Ground Truth: The Disconnect, Context and Challenges of Israel’s War against Hamas

I had the privilege recently of participating in a study visit to Israel sponsored by the Jewish Institute of National Security for America. Along with a group of retired U.S. flag officers, the trip afforded the opportunity to gain additional insight into the strategic and military operational aspects of the current conflict, to include extensive briefings from commanders of units recently rotated out of the fight. I came away with the conclusion that there is a serious disconnect between the realities of this conflict and external public perceptions. Here’s a look at what I consider the most acute areas of this disconnect.

What exactly does self-defense justify

Israel’s campaign against Hamas is, in international law terms, an exercise of national self-defense. Like all other nations, Israel has an inherent right to use military force based on this legal justification (although there are some scholars who continue to believe that self-defense arises only in response to an armed attack from another state, an interpretation that is increasingly considered impermissibly restrictive). But what exactly does self-defense justify in terms of the scope and duration of military action?

The most common criticism of the IDF campaign is that it is too aggressive, producing too many casualties and too much physical destruction in Gaza. The ever-growing chorus of demands for an immediate and unconditional cease fire is the most obvious manifestation of this criticism. Those who embrace this view fail, however, to explain how it aligns with the inherent right of self-defense, or perhaps embrace some flawed conception of self-defense as some type of tit for tat equation requiring a proportionality of harm between the aggressor and the defender.

These understandings miss the point. Self-defense for a nation is analogous to self-defense for an individual: it legally justifies measures that would otherwise be unlawful when acting in response to an actual or imminent unlawful attack. But there is an important limitation on those measures: they must be reasonably necessary to reduce the threat and restore the status quo ante of safety and security. Indeed, self-defense is derived from the general legal justification of necessity, which means simply that if a measure is necessary it is justified; if it is not then it exceeds justification and remains illegal. This is another way of saying that the response must be proportional to the threat.

This is why tit for tat self-defense is so highly misleading: it is the threat that dictates the permissible scope of self-defense, not the suffering inflicted by the unlawful aggression that triggers the right. It is logical for a state to assess the scope of an imminent or ongoing threat by considering not only the opponent’s capability to inflict harm, but its motivation and intent. To this end, it is important to remember that the express goal of Hamas is to annihilate Israel and kill as many Jews as possible, and that the only reason they didn’t succeed in killing more on Oct 7 and the following days is because Israeli security forces were able to repel the invasion. Translated into military terms, this really leads to a very simple question: what scope of military action is necessary to secure the safety of the Israeli population from the Hamas (and Palestinian Islamic Jihad) threat emanating from Gaza?

That question cannot be answered by simply comparing casualty numbers. Even assuming some validity to the numbers provided by the Hamas controlled health ministry in Gaza (numbers which from inception have conflated civilian and enemy deaths), the mere fact that more civilians have been killed in Gaza than were killed in Israel on October 7th or since does not indicate an excessive or disproportionate response. Instead, the more logical question is focused on whether it is reasonable to assess a necessity to destroy Hamas as a fighting force capable of projecting violence against Israel? And in this regard, it is highly significant that in prior conflict flare ups, Israel attempted more limited military self-defense actions. October 7th proved that these limited responses failed to security Israel from the Hamas threat and render reasonable the conclusion that nothing short of a full-scale campaign to destroy this enemy’s military capability was necessary. Indeed, it is likely that historians will question whether Israel exercised unnecessary restraint up to this point, thereby exposing their population to constant rocket attacks, cross-border assault tunnel incursions and other attacks over the 16 year period in which Hamas has controlled Gaza.

From all we observed, this is exactly how the strategic justification of self-defense was translated into military operational objectives. The IDF was given a classic combined arms maneuver mission: close with and destroy the military capability of Hamas and PIJ. That mission was further translated to identifying, attacking, and defeating key aspects of this capability: command and control; logistics; weapons manufacturing capacity; military infrastructure; and action to render individual Hamas units combat ineffective. The IDF is close to achieving these key objectives. Then and only then will the government be able to offer its people a genuine sense of security along that dangerous border.

This is not COIN

Most military observers have recognized from the outset that IDF operations against Hamas are quite different in scale and intensity than a counter-insurgency operation. After this past week I have no doubt. Hamas may engage in some insurgent tactics, but to characterize it as an insurgent threat is simply erroneous. Hamas forces are arrayed in battalion and brigade organizations, with accordant command and control, area of operations, and logistics structures. This dictated IDF tactics which involved what might best be understood as classic combined arms maneuver: IDF forces “closed with and destroyed” enemy combat capabilities.

