In the UK, he added, there is also still a belief in high circles that Israel is at the root of all of the Middle East’s problems, even if that belief has been somewhat dented by reality. Also, he said, “people like Miliband see that supporting Israel, when most parts of the Muslim world oppose it, is going to be unpopular given the UK’s increasingly influential Muslim community. And there’s an element of appeasement: [Islamic extremists] have carried out attacks,” a reference to the July 7, 2005, London bombings — “and we’ve thwarted more. So [the thinking is], if we’re nice to Israel, [the extremists] will be nasty to us.” Kemp also cited electoral considerations — with British constituencies where Muslim voters can prove decisive — and the small matter of oil.
But what of Obama, president of Israel’s key ally? Kemp began apologetically: “It’s not an original thought, but obviously he wants to be a peacemaker, to lower the Middle East profile, to be a friend of the Arab world. Being seen to be too close to Israel undermines that.”
Increasingly depressed by this point, I said one of my concerns was that Israel, when facing amoral enemies, might have an increasingly hard time surviving without resorting to more brutal actions. He was adamant that Israel, in his judgment, is simply not prepared to act immorally. He spoke of Israeli pilots telling him that they’d aborted bombing runs time after time because of the danger of civilian casualties. That must be frustrating, he’d ventured. Quite the reverse, they told him. I’d rather do that time and again, one pilot had said, than have the opposite on my hands.
Kemp said he didn’t understand why the Western media doesn’t recognize this morality. “They go to Afghanistan and see the troops and feel respect, but they seem to believe Israeli soldiers are different. In my experience, Israeli soldiers, with their different accents and uniform, are very similar to the British soldiers in terms of their mentality, ethos and morality,” Kemp said. “In some cases, the individual morality of the Israeli soldiers is greater than the British.”
Maybe all our woes stem from the settlements, I suggested, playing devil’s advocate as our conversation came to its bitter end. “Some say that’s central. I say it’s marginal,” Kemp said. “The same people who are attacking Israel now were attacking Israel before there were any settlements. If the settlements were withdrawn, it would not markedly affect the problem. The only thing that would markedly affect the problem is if Israel — I should say the Jewish state — were to withdraw from the Middle East. Because that’s what Hamas wants. And in my view, that’s what Fatah wants as well.”
Bleak indeed. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But utterly supportive. At least someone gets it.
I’ll tell you the truth: Life here in Israel isn’t always easy. But it's full of beauty and meaning.
I'm proud to work at The Times of Israel alongside colleagues who pour their hearts into their work day in, day out, to capture the complexity of this extraordinary place.
I believe our reporting sets an important tone of honesty and decency that's essential to understand what's really happening in Israel. It takes a lot of time, commitment and hard work from our team to get this right.
Your support, through membership in The Times of Israel Community, enables us to continue our work. Would you join our Community today?
Sarah Tuttle Singer, New Media Editor
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.