Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Debunking "Disproportionality"

I’ve spent the past week absorbing countless news articles, blog entries, analyses and opinion pieces on the ongoing war between Israel and Hizbullah. One of the prevailing themes in a lot of the commentary is the claim that the Israeli air campaign against Hizbullah is disproportionate and therefore immoral. There is no denying that Israel’s counter-attack on Hizbullah has inflicted more damage on Lebanon and has resulted in the deaths of more Lebanese civilians than the hundreds of missiles that have been launched against Israel. But does this necessarily mean that the Israeli response is disproportionate and morally reprehensible? One need only scrutinize the premises on which the self-righteous calls for a ceasefire are based to understand their folly.

One of the basic assumptions of many “well-meaning” outside observers is that a “body count” comparing Israeli and Lebanese fatalities somehow proves that Israel is the guilty party in this conflict. By this logic, Israel can redeem itself only if the hundreds of missiles being launched by Hizbullah eventually succeed in inflicting massive casualties on Israeli civilians. There is something almost endearing about the charity of the naïve proponents of this knee-jerk “moralistic” doctrine. After all, it offers Israel the prospect of moral salvation. All that is needed is for the Israeli government to order the hundreds of thousands of Israelis hunkering in bomb shelters, apartment building staircases, basements, corridors or living rooms to go outside, report to work and to gather in large public spaces– in short, to resume their normal lives. Some of the hundreds of missiles being launched at Israel every day will surely hit enough Israeli civilians. Hizbullah lacks neither the motivation nor the capability to inflict heavy casualties on the Israeli home front in a bid to demoralize the Israeli public. The only reason that hundreds of civilians in the Galilee in northern Israel are still alive is that they have, unfortunately, become accustomed to taking cover from incoming katyusha rockets. I do not want to reveal too much here about the sites that have been hit in Haifa and other places. Suffice it so say that, under normal circumstances, absent the measures taken by the Israeli authorities, the Home Front Command and employers who told their workers not to come, we would be hearing about many more Israeli victims.

Israel has invested in bomb shelters for its citizens and in radar installations that (sometimes) sound warnings about incoming fire, because it’s been in these kinds of situations before. Did Hizbullah or the Lebanese government take any measures to protect its civilians? Did they evacuate civilians living close to their bases and weapons depots? A number of reports have stated that Hizbullah fighters even set up checkpoint to prevent refugees from fleeing the south. I do not know if these reports are true, but I’m sure that Nasrallah and his friends are well protected in their Iranian-built bunkers and elaborate tunnels and caves. They certainly prepared themselves for the Israeli air strikes that they triggered and for the entry of IDF ground forces into their strongholds.

If this war were only about two kidnapped soldiers, one could perhaps understand claims that the Israeli air campaign is unjustified. In fact, there is much more at stake here. This war is an attempt to deal with a group that has shown that it is able to paralyze Israel’s north and to potentially kill hundreds of Israeli civilians. Unlike the Arab states in the region, most which have a greater military capacity than Hizbullah, Nasrallah does not make the sobering calculations that his sponsors in Iran and Syria would make before plunging their country in ruin. Who knows what Hizbullah would have done next? Who is to say that they will not seize on a pretext other than the Palestinian issue or the release of prisoners with blood on his hands to attack Israel in the future?

Opponents of the withdrawal from Lebanon have argued for the past six years that Barak’s pull-out would come back to haunt Israel. They would cite the fact that Hizbullah was being armed by Iran and Syria and had deployed thousands of missiles in the south to make their case. Supporters of the withdrawal, myself included, usually ended up arguing that Israel had gained international legitimacy in return. I would then find myself trying to convince my skeptical interlocutor of the merits of having international opinion on one’s side. Frankly, if Hizbullah is allowed to hide behind the inevitable death of Lebanese civilians that it sowed and is not called to account for its actions, one can only draw the conclusion that fickle international opinion or the moral support of a club of self-righteous European states is hardly worth counting on.