It is therefore misleading to refer to this as a fight between the IDF and a terrorist group. The Hamas terrorist designation is appropriate and important for issues related to sanctions, criminal responsibility, and restrictions on providing support for terrorism. And Hamas forces certainly employed and continue to employ terrorist tactics (most notably on October 7th and with the continued holding of hostages and use of human shields). But what the IDF is confronting in Gaza is an armed military group (albeit a non-state group) organized, equipped, commanded, supplied, and prepared like a conventional military force. Furthermore, unlike a typical insurgent group, Hamas has controlled territory and population, with all the advantages that affords their forces: freedom of maneuver, collecting taxes for funding military activities, time and freedom to massive underground construction, control over sites such as hospitals and other specially protected buildings. All this has enabled Hamas to spend years diligently preparing Gaza as a veritable fortress to deter IDF ground combat action against it. That force divided Gaza into brigade and battalion areas of responsibility and was capable of rapidly shifting forces from one area to another to avoid IDF action or reinforce weak points. While the destruction of the 6 (out of 24) remaining battalions will almost certainly lead Hamas remnants to devolve into insurgent-type operations, from inception this was not a counter-insurgency operation.

This fight is multi-level, not just sub-terranean

I visited the Gaza border in 2015. The IDF took me and others into one of the Hamas infiltration tunnels that came as such a surprise in the 2014 conflict. What we entered was a highly sophisticated work of sub-terranean engineering. What I could not have imagined was that by 2023 this would be the tip of a proverbial iceberg.

It is now well documented how extensive the Hamas tunnel network was when this campaign began. The IDF estimates something akin to 500 miles of interconnected and multi-level subways, housing everything from server farms to jail cells for hostages to missile manufacturing plants. Many of the most vital segments of the system were deliberately constructed under highly sensitive facilities, such as UNRWA headquarters, hospitals, and mosques. Booby trapped, equipped with high-tech surveillance capabilities, separated by blast doors, this was no mere Hamas subway; this was an interconnected underground fortress.

It is truly remarkable how effective IDF maneuver forces have been in dealing with this asset. Contrary to my initial assumption, the IDF has not relied on aerial attacks to destroy tunnels. Instead, high-tech surveillance enabled discovery and mapping of the system, which was followed by courageous raids by special forces units or extensive demolition efforts by combat engineers.

But the fortress Hamas constructed in Gazan urban areas was not only sub-terranean. What the IDF discovered were interconnected battle positions established in residential and commercial buildings throughout the battle space. Hamas had not only facilitated maneuver through these buildings by underground movement; it had connected them above ground to enable operatives to move from one building to another with relative impunity. Furthermore, the IDF discovered massive amounts of pre-positioned arms and ammunition in these buildings, enabling Hamas operatives to feign civilian status as they maneuver on surface roads between buildings and then once inside civilian structures armed themselves for combat against nearby IDF forces.

From both a tactical and legal perspective this revelation of how Hamas constructed what was in effect an interconnected multi-level fortress within densely populated areas is significant. Tactically, it explains much of the structural destruction inflicted by IDF forces in Gaza. As any maneuver commander knows, there are few tasks more dangerous than clearing buildings, especially when they are multi-level. Because of the density of such positions and concerns over friendly attrition clearing would inflict, it seems that early in the campaign IDF commanders relied extensively on fire support to neutralize these battle positions. Booby traps and mines placed by Hamas inside or adjacent to these structures contributed to the destruction, as did the collapse of structures made unstable by the massive excavations for tunnels underneath. However, it was also interesting to learn that as the campaign progressed and the IDFs understanding of enemy tactics increased, commanders assumed greater risk by engaging in close combat clearing operations in lieu of stand-off attacks on buildings. This, as was shared with us, explains why the building destruction in Gaza City was more extensive than in Khan Yunis.

From a legal perspective, the manner in which Hamas fortified so many buildings and pre-positioned weapons and ammunition is important for assessing both the status of these buildings as valid military objectives and the allocation of military value in relation to proportionality assessments. A military objective includes what would otherwise be a civilian structure when the “nature, location, purpose or use [of the object] make[s] an effective contribution to military action and [its] total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.” Use refers to the way the object is being used at the time of the attack. In contrast, purpose refers to reasonably assessed future use of the object. Thus, as a matter of international humanitarian law, it was not necessary that IDF forces identify Hamas fighters in these buildings to justify attack; a reasonable assessment the building had been prepared as a battle position for enemy use would result in its qualification as a military objective and loss of civilian protection.

