By General James T. Conway - The Wall Street Journal July 25, 2014
Americans are understandably concerned when they hear that the majority of Palestinian casualties in the fighting between Israel and Hamas have been civilians and when they see images of houses in Gaza reduced to rubble and women wailing. Given the lack of corresponding Israeli civilian casualties to date, this creates the impression of an unequal - and hence immoral - fight between Israel and Hamas.
Although American empathy for noncombatants is a critical component of who we are as a people, it should not blind us to reality: Israel's military exists to protect its civilian population and seeks to avoid harming noncombatants, while its adversary cynically uses Palestinian civilians as human shields while deliberately targeting Israeli civilians.
I recently had the opportunity to see for myself the moral chasm between how the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas treat civilians during military operations. In May I joined a dozen other retired U.S. generals and admirals on a trip to Israel with the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
Just outside Hamas-ruled Gaza, we toured a tunnel discovered less than one kilometer from an Israeli kindergarten. Unlike tunnels that I had seen during the Iraq war that were designed for smuggling, this Hamas tunnel was designed for launching murder and kidnapping raids. The 3-mile-long tunnel was reinforced with concrete, lined with telephone wires, and included cabins unnecessary for infiltration operations but useful for holding hostages.
Israel, fearing just such tunnel-building, has long tried to limit imports of concrete to Gaza for anything but humanitarian projects, yet somehow thousands of tons of the material have been diverted for terror use rather than building hospitals or housing for Palestinians. Since the beginning of ground operations into Gaza, the IDF has uncovered approximately 30 similar tunnels leading into Israel, in addition to the more than two dozen discovered prior to Operation Protective Edge. Hamas operatives have been intercepted emerging from such tunnels in Israel carrying tranquilizers and handcuffs, apparently hoping to replicate the successful 2006 kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, for whom Israel exchanged 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011.
Beyond targeting Israeli civilians with kidnappings and with the indiscriminate firing of rockets, Hamas shows a callous disregard for the lives of the Palestinians it ostensibly represents. Earlier this month Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri appeared on Al-Aqsa TV and encouraged Gaza residents to act as human shields. They appear to have heeded the call: Israeli Defense Forces combat video has shown Palestinians rushing to rooftops after receiving warnings from Israel-via phone calls, text messages, and unarmed "knock-knock" small projectiles striking a targeted building-that a missile attack is imminent.
Nor is Hamas the only potential adversary of Israel that believes its civilians' propaganda value is worth more than their lives. From an IDF outpost overlooking the border, I saw housing tracts in Lebanon built with Iranian money after Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah. The IDF has determined that the housing masks the launch sites for some of the more than 100,000 rockets that Hezbollah holds in reserve for attacking Israel and its citizens. As we have seen in images from Gaza, the occupants of these dwellings either will serve as human shields to deter Israeli pre-emptive strikes, or in the event of another war they will be valuable "collateral damage"-dying in the service of Hezbollah's propaganda mill.
This cynical inducement of civilian suffering for propaganda is in marked contrast to the IDF's treatment of noncombatants. While Hamas is encouraging the sacrifice of its civilian population-and its cowardly leadership is ensconced in underground bomb shelters-the IDF reports that in the conflict's first week it provided more than 4,400 tons of food to Palestinians in Gaza, about 900 tons of natural gas and about 3.2 million liters of diesel fuel. All this despite 1,700 Hamas rockets fired at Israel.
Meanwhile, the Rutenberg power plant outside Ashdod in Israel supplies Gaza with electricity, though the Palestinian Authority's payments are badly in arrears. This supply only stopped when a Hamas rocket destroyed the power lines to Gaza on July 13, plunging 70,000 Palestinian households into darkness. Despite the rocket fire, Israel repaired the transmission lines, restoring electricity to Gaza.
I do not relate these experiences to argue for an Israeli moral perfection that does not exist, or to suggest that the IDF should be immune from criticism even if it commits genuine abuses. The tragic reality is that no matter how much the IDF tries to avoid collateral damage, its operations will kill some number of civilians. That won't be close to the carnage of noncombatants in the Syrian civil war, but it won't matter. As one Israeli commander told me, "The world judges Israel differently," regardless of its efforts to minimize civilian casualties.
I suspect that he may be right. If so, it is essential for the IDF to be as vigilant in shaping the information environment as it is in intercepting rockets from Gaza.
General James Conway, who retired in 2010, was the 34th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. He participated in JINSA's Generals and Admirals Trip