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An expert in urban warfare says Israel is more careful to protect the lives of civilians in Gaza than any other army in history. But even if that is true, does it matter?

This is a segment from The “(Feels Like) Sumpin’ Gonna Give” Edition.


Now it’s time for our second discussion.

So Gilad, what should we make of the claim that you see really often on social media that Israel is taking more precautions to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza than other armies ever have taken in the same kind of circumstances?

Even if it’s true, does it really matter given how many civilian casualties there are? – Yeah, the most moral army in the world.

So a headline of a recent essay in Newsweek read, “Israel has created a new standard for urban warfare.

Why will no one admit it?”

How armies fight in cities is something Professor John Spencer, the author of this piece, knows a thing or two about.

He is the chair of the Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and he co-directs the MWI, the Modern War Institute’s Urban Warfare Project.

More importantly, John Spencer hosts the Urban Warfare Project podcast, which many consider to be the best podcast on the subject.

I would say at least the top five.

In the essay, John Spencer writes that in this war in Gaza, the IDF has carried out its fighting in the city in a different way than any and every army that came before it, taking unprecedented steps to reduce the number of civilians killed and injured, settling “a remarkable historic new standard in attending to the enemy’s civilian population” in a war and “here again, implementing more precautions to prevent civilian harm than any military in history, above and beyond what international law requires, and more than the US did in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

So unique are these Israeli efforts, John Spencer writes, that the US and its allies should be studying how they can apply the IDF’s tactics for protecting civilians, despite the fact that these militaries would almost certainly be extremely reluctant to employ these techniques because of how it would disadvantage them in any fight with an urban terrorist army like Hamas.

The first thing the IDF has done, according to John Spencer, is to telegraph almost every move ahead of time so civilians can relocate, nearly always ceding the element of surprise.

This has allowed Hamas to reposition its senior leaders and the Israeli hostages as needed through the dense urban terrain of Gaza and the miles of underground tunnels it’s built.

The IDF reported dropping over 7 million flyers, but it also deployed technologies never used anywhere in the world, as I witnessed firsthand on a recent trip to Gaza and southern Israel.

Now this is Spencer and he continues, “Israel has made over 70,000 direct phone calls, sent over 13 million text messages, and left over 15 million pre-recorded voicemails to notify civilians that they should leave combat areas, where they should go, and what route they should take.

They deployed drones with speakers and dropped giant speakers by parachute that began broadcasting for civilians to leave combat areas once they hit the ground.

They announced and conducted daily pauses of all operations to allow any civilians left in combat areas to evacuate.”

The IDF also tracks the civilian population in real time down to a few-block radius using drone and satellite imagery and cell phone presence and building damage assessments to avoid hitting civilians.

What’s more, John Spencer writes, “All these extraordinary efforts were successful, leading to more than 85% of Gazan civilians evacuating northern Gaza before the ground attack, which is very close to the most you can expect, given that research shows that around one in 10 people refuse to leave their homes, no matter how severely they come under attack.”

Even using Hamas numbers, John Spencer writes, “About three Gazan civilians have died for every Hamas fighter, which is a terrible number, but small when compared to the 9 to 1 ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in most modern wars.”

Spencer cites a report in The Times that, quote, “The daily civilian death toll had more than halved in the previous month and was down almost two-thirds from its peak.”

Now, according to Spencer, all this ought to be recognized, applauded, and studied by generals around the world.

He writes in conclusion that, quote, “Those calling for Israel to find an alternative to inflicting civilian casualties to lower amounts like zero should be honest that this alternative would leave the Israeli hostages in captivity and allow Hamas to survive the war.

The alternative to a nation’s survival cannot be a path to extinction,” end quote.

In other words, Israel has no choice but to fight the war, and the way that it is fighting the war is more what, careful, humane, decent, than any country in a similar situation has ever fought a similar war.

And we, of course, have no way of knowing the precise degree to which what John Spencer writes is accurate and to what degree, if any, Spencer is repeating IDF and government talking points.

But even if we assume that there is a factual basis to what Spencer writes, it is not clear what, if any, difference it makes.

No one, including Spencer, disputes that thousands and thousands of innocent civilians, many of them kids, have been killed, and no one, including Spencer, disputes that the homes of hundreds of thousands of people have been destroyed in the fighting.

And no one, including Spencer, disputes that there are people in Gaza, including many, many kids, who don’t have what to eat.

So all this stuff that John Spencer writes about even matter, and if it does, how does it? – I guess on paper it matters.

I guess on paper it’s better to have, I don’t know, 20,000 Gazan civilians killed rather than 50,000, you know?

But it’s still a lot of people.

And so I guess what he writes makes us feel a little bit better about ourselves in feeling that if this is a necessary war and this is necessary horrific result that it’s a less horrific result than it would have been anyway.

But just on a gut level, on a human level, it’s very hard to feel any better about it that it’s less than it would be at all.

And, you know, unless you’re arguing that Israel shouldn’t have retaliated and we shouldn’t try to root out the Hamas infrastructure, the way that Hamas, you know, presented itself underneath the civilian population made it almost inevitable that we would have to do what we did.

If it’s factual, it’s all well and good, but honestly, I don’t think it really matters.

Noah, what do you think?