The proportionality assessment related to such attacks is more complicated. The first question is whether preparing a building as a battle position results in the entire building losing protected status or just the parts so used. If it is the former, there is no requirement to consider the destructive impact of an attack, only the impact of proximately located buildings that are not military objectives. If the latter, then the anticipated military advantage of attacking the building must be weighed against the anticipated destruction of the rest of the building considered civilian. But even here, the attack would be prohibited only if that anticipated “collateral damage” was assessed as excessive when compared to the military advantage. Considering how intelligence quicky established the way in which these interconnected buildings were routinely prepared as battle positions, and considering that most of the physical damage inflicted occurred after most civilians had been evacuated from the immediate battle area, it is difficult to say that collateral damage anticipated from attacks on these structures should have been assessed as excessive, even if one assumes that parts of a single building are considered civilian in nature.

This issue will, I anticipate, become a more central focus of IDF criticism as combat operations subside and civilians return to areas of significant physical devastation. The images of civilians facing the reality of that destruction will paint a story of genuine sadness, and it will likely take years to rebuild those communities. But it is important not to make unfounded assumptions as to why this destruction was inflicted, for example by accusations of a strategy of collective punishment. It is also important to be cautious when allocating responsibility for building destruction, and to recognize that in some situations destruction was the direct result of Hamas booby-trapping civilian structures, mining alleyways in between such structures, firing directly on civilian structures in order to harm or hinder IDF ground forces, and otherwise causing their collapse by undermining structural elements of buildings by having tunneled extensively underneath.

The reality is that Hamas prepared urban areas in Gaza as a massive multi-level battle position, almost certainly because their leaders believed the IDF would not endure the casualties – both to IDF personnel and to the legitimacy of the campaign as the result of international reaction to the human and physical suffering urban combat would necessitate – associated with close combat in such an environment. Hamas clearly miscalculated: IDF tactical excellence resulted in friendly casualty rates that were (thankfully) remarkably low, and Israeli national unity and determination to destroy the Hamas military threat negated the restrictive effect of international pressure. The consequences in both loss of life and physical destruction are indeed tragic, but from what I learned I think it is far too speculative to assert they were the result of conduct of operations in violation of international law.

Civilian risk mitigation is integrated into all aspects of IDF operations

Perhaps the most acute legitimacy challenge Israel and its forces are facing is the narrative of excessive civilian casualties. Let me emphasize from the outset that I believe even one civilian death in war is tragic and that all forces engaged in hostilities bear a constant and imperative obligation to do all that is tactically and operationally feasible to mitigate the risk of such casualties. But it is a simple truism that war can and almost always is awful yet lawful at the same time. And it is also a truism that first reports from the battlefield are rarely accurate.

When conducting hostilities, international humanitarian law imposes obligations related to attack judgments, and not attack outcomes. This alone reveals the invalidity of pointing to casualty numbers as conclusive proof of illegal conduct in war. Commanders and other attack decision-makers at every level, even down to a soldier pulling a trigger, are required to make reasonable attack decisions. Sometimes those decisions result in harm to civilians that cannot be avoided without giving the enemy a windfall; sometimes they result in harm to civilians that was impossible to assess when the decision was made, and sometimes they are result in no harm to civilians even when the attack decision violates the law.

Furthermore, the legality of attack decisions must be judged attack-by-attack based on the circumstances at the time the decision was made. All of this indicates why citing to aggregate civilian casualty numbers as proof of illegal conduct in war is deeply flawed. First, those numbers aggregate the consequences of literally multiple individual attack decisions, and therefore say little about each of those decisions. Second, the raw numbers tell us nothing about the justification for each of those decisions.

But attack results are not irrelevant in assessing legality in the conduct of hostilities and can support rational inferences. Yet here is where the pervasive narrative related to the hostilities in Gaza are most distorted. Even when considering aggregate numbers, the broader context is an essential consideration. One thing is clear: this conflict has involved significant amounts of force employed by both sides to the fight, conducted in close combat conditions for a protracted time-period. It is simply naïve to assume such operations can be executed without inflicting civilian casualties. As one expert in urban warfare noted, there is simply no modern historical analogue to the nature of this fight.