Trying to preserve the status quo ante by calling for a cease-fire and throwing out vague plans for an international force in Lebanon will do nothing to restore stability to the Middle East. I respect the calls to allow humanitarian aid to flow to Lebanon, as long as that aid is not expropriated and exploited by Hizbullah to gain more supporters. I would not be critical of the British Foreign Office if it had simply called on all sides in this conflict to make every effort to limit civilian casualties. But the international community must accept that, just as in the Kosovo War waged against Milosevic’s Yugoslavia in 1999 using overwhelming air power, there are going to be civilian casualties in this conflict. As a Canadian, I am proud to say that, outside of the United States, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was one of the few world leaders at the G-8 who opposed the embrace of an immediate cease-fire that would only serve to strengthen Hizbullah. The onus to stop these hostilities should be placed squarely on Nasrallah.


delana said...

i finally had it explained(via israeli friend)why everyone says two kidnapped soldiers instead of three. although as a mother i cannot seperate my heart to further try to understand this. i agree with your post on mosts people's view on the how and why of war. like we need more experts. im a mother and children dying in war is wrong on so many levels. but even I see the difference between dying in a war and sitting down to lunch with your family and friends and being blown to pieces because someone thinks you should be killed for living.body counts are for people who like to watch raw carnage and then cringe as if thier hearts were really affected.i dont think a cease fire will do much, thats exactly what the world needs is an occupation involving every country squeeze into itty bitty lebonon.sorry felt a little sarcastic.john be safe say hello to carmia.(i comment on her posts)we think of you guys often.take care, or better yet take carmia to a sushi

Proletariat said...

Just want to say(I gave my opinion in the last post) that this blog is very important to discuss this issue and I am glad to have found it.

Once again sorry for the bade english.
I wish I could express better in english.


Proletariat said...


(see?) lol

Asaf Kedar said...

John, your reasoning is I think mistaken in at least 3 senses:
1. even if we accept your claim that military retaliation is the right way for Israel (which I don't), you still make the unfounded assumption that Israel's particularly brutal and disastrous actions were the only way it could have acted, rather than choosing a more moderate response.
2. Underpinning your post (and the whole Israeli discourse about this war) is the unquestioned (and in my view false) assumption that military retaliation was the right mode of response in reaction to Hizbollah's kidnapping, rather than creative political moves that could have saved hundreds of lives on both sides.
3. Even if we accept the claim that Israel's initial position in this conflict was that of an injured party (which is only partly true), it by no means follows that the positions of injured and wrongdoers remains fixed throughout the entire duration of the conflict. Victims can very quickly and easily become perpetrators in the course of the same conflict, and vice versa. In fact, even the IDENTITIES of the parties to the conflict are not as fixed as we think. For example, "Israel" isn't a unitary actor. The Israeli civilian population is in many respects a victim of the conflict (both of Hizbollah and of its own government's folly), while the Israeli government is clearly a perpetrator of war crimes.

Noah S. said...

John, thanks for posting this - it cuts to the heart of the issue. Just to add my two cents...

- Once again I must point out that the patronizing tone we use to dismiss "self-righteous" European voices often has the effect of obscuring legitimate differences in political philosophy. Just look at Asaf's post (he is neither European nor American by birth). At the risk of sounding repetitive: while many outside observers - by which I assume you mean those not in Israel? it's unclear - ARE poorly informed and moralistic, many others ask for a cease-fire from a well-informed and well-considered standpoint.

- I am not so extreme as Asaf in my rejection of Israeli military retaliation, but I do believe - as I've stated in other posts - that it was too hasty and poorly managed. The fact that the death toll in Lebanon has been higher than in Israel is, in itself, no reason for moral reprehensibility, but as the war goes on it becomes more and more difficult to justify with no realistic end in sight. The very idea of placing an international force at the border, as well as the proposition to strengthen the Lebanese government vis-a-vis Hizbollah, puts the legitimacy of continued Israeli strikes in question.

- I guess I'm unclear as to what it means to place the onus on Nasrallah. Will he give up? He shows no signs... or does he?

- On the issue of G-8 and cease-fire, I agree that these calls come off as pathetic and self-righteous, as well as meaningless. Israel must come to the decision by itself.

Anonymous said...

Israel's actions against Lebanese children are disgusting, they can be called with their right name: War Crimes or Massacre.

See this link:

A Menken Moment said...


Just what are 'creative political moves' supposed to mean? Are they something like the expressive dance routines Iran capers with respect to its nuclear ambitions? And how do you propose to induce Hezbollah into renouncing their violent instigations and agreeing to engage in any such moves when their ambition is to eliminate Isreal altogether?

