August 30, 2006
A week into the uneasy ceasefire in Lebanon, an Israeli battle tank retreating in navigational disarray from an engagement with Hezbollah guerrillas, drove into a minefield laid prior to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the country in May 2000. One soldier was killed and two injured. It was a vivid illustration, even if a perverse one in which perpetrator became victim, of the legacy of decades of Israeli aggression against Lebanon. Since Israel’s supposed withdrawal from a self-declared security belt in the south of the country, the Lebanese government has repeatedly asked for a map of the minefields sown through the years of occupation, only to be consistently turned down.
Inquiries by a number of global bodies meanwhile, provided a summation of widespread moral concerns over Israel’s war-fighting strategies. To take the lesser – though more persistent -- of the simultaneous bloodbaths that Israel has been engaged in, a recent report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), has documented 202 Palestinian deaths, of which 44 have been children, in Gaza since June. Thousands of Palestinians have been forced to flee their homes by continuing Israeli ground incursions and artillery shelling. Only limited quantities of humanitarian aid have reached the beleaguered Gaza population because the main crossing point into the territory has been shut. The damage to the region’s electricity and water supply systems, inflicted in the first week of the Israeli attack, remains unrepaired. With Gaza’s only power plant rendered inoperative, the territory’s 1.4 million people have had to cope with at best, intermittent supplies of electricity and water.[i]
The London-based human rights group, Amnesty International, had as far back as June 30, offered an authoritative judgment on Israel’s conduct in Gaza. Referring to Israel’s scorched earth policy in the territory, ostensibly in retaliation for a militant attack on an army post in which one soldier was taken prisoner, Amnesty observed that the “deliberate attacks by Israeli forces against civilian property and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip violate international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes”. Israel was obliged under international law, Amnesty decreed, to “take urgent measures to remedy the long-term damage it has caused and immediately restore the supply -- at its own cost -- of electricity and water to the Palestinian population in the affected areas”.[ii]
With all these strictures, when a very similar provocation occurred on its northern frontier, Israel was only emboldened to transfer its patented military techniques to Lebanon: attacking an entire civilian population to achieve a military objective against poorly equipped adversaries. What Israel’s opponents lacked in terms of weaponry though, they made up in determination and organisational skills. And for all that, they engaged in the conflict with a far greater sense of scruple. A few days before the ceasefire in Lebanon, an enumeration of the casualties put the number of those killed in Israel at 98, of which no more than 35 were civilians. The total killed in Lebanon though, numbered 1,103, of which all but 98 were civilians.[iii] Even if more lives were lost in the following days of hostilities, the proportion between civilian and combatant casualties remained substantially unchanged on either side.
Far from exciting the moral scruples of Israel’s champions, this only challenged them to evolve newer doctrines of humanitarian law. Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard University and author of a recent bestseller, The Case for Israel – proven to be at least a borderline case of plagiarism from a thoroughly discredited 1982 book – argued that it was no longer axiomatic that an individual’s civilian status rendered him innocent, or ensured him immunity from military action.[iv] There is a vast difference in both moral and legal terms, Dershowitz wrote, “between a 2-year-old who is killed by an enemy rocket and a 30-year-old civilian who has allowed his house to be used to store Katyusha rockets”. Though both are technically civilians, “the former is far more innocent than the latter”. Then there was another essential distinction to be made between “civilians who are held hostage against their will by terrorists who use them as involuntary human shields, and civilians who voluntarily place themselves in harm's way in order to protect terrorists from enemy fire”.
This range of situations suggested to Dershowitz, that the term “civilian” did little else than equate “the truly innocent with guilty accessories to terrorism”. What was required in place of this vague and unsatisfactory term, was the notion of a “continuum of civilianity” -- admittedly an awkward phrase, but one that allowed for all the inherent complexities of the real-world. If this continuum were to become part of the commonsense, then the civilian casualties of Lebanon would in Dershowitz’s estimation, “fall closer to the line of complicity” than “the line of innocence”. “Every civilian death is a tragedy”, the learned professor concluded, “but some are more tragic than others”.
The upshot of this exercise in legal chicanery then, is simply that an Israeli civilian’s life, supposedly so detached and distinct from that of a soldier, is worth much more than an Arab’s. Most Arabs, whether civilian or combatant, believe subliminally in the wicked, terrorist agenda of destroying Israel. This makes them accessories, if not active agents, of terrorism. To expect conventional rules of war to be observed in this situation was plain foolishness. Norms worked out in a context of warfare between rival armies, clearly distinguished by the uniforms they wore, were clearly inapplicable in a situation of terrorism.
