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Mike Kelly has seen close-up the absolute worst atrocities humans are capable of committing. Like the underground torture chambers uncovered after coalition forces in Iraq drove al-Qaeda from the city of Fallujah in 2004. The corpses of their victims were still shackled inside. “It was unmitigated evil,” he says.
He didn’t think he’d ever see worse. “But even they didn’t behead babies,” Kelly says, incredulity in his voice as the 20-year veteran of the Australian Army speaks of the reported conduct of Hamas on October 7.
Mike Kelly has seen the worst atrocities humans are capable of. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
“How does someone stand face to face with a baby, and behead them? There’s been a generation raised in Gaza now taught to dehumanise Israelis. The scary part, of course, is that we’ve seen it before – the Nazis did it, the Hutus did it, the Tutsis did it. I’ve confronted it so often, but it never ceases to amaze me.”
Kelly confronted it in the Somali civil war, in the Bosnian war, in the Iraq war. He’s spent most of his career working to put humanity into war, including as an army legal officer, then writing a PhD on the topic, before retiring at the rank of colonel and going into federal parliament as a Labor MP. He now works for an American software firm.
What should we expect next, as Israel’s army masses to enter Gaza City? And how can some humanity be preserved in the close-quarter killing that’s sure to follow?
Of history’s various urban wars, the closest precedent is the Battle of Mosul in 2016-17, says Kelly. An eight-nation force including Australia drove Daesh, the so-called Islamic State or IS, out of that Iraqi city.
The aftermath of The Battle of Mosul.Credit: AP
“It’s a very similar scale and dynamic, almost a cut-and-paste situation” to today’s Gaza confrontation, Kelly tells me. Some 1.5 million civilians lived in Mosul at the outset of the battle. The US-led coalition forces warned civilians to leave the city before they began their offensive. But Daesh held tens of thousands of civilians as hostages to use as human shields, and was well dug in with tunnels and bunkers and booby-traps. “Hamas is doing exactly the same now.”
The coalition prevailed. It took nine months to defeat an estimated 6000 to 12,000 Daesh fighters. At a cost of 40,000 buildings destroyed, creating ten million tonnes of rubble. Daesh demolished 15 religious sites and the coalition damaged or destroyed 47 in the fighting. About 850,000 civilians were displaced.
And the number of civilians killed? It’s estimated to have been about 10,000. Kelly says that Israel’s operation against Hamas should be swifter because of improvements in urban warfare techniques.
But should we expect about as many civilians to be killed in Gaza as were in Mosul? “If it’s conducted as we did it, that’s a very real risk. We all took great care with targeting regimes but some things are unavoidable, and there will be IDF (Israel Defense Forces) casualties as well.
“It will be tragic, but it’s been tragic for 17 years. You have to bite the bullet for the sake of the Gazans. The situation of the people of Gaza will never improve unless Hamas presence in Gaza is eliminated, and there is an opportunity to restart a peace process.”
One of the tragedies of Gaza, says Kelly, is that billions of dollars in aid has been donated over the last decade, and Hamas has used it for its military instead of using it to improve people’s lives. One example is the European Union funding of about €100 million to build water pipes for Gaza. Hamas cut them up to make rockets, and made a video to showcase their cleverness.
For 17 years, Israel has imposed a partial blockade on Gaza in an effort to squeeze Hamas. As we saw on October 7, it was a failure. The people of Gaza were living in poverty but Hamas was able to mount the deadliest one-day attack on Israel in the country’s history.
In the likely carnage to come, Kelly offers three rules for assessing civilian casualties. And for judging culpability. These are the precautions required in attack, those governing targeting and proportionality in terms of military necessity.
First, he says he’s frustrated whenever he sees a media outlet accepting Hamas’ numbers of dead and injured as fact. The numbers are unverifiable, Hamas as a source is unreliable, and anyone blindly accepting its version is merely helping it to fight its information war.
“I understand that there are a lot of people sceptical of US intelligence reports; you should be at least as sceptical of anything from Hamas or Hezbollah,” counsels Kelly.
Many media outlets, for example, instantly reported the Hamas version of responsibility for the explosion at the Al Ahli Hospital – it was an Israeli air strike, said Hamas. After assessing evidence, the governments of Canada, France, Australia and the US said that the Israeli account was much more likely – it was a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket that misfired.
This wouldn’t be the first time. Kelly points out that in a May-2021 rocket barrage, Hamas and PIJ fired 4360 rockets and mortar bombs against Israel. Of those, 680 misfired and landed in Gaza. “These misfires are estimated to have caused around 36 per cent of the civilian casualties in Gaza over 11 days,” relates Kelly.
Second, he explains that the laws of armed combat accept that civilian casualties are sometimes unavoidable but that a belligerent must take precautions and act in proportion to the threat faced: “You need to judge Israeli actions on whether targeting is permissible based on whether they warn civilians, encourage civilians to evacuate, and, where possible, facilitate humanitarian relief.
“And it’s important that when you judge proportionality you understand the full military context – Hamas is trying to generate a pile-on so that Israel can be overrun and eliminated as a nation state. The threat to Israel is existential.”
It’s set to be dire, which leads Kelly to his overarching advice: “Do everything possible to avoid war.” Dreadfully, it’s too late now.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
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