John said...

Australia's Prime Minister says that even if the current conflict is stopped, it will only start up again, unless two things happen:

1) Arabs must accept Israel's right to exist behind defensible borders;
2) An independent "Palestinian" State must be established.

Historically however, can't it be accurately said that a "Palestinian" Arab State in fact already exists? It's called Jordan.

Because in the 1920's, "Palestine" (or "Eretz Yisrael") included all of modern-day Jordan.

Later, the portion East of the Jordan River became nicknamed "Tran Jordan" meaning, "across from the Jordan (river)".

So, even before the UN partitioned "Palestine" back in 1947, a huge portion of the original British Mandate of "Palestine" was already in effect allocated to the Arabs - wasn't it? (Someone correct me, if this isn't right historically.)

If we therefore now take extra land off Israel in which to establish a "Palestinian" State, won't we in effect have created not just one, but two independent Arabic States within the original “Palestine”?

The Arabs living in modern-day Jordan are identical to the "Palestinian" Arabs - identical historically, culturally, religiously and linguistically. Even their flags look the same!

But the question to be asked - even if we do see another independent State set up for Arabs inside Israel, is – would it really put an end to the conflict? would all Arab countries finally and unconditionally accept Israel's right to exist? or would it simply give terrorists a better vantage-point from which to attack Israel in the future?

(Like it has after returning the Gaza Strip; and after Israel's withdrawal from Southern Lebanon - which gave Hezbollah the opportunity for their current attacks on Israel).

In such a scenario, Israel would again be forced to defend itself, and the same conflict, or a worse one, goes on.

I think there’s a better solution – but I’ll have to write about it in my next comment, because my nephew just phoned asking me to fetch him from school!

Ariel said...

The question here, as I see it, is not only whether Israel has the right to respond with disproportionate force, but whether its use of that force is aimed at legitimate goals. The dismantling of Hezbollah is a legitimate goal, in my view, whereas the terrorizing of the Lebanese population is not. At this point it is not entirely clear to me how much of the one or the other purpose was served by the constant barrage of Beirut, for example.

In spite of your condemnation of self-righteous Europeans, John, you have to admit that up until now the international community has pretty much agreed to give Israel carte blanche to try and do as much damage to Hezbollah as it can. Unfortunately it seems that the only thing the IDF is proving right now is its incapacity to achieve its goals. I'm no military tactician, but it seems to me that the efforts of IDF ground forces in southern Lebanon have not been greatly aided by any of the destruction that the IAF wrecked on Beirut. This suggests that only a massive use of ground troops in the area roughly between the border and the Litani River is likely to accomplish anything worthwhile with respect to seriously weakening Hezbollah. If that is true it raises questions as to why Israel bombarded Beirut and other northern areas so heavily.

In short, we should admit that in this case the proof has to be in the pudding. The main moral high ground that Israel can claim--and it is real ground, as far as it goes--is that while its campaign may be painful, it will be worth it in the long run for both Israeli and Lebanese civilians. But this only holds true if the IDF is successful in permanently damaging (if not outright destroying) Hezbollah. If this does not happen then all the civilian deaths, the destruction of infrastructure, the precipitation of a refugee crisis, will all have been in vain and, what's more, the political situation will be the worse for it.

This is how I see the situation at present and I find it very worrying. So far I have not been placated by the repetitious bravado of Israeli politicians and generals who pronounce "we will achieve our goals" as if god had already ordained success. It seems that everyone here was surprised by the international willingness to allow Israel the opportunity to do some dirty work, and now the IDF is being put to the test. I hope that it can make good use of this opportunity without destroying Lebanon (both physically and politically) in the process. I fear, however, that the navigation of a middle course between a Pyrrhic victory (severly damage Hezbollah but annihilate moderate Lebanese political forces), on the one hand, and a demoralizing failure of objectives on the other, will be very difficult.

John said...

Maybe this is the kind of solution that Olmert and Peretz are banking on, given that they opposed a wide-scale reserves call-up in cabinet discussions today.