A similar rationalisation for the killing of innocents was advanced in The New Republic, shortly after the Qana massacre of July 30 – when Israel devastated an entire multi-storey structure in southern Lebanon, killing an estimated 28, including 16 children. As the literary editor of the journal put it, “the killing of children” though an unequivocal evil, is not quite the same thing when it happens in a “just war”. “Moral clarity” is easily achieved about “the evil done in a wrong cause”, since an “unjust war” must “be opposed even when no such outrages occur, even when it is conducted with humanitarian diligence”. Such clarity of moral conviction though, was virtually impossible in a just war, where despite every effort to avoid needless suffering, the wickedness of the adversary makes unwitting victims of civilians on its side.[v]
As a corollary of these exercises in moral obfuscation, it could be asked where exactly on the “continuum of civilianity” the citizens of Israel fall. Despite encountering the Palestinians on a daily basis and being aware of their presence as a dispossessed people living on the land that world Jewry claims as its exclusive patrimony, Israeli civilians have repeatedly elected governments that have denied Palestinian rights and engaged in a quite deliberate effort to thin down their population by making their life under occupation intolerable. It is a question that Dershowitz chooses not to address.
Beyond the legal subterfuge, those who entered the field of hostilities to seek an understanding of ground realities, had little difficulty arriving at the appropriate judgments. Shortly after the Qana massacre, Human Rights Watch (HRW), the advocacy body based in New York, released a report documenting how this incident was merely one among many deliberate efforts to terrorise the civilian population of Lebanon.[vi] After exhaustive inquiries at the site of the atrocity and a significant forensic effort, HRW concluded that every alibi Israel had advanced, failed to measure up to any standard of credibility.
Qana on July 30 seemed eerily reminiscent of a day over ten years before -- April 18, 1996 -- when Israel, executing what was titled “Operation Grapes of Wrath”, laid siege to a U.N. refugee compound in the same village, ignored repeated pleas from peacekeepers entrusted with securing the facility, and in essence, showed its contempt for all norms of civilised conduct, by shelling and bombing hapless refugees from its own campaigns of ethnic cleansing, killing over a hundred women and children. As history now repeats itself, HRW has found that there was no legitimate military target anywhere in the vicinity of the apartment building where some 63 Lebanese civilians had taken shelter on July 29. With its much vaunted military sophistication, which enables withering responses to missile launches within seconds, Israel should have known that no hostile actions had been undertaken from anywhere near that forlorn site of refuge for a besieged people. And yet, as the HRW report documents, Israeli fighter jets made two bombing raids on the building, the second seemingly to underline a deliberate intent to kill and maim.
After a July 25 attack on a U.N. military observers’ post which killed four peacekeepers, Israel angrily rebuffed the perfectly reasonable surmise by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that the attack had been “apparently deliberate”. Israel then contrived to parlay this simulated outrage into a bid to keep the U.N. out of the official inquiry. After its own investigations, HRW found adequate cause for a more serious and systematic investigation, since subsequent days too had seen a number of attacks that placed U.N. personnel in jeopardy and in some cases actually caused them grievous injury. In very few, if any, of these cases, were Hezbollah guerrillas known to be operating in the vicinity of U.N. installations, which could have made the plea of targeting error credible.
The depopulation of civilian areas through military action constitutes an unequivocal war crime. HRW concedes that a belligerent power could, in particular circumstances, legitimately warn civilians of impending military strikes, so that they have time to get out of harm’s way. But it also observes quite definitively, that Israel adopted this procedure in a particular perverse fashion. All Lebanese civilians south of the Litani river were at some stage or the other, ordered to leave and Israel’s Justice Minister concluded after a few such perfunctory efforts, that anybody choosing to stay behind, should be deemed a terrorist liable to attack without further notice. Yet the order to leave, in most instances, was followed by a deliberate effort to cut off all routes of exit, with bridges and roads being repeatedly bombed. In several instances, civilians fleeing the scene of aerial bombing and artillery attacks were mowed down, despite flying the white flag that universally symbolises the absence of hostile intent.
