Who Knew Al-Qassam Was the Most Moral Army in the World?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Today’s Jerusalem Post features an article discussing testimony by a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan that purports to demonstrate the IDF takes more care in avoiding civilian casualties than any other army in the world. Here is a snippet:

Israel’s ratio of civilian to military casualties in Operation Protective Edge was only one-fourth of the average in warfare around the world, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan Col. (res.) Richard Kemp told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Wednesday.

Kemp pointed out that, during the operation, there was approximately one civilian casualty for ever terrorist killed by the IDF, whereas the average in the world is four civilians for every combatant, and that, when taking into consideration Hamas’s use of human shields, this shows how careful the IDF is.

“No army in the world acts with as much discretion and great care as the IDF in order to minimize damage. The US and the UK are careful, but not as much as Israel,” he told the committee.

Kemp, who has long openly admired the IDF’s military tactics and testified in Israel’s favor to the Goldstone Commission following Operation Cast Lead in 2009, visited Israel during Operation Protective Edge.

If this is the metric we should use to determine how much “care” a military takes in its operations, it’s worth noting that the IDF actually runs a distant second in the care department to Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Brigades have killed 65 IDF soldiers and four Israeli civilians during Operation Protective Edge — a staggering 16-1 combatant:civilian kill ratio. According to Col. Kemp’s logic, therefore, the al-Qassam Brigades are at least 4X more careful than the IDF regarding collateral damage to civilians — and 16X more careful than the world army average. Amazing!

NOTE: I do not actually believe that al-Qassam is the most moral army in the world. I provide the analysis to illustrate that absolutely nothing can be learned about how much care a military takes by comparing — in an utterly decontextualised way —  the combatant:civilian kill ratio in one of its operations to the combatant:civilian kill ratios in different conflicts fought by different militaries. To begin with, the jus in bello concept of proportionality is operation-specific: we determine whether an attack is proportionate by comparing anticipated military advantage to expected civilian damage. Inter-conflict comparisons are irrelevant. Moreover, the proportionality of an attack tells us very little about whether that attack was indiscriminate: an indiscriminate attack can involve low civilian casualties, or even none at all, because the concept of discrimination focuses on methods, not on outcomes. Indeed, were it otherwise, it would be difficult to condemn Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians as indiscriminate, given that more than 12,000 rockets have killed fewer than 30 Israelis in the past 13 years. Those rocket attacks are indiscriminate because they cannot distinguish between legitimate military objectives and civilians, not because they have led to high civilian casualties.


14 Responses

  1. A very interesting article and opinion from a British Military expert. Thank you Kevin for bringing it to our attention.

    However i think it is quite safe to say that the Colonel is only talks about actual Armies. He even states “no army in the World…”. I dont think anyone would consider the likes of Al Quassam/Hamas as an “Army”. In this context, compared to most armies in the world the IDF do seem to take more care, as the Colonel states, than say the US or UK army.

    Inmyopionio the Colonel only really seems to address the proportionality side of the IDF’s OPE and does not comment on whether any individual instances or as a whole OPE was indiscriminate or no.

  2. Henry i dont think it really matters whether he was talking about proportionality or indiscriminate attacks. As a whole the IDFs performance in Gaza has been slated as a blood bath and all the IDF’s attempts to comply with International Law in very difficult circumstances, where terrorists have embedded themselves within densely populated cilivian areas, have been delegitimized by those who seem to deny Israel’s right to self defense.

    The British Colonel clearly puts these false and exagerated claims into context by comparing the IDF’s performance against other armies of the World. He even uses the UK and US, who have undertaken similar operations in populated areas against terrorist militants, as an example. Have the UK or the US been the recipient of such an outcry by so called “legal experts” etc as the IDF/Israel? Funny that they both killed a larger number of civilians and a large number per combatant than the IDF yet hardly a word has been said since.

  3. Yes, indeed, there has been absolutely no outcry about the US’s drone program in Pakistan and Yemen, counterterrorism activities in Afghanistan, invasion of Iraq, or prosecution of the Global War on Terror in general.