Thursday, July 27, 2006
'Muscular reconciliation,' America's best diplomatic bet

By David Ignatius
Daily Star staff

To stop the war in Lebanon, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will need to start with some basics: The best strategy for containing a militia like Hizbullah is to build a strong Lebanese state; any lasting solution for this conflict will be political, not just military; continued Israeli bombardment of Lebanon to destroy terrorists may backfire by creating another failed state from which terrorists can operate more freely.

The outlines of a settlement that recognizes these basics were floated last Monday in Beirut. The Lebanese urged Rice to consider a compromise package - of the sort that Beirutis describe in a French phrase that means "neither victor nor vanquished." That kind of negotiated truce would not please those on either side who would like to see their adversaries eradicated. But it may be the best chance of achieving Rice's goal of replacing the dangerous pre-war status quo in Lebanon with something more secure and stable for everyone.

Negotiated settlements are always messy, but this package has one great advantage: It would provide a framework for the chronically weak Lebanese state, backed by an international force, to begin to assert control over all of its territory. It would stress the basic idea that should be the centerpiece of American Middle Eastern policy from Beirut to Baghdad - which is that political compromise and reconciliation, backed by American and allied military power, provide the only path out of the crisis that afflicts the region.

The challenge in Lebanon is identical to the one in Iraq: How to help weak Arab democracies control sectarian militias and build sovereignty and security. The correct American strategy is one that might be called "muscular reconciliation." Its starting premise is that if one side seeks unilateral advantage, everyone will suffer.

Lebanese sources outlined for me the compromise package they say was discussed Monday when Rice met with Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, and Nabih Berri, the Parliament speaker and leader of the Shiite Amal movement. The cornerstone of this package, according to my sources, is that Hizbullah would agree to withdraw its armed fighters from South Lebanon and accept an international force there that would accompany the Lebanese Army. Israel, for its part, would agree to halt its attacks and lift its air and sea blockade. The United States would call for negotiations over the return of the disputed Shebaa Farms area, claimed by Lebanon even though the United Nations ruled in 2000 that it was Syrian.

Within 24 hours after a cease-fire, there would be an exchange of prisoners as part of this package: Hizbullah would give up the two Israeli soldiers it captured in the July 12 border raid that started the crisis; Israel would release three Lebanese prisoners it holds. The package also includes some minor provisions, including an Israeli agreement to provide maps of land mines placed just north of the Lebanon-Israel border.

What's in it for Israel to accept such a deal that would allow Hizbullah to survive? The answer is that an attempt to go all the way and destroy the Shiite militia would require a full-scale invasion of Lebanon, and might well misfire in the same way that Israel's 1982 invasion did. Better to go for a solid half a loaf - pushing armed Hizbullah fighters north of the Litani River and bringing in an international force to help the Lebanese Army police a buffer zone - than to risk further setbacks. Hizbullah's military power would be severely degraded under such a negotiated settlement, but it would remain intact politically. The Shiite militia is trying to put on a brave face, sending me an e-mail message Tuesday through a Lebanese intermediary claiming that it has the upper hand. If a cease-fire isn't reached and Hizbullah fights on, it will "accept a four-to-one casualty ratio," the message warned. "Human losses all go to heaven as martyrs with families and children handsomely compensated." But for all this brave talk, statements by Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, seem to be defining victory as simple survival.

Wars end when both sides decide they can gain more from a negotiated settlement than from continued fighting. Nearly two weeks into the Lebanon war, Israel and Hizbullah both seem split between those who think they can gain from more combat and those ready to cut a deal.

As of late Tuesday, Rice was continuing to resist mounting international demands for a cease-fire, presumably to allow Israel more time to hammer Hizbullah. But that strategy is becoming dangerous for all sides. Rice should turn now to negotiating a formula that can halt the bombs and rockets - and enhance the authority of the Lebanese state. Bargaining with the devil (or at least the devil's intermediary) is part of the job description for an American secretary of state.

Syndicated columnist David Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.

John said...

Just to clear up some confusion: the two Johns on this comment page are different people. Welcome to Kishkushim, Aussi John :) Thanks for your comments.

-John (co-author of this blog)

Noah S. said...

Ha'aretz's editorial today predicts that a cease-fire before Hizbollah is sufficiently weakened will lead to resumed fighting in a matter of weeks. Ariel is right to say that the proof will be in the pudding; having no inside scoop on military strategy and capability, I'm just worried that the world powers' carte blanche - which without Condy would probably not have been written - will expire due to humanitarian concerns before sufficient damage to Hizbollah is incurred.