A forgetful international community could soon consign this year’s atrocities in Lebanon to the black hole of historical memory, as with the 1996 Qana massacre, as with the carnage on Gaza beach of June 9, which killed seven innocent civilians and left the traumatised ten year-old, Huda Ghalia, as the sole survivor in a family of eight. But there are fresh stirrings in civil society groupings, which have in recent times sought to bring war criminals of the worst stripe to account through the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Though contentious as a concept, universal jurisdiction, championed by organisations like Amnesty International, has a simple basis in law. States that are party to covenants like the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war, are obliged by the terms of their accession, to enact domestic legislation to operationalise these commitments. Even when certain States Party fail to do so, whether on account of legislative inertia or internal political resistance, other States Party are entitled to assume universal compliance. Despite all its implications of extra-territorial application of national laws, universal jurisdiction is soundly based in the rule of law. In a paper prepared in 1999, Amnesty International, explained that the principle was invoked by the victorious parties in World War II, when they began to prosecute the main agents of the war from the defeated side. This legal action was undertaken on behalf of the international community and pertained in most cases to “crimes against humanity and war crimes” that the victorious powers had no jurisdiction over in terms of national law. In the years that followed, a few states had exercised universal jurisdiction to bring to book those guilty of particularly odious crimes. And interestingly, the list that includes Australia, Canada and the U.K., also counts Israel among its member.[vii]
For this reason, Amnesty’s judgment after its review of much the same ground that HRW went over, is especially compelling: many of the “violations” of international humanitarian law by Israel, it has said, “are war crimes that give rise to individual criminal responsibility”. This means in essence, that, “people against whom there is prima facie evidence of responsibility for the commission of these crimes are subject to criminal accountability anywhere in the world through the exercise of universal jurisdiction”.[viii]
Precedents are not lacking, though they have all failed to arrive at a final determination of the validity of universal jurisdiction and the powers that judicial bodies can assume under the doctrine. Belgium in 2003, acting on the strength of a decade-old law, admitted a petition pleading for the arrest and prosecution of Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s Prime Minister, for complicity in the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Shabra and Shattilla refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut. In 2005, a London magistrate issued warrant for the arrest of Major-General Doron Almog, commander of Israeli occupation forces in Gaza, for a 2002 bombing attack which killed 15 Palestinians, including 8 children, in a supposed effort to eliminate one militant of the Islamic resistance. Petitions for the arrest and prosecution of Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israel Defence Force, and his predecessor, Moshe Yaalon, are also pending before London courts. Needless to say, after the experience of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1999, no officer, whether serving or retired, from Israel’s top military command has been very keen on visiting London. Sharon himself won immunity from arrest after the Belgian law was amended under pressure from the U.S. But till he was laid low by an incapacitating stroke in January this year, he did not show much interest in visiting Belgium or any other country which might have had a mutual cooperation treaty in criminal matters with Belgium.
The severe setbacks that Israel’s image has suffered, must be weighed against the dubious strategic gains garnered from the operations in Lebanon. As the ceasefire came into effect, the Israeli public remained bitterly divided over the outcome of the war. The stated objective – the destruction of Hezbollah – had widespread public endorsement. But the day the hostilities were suspended, as many Israeli citizens were convinced they had lost as believed they had won. A substantial plurality was unsure of what exactly the war had achieved. And Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who commanded almost universal approval within the country at the beginning of the war, had fallen sharply in public esteem in this space of five weeks.
All this makes for a rather unsatisfactory outcome for the vaunted Israeli military machine, which by all accounts, had prepared intensively for this war over many years. Indeed, the moment Israeli forces pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000, it was foretold that another visitation of mayhem in the region was inevitable, a final settling of accounts. More than Israel’s own objective of liquidating Hezbollah, there was by fairly reliable accounts, a strong U.S. interest in a successful outcome to the operations in Lebanon. The investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has indeed proposed that the U.S. may have been the more ardent of the two for war.[ix]
The demonstration effects of Lebanon were something that the U.S. hoped to garner major strategic gains from. Haunted by the possibility that it would only be able to escape from the military quagmire of Iraq by accommodating Iran’s ambitions for a heightened role in regional geopolitics, the U.S. was hoping that the decimation of Iran’s supposed proxy in Lebanon would minimise the need for painful concessions. In operational terms, Israel’s military action against fortified Hezbollah positions and missile launching pads, was expected to give the U.S. valuable inputs for possible action against Iran’s nuclear assets at a time of its choice.
Israel’s failure in Lebanon has to be viewed in the context of the wider prospect of a collapse of the Pax Americana in West Asia. Whatever their other failings, top officials of the U.S. administration do not lack the ability to coin attractive life-cycle metaphors to describe the politics of the region. It was in May 2005 that Vice President Dick Cheney – the man who had visions of flower-strewn parades as Iraqis heralded the U.S. invasion as long-awaited liberation – asserted that the insurgency in the country was in its “death throes”. And mid-July this year, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, after surveying the wreckage of Lebanon and the mounting toll in human lives, made the chirpy prediction that these were the “birth pangs” of a new political order in the region.
