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Urban warfare expert says Israeli military taking unprecedented steps to protect Gaza civilians

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JERUSALEM — One of the top urban warfare experts in the U.S. believes the Israeli military is taking unprecedented measures — above and beyond what most armies do — to avoid harming Palestinian civilians as it battles the Islamist terror group Hamas in Gaza.

He adds that comparisons cannot be drawn between the intensity of the four-month-old war and other recent conflicts.

As Israel gears up for what could be the fiercest and most complicated battle in the Strip’s southernmost city, Rafah, John Spencer, chair of the Urban Warfare Studies Modern War Institute at West Point and an author of multiple books on the subject of urban warfare, told Fox News Digital the “steps that Israel has taken to prevent casualties is historic in comparison to all these other wars.” 

“Israel has taken more steps to avoid harming civilians than any other military in history,” said Spencer, who served for more than 25 years in the U.S. military, reaching the rank of major. He says that such lengths would set a new standard that other Western militaries would struggle to follow in the future. 

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IDF Khan Younes

Israel launched its war in the Gaza Strip following Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack that killed more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and saw some 240 people taken hostage, including babies, children, women and the elderly. Since starting its ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave, however, Israel’s military has faced sharp criticism as even its close allies, including the U.S., cite a death toll based on Hamas data. 

According to figures published daily by the Hamas-run Health Ministry, the number of deaths has surpassed 28,000, without distinguishing between civilians and combatants. On Tuesday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said that at least a third of those killed, some 10,000, were Hamas terrorists, including many of the Iranian-backed group’s commanders.

“What has really blown my mind is that Israel issued maps to the civilians [in Gaza] telling them where they would be operating each day. … I’ve never seen a military do that”

“Despite the numbers, Israel is setting the bar very high on civilian harm mitigation steps,” said Spencer, who is also host of the “Urban Warfare Project” podcast and serves as the chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the New York-based Madison Policy Forum.

IDF in Gaza

He outlined how the Israeli military took measures that no other military, including the U.S., has previously taken during war, such as calling and texting individuals to warn them of a forthcoming air strike and sharing maps with plans for military maneuvers in certain areas. 

“We’ve never called everybody in a war environment. We’ve never actually sat down thousands of soldiers in call centers and had them call into the combat area trying to reach imams and mayors in an effort to get everybody get out of harm’s way,” noted Spencer. 

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Tents and temporary homes in Gaza

“The element of surprise is usually a top priority in wars, but Israel is giving up all of that in order to prevent civilian harm” 

“As someone who teaches division level urban warfare, what has really blown my mind is that Israel issued maps to the civilians [in Gaza] telling them where they would be operating each day. … I’ve never seen a military do that,” said Spencer, who visited Israel last month and toured the combat zone in and around Gaza. 

“Doing this puts the attacking military at a disadvantage because it signals to the defending military what they’re doing,” he said. “The element of surprise is usually a top priority in wars, but Israel is giving up all of that in order to prevent civilian harm.

“If that is going to be the standard going forward, I don’t know how the U.S. military and others are going to do that. We’re not going to send text messages. We’re not going to be able to put out maps, even if we do decide to give warnings.”

IDF activity

Spencer, who has examined U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and multiple other modern-day conflicts, said those criticizing Israel, including the media and countries such as South Africa, are ignorant of previous conflicts and a failure to fully understand the laws of warfare.

South Africa recently brought a case to the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. 

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“There are a couple of camps of people observing the Gaza War,” he said. “One group sees anything Israel does as wrong because they believe that Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinian people are the oppressed. So, no matter the context of the Oct. 7 attack or the hostages, anything Israel does is with ill intention.

IDF Flyers over Gaza

“The other camp, particularly in the United States, is made up of people that are really bad at history, even our own history,” said Spencer, pointing out that few people study the details of modern-day urban combat. 

“It is hard to find people who actually know what the army did in our own conflicts in places like Fallujah and Mosul [in Iraq],” he said, pointing out that using Google or Wikipedia references to find out more about conflicts that might be considered similar to Gaza fails to provide adequate information. 

Hostage flyer Gaza

“When the war in Gaza started, for example, people Googled it and found articles saying Gaza is the densest place on earth and that just became a worldwide slogan,” Spencer noted. “People do need comparisons if they’re really honestly trying to understand versus just grasping at anything that makes Israel look bad. But no [other military] has ever faced anything like this.” 

Using the example of Hamas’ vast network of terror tunnels that snake below many urban areas in Gaza, Spencer emphasized that the realities of warfare in the Palestinian enclave were unlike anywhere else. 

“Tunnels aren’t new, but building them underneath civilian structures for the sole purpose of using the laws of war against the military is,” he said. He added that general ignorance about urban warfare and the unique setting of Israel’s particular war in Gaza, combined with a lack of knowledge about the laws of war, meant Israel was being held to unfair standards. 

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War between Israel and Hamas

“There’s a lot of myths out there, including among those who took Israel to the ICJ,” Spencer said. “The case against Israel included a lot of myths, not just about what happened but what is lawful, what is historical precedent and what’s happened in the past.” 

Discussing the Geneva Conventions, a series of international humanitarian laws written following World War II to enshrine legal standards for humanitarian treatment in war, Spencer said they were designed to never repeat what happened in Europe, “but it’s like we want to erase our memory as well.” 

“I think the Geneva Conventions were amazing and good to enforce, but the problem is people don’t understand that what they’re seeing is actually what it looks like to follow the rules,” he said. “We build a system where people who don’t want to follow rules, like Hamas, want to use those rules against the people following them.

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“I want the world to do more to stop people who don’t follow the laws,” said Spencer. “Israel is not only being held to a ridiculous standard that nobody else has ever been held to. But it is also really testing the post-World War II way of warfare against a context that nobody else has faced.” 

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