The “Israel Has the Most Moral Army in the World” Trope

by | Apr 18, 2024

On April 17, ZeroHedge hosted a debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict moderated by Saagar Enjeti of Breaking Points, which pitted libertarian comedian and political commentator Dave Smith and The Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur against conservative talk show host Dennis Prager and Newsweek deputy opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon.

The main topic of debate was whether Israel’s ongoing military operation in Gaza is justified. Smith and Uygur argued in the negative while Prager and Ungar-Sargon argued in the affirmative.

The apologists for what the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has deemed to be a plausible genocide in Gaza premised their position on the claim that Israel does everything possible to avoid harming civilians, and Palestinian civilians have only been dying because Hamas was using them as human shields.

Ungar-Sargon additionally argued that the “kill ratio” of combatants to civilians is evidence that Israel is trying to avoid harm to civilians.

She also argued that Israel’s warnings for Palestinians to flee northern Gaza is additional evidence of its benevolent intent — which she immediately conceded, before even being challenged on the point, could also be construed as evidence that Israel was at least guilty of the crime of ethnic cleansing.

Prager went so far as to describe the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as “the most moral army in the world”, citing as evidence the word of Colonel Richard Kemp, a retired former commander of British forces in Afghanistan.

Kemp is frequently cited by Israel’s apologists as though his statements about the IDF’s wondrous munificence can be considered credible and serious.

Alan Dershowitz, for example, has rolled out the same talking point about Israel being “the most moral army in the world”, similarly citing Kemp.

But we’ll come back to Kemp. First, let’s briefly examine the “human shields” and “kill ratio” arguments.

‘Human Shields’

Regarding the claim that Palestinian civilians are only ever killed because Hamas is using them as human shields, this is the same claim made during every Israeli military operation in Gaza, such as “Operation Cast Lead” from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009.

The truth is that there is not a single documented instance of a Palestinian civilian being killed in that entire 22-day military operation because they were being used by Hamas at the time as a human shield.

There is documented evidence, on the other hand, of Israeli soldiers using Palestinian civilians, including children, as human shields.

I documented all of that extensively in my book Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

When you hear people trying to defend Israel’s war crimes in Gaza on the grounds that dead Palestinians were “human shields”, understand that this is a euphemism bearing no relationship to the term’s definition under international law and instead meaning any civilians killed in Gaza by virtue of their being in Gaza.

The ‘Kill Ratio’

Let’s next take the “kill ratio” argument, which is a talking point the Newsweek editor borrowed directly from the IDF’s own propaganda operations.

To date, more than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s “Operation Swords of Iron”, according to data from the Gaza Health Ministry.

Referring to that number, Ungar-Sargon claimed that Hamas said on the messenger app Telegram that it “cannot account for 11,000 of those”, which reduced the number of Palestinian dead to 22,000.

Of those, she said, Hamas admitted in February that 6,000 were Hamas members, and Israel puts the number of combatants killed at 13,000.

She understandably didn’t do the calculations for us during the debate, but it works out to the following argument: A “kill ratio” in which civilians account for between 41% and 73% of deaths is not only acceptable but demonstrates an adherence to moral and legal standards unparalleled by any other country on the planet.

Now, whether or not we should agree with that is not a question we need to be asking ourselves at this point.

The reason we shouldn’t even raise that question yet is because her numbers are off. To calculate the “kill ratio” for ourselves, we just need to make a quick little adjustment to the numbers!

Her proportions rely on the claim that Hamas said that 11,000 of the supposedly dead Palestinians actually might not be dead. But, to start with, Hamas never said that.

The premise of her argument is false.

For basic context, it’s worth pointing out that during past Israeli military operations in Gaza, the Gazan Ministry of Health’s estimates of the numbers of dead Palestinians have always proven to be close approximations to the finally verified numbers.

But setting that aside and taking a few minutes to check her claims, I Googled “hamas statement telegram palestinian dead cannot account for 11,000”. This turned up a Reddit thread titled “Hamas-Run Gaza Health Ministry Admits to Flaws in Casualty Data”, where someone had helpfully quoted the text of the source for the claim.

Copying and pasting an excerpted quote, I did a second Google search and found the source to be an article from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). The FDD in turn helpfully linked to the source: the Hamas Telegram message.

The primary source is in Arabic, which I’ve archived here, but I’m going to go ahead and trust the FDD translation.

So, I knew I was on the right track: This must certainly be the primary source for the claim that Ungar-Sargon was making in her effort to minimize the number of Palestinian deaths!

The problem is that Hamas evidently didn’t say what she claimed they’d said. Here’s what Hamas did say, according to the FDD:

The Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health said on April 6 that it had “incomplete data” for 11,371 of the 33,091 Palestinian fatalities it claims to have documented. In a statistical report, the ministry notes that it considers an individual record to be incomplete if it is missing any of the following key data points: identity number, full name, date of birth, or date of death.