    Oh, wait…

  4. In any event, how is it possible to determine “civilian” vs. “terrorist” civilian among the casualties in Gaza?

  5. KJH is making a good point here. The trouble is that he is not any position to make it in view of his previous post: “Israel’s Indiscriminate Attack on Shujaiya” where he has employed another unsatisfactory metric to indict Israel. As it seems, when some facts can be used against Israel much less caution is necessary.


  6. Response
    Dear Jordan,

    At a minimum, most people assume that children are civilians….and there were a lot of dead children.


  7. my point relates mostly to the problem re: claims that some civilians are civilians and coms civilians are “terrorists” (e.g., by what test(s)?) and that after more than 2,200 people are killed that someone from out of the area can identify half as “civilians” and half as “terrorists” who are civilians. Under a law of war paradigm, “terrorists” are not the proper focus, but who among civilians are DPH or CCF, and under a self-defense paradigm, who was a DPAA (direct participant in armed attacks) of CAAF (had a continuous armed attack function). The word “children” raises other problems (e.g., what age?, were 17 year-olds DPH or CCF?).

  8. Jordan,

    You could look at casualty figures according to gender and age. The BBC published an analysis some time ago here


    The high rate of males aged 20-29 among the casualties supports the figure presented by Kemp.

  9. “males aged 20-29”? but what was each one doing? what was their status under the laws of war or the law of self-defense? I think that that’s Kevin’s main point about overall statistics or overall statistics/categorizations regarding an entire “program” as opposed to each measure of force (against whom, with what tests in mind, with what precautions, with what consequences, etc.).

  10. Yaniv… Salem Khalil Salem Shammaly was 23 when he was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper. Doesn’t look much like a combatant to me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBakqLUBWP0&list=UUzFso4CAgqfYCD6giOWrnlw&bpctr=1409961922

    Also, just because a fighter might be in a place does not justify destroying everying in the surrounding area. Most public buses that I travel on in Jerusalem have several uniformed army personel on it as they get free travel. By Israel’s logic, this renders the whole of its public transportation network fair game.

  11. Most casualties resulted from air strikes. If the killing is random you would expect the same amount of man and woman among the dead, and an age distribution which is similar to the general population in Gaza. The Hamas Propaganda clip you link above hardly bears any relevance to statistics.

    I cannot, of course, get with you into the “proportionality analysis” you offer above (though the comparison between the war in Gaza and buses in Jerusalem seems a bit bizarre). At any rate I agree here with both Jordan and KJH that proportionality should be analyzed, with great care, for each case separately. My only trouble is that KJH is not in any position to make such an argument after he has committed precisely the same sin in his recent post “Israel’s Indiscriminate Attack on Shujaiya”.

  12. I simply reported the conclusions drawn by senior US military officials about the attack. If you want to dismiss those conclusions on the ground that the US military is somehow biased against Israel or is incapable of distinguishing between discriminate and indiscriminate attacks, be my guest. For my part, given the unceasing and usually uncritical support the US provides Israel, I think it’s important that the US military was shocked and appalled by the attack on Shujaiya.

  13. Mr. Heller is right, though even in terms of raw figures one can make the case that at least some Palestinian armed groups have committed war crimes. In particular, checking BT’selem’s casualty statistics for the combined 2000-now period, one can see that around 65% of Israelis killed by Palestinians were civilians while some 46-58% of Palestinians killed were civilians (depending on how one assigns those whose status as belligerents is unknown) so the argument can be used against the Palestinian militias as well


    Still, it would be helpful if we simply moved past this raw criteria, it has some contextual value but it doesn’t, by itself, really say whether war crimes were committed or not.

  14. As the article linked to points out, the statistics recorded could equally well support the view that the IDF has simply targeted Arabs who are military age men and, in their view, fit the profile of a combatant. In the end all this really underlines is limited use to which statistics can be put in this way. Law simply cannot be reduced to mathematical formulae, no matter how badly pundits might want it that way.

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