Noah S. said...

Oh - here's that link:

Anonymous said...

It's very sad to see supposedly an intelligent nation like Israel act in such an inhumanely and murderous way towards the Lebanese people....God will make u pay back with another holocaust...u obviously have learned nothing from history...a real shame! what goes round will come round.

Daniel Kwiat said...


Nice posts but I don't think you are correct when you say that this is a war that Israel didn't prepare for.

On May 26, Israel assassinated Islamic Jihad's Mahmoud Majzoub in Sidon. He had close ties to Hezbollah. IJ vowed revenge. Israel knows well that HZs modus operandi is to always avenge every attack; like Israel it always sees itself as the victim, and it believes deeply that its forces are deterrents and liberators. Five days later Hezbollah infiltrated the border and lost three men.

This was the backdrop to the Hezbollah kidnapping and killing that set the major fighting of late in motion.

However, whereas you suggest that Hezbollah's actions took Israel by suprise, I would argue that it was the public provocation that it expected and, I'm sorry to say, sought in order to change the Hezbollah build-up on the ground

As Matthew Kalman writes on, "More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint U.S. and other diplomats, journalists, and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail." I'm not succeeding in creating a link for some reason, but you can look up the article. It is one of many on the same subject.

John, there have been many occasions of Hezbollah border battles in the past during the last six years that met with much more limited Israeli response. Was this one really all that different. No, not really.

John said...


You are stating the obvious when you say that Israel is using this opportunity to change the ground rules in southern Lebanon. The Israeli public has been hearing leaks from "senior military sources" about Hizbullah's missile capabilities for years. People in the defence establishment have been calling for action beyond the framework of tit-for-tat retalitions (artillery exchanges and some limited air strikes every time Hizbullah attacked) on the Lebanese front since the withdrawal. There was a consensus among many IDF officers that the withdrawal was a serious strategic mistake. Recent events have shown that they did not overstate the case: Hizbullah possesses a formidable arsenal of rockets and has dug itself in well enough to make any operation against it very costly.

What you're wrong about is that Israel anticipated the kidnapping of those reservists. Nothing is more demoralizing to Israelis than a kidnapping of IDF soldiers. Even worse, this incident came at a time when Israel had its hands full trying to manage the kidnapping of Gil'ad Shalit and the blow inflicted upon it Hamas and other militants. These kidnappings were the result of failures at the tactical intelligence and operational level. Hizbullah chose their timing and Israel was forced to respond according to Hizbullah's timing.

Kalman's article proves absolutely nothing! The fact that Israeli officers have been rehearsing these kinds of operations should be taken for granted. Every army in the position of the IDF with an unstable neighbour like Lebanon would have prepared war games and scenarios to deal with this kind of a situation. It does not mean that Israel precipitated this particular crisis.

I think you seem to be unaware of the significance of the Hizbullah operation to the IDF, the Israeli government and the Israeli public. This was not another routine event on the northern border. It came after a very similar operation against Israeli soldiers stationed along Gaza and it forced the IDF to try to prove its mettle and to attempt to restore its deterrence.
You're also forgetting that Israelis are still traumatized by the killing of those three other soldiers in 2000 and by the kidnapping Elhanan Tenenbaum. Given all of this cumulative baggage, this event certainly was different from previous clashes between Hizbullah and the IDF.

delana said...

O.K. i have a question for john(co-writer)when you are able to push hezbulla beyond whatever imaginary line(someones village) what do they do with them,and who's going to be in the middle holding them back. i know stupid question. Humor me.I mean in the long run what is that going to do.Ive been at home caring for my children.I keep up with many things going on in this world.I have three children son15,daughter3,son2,and i have to wonder what is it we are leaving are children to deal with. my 15 yr old told me "maybe they(anyone but a militia)justs needs some help to regain what state is what,and where once and for all." Sounds good huh. Its funny how as children we see the simplest of solutions and then realize we have made our world more complicated than it needs to be. I know im just a mom what would i know of world matters.But i do know this, if and when this world can live and let live. The men of this world have alot of explaing to do.