John Prescott, the British Deputy Prime Minister, recently used an unflatteringly vivid four-letter epithet to describe U.S. policy in West Asia. Standing in for a vacationing Tony Blair, Prescott complained that the only reason he had gone along with the decision to invade Iraq was the promise held out that the “roadmap” to peace in Palestine would be implemented shortly after victory was sealed on that front. As with several other western leaders who still only partially realise how they were duped, or went along with all the pretexts for war in the belief that victory would be swift, Prescott fails to understand that the U.S. invasion was intended precisely to create the conditions in the wider region that would allow Israel to implement a larger, unilateral, agenda. This much was suspected and widely spoken of elsewhere in the world, well before the invasion began and particularly after all the frantic efforts failed to turn up evidence that Iraq was in possession of the proscribed weapons that had been the casus belli.[x]
In recent times, as public disillusionment within the U.S. has grown, the taboo subject of Israel’s role in instigating Bush’s misadventure, has emerged in public focus. And the debate was truly ignited in March 2006, when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, professors of political science at Chicago and Harvard, published a working paper, arguing with a wealth of documentation, that Israel’s undue influence over U.S. foreign policy had become an insupportable strategic burden.[xi] They were promptly denounced as anti-Semites, but their case has not quite been so easy to dismiss.
The rebellion of the Palestinian nation under its occupation, forced Israel to confront a painful dilemma. Rather than opt for the many possibilities of peace that the Palestinians offered, Israel chose the path of unilateralism. Ehud Olmert, the hapless Israeli Prime Minister who faces within six months of his installation, a crisis of credibility with the Israeli public, was perceived for long as an accidental leader, placed in a position of authority only because of the sainted Ariel Sharon’s incapacitation. In elections held in March, Olmert won an endorsement, though of a far more modest magnitude than expected when Sharon had split from the Likud Party, and floated a new entity, the Kadima, as a vehicle for making a reality of what he saw as Israel’s final destiny. It was to be the Zionist programme’s climactic manoeuvre in the global strategic arena, rivalling in its historic significance, the declaration of the state of Israel by David Ben-Gurion in May 1948 and the conquest of all of the land of Palestine in 1967.
After Theodore Herzl who conjured up the dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and Ben-Gurion who made it a reality, Sharon’s role, as the third in this succession of Zionist prophets, was to work out a final definition of national borders that would safeguard Israel’s identity as a country with a stable and substantial Jewish majority. The Palestinians offered a way: Israel could withdraw to its 1967 borders, and acknowledge that the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 had made victims of a people with pre-existing rights to the land. This meant essentially that the Palestinian “right of return” would be recognised under international law, though it was not evident that all those who had been evicted from their land -- and their descendants -- intended to exercise it. Rather, the recognition of their rights as a dispossessed people, and their voluntary surrender of the right of return, would only mean that they would gain recompense in several other ways, which could be negotiated.
Obsessed by its own sense of power, Israel chose to turn its back on these proposals, and paint the Palestinians as an obstreperous people, undeserving of partnership in peace negotiations. It then proceeded, through innumerable provocations, to engineer a violent uprising by the occupied people, painting an entirely legitimate movement of resistance against military oppression as “terrorism”. Once the label was foisted on the Palestinian resistance, Israel had little problem gaining a licence from the international community to crush the movement through the most barbaric means. But since a constant state of war was not a prospect that it yearned to live with, Israel decided, within a year of the Palestinian uprising, that it would enforce a policy of “unilateral separation” of the Jewish people from the Palestinians.[xii] The program of “unilateral separation”, mooted by Israel’s Labour Party Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, in 2001, was taken over by Likud Party Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, in 2005. When he found that his own party would not easily yield on its entrenched commitment to a “Greater Israel”, Sharon split to form the Kadima, which entered into an alliance with Labour after the 2006 general elections, to impose Israel’s unilateral agenda.
Sharon’s project involved the pretence of an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the conversion of that tiny, over-populated and devastated strip into the world’s largest prison, garrisoned through air and sea-power. It involved the construction of an apartheid wall across the West Bank that sundered Palestinian communities one from another, destroying lives and livelihoods, and marking out illegal Jewish settlements – and the roadways and tunnels to access them -- as eternal parts of the Jewish nation. And finally, it involved securing the northern settlements by bludgeoning Syria and Lebanon into submission.
Israel’s failure in Lebanon is magnified by the collapse of its pretended withdrawal from Gaza. And an immediate consequence of the Lebanon fiasco has been that Israel’s plans for an aggressive effort to remake the topography of the West Bank, and formally declare the strategically more important and better endowed tracts an eternal part of the Jewish state, have had to be put on hold.