So, if the Ministry of Health had the dead body of a Palestinian, but they didn’t know the person’s name, for example, that would be a corpse for which the Ministry of Health had “incomplete data”.

During the debate, the pro-Israel side twisted that into a claim that the estimate of 33,000 dead Palestinians cannot be trusted because, by Hamas’s own admission, there is no evidence that 11,000 of those deaths actually occurred.

In essence, therefore, what was really being argued is that:

Dead bodies alone don’t count.

Feel free to take another moment to let the sheer evilness of that level of dishonesty sink in. To defend Israel’s military operation in Gaza, she actually argued that Israel has the most moral military in the world on the grounds that we need to do a “kill ratio” calculation — but when doing that calculation, we have to remember that:

Dead bodies alone don’t count!

In the spirit of civil debate, we can also take a moment to appreciate the Newsweek editor’s truthfulness in accurately stating that the IDF has claimed that 12,000 of the 33,000 dead Palestinians were “terrorists”.

But let’s reset our calculators now and reenter the credible estimate of 33,000 dead Palestinians (which is actually inherently underestimated because there are an additional thousands of Palestinians missing and presumed dead and buried under the rubble that are not included in the official estimate — which because of history is trusted by the UN and international human rights organizations).

Correcting the numbers, we find that: A “kill ratio” in which civilians account for between 61% and 82% of deaths is not only acceptable but demonstrates an adherence to moral and legal standards unparalleled by any other country on the planet.

If we accept that premise, then it follows that the fact that only about 70% of the dead Palestinians have been women and children proves that Israel is not committing genocide.

The problem with that argument is that, given the proportion of the population of Gaza that is women and children, a ratio of 70% women and children is exactly what we would expect if Israel was not targeting Hamas but instead bombing indiscriminately.

In essence, the argument is therefore that because Israel has not done worse in its ostensible efforts to protect civilians than we would otherwise expect if it were indiscriminately bombing, therefore Israel is not committing genocide.

There is, of course, no reason to accept this conclusion. It is an absurd non-sequitur fallacy. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sick. On the other hand, it does helpfully illustrate the sheer depravity that one must stoop to in order to try to defend Israel’s continuous assault on the civilian population of Gaza for six months now.

To provide you with a nail to hammer into the argument’s coffin, here is a study published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet analyzing the data and concluding that there is no reason to doubt the reliability of the estimated number of Palestinian deaths reported by the Gaza Health Ministry.

And here is a BBC article noting how there are “concerns” about whether Israel’s own claims about the number of combatants versus civilians killed can be trusted. The BBC asks the pertinent question of whether the IDF “is able to separate fighters from ordinary civilians.”

And in case you are inclined to believe that Israel does a really phenomenal job of distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, here is a +972 Magazine article about how the IDF has been using artificial intelligence (AI) for target selection to essentially ensure that a large enough number of Palestinians are targeted.

To further examine this “kill ratio” concept, lets also compare 70% women and children killed in Gaza — without consideration for an additional unknown number of non-combatant adult males — with the “kill ratio” of Hamas during its attacks in Israel on October 7, 2023.

According to an analysis by the London-based charity Action on Armed Violence, on 10/7, as a result of the actions by armed Palestinian groups, there were 1,269 people killed. Among those, 382 were members of the military. Counting police officers as non-combatants (which Israel doesn’t do when counting Palestinian deaths), there were therefore 887 civilians killed.

Consequently, we can see that the “kill ratio” for Hamas on 10/7 was 70% civilians, which puts it squarely in the same category as “the most moral army in the world”.

Good one, deputy opinion editor for Newsweek. You sure showed the world how Israel definitely is not committing genocide!

Richard Kemp and ‘The Most Moral Army in the World’

Coming to Richard Kemp’s statements about the Israeli military, it is sufficient to observe that his characterization of the IDF as incomparably virtuous simply bears no relationship to reality.

Prager and Dershowitz are joined in repeating that particular talking point by the US Congress.

Back in September 2009, the US House of Representatives similarly invoked Kemp in a resolution denouncing the Report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, also known as “The Goldstone Report” because the mission was headed up by South African jurist and self-described Zionist Richard Goldstone.

I detailed the Congressional hypocrisy in my book Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Here’s the relevant excerpt with respect to how defenders of Israel’s war crimes cite Kemp while expecting us to take seriously their assertion that there is no military in the world that adheres as well as Israel’s to universal moral standards:

The [House] resolution lied that in the Goldstone Report, the Mission’s members had written, “we did not deal with the issues . . . regarding the problems of conducting military operations in civilian areas and second-guessing decisions made by soldiers and their commanding officers ‘in the fog of war’” (ellipsis in original). In fact, those words did not appear in the report. The quote was actually taken from an e-mail by Richard Goldstone to one Maurice Ostroff that was published online. Ostroff had written Goldstone to ask why the Mission did not invite the testimony of Colonel Richard Kemp, “the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and an adviser to the UK cabinet, who has expert knowledge of warfare in conditions similar to that in Gaza.”

Ostroff offered no explanation of what knowledge Kemp was supposed to have of the actual situation in Gaza that would warrant his being interviewed by the Mission. But we may turn to Kemp’s outspoken views on the matter to get an idea. Several months after Operation Cast Lead ended, Kemp gave an address to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) in which he compared Israel’s actions in Gaza to the US and UK’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He argued that civilians were sometimes mistakenly killed due to the “fog of war” and parroted Israel’s claims that Hamas had used human shields, as well as used “mosques, schools and hospitals” as military “strongholds”. He further reasoned that if women and children were killed, it was only because they were “trained and equipped to fight”. He cited the IDF’s warnings to civilians of its impending attacks as evidence of it having met its “obligation to operate within the laws of war”. He claimed that “the IDF allowed huge amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza”, and boasted that “during Operation Cast Lead the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other Army in the history of warfare”. His entire speech was in essence a reiteration of Israeli leaders’ contention that the IDF was “the most moral army in the world”.

In an interview with the BBC during the midst of Israel’s assault, after the UN had passed its ceasefire resolution, Kemp said the “civilian deaths” were “absolutely tragic”, but that “Israel doesn’t have any choice” except to go on with the killing. The exchange that followed is instructive:

HOST: And so to what extent does the impact on civilians—on people who have nothing to do with Hamas, but live in a heavily populated area [and] so can’t escape—to what extent does their fate factor in considerations?

KEMP: I think—I would say, from my knowledge of the IDF and from the extent to which I’ve been following the current operation, I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and the deaths of innocent people than the IDF is doing today in Gaza. Um—when you look at the number of civilian casualties that have been caused, that perhaps doesn’t sound too credible. I will accept that. However—um—Hamas has been trained extensively by Iran and by Hezbollah to fight among the people, to use the civilian population in Gaza as a human shield. . . .  It’s impossible. It is impossible to stop [civilians deaths from] happening when the enemy is using them as a shield.

HOST: Indeed. . . .  But people watching this will think, “Well there is also the criticism from UN eyewitnesses who talk of the house where people were advised to move to safety [and] 24 hours later, was bombed by Israel.”

KEMP: Well . . . Of course, I can’t really comment on—on the detail of that. I don’t have any of the facts available on that. I’ve no doubt that any allegations like that will be looked into very seriously by Israel.

Kemp later gave a statement to the Human Rights Council repeating the same talking points and condemning the Goldstone Report. He was speaking in his capacity as a spokesman for the group UN Watch, an affiliate organization of the American Jewish Committee, which proudly boasts on its website having been called by Salon “the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States.”

Returning to the House resolution, recall its use of an ellipse in the quote from Goldstone taken from his e-mail to Ostroff. Following is the relevant text from Goldstone’s reply (emphasis added to portions omitted by the House): “I would also mention that there was no reliance on Col. Kemp mainly because in our Report we did not deal with the issue he raised regarding the problems of conducting military operations in civilian areas and second-guessing decisions made by soldiers and their commanding officers ‘in the fog of war’. We avoided having to do so in the incidents we decided to investigate.” His meaning, of course, was that in all but one of the eleven specific incidents the Mission investigated involving direct attacks on civilians, the IDF “must have been aware of their civilian status”. Such attacks included Israel’s targeting of the home of Wa’el al-Samouni on January 5, the very same attack mentioned by the BBC reporter that Kemp admitted he didn’t know anything about (right after he acknowledged that his thesis about the benevolence of Israel’s conduct didn’t sound too credible, given the actual number of civilians killed).

As a further illustration of the point Goldstone was making, recall the Mission’s finding that while “very genuine dilemmas” about the question of proportionality may arise in combat situations, it did not consider Israel’s attack on the UNRWA headquarters on January 15 to be such a case.

Prager thus joins Dershowitz and the US Congress in sharing the Richard Kemp’s delusional belief that Israel’s military operation in Gaza is being conducted with the utmost respect for fundamental moral principles and the laws of war.

A great deal more could be said about the detachment from reality, the intellectual dishonesty, and the moral cowardice of the parties to this debate who took it upon themselves to try to defend Israel’s actions in Gaza. But it would be superfluous.

To learn more about the true nature of the conflict, read Obstacle to Peace.

[Cross-posted from]

About Jeremy R. Hammond

Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent journalist and a Research Fellow at The Libertarian Institute whose work focuses on exposing deceitful mainstream propaganda that serves to manufacture consent for criminal government policies. He has written about a broad range of topics, including US foreign policy, economics and the role of the Federal Reserve, and public health policies. He is the author of several books, including Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Ron Paul vs. Paul Krugman: Austrian vs. Keynesian Economics in the Financial Crisis, and The War on Informed Consent. Find more of his articles and sign up to receive his email newsletters at

Our Books

latest book lineup.

Related Articles