Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently issued the following warning to Israel:
“You know, I learned a thing or two about urban warfare from my time fighting in Iraq and leading the campaign to defeat ISIS. Like Hamas, ISIS was deeply embedded in urban areas.”
“And the international coalition against ISIS worked hard to protect civilians and create humanitarian corridors, even during the toughest battles.”
“So the lesson is not that you can win in an urban warfare by protecting civilians. The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.”
“You see, in this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
That ill-advised admonition reflects a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between Hamas and most Gazans. Recent polls show overwhelming support by Gazans not only for Hamas but also for its barbarities of Oct. 7. The sad reality is that the civilian population of Gaza is already in the “arms of the enemy.” It is part of the problem, not the solution.
The only way to get these “civilians” out of the arms of Hamas is to show them that atrocities committed by Hamas will hurt the civilians of Gaza as well as the terrorists of Hamas. This message is obviously not intended for infants and young children, who are completely innocent. But it does include most adults, men and women alike, many of whom not only cheer for Hamas but are complicit in their terrorism by allowing themselves to be used as human shields and their homes and mosques to be used as hiding places for weapons and commanders.
When the Allies killed hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians during World War II, this did not drive the surviving civilians into the arms of the enemy. To the contrary, the show of strength and the total victory of the Allies, drove most of them into the arms of the victors who promised them a better life— and delivered through the Marshall Plan in Germany and the rebuilding of Japan. Not even the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo and Dresden drove the civilians into the arms of the military evil-doers who provoked the allied response. The lesson of the total war and unconditional surrender that ended World War II is far more relevant to Gaza than the experiences in Iraq.
Moreover, Iraq was not a success for the United States. Many civilians were killed, and much of Iraq is currently in the arms of Iran. Not exactly a model to be followed by Israel.
So Secretary Austin, well-meaning as he is, should be careful about the advice he offers.
Israel should continue to try to prevent civilian casualties while aggressively pursuing its legitimate military goals: the complete destruction of Hamas’ ability to terrorize Israeli civilians and the return of all the hostages.
The world — and especially the United States — should understand that when Hamas undertook the barbarous attack on Israel with the help, support and approval of many Gazans, they sentenced their civilian population to disastrous consequences, just at the Germans and Japanese did when they started World War II.
Hamas then compounded these consequences by using civilians as human shields. The inevitable collateral consequences to civilians — especially young children — should be blamed on Hamas.
Israeli soldiers should not be required to sacrifice their lives and to forgo an Israeli victory to protect the citizens of Gaza from self-inflicted wounds caused by Hamas.
Moreover, the greatest beneficiaries of the total defeat of Hamas would be the civilians of Gaza, even if they don’t realize it. The same was true for the civilians of Germany and Japan.
Israel is doing more than any military in history to try to minimize the civilian casualties that are caused by Hamas. They should not be asked by Washington to do more, if doing more would defeat their legitimate military goals.
To sacrifice victory in order to placate the civilians of Gaza — or to reduce criticism of Israel from the biased international community, academia or the media — would be wrong, both morally and strategically.