Analysis from Israel

During the Hamas-Israel war of 2014, both Obama Administration officials and their European counterparts repeatedly accused Israel of excessive force over the “massive” destruction of civilian property in Gaza. But if those officials retain even a shred of intellectual integrity, the recent devastation of Ramadi during a joint Western/Iraqi effort to retake the city leaves them only two options: either hand themselves over to the International Criminal Court as suspected war criminals, or publicly apologize to Israel for all the slurs they hurled at it over far less extensive damage.

As the New York Times reported last week, the successful recapture of Ramadi from the Islamic State left the city “in ruins.” Reporter Ben Hubbard described one neighborhood as “a panorama of wreckage so vast that it was unclear where the original buildings had stood.” The city has no electricity or running water, and “Many streets had been erased or remained covered in rubble or blocked by trenches used in the fighting.” When Hubbard asked an Iraqi officer how residents would return to their homes, the officer replied, “Homes? There are no homes.”

Indeed, a different Iraqi officer told the Associated Press “that more than half of the city’s buildings have been destroyed, including government offices, markets, and houses.”

This is devastation orders of magnitude greater than what Gaza suffered. According to UN figures, 9,465 homes in Gaza were completely destroyed and another 9,644 badly damaged, out of a total of roughly 319,000 (the latter figure is my own calculation based on  official Palestinian statistics: Dividing Gaza’s total population of 1.82 million by its average household size of 5.7 people gives you 319,000 households). Thus even according to the UN – which traditionally exaggerates Palestinian casualties and damage – only about 6 percent of Gaza’s homes were destroyed or badly damaged. That’s a far cry from “more than half of the city” in Ramadi.

But the reasons for the destruction, in both places, are no less significant than its scope. One, as Hubbard noted, is the inherent difficulty “of dislodging a group that stitches itself into the urban fabric of communities it seizes by occupying homes, digging tunnels, and laying extensive explosives.” In Ramadi, he reported, Islamic State built tunnels under the streets and planted explosives in roads and buildings. Indeed, “Entire areas are considered no-go zones because they have yet to be searched for booby traps left by the jihadists.”

These are the same tactics Hamas used in Gaza: Tunnels, booby traps, and weapons stockpiles were placed in and under civilian buildings on a massive scale. On July 30, 2014, for instance, three Israeli soldiers were killed by “an explosion at a booby-trapped UNRWA health clinic that housed a tunnel entry shaft,” the Times of Israel reported. At the same press briefing where those deaths were announced, an Israeli officer said Hamas had thus far detonated more than 1,000 bombs, destroying “thousands of buildings” in Gaza. As an example, he cited a street the army searched the previous night in which 19 out of 28 buildings were booby-trapped.

But in Gaza, both the Obama administration and European officials blamed Israel for the ensuing destruction. In Ramadi, in contrast, both American and Iraqi officials quite sensibly “placed blame for the city’s destruction on the jihadists, who mined roads and buildings.”

The other factor in Ramadi’s devastation was airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. As AP reported, these strikes “smashed large parts of the city into rubble.” Nor is that surprising: When a target area is extensively booby-trapped, even precision airstrikes often cause greater-than-expected damage, because the attacking force can’t know which buildings are wired with explosives, and hitting a wired building will set off massive secondary explosions. Yet airstrikes are unavoidable when fighting militants entrenched in a sea of tunnels and booby-trapped buildings, because using ground troops alone would result in unacceptably high losses for the attacking force.

Consequently, a Pentagon spokesman correctly blamed Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) for the damage to Ramadi: “One hundred percent of this is on ISIL because no one would be dropping any bombs if ISIL hadn’t gone in there,” Colonel Steven H. Warren told Hubbard.

Yet in Gaza, both the Obama Administration and European officials largely blamed the damage on Israel rather than Hamas, even though Israeli airstrikes were employed for the exact same reason, sometimes caused greater-than-expected damage for the exact same reason, and obviously wouldn’t have been launched at all had Hamas not attacked Israel to begin with. Indeed, Israel’s airstrikes were arguably far more justified than America’s were: Islamic State wasn’t firing missiles at America from Ramadi or digging attack tunnels into American territory from Ramadi. In contrast, Hamas had fired thousands of rockets at Israel from Gaza over the previous decade and dug dozens of cross-border attack tunnels, including one that notoriously emerged right next to a kindergarten.

Ramadi, incidentally, is far from the only example of the way the Obama Administration and Europe hold Israel to a double standard. On Monday, the Elder of Ziyon blog highlighted another one: According to the Herald Scotland, “The British government is refusing to accept evidence of civilian fatalities in UK air strikes from human rights groups monitoring the results of bombing raids” in Syria and Iraq; instead, it relies exclusively on “evidence from its own internal surveillance.” But that same government uncritically accepted NGO reports saying that almost 70 percent of Palestinian casualties in Gaza were civilian, even though Israel scrupulously investigated those reports and found that in reality, about half the casualties were documented members of either Hamas’ military wing or smaller terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad.

I don’t really expect any Obama Administration or European official to admit to having unjustly criticized Israel during the Gaza war. But any fair-minded person comparing the devastation of Ramadi to that in Gaza should reach the same conclusion a group of high-ranking Western military experts did in a comprehensive report issued last month: that during the Gaza war, Israel “met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries.”

Originally published in Commentary on January 13, 2016

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The U.S. Must Show Iranians That They Can’t Have It All

The fact that Iran’s anti-regime protests appear to have died down is not a reason to relax the pressure on Tehran. On the contrary, it’s a reason to increase it through serious sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its support for terror and regional aggression. The protests will only become a truly mass movement if enough Iranians come to realize what the protesters already have: Contrary to the promise held out by the nuclear deal, Iran can’t have it all. Terror and military aggression are incompatible with a thriving economy.

To understand why more pressure is needed, it’s worth revisiting a New York Times article from November that has been widely but somewhat unfairly derided. In it, reporter Thomas Erdbrink wrote that “The two most popular stars in Iran today—a country with thriving film, theater, and music industries—are not actors or singers but two establishment figures: Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s regional military effort, which is widely seen as a smashing success; and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the symbol of a reasonable and measured Iran.”

The derision stems from the fact that the protesters assailed both Suleimani’s military adventurism and the government of which Zarif is a pillar, proving that neither is quite as popular as Erdbrink thought. Like many Westerners reporting from abroad, he committed the cardinal error of thinking that the fairly narrow circles he frequents represent the country as a whole. Yet within those circles, his analysis of the status of these two men appears to be accurate. That was made clear by the fact that Tehran’s educated middle classes, who formed the core of Iran’s 2009 protests, largely sat this round out.

And in truth, Suleimani and Zarif deserved star status. Together, they seemed to have severed the inverse relationship between military adventurism and economic wellbeing. Thanks to the nuclear deal Barack Obama signed with Iran in 2015, it seemed as if Iran really could have it all. It could maintain an active nuclear program (enriching uranium, conducting research and development, and replacing old, slow centrifuges with new ones that will make the enrichment process 20 times faster); expand its ballistic missile program; become a regional superpower with control, or at least major influence, over four nearby countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen); and still receive sanctions relief worth billions of dollars and have European companies lining up to do business with it, resulting in booming 12 percent growth and plummeting inflation.

That’s precisely why this status was accorded equally to both the “moderate” Zarif and the “hardline” Suleimani, defying the “moderates versus hardliners” prism through which many Westerners misread Iran. Iranians understand quite well that “moderates” and “hardliners” are both part of the ayatollahs’ regime and, in this case, they worked together seamlessly to produce the best of all possible worlds.

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