Legal compliance really does matter

From the outset of this campaign, as with past military actions, the IDF and Israeli political leaders have emphasized the professionalism of the force and its commitment to complying with all international legal obligations. While there have been moments of bombast by some politicians, IDF leadership has been consistent in its asserted commitment to international humanitarian law. This comes as no surprise as it is consistent with the ethos of the institution.

The real test, of course, for how such assertions influence operations is the conduct of the force during hostilities. And nowhere is the challenge of ensuring military forces comply with the law greater than when fighting an enemy who systematically violates the law and seeks to exploit your own compliance with the law for tactical advantage. But while leading combat forces into hostilities against such an enemy – in this case Hamas and PIJ – is a tremendous challenge, it is in this situation where the strategic importance of compliance, or perhaps the adverse consequences of non-compliance, becomes magnified.

Everything I observed and heard indicated to me that the IDF is acutely aware of this imperative. The excellence of its legal corps, or Military Advocate General’s Corps, is widely recognized among military legal peers throughout the world. And over the years that Corps has evolved to ensure maximum effectiveness of their advising efforts, most notably a shift from a centralized operation requiring field commanders to reach back for support, to an operations-oriented approach that embeds legal advisors in operational commands.

Ultimately, it is how a force executes a combat mission that provides the primary indication of whether the rhetoric of compliance aligns with the reality. And for the IDF that evidence is solid. Every combat commander we heard from demonstrated both an understanding of the core legal principles applicable to their operations and the command responsibility to ensure subordinate forces embrace and respect the law. This has been manifested most notably in systemic efforts to implement civilian risk mitigation measures during the conduct of hostilities.

On this point, it important to note that the law’s civilian risk mitigation obligation is not absolute but is instead qualified by feasibility considerations. In other words, commanders are expected to implement any measure that mitigates civilian risk when doing so is assessed as feasible. Feasible, in turn means first that the commander has the capability to implement the measure (for example, a commander cannot drop leaflets if she has no aircraft to deliver them), and more importantly that the measure will not compromise military advantage. This means a commander is not obligated to implement a civilian risk mitigation precaution when doing so will give the enemy some advantage (like advance warning of an attack against an enemy leader or command and control node that would enable the enemy to avoid the attack) and/or expose friendly forces to increased risk.

For the IDF, there are many examples of good-faith commitment to this precautions obligation: maximizing use of precision guided munitions (contrary to the media narrative, there has not been an extensive use of “dumb” bombs; 80% of air attacks have utilized precision guided munitions and when non-terminally guided rounds have been used they have normally not been used in densely populated areas); canceling attacks when the civilian risk situation is greater than initially anticipated; issuing pre-attack evacuation warnings; establishing evacuation corridors from areas of the most intense hostilities; using dismounted infantry to raid and clear buildings in lieu of stand-off fires; implementing civilian casualty thresholds that require elevation of attack decisions to higher command whenever anticipated civilian casualties exceed an established threshold; integrating legal advisors at tactical command posts; and of course training efforts.

As noted above, it is erroneous to treat combat effects as conclusive evidence on the question of IHL compliance. But the enemy belligerent to civilian casualty ratio is relevant to this question. And, ironically, the inference supported by this ratio is not one of undisciplined and indiscriminate use of force by IDF personnel – the narrative consistently pressed by invoking Hamas provided casualty statistics. Instead, this ratio suggests a high degree of IDF effectiveness and professionalism.

To date Hamas claims that approximately 29,000 people have been killed in Gaza – numbers which form the basis of United Nations reporting with not independent verification. This number has never distinguished between Hamas military operatives and civilians, nor has it distinguished between those killed as a result of IDF action and those as a result of Hamas action (such as failed rocket launches, booby-trapped structures, tunnel collapses or fire against IDF ground forces). Even taking this number at face value, it is obviously impossible that every person killed in Gaza was a civilian. And, because the Palestinian Health Ministry provides not details other than asserted raw numbers, there is really no way to assess if some of these casualties were Hamas operatives and if so how many? Conservative IDF estimates indicate approximately 13,000 enemy belligerent operatives killed. It is impossible to assess at this time how those numbers relate to the Health Ministry statistics. But even assuming these deaths are in addition to Health Ministry numbers, and accepting those numbers as accurate, it indicates about a 1:2 enemy/civilian death ratio. And that ratio would decrease if some of the Health Ministry deaths were enemy operatives.

