Thursday, August 03, 2006

Critics of the War - The Debate So Far

Ze’ev Sternhell’s piece in Ha’aretz, “The most unsuccessful war,” has been recommended to me by several people who oppose Israel’s now 23-day-old war against Hizbullah. Having read this article, I am not sure what the fuss is all about. I found it a rather confused compendium of attacks on Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, exhortations to consider the plight of Israeli and Lebanese civilians, and critiques of the efficacy of IDF actions so far. Sternhell's op-ed contains neither a sustained argument against the current ground and air operations striking Hizbullah, nor a proposal for an alternative solution that would stop Israeli (and Lebanese) civilians from being at Nasrallah’s mercy. Below, I attempt to answer some of the critiques of Israel and the war that have been advanced on this blog’s margins (i.e., in various comments) as well as in that great world which lies beyond Kishkushim.

One of the discussions we have been having here revolves around the civilian casualties of this war, by which all of us are deeply saddened. For example, in response to a comment by Noah S. and an earlier post by yours truly, Asaf wrote that:

You're assuming again that Israel is innocently "targeting combatants", whereas Israel in fact has chosen to conduct its war in such a way that enormous civilian casualties were inevitable. Israel has not only been killing hundreds of civilians but also destroying the entire fabric of life for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of others.”

I still cannot accept Asaf’s position. There is no war that does not destroy the fabric of civilian life. Yes, the air force bombings have led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians. But given the circumstances, it is clear that Israel is doing what it can to prevent harm to non-combatants. Israel has not flattened Beirut. The neighborhoods in which Hizbullah is based have been destroyed, but Beirut has not become Fallujah or Grozny. This is despite the fact that thousands of rockets fired from Lebanese territory have hit Israel, a record of 220 yesterday. Almost all of these were aimed at civilian targets. As I’ve said before, the entire north is currently uninhabitable. We are talking about at least 300,000 internally displaced people. Yes, it’s true, thank God, that nowhere near the number of Israeli as Lebanese civilians have died. But this is the case only because Israelis in the north have either abandoned their towns and places of work or hunkered down in bunkers and protected spaces.

I also strongly disagree with arguments to the effect that Israel should have chosen a less forceful response. For example, Asaf’s analysis (see comment posted at 9:10 AM), is too narrowly focused on the spark – the kidnapping of the two soldiers in Hizbullah’s cross-border raid. It completely ignores the military history of previous engagements with Hizbullah since the withdrawal. This was, after all, not the first such incident. The small-scale, focused operations against Hizbullah positions have proved utterly ineffective in deterring further attacks. The usual argument is that if Israel were to do something on the diplomatic front, maybe those attacks could be staved off. But Israel already withdrew from Lebanon! Hizbullah has no legitimate claims against Israel. Maybe critics believe that the IDF should have just waited and continued to absorb small losses and provocations. But what was the point of withdrawing then? What is the point of an international border?

The solutions proposed by Asaf and others are problematic for another reason. It is hard to deny that negotiations with the kidnappers encourage more kidnappings. I think anyone who pooh-poohs this is being dishonest. Given the recent kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in the south by the Palestinians, Israel was justified in reacting harshly this time in the hopes of deterring another such attempt. Until now, neither Hizbullah nor its patrons, Iran, Syria, and some in the Lebanese government, realized that Israel would react with real force.

An additional factor dictating the response was of a more tactical nature. Israel did not respond forcefully to the Shalit kidnapping at Keren Shalom near the border with Gaza. It took far too long for its forces to pursue the kidnappers. Thus, army and state officials believed that one of the lessons from the Shalit kidnapping was the importance of forceful and immediate action that would cut off the kidnappers’ means of conveying the hostage. Obviously, the IDF had not really learned very much from the Shalit kidnapping, and the pursuit turned out to be a failure. But tactical imperatives (i.e., as they were perceived by the military) might also have focused attention on the immediate problem of rescuing the soldier, rather than the wonderful comprehensive and non-violent political solutions endorsed by opponents of the war. It is very easy to be critical of the army’s initial actions in hindsight. But these missteps constitute an operational not a moral failure.

There is another flaw in the charge that Israel did not even consider a political solution. Namely, the fact that Israel has been pressing for a political solution for the past six years. What else would you call the continuous lobbying efforts to enforce UN Security Council resolution 1559 to disarm Hizbullah? I would also include the ejection of Syria from Lebanon, in which America played a key part, as part of this. What exactly have these political solutions been able to accomplish? What grounds did Israel have to assume that they would work this time?

So far I have talked only about the spark. Even if we concede that Israel’s initial response to the kidnapping was unjustified (which I am not about to do), even if we blame Israel for starting the war (again, an untenable proposition given Hizbullah’s attack), the picture changes the moment that Hizbullah started firing its missiles. At that point, the Israeli response does not have to be limited by the origins of the crisis. It also does not have to be limited by the damage that Hizbullah has already inflicted; it must only be concerned with the THREAT that these missiles pose. For the resident of the north, the threat is existential. What do I mean by this? If s/he does not put his life on hold – either by moving south or by staying in a bunker – the Israeli civilian living in the north lives in constant mortal danger.

