The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, January 16, 2009

Casualty of War

IDF forces have bombed/attacked still another United Nation facility in Gaza because they say Hamas militants were in/near it and firing upon them. As a result, international revulsion over what has been nasty campaign in a long and ugly war is rapidly reaching a degree of nausea bordering on disgorgement.

There is extreme polarization among those acting as advocates for each side. In the case of those supporting Israel, there is great hostility toward charges of a disproportional response against Hamas. There is equal antagonism to suggestions of any moral equivalence between the Palestinian civilian casualties brought on by IDF forces versus Israeli civilian casualties caused by Hamas.

The mainstream justification endorses Israel as simply defending its own civilians by retaliating for long-standing rocket attacks fired at Israeli cities out of Gaza by Hamas. Israel never intentionally targets civilians, this argument runs, and views civilian deaths as unavoidable but always regrettable. Jonathan Chait concisely sums up this philosophy in the New Republic.

“Israel is trying to minimize civilian casualties while Hamas is trying to maximize them.”

Chait and his camp bristle when others, such as Ezra Klein in the American Prospect, counter there is “very little evidence that Israel tries to minimize civilian casualties,” calling it pure Hamas propaganda and anti-Semitic. Nobody on the Israeli side seriously advocates targeting civilians, they angrily retort.

Except, lately, there has been a growing endorsement of the idea by some.

Back in 2006, Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, head of the Tzomet Institute in Alon Shvut, publicly asked, “The terrorist state of Hamas has declared war on us and the deadly bombs are raining down on our civilians . . . Is it really out-of-bounds for us to use a similar weapon?”

Rosen declares, “Jewish ethics are saturated with the ethical message ‘if someone comes to kill you, kill him first’.” He goes on to quote a Biblical passage from Samuel II, which he says teaches, “Use the weapons of the enemy [against them].”

“Civilians get hurt in war,” Rosen concludes, “including women, children and the elderly. Only a population that forcibly vomits out terrorists from its midst . . . will be protected, according to any measure of Jewish morality.”

At the time, Andrew Friedman, the opinion editor of Ynetnews, dismissed Rosen’s reasoning as “nothing less than a bastardization of Jewish law, tradition, and ethics.” It would be easy to write off Rosen’s viewpoint as the brainchild of a fanatic. Unfortunately, multiple conservative pundits have begun echoing it since the start of the Israeli campaign against Gaza.

Michael Goldfarb, writing in the Weekly Standard, details a story about a Hamas leader killed when IDF forces bombed his Gaza home – along with eighteen others, including his four wives and nine of his children. Goldfarb suggests such collateral damage is unavoidable but also possibly makes the Israeli campaign more effective than if it did not occur.

“The fight against Islamic radicals always seems to come around to whether or not they can, in fact, be deterred, because it's not clear that they are rational, at least not like us. But to wipe out a man's entire family, it's hard to imagine that doesn't give his colleagues at least a moment's pause.”

Likewise, Marty Peretz of the New Republic offers tough advice to Israel.

“If there is a pause . . . this is what I would say to Hamas and to the people of Gaza – ‘If a rocket or missile is launched against us, if you take captive one of our soldiers (as you have held one for two and a half years), if you raise a new Intifada against us, there will be an immediate response. And it will be very disproportionate. Proportion does not work’.”

I understand the logic espoused above but it seems to me a slippery slope when used in conjunction with the insistence there is no moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas in the current conflict. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit appeals to our pragmatism when he declares, “Cycles of violence continue until one side wins decisively. Personally, I’d rather that were the Israelis, since they’re civilized people and not barbarians.”

Yet there is a circular quality to this logic when all tactics are on the table as valid. Israel is justified to target civilians because Hamas and other terrorists are barbarians and the thing that makes them barbarians is the fact that they unjustifiably target civilians. This is insisting the sauce is entirely different merely because we are serving it over goose instead of gander.

Groups earn a “terrorist” label because of their intentions and actions. In the case of Hamas, they are committed to Israel’s destruction, they purposefully target Israeli civilians, and they purposefully use Palestinian civilians as cover/shields. Nevertheless, does the fact that Hamas intends to harm civilians make them significantly worse than Israel in the present conflict, which has actually harmed far more civilians, intended or otherwise?

Israel or any nation at war must be particularly circumspect about their true intentions regarding civilian casualties. Israel promotes the fact it warns Palestinians ahead of time in areas where it plans to attack. On this basis, it places responsibility on Hamas or the civilians themselves if they fail to get out.

This means Israel almost certainly targets areas knowing that civilian casualties are possible or even probable. Such may truly be a “part of war” but it is important to recognize and acknowledge there is a huge difference between civilian deaths that are “unavoidable and regrettable” versus those that are “accidental.”

Israel may indeed seek to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza. However, their actions to date strongly suggest this goal is always secondary to their primary goal of dismantling Hamas infrastructure and killing Hamas fighters in the territory.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, agrees that civilian deaths occur during all wars and do not constitute war crimes by themselves. To qualify as such, harming civilians must be the only purpose of an attack or there must be knowledge that incidental civilian injuries will be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.

Destroying every rocket launcher in Gaza, assuming this is even possible, will not secure Israel’s safety from Hamas or other terrorist groups nor provide it victory in the ongoing Palestinian question. These are longer-reaching and more subtle designs.

Alex Fishman, a columnist on the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, frames the Israeli strategy honestly and simply. “The answer to the question of what we want is simple – To stop the fire. In order to stop the fire, we have to reach an arrangement, and in order to persuade Hamas to reach an arrangement, we are now breaking its bones – among other reasons, so that the price it demands will not be high.”

The respected Israeli historian Tom Segev, writing in the newspaper Ha’aretz, agrees no longer-term or deeper victory than this can be expected. “Israel has . . . always believed that causing suffering to Palestinian civilians would make them rebel against their national leaders. This assumption has proven wrong over and over. Since the dawn of the Zionist presence in the land of Israel, no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the Palestinians.”

Even Goldfarb undercuts his long and forceful argument for unrestrained aggression against both Hamas and Palestinian civilians by admitting, “It's true that there are very few examples in Twentieth Century history of a bombing campaign that actually broke the morale of a people at war and sapped them of the will to continue the fight.”

None of this intends to prove that Hamas is right and Israel wrong in the current conflict. Hamas openly engages in terrorist practices. I have said before that the first step in resolving the current conflict is for them to cease all rocket attacks against Israel and I maintain that opinion.

However, if Israel wishes to insist there is no moral equivalence between the results of their own actions in Gaza and Hamas, then the stupidest thing possible for them or their supporters is to promote the idea that Palestinians civilian casualties are not merely necessary and unavoidable in wartime but perhaps desirable to victorious ends as well.

A continued foolish insistence to the contrary will only serve to make any sympathy for Israel among the international community the latest casualty in a long and ugly war.

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