Well, there’s a way in which it definitely matters for people who believe that Israel’s motivation is that it wants to kill Palestinians, for people who look and see Israel as being genocidal in its efforts of really, then this is a demonstration of the fact that it’s really not.

It would be easy for Israel to kill even more people and it’s almost inevitable in this situation having decided to do what they have decided to do, which is to take over Gaza entirely, try to destroy all the tunnels and capture all of the leaders of Hamas, destroying the organization, then it would be almost natural or inevitable for more people to die.

So anyone who has this idea, which was never really sensible or never really matched the facts that Israel’s goal is just murder, this clearly matters.

And for someone who worries from within Israel that there’s a kind of creeping moral laxness in the army, this kind of thing offers some kind of hope.

I do think there probably are all sorts of examples that we will in the fullness of time be able to point to of like things, terrible things that the IDF did that it didn’t need to do, including up to and including maybe atrocities.

But this allows us to think that overall, that’s not the policy.

That’s not what people are trying to do.

And that seems very right to me and that seems important.

But the difference that it doesn’t make is that somewhere in rooms in the Kiryat here in Tel Aviv, there were people who beforehand were looking at evaluations that said, that said while if we didn’t have all this new fancy technology that allows us to inform people and move people around and try to quote unquote protect people, we would be looking at death tolls that were three times as large as they are.

They still know and knew going in that something like this order of magnitude of people would be killed even using all these techniques to minimize as much as possible civilian deaths.

And that’s the thing that matters.

So that you’re still left with the fact that we made the decision to allow for what, 20,000 civilian deaths and the numbers will be higher than that in the end and maybe by a lot in order to do this.

And so the fact that we took all this care doesn’t do away with that in any way.

In a way it makes it, in a way it makes it even like to me, a little bit harsher if we went in knowing that we were gonna make all these efforts and despite that the numbers were gonna be so huge.

So I don’t get any comfort from this at all, save for proof of what I feel like I already knew that no one was going in with the goal of revengefully just murdering innocent people.

I never thought that.

And so, and that’s the only comfort you can get from this, I think, Gilad, what do you think? – Yeah, I don’t think you can get any comfort from anything related to this war really.

But I think that what it matters in the sense that it’s really useful in helping us distinguish between the military aspect of it and the diplomatic aspect of it.

And in this sense, the military has done whatever it could to pursue its goal and minimize the damage.

The problem lies, and this is something, of course, Netanyahu tries to minimize, but of course the problem lies with decision makers and the fact that they have allowed us to reach that point that this extremely brutal within reason, this extremely brutal military operation was inevitable.

And I think there was so much more that could have been done to prevent us from playing into the hands of Hamas that we knew were embedding themselves in civilian population, that we knew were happy to sacrifice millions of Gazans ahead of themselves and just not do whatever we could to avoid that.

And I think that the military knowing their own limitations and the fact that they’re not that, they’re not genocidal, they’re not in this business in order to kill people, but really they are guided by this notion of really defending Israel militarily.

And the military was pursuing for diplomatic routes out of this mess even before.

They knew that heightening the flames vis-a-vis Hamas would be dangerous and also for Israel’s long-term security policy, but the great crisis and great failure of the leadership at this point was really not listening. – And not prioritizing the hostages enough, I think. – And what would that have looked like?

What should that have looked like? – Well, it was always like a carrot and a stick issue.

And there was always the assumption that we have to hit them hard, hard, hard, hard, hard.

So they’re so miserable and desperate that they’re going to be willing to give up hostages.

And that hasn’t happened.

And so maybe, I mean, obviously hindsight is 20/20, but it could have been like, if you give up the hostages, then perhaps X, Y, and Z won’t happen to you.

There was that possible path and that possible route of holding back, knowing that the option of hitting them hard is not going away, but maybe trying carrot before, not your initial instinct is to smash down the stick as hard as you can and think that that’s going to get the hostages out. – My hindsight is so far from 20/20 in this.

I can’t even make sense of this retrospectively.

I don’t, even knowing everything I know now, I do not know what I think even that they should have done on October 8th or 9th. – I know what they should have done.

I think that- – Because you have a PhD, Guy. – Because I have a PhD.

I can’t tell that, the theology. (all laughing) They should have, the problem is that Israel was defeated on the 7th of October.

It was a military defeat.

And Israelis are just not programmed to acknowledge the fact that they can be defeated because in Israel’s history, there’s too many victories and not enough defeats.

And just recognizing that it was a defeat and cutting damages and planning a sober strategy for what lies ahead would have been a much wiser.

But this is something that I think the Israelis at this moment, especially the current government, are just not capable of. – And at that point, there were 300 hostages in Gaza as well.

So it was hard to be sober. – No, but I think it was, I forget who it was.

I think it was David Maidan, one of the former Shabak people who were in charge of the hostages even before October 7th, Gilad Shalit and the others who are still there.

He said from the very beginning, he said, just give them whatever they want.

Just swap everyone with everyone.

So there were other ways out, but that would be Israel really recognizing that Israel giving Hamas whatever they want.

And this is something that I don’t think anyone, especially not to this brutal and cynic organization like Hamas is something that you want to do.

But I mean, it’s really a choice between several evils.

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