While in no way diminishing the tragedy of any civilian casualties, this ratio is truly remarkable and arguably unprecedented in the annals of combined arms operations in urban environments. What makes the number even more remarkable is that Hamas and PIJ consistently endeavor to exacerbate civilian risk by embedding their personnel and assts amongst civilians; actively preventing evacuation efforts by civilians; and routinely operating in civilian attire. That the IDF has been able to render combat ineffective 18 of 24 Hamas battalions with such a ratio is a testament to the execution of combat operations in a manner consistently aligned with IHL obligations.

It is also noteworthy that these effects have been achieved with very low IDF losses. Indeed, the consensus among our review group was that we all expected far greater IDF casualties considering the complexity of the operational environment and enemy capabilities and tactics. All of this suggests that this operation will not be studied as an example of overly zealous use of combat power and infliction of intolerable civilian casualties, but as an example of one of the most effective combined arms maneuver campaigns in an urban area in modern history.

In short, legal compliance is essential to military success at every level of command: tactical, operational, and strategic. But context matters, to include the nature of the enemy situation and the tactics they employ. When understood in the context of Gaza and the enemy the IDF is fighting, the story is not nearly as negative as routinely portrayed, something eloquently explained by Judge Sebitune in her dissenting opinion to the International Court of Justice’s decision to accept jurisdiction over South Africa’s allegation that Israel is violating the Genocide Convention as the result of its combat operations against Hamas:

As stated above, the tragic events of 7 October 2023 as well as the ensuing war in Gaza are symptoms of a more deeply engrained political controversy between the State of Israel and the people of Palestine. Having examined the evidence put forward by each of the Parties, I am not convinced that a prima facie showing of a genocidal intent, by way of indicators, has been made out against Israel. The war was not started by Israel but rather by Hamas who attacked Israel on 7 October 2023 thereby sparking off the military operation in Israel’s defence and in a bid to rescue its hostages. I also must agree that any “genocidal intent” alleged by the Applicant is negated by (1) Israel’s restricted and targeted attacks of legitimate military targets in Gaza; (2) its mitigation of civilian harm by warning them through leaflets, radio messages and telephone calls of impending attacks; and (3) its facilitation of humanitarian assistance. A careful examination of Israel’s war policy and of the full statements of the responsible government officials further demonstrates the absence of a genocidal intent. Here I must hasten to add that Israel is expected to conduct its military operation in accordance with international humanitarian law but violations of IHL cannot be the subject of these proceedings which are purely pursuant to the Genocide Convention. Unfortunately, the scale of suffering and death experienced in Gaza is exacerbated not by genocidal intent, but rather by several factors, including the tactics of the Hamas organization itself which often entails its forces embedding amongst the civilian population and installations, rendering them vulnerable to legitimate military attack.

Looking at Gaza in isolation creates a distorted narrative

One of the most common flaws in the critique of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza is how too many observers view it in isolation from the broader security threats Israel now faces. That is certainly not how the nation, the government, nor the IDF view things. Instead, only by considering the interconnected threat posed by Hamas, Hezbollah, and a potential broader conflict with Iran can the scope and duration of the operation in Gaza really be understood. Israelis speak of an existential threat that manifested itself on October 7th, a characterization that leads many skeptics to point out that Hamas is simply incapable of destroying Israel. Perhaps in isolation that is true. But in the broader security context, how Israel reacted to that attack reverberates across the region.

Since October 7th, Israel has come under sustained attack in its north from non-state actors in Lebanon and in Syria, chief amongst them Hezbollah. Rockets, armed drones, anti-tank missiles and incursions have been directed against Israeli civilians and military targets, causing death, injury and destruction. More than 80,000 Israelis have evacuated their homes along the Northern border. What most people don’t realize is that only a small percentage of that number were subjected to a mandatory evacuation; most left voluntarily out of genuine fear that they too would fall victim to the type of barbaric attacks that occurred along the border with Gaza. This fear is not exaggerated. Israel and its people know that Hezbollah is a far more capable enemy than Hamas, and that Hamas adopted its tactics for the invasion from the Hezbollah playbook. Israel has also come under attack from as far away as Yemen, with intercontinental ballistic missiles fired at population centers in Israel’s south. Israel is, today, under attack from every direction.