You might argue that the Lebanese civilian too lives in constant mortal danger. At the moment this is true. But, if Hizbullah stopped firing missiles, if Hizbullah were disarmed, all the inhabitants of Lebanon would be living in peace. The same kind of guarantee cannot be provided for the safety of Israeli civilians. If the IDF were to stop military operations, Hizbullah could not be trusted to cease its fire. There is no better evidence for this than the fact that the organization launched a cross-border raid into Israel without provocation and, again, despite a complete Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon that took place six years ago. For those who need further confirmation, statements by Hizbullah leaders as well as the organization’s backers in Iran should be plenty.

All this is not to say that I reject the utopian calls by people like my friend Asaf to put an end to violence and to seek political solutions instead. I think the Western Europeans peoples and states deserve praise for one thing: they have managed to stop killing each other, although it took them several World Wars and the intervention of the US to achieve this. (Unfortunately, they have now withdrawn into their bubble, emerging only to deliver a few sermons to the benighted peoples of the Middle East.) I, too, hope that this will be possible here one day. There is no reason why Israel and Lebanon should not live alongside each other like France and Germany. But let’s not forget what made the latter scenario possible. I am not drawing any parallels here – merely using the historical record to show that there are few instances in the annals of humanity where peace and harmony resulted from one side unilaterally (and willingly) turning the other cheek.


Asaf Kedar said...


"Asaf’s analysis ... is too narrowly focused on the spark ... It completely ignores the military history of previous engagements with Hizbullah":

I think it's actually the whole discussion so far that's taking a far too narrow look at this conflict. Focusing on your own analysis, it disregards: (1) the intertwinement of Israel-Hizbullah relations w/ the whole regional context, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and (2) the wide-ranging extra-military dimensions and implications of taking military action (especially in as brutal a fashion as this one).

Besides the enormous human costs of this war caused directly by the Israeli (and Hizbullah's) actions, this war has broader ramifications. It is breeding ever more hatred, destabilizing the whole region (as well as thwarting Lebanon's gradual attempts to democratize and stabilize its feeble self), strengthening Syria, Iran, and Hizbullah at the expense of more moderate forces like Egypt: in short, it is disastrous in the regional and long-term contexts, besides being a kind of guerilla war that is impossible to win. In this context, patient multilateral (regional and international) diplomatic action would have been a far wiser course to follow. In an even broader purview, it is clear that Israel's sustained brutal and illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories is at the core of the problem of regional stabilization.

"But Israel already withdrew from Lebanon!" -- precisely! its withdrawal from Lebanon served exactly those broader regional and international purposes that I've mentioned above: stabilizing Lebanon, strengthening moderate forces (would the ousting of Syria have been possible otherwise?), and providing Israel with a formidable international lever (i.e. compliance w/ previous UN resolutions and leading to resolution 1559). This lever could have been used in the present crisis to step up regional and international pressure against Hizbullah. The war has squandered all these benefits.

"[Asaf's analysis] completely ignores the military history of previous engagements with Hizbullah since the withdrawal. This was, after all, not the first such incident." -- True, but Israel is strong enough to contain itself in the face of those incidents while pressing steadily on international and regional fronts and focusing its energies on pulling out from the Palestinian territories. One of New York Times columnists noted, in one of his articles at the beginning of the conflict, the cases of UK and Spain against the IRA and the Basque rebels (respectively). He pointed out that both countries suffered from violent attacks for many years without resorting to full-scale war. Ultimately, it is the long-term political processes that proved to be the crucial ones, not any large-scale military operation.

Bottom line is, patient multilateral political action with regional and long-term horizons are the key to handling a great number of crisis situations. The present one was no exception.

Amos said...

Maybe you are right, Asaf. I am afraid we will never know what would have happened. I am a bit skeptical about your optimism though. The evidence we have is that neither the withdrawal from Lebanon nor the one from Gaza really helped Israel. Don't get me wrong; I still think both were the right things to do. But it is hard to argue with the critics who point out that in both cases Israelis ended up with rockets falling on our heads. All the international legitimacy in the world does not help against non-state actors with a hateful ideology, supported by Iran and others pledged to Israel's destruction, from hitting the country with rockets. Anyway, what would you say to all those Israelis who were promised that after the withdrawal from Lebanon there WOULD be legitimacy and that Israel would be allowed to strike harshly at those who continued to attack it. To me it looks like the goal posts keep being moved back; it's never enough.

Neither the IRA nor ETA were supported by powerful regional players who wanted to undermine England and Spain respectively.

A last word: I am not sure how much more hatred for Israel can be bred in the Middle East. It has long ceased being dependent on Israeli or American actions.

Asaf Kedar said...

"Neither the IRA nor ETA were supported by powerful regional players" -- which is precisely yet another good reason to be extra-cautious and to resort to regional/international avenues rather than to unilateral violence. In fact, such an international crisis-management has already been underway for some time now with Iran. Israel's war doesn't really help that ("utopian"?) effort.

"I am not sure how much more hatred for Israel can be bred in the Middle East. It has long ceased being dependent on Israeli or American actions" -- that is simply not true. The Middle East or the Muslim or Arab worlds aren't homogeneