“Based on my knowledge and experience, I can say this: During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”
— Col. Richard Kemp in his Oct. 16, 2009, address to the United Nations Human Rights Commission
Richard Kemp is fully aware why this statement he made, and his views on Israel in general, are so well known to the Jewish audiences he frequently addresses.
It’s not like he’s an Israeli army officer defending his country’s actions. Kemp is a retired colonel in the British army, a European and former commander of British forces serving in Afghanistan.
“I think the reason what I said got so much attention in the Jewish community was because it’s very rare for non-Jewish, non-Israeli people to speak out in favor — or shall, we say, objectively — about the Israeli Defense Forces,” Kemp told the Chronicle in an exclusive interview. “Also, coming from a retired British officer, I think it also surprised quite a few people that that could be my attitude.”
Kemp made international headlines on Oct. 16, 2009, when, while testifying on behalf of United Nations Watch before the U.N. Human Rights Commission on the Goldstone Report, the career British army officer and graduate of the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, delivered a stirring defense of the Israel Defense Forces and the extremes to which it goes to protect civilian lives.
His speech was posted on YouTube and quickly went viral. To date, it has been viewed thousands of times.
Small wonder that Kemp will be the featured speaker at AIPAC’s Annual Pittsburgh Community Reception, Thursday, April 18, at Congregation Beth Shalom.
But as Kemp quickly noted, his remarks to the commission, though criticized in some quarters, are not at all unusual. In fact, he said many of his comrades in the British army share them.
“[While] I got quite a lot of criticism from within the U.K., I got a lot of support for what I said from other military people — people with military experience in the U.K.,” Kemp said. “In general terms, I find that my opinions on these matters … are shared by many British military officers and retired military officers. The reason for that is the IDF has for many, many years been very well respected by the British military; they have been looked at as a very effective fighting force and we’ve looked to see what kind of lessons we can learn from them.”
In fact, Kemp studied IDF operations while a cadet at Sandhurst — the British equivalent of West Point.
“It wasn’t just me; it was the British army as a whole that made a considerable study of the IDF,” Kemp said. Indeed, the British studied the Israeli operations “probably above all other contemporary armed forces.”
For good reason, Kemp said. According to him, the civilian casualty rate during Operations Cast Lead and Piller of Defense — the code names for Israel’s last two conflicts with Hamas — was less than one civilian killed for every fighter. In Afghanistan, he noted, the rate was 3 to 1, by U.N. statistics and probably higher in Iraq.
“That’s a remarkable achievement,” Kemp said. “It shows the extent to which the Israelis went to gain the intelligence — precise intelligence — to be extremely careful about their targeting, to warn the civilian population off.”
Even so, Kemp, who visited the Gaza combat zone during the 2012 Piller of Defense fighting, probably made the right move by not launching a ground offensive during that campaign.
“I feel they achieved what they needed to achieve by the air offensive alone,” Kemp said. “They wiped out a significant amount of terrorist missile capability by the air offensive.”
Had Israel launched a ground offensive it probably could have dislodged the Hamas government, but that would have meant reoccupying Gaza — something Kemp said Israel did not want to do.
Since his retirement from active duty, Kemp has become an author and strategic consultant. He has also spoken frequently for AIPAC and visits Israel every four to six weeks.
He explained his interest in the country from a soldier’s standpoint. He dislikes it when troops doing their job are unfairly maligned.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, he said the British have fought the same kind of enemy, using the same tactics as Hamas — suicide bombers and human shields.
“Our soldiers understand why the Israeli soldiers operate the way they do.”
“In my eyes, we’re fighting very similar enemies. We’re fighting extremists who are trying to destroy our societies, and I think we should be on the same side,” he added.
“I’ve worked very closely with the Israelis over many years; I feel I understand their resources, their military culture, it’s very similar to our own. I wouldn’t like to see my troops maligned the way Israeli troops are maligned in the media. I feel a duty — to actively defend the Israeli Defense Forces in the same way I would defend my own men.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)