Deterring this threat, and of equal importance retaining the military freedom of action to defeat it if deterrence fails, influenced the perception of the necessity for rapid and decisive action against Hamas. Indeed, we visited a storied IDF division that was among the first to engage in maneuver operations in Gaza that had just recently been relocated to the Northern region to refit and train for contingencies to defend that border.

Nor is the nature of the threat limited to enemy military capability. Israel knows it is engaged in a multi-faceted campaign of isolation and delegitimization. Cases before the International Court of Justice; likely investigations by the International Criminal Court; moves by states to cut off Israel’s access to critical resources; a seemingly endless effort to enact a United Nations Security Council Resolution demanding an immediate and unconditional cease fire (with proponents almost certainly aware that Israel would likely violate such a resolution in order to complete the mission of destroying Hamas military capabilities and rescuing hostages) are all examples of the diplomatic and information battle Israel’s enemies are stoking and exploiting. The momentum gained by those enemies in this front of the strategic campaign strongly suggest how unlikely it is that calm will return along Israel’s borders any time soon.

And of course, looming in the background of all of this is Iran. Can the IDF afford to be bogged down in a slow grind in Gaza, poised to address the far more lethal threat of Hezbollah, and still be prepared for the risk of direct conflict in Iran? The assessment of that question can only be made by Israel. But ignoring these broader security dynamics distorts the nature of the threat now being addressed in Gaza.

Misconduct Magnification and the Strategic Corporal

One individual we met with lamented what he characterized as too many, “own goals” by Israel; too many mistakes in word and deed by Israeli officials and military personnel that undermine the credibility of their cause. What seems clear is that every mistake has been and will continue to be magnified in significance for several reasons. First, from inception this fight has been about moral clarity: on one side is a barbaric organization devoted to the total annihilation of a nation and its people whose operatives make no distinction between legitimate objects of violence and innocent civilians; on the other a nation built on Judaic and democratic values whose armed forces are deeply committed to respecting the humanity-based limits on wartime violence. Any “own goal” inconsistent with that moral clarity will inevitably be magnified. Second, those who reject this clarity will highlight and arguably exaggerate every one of these “own goals.”

One need only consider the misleading and exaggerated evidentiary significance South Africa attributed to several problematic statements by Israeli government officials as a key pilar in its genocide accusation against Israel in the International Court of Justice. As Ugandan Judge Sebutinde noted in her dissenting opinion to the Court’s decision to even accept jurisdiction over the accusation,

Regarding the statements of Israeli top officials and politicians that South Africa cited as containing genocidal rhetoric, a careful examination of those statements, read in their proper and full context, shows that South Africa has either placed the quotations out of context or simply misunderstood the statements of those officials. The vast majority of the statements referred to the destruction of Hamas and not the Palestinian people as such. Certain renegade statements by officials who are not charged with prosecuting Israel’s military operations were subsequently highly criticized by the Israeli Government itself. More importantly, the official war policy of the Israeli Government, as presented to the Court, contains no indicators of a genocidal intent. In my assessment, there are also no indicators of incitement to commit genocide.

But the mere fact that her quite credible assessment of these statements in proper context failed to prevail among a majority of the Court’s judges reinforces the immense dangers of such “own goals.”

At the military operational level, reports of soldier misconduct during the operation have also been highlighted. These unacceptable incidents are in context few and far between, and reflect the simple reality that no military is perfect. In the chaos of war even the best disciplined and led armed forces experience incidents of soldier misconduct, a reality that most military lawyers appreciate. But in context such as this, even isolated incidents of minor misconduct can have a near immediate adverse strategic effect on the legitimacy of the effort. Or, as one U.S. general offered to our class of mid-level military lawyers back in 1996, ‘a tactical decision by a corporal on a checkpoint this morning can have strategic consequences by this evening.’ Hence the notion of the “strategic corporal.” Indeed, while writing this commentary that impact was highlighted by this story in Israeli media that IDF soldiers have engaged in widespread looting in Gaza. Even if more isolated than alleged, the damage is done and that toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube.

This is why it is imperative that the IDF, and the Israeli government more broadly, be vigilant in ensuring that word and deed align, and that when misconduct does occur it is credibly addressed through appropriate disciplinary action. This is why initiatives such as this special investigative team are so essential to both ensuring good order and discipline within the force and for enhancing perceptions of legitimacy. Investigating and, where appropriate, prosecuting your own soldiers for battlefield misconduct is never a pleasant prospect; no one likes the idea of punishing men and women who answer the call to defend their nation against a lawless and brutal enemy. But as my brother Colonel (retired) Gary Corn noted in The Cipher Brief, preserving the moral high ground and ensuring that a military force is truly professional demands no less.

