Monday, November 27, 2023

Endangering Civilians During Wartime - William R. Hawkins


by William R. Hawkins

Those who are sincere in their concern for the loss of life in Gaza are basing their appeal on mistaken ideas about urban warfare and military history.


The hostage-prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas is being called a “ceasefire” in the media, playing on the central demand of leftist demonstrators and others who favor the Palestinian cause. But the proper term is “truce,” a temporary pause in fighting to allow humanitarian actions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared “The war continues…. until we have achieved complete victory… Eliminating Hamas, liberating our captives and making sure that post-Hamas there will be no threat to Israel.” The October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas killed 1,200 people, nearly all civilians, in sadistic fashion. Israel cannot allow Gaza to be a base for more such attacks as the Iran-backed group has pledged to do until Israel is destroyed.

Hamas, however, needs the truce to become a ceasefire to survive. The Israeli counterattack is methodically working its way through Gaza City with skillful tactics backed by superior firepower. Hamas as lost an estimated 5,000 fighters, including several leaders. The bulk of its forces (perhaps 20,000 fighters) have fled into southern Gaza, mixing in with refugees in the same way it tried to use civilians as human shields in the north. In pursuit, Israeli forces will have to fight in other urban centers smaller in size but overcrowded with refugees engaged with international relief agencies.

It is supposed concern for civilians caught in the combat zone that is generating the calls for a ceasefire and the opening of supply routes into Gaza. These calls should be ignored for several reasons. The most obvious is that those in the forefront of the “peace” movement with their calls for “liberating” Palestine “from the river to the sea” are working for the genocidal Hamas cause. They are pro-war, not anti-war, as they favor a victory by Hamas. Those who understand and support the Israeli cause see the chants of the Left as confirmation that the destruction of Hamas is imperative.

Even those who are sincere in their concern for the loss of life are basing their appeal on mistaken ideas about urban warfare and military history. Which side is putting civilians at risk? Israel is on the attack dropping bombs and sending in ground troops, but who has chosen the targets? The answer is Hamas by deploying in populated areas, hiding in Mosques, schools, and hospitals, digging tunnels under city blocks of apartments and shops. They picked the battlefield for their own purposes, one of which was to curry international sympathy as victims -- a status they clearly do not deserve.

Let us step back from the emotions of the moment and seek perspective from military history. When Japan invaded the Philippines on December 8, 1941 (only 10 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor), a prime objective was Manila. Gen. Douglas MacArthur wanted to spare the civilian population of the capital so declared Manila an “open city” and withdrew his troops to the Bataan peninsula and the fortress of Corregidor. They fought on until May 6, 1942, when they had to surrender. MacArthur escaped and vowed to return to free the islands, which he did on October 20, 1944. At that time General Tomoyuki Yamashita imitated MacArthur by declaring Manila open and retiring to the mountainous north. But Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi refused to follow orders, instead turning Manila into a fortress complete with tunnels and booby traps. Iwabuchi’s elite Special Naval Landing Force marines set parts of the city on fire to slow our advance while targeting the city’s civilian population for indiscriminate slaughter.

Urban combat has not changed much. We relied on firepower to support infantry who had to clear the city block by block. With defeat inevitable, the defenders turned on the civilians with torture, rape, and executions. While MacArthur considered the Filipinos to be his people and sought to spare them, the Japanese considered them as enemies. After the war, Yamashita was hanged for the Manila Massacre as a convicted war criminal.

So, does Hamas consider the people of Gaza City to be its people or enemies? They care nothing for Palestinian lives even though they claim to be fighting for their cause. Hamas takes its orders from Iran, which provides money, training, and weapons as it does for armed groups across the region (in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen). Hamas is different in one major respect: it is a Sunni organization. Iran is ruled by a Shiite theocracy at war with the Sunni Arab states as well as with the Jewish state of Israel. The Tehran strategists are delighted to use Sunnis as cannon fodder. Iran cares little for the fate of a Sunni Palestine. Its aim is to destroy Israel. Though Iran’s armed Shiite groups are harassing Israel and American bases, it is leaving the heavy fighting to its Sunni pawns who are expendable (whether fighters or civilians). Israel, with its attempts to evacuate the combat zone, is showing more concern for the Palestinian people than Hamas (though like our forces in Manila, they have victory as their first duty).

The Iran-Shiite hatred for Sunni civilians was demonstrated during the Syrian civil war. A majority of Syrians are Sunni but the Assad family are Alawites, who are Shia. When a popular uprising started in 2011 demanding democratic reforms and an end to corruption, Bashar al-Assad responded ruthlessly. The rebel stronghold was in Aleppo, the country’s economic center. With help from Iranian special forces, Hezb’allah, and other militia groups armed by Tehran, the city fell to regime forces in 2016. Civilians had been targeted during the siege, including with the use of chemical weapons. It was a “people’s war” that included everyone. The United Nations called the final days of the siege “a complete meltdown of humanity.” Russia had also intervened with air strikes against the rebels, a campaign that continues to this day. The Russian-Iranian partnership offers mutual support for aggression both in Europe and the Middle East. It was not a coincidence that Russia launched a new offensive in Ukraine the same week Hamas attacked Israel.

Since the dawn of history, cities have been the focus of war because that is where the people are. Capital cities are obvious objectives but so are ports, industrial centers, and transportation hubs. One of the first signs of civilization was when villages built walls for defense. Walls have been superseded by modern cities where concrete and steel offer defense in depth. Sieges have been common since ancient times where starvation and disease are more effective than bombardment. Urban combat and social mobilization have blurred the line between soldier and civilian. The troops on the front line are supported by the civilian economy and reinforced by recruits. Rosie the Riveter is a military asset.

In World War II, the American and British strategic bombing of Germany aimed at destroying the industrial and logistical foundations of Axis military power. This inevitably meant targeting civilians in their role as part of the enemy’s war machine. While the U.S. aimed at factories in daylight raids, the British bombed at night, hitting where the factory workers lived. Residential areas were larger targets for saturation bombing before the development of precision technology. In the decades since, the U.S. and its allies have invested billions to become more precise in hitting military targets, but civilian casualties are inevitable because the sharp line armchair critics claim exists between war and society does not exist in the real world. The fight for cities is the ultimate proof of this.

The first duty of the Israeli government is to protect its own people, which is the duty of all responsible governments. The objective of war is to create a better situation (for the victor) than existed before its outbreak. Eliminating Hamas is both an essential and moral war aim. However, as a civilized people, the Israelis have tried to limit “innocent” civilian casualties. Hamas has counted on this restraint (while showing none itself). It would be a grave blunder for Hamas to be proven correct by turning virtue into a defeat. Israel must liberate Gaza from Hamas just as we liberated Germany from the Nazis by whatever means necessary. Everyone will be better off when this mission is accomplished and peace is secured.

William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications.


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