The strategic partnership between the U.S. and Israel to redesign the political geography of West Asia, is clearly in deep trouble. After all the purported rationalisations for the invasion of Iraq were dealt with and found to be hollow, a perfectly reasonable inference has begun increasingly to demand attention: that the U.S. in invading Iraq was seeking merely to destroy an Arab state that had been a strategic nuisance and a continuing impediment to Israel’s efforts to draw a new political map in the region. Israel’s failure in Lebanon now compounds the abject collapse of the U.S. project in Iraq. Between them, they constitute clear evidence that the Pax Americana in the region, is threatened as never before.
After recently surveying the miscued judgments that had led the U.S. into successive disasters in West Asia, Zbigniew Brzezinksi, a top advisor to several past Democratic administrations, concluded rather gloomily, that the “neoconservative (or neocon) prescriptions” that dominate U.S. policy today, would prove “fatal for America and ultimately for Israel”. The “lessons of Iraq”, he said, speak for themselves: “Eventually, if neocon policies continue to be pursued, the United States will be expelled from the region and that will be the beginning of the end for Israel as well”.[xiii]
Well into its sixth decade, the Zionist state is yet to define its borders. It sees no way of securing itself, except through random and indiscriminate acts of terrorist violence against its neighbours and those living under its military tyranny. And despite enjoying income levels that put it in the league of the more affluent European nations, it is still dependent on U.S. aid to the extent of $ 500 annually for every Israeli citizen. A state with such a dubious record is by any account, a failed state. The consequences for the region from a failed state equipped with nuclear arms, could well be grim. If ever there was a case for international guardianship over a country, it is now.
[i] U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, The Gaza Situation Report, 07-24 August, 2006, available at this writing at one of the OCHA websites, http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/LSGZ-6SZGFB?OpenDocument&RSS20=22-P.
[ii] Amnesty International, “Israel/Occupied Territories: Deliberate Attacks a War Crime”, June 30, 2006, available at: http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGMDE150612006?open&of=ENG-2MD.
[iii] “Pessimism on deal amid clashes at the U.N.”, The Guardian, August 10, 2006.
[iv] For a full rundown of the plagiarism case, for Dershowitz’s own defence and his various stratagems to ensure that the matter was not brought into the full glare of publicity, see the website of Norman Finkelstein: http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/, especially his remarks on the release of his book, Beyond Chutzpah. Dershowitz’s column on the war in Lebanon appeared in the Los Angeles Times of August 26: “Civilian Casualty? It Depends”, available at the time of writing at http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-dershowitz22jul22,0,7685210.story?coll=la-opinion-rightrail.
[v] Leon Wieseltier, “The Children of Qana”, The New Republic, August 14, 2006, available at this writing at: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20060814&s=diarist081406.
[vi] Human Rights Watch, Fatal Strikes, Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks against Civilians in Lebanon, Volume 18, Number 3 (E), August 2006, available at this writing at: http://hrw.org/reports/2006/lebanon0806/.
[vii] Amnesty International, 14 Principles on the Effective Exercise of Universal Jurisdiction, May 1, 1999, available at: http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engior530011999?OpenDocument.
[viii] Amnesty International, “Israel/Lebanon: Deliberate Destruction of ‘Collateral Damage’? Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure”, available at: http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGMDE180072006.
[ix] Seymour Hersh, “Watching Lebanon, Washington’s Interest in Israel’s War”, The New Yorker, August 21, 2006.
[x] See this author’s “Israel: An Equal Partner in Occupation of Iraq”, Economic and Political Weekly, October 9, 2004, available at: http://www.epw.org.in/showArticles.php?root=2004&leaf=10&filename=7776&filetype=html.
[xi] John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby”, London Review of Books, Volume 28, Number 6, March 23, 2006; available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/mear01_.html. A version complete with footnotes and references is available at the website of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University: http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/Research/wpaper.nsf/rwp/RWP06-011. The article had been commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly, which refused to publish it on learning of its full scope and contents. The authors were subsequently unable to find a publisher in the U.S. and had to cross the Atlantic to find one.
[xii] For more on the background to the “unilateral separation” decision, see this author’s “Intelligence, Incompetence and Iraq: Or, time to talk of democracy, demography and Israel”, in Social Scientist, Volume 33, Numbers 11-12, Nov-Dec 2004.
[xiii] Brzezinski’s rather grim prognoses was made in the course of an interview with a journalist, Nathan Gardels, who published the entire text on a news and current affairs website. The text is available at this writing at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-gardels/beginning-of-the-end-for-_b_26247.html.