Tactical excellence cannot ensure strategic success

Perhaps the most troubling observation was the apparent disconnect between the excellence of IDF tactical execution and some semblance of a coherent plan that defined the strategic end state of the operation. The very recent announcement by Prime Minister Netanyahu providing broad outline for the Israeli government vision for what will happen in Gaza following the completion of the immediate mission to destroy Hamas military capability aligned with what we generally heard. But there seems to be a troubling failure to acknowledge that the millions of people in Gaza cannot be left to fend for themselves in an ungoverned space.

One of the operational missions the military indicated it was responsible to achieve was the dismantling of Hamas administrative function. This is aligned with the state Israeli goal of preventing Hamas from resurrecting governance in Gaza. That seems logical. But what will follow? The IDF, like the Prime Minister, acknowledge the almost certain need to conduct limited security operations in Gaza for a long time to come to deal with remnants of Hamas and PIJ. The most common analogy was how the IDF deals with security threats in areas of the West Bank, ensuring freedom of action for these security operations. At the same time, the government appears adamant that the Palestinian Authority will not be offered the opportunity to fill the governance vacuum. From a political standpoint this seems driven by the perception that enabling PA control in Gaza will be perceived as a reward for what happened on October 7th. But it seems shortsighted to analogize the ongoing security strategy to the West Bank without acknowledging that one of the reasons the IDF has been relatively successful in that area is the effectiveness of security cooperation with the PA.

The recently stated plan will rely on local Palestinian officials with no Hamas or PA affiliation to assume administrative responsibilities. Who these individuals are and whether they will be cooperative with Israeli officials is yet to be seen. And whether this will provide a coherent governance substitute for what existed before October 7th is anyone’s guess. What is obviously concerning is that a failure to follow up on the tactical success of destroying Hamas as a military entity might very quickly negate the benefit of that outcome. As U.S. forces have learned through the crucible of failure, the only real remedy for truly destroying a committed insurgency is good governance. Who will provide that is a crucial strategic question for Israel’s government and the international community.

And then there is the immense challenge of simply providing for the basic needs for millions of Gazan civilians. The Prime Minister also announced Israel’s determination to see an end to the role of the United Nations Relief Works Agency, the organization that was primarily responsible for keeping Gazan society afloat due to Hamas’s neglect of its governance responsibilities. The disgust with UNRWA is understandable: UNRWA employees participated in the October 7th attack and may have hidden hostages. And while this appears to be a small percentage of the organization, as a general matter UNRWA (perhaps by necessity) has sustained Hamas by providing for so much of the daily needs of Gaza. And then there is the contribution to radicalization that has been endemic in the Gazan education system run by UNRWA.

Yet with all its flaws, there does not appear to be any other humanitarian organization capable of the scale and density of operations that match UNRWA at this time. With civilians currently facing an acute need for food, water, sanitation, shelter, and medical care; and with that need only likely to evolve into one that is more chronic, seeking the termination of the UNRWA mission before ensuring some alternative while disavowing any plan to place that burden on the shoulders of the IDF will create potentially avoidable risk of human suffering, increased radicalization, and ammunition for the pervasive delegitimization campaign against Israel. UNRWA officials acknowledged to us the obvious need for reform. While it would take significant political will to continue to tolerate UNWRAs role in Gaza, perhaps the devil Israel knows is better at this moment than the devil it does not.

More to follow

There are no doubt different perspectives of the issues raised in this post, and it is important to emphasize that this conflict is ongoing and evolving. Much is likely to change, and greater access to information will continue to influence the perspective of these and many other issues.

How the conflict and the post-conflict phase of operations will evolve is yet to be seen. But the brief opportunity to visit Israel highlighted, at least for me, many of the misconceptions about the situation and the immense challenges this ongoing conflict presents. Hopefully these observations contribute to a more informed understanding of the disconnects, misconceptions and challenges.

Geoffrey S. Corn is the George R. Killam, Jr. Chair of Criminal Law and Director of the Center for Military Law and Policy, Texas Tech University School of Law and a Distinguished Fellow with JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense Strategy. A retired U.S. Army Judge Advocate Officer, he served as the Army’s senior law of war advisor.

Originally published in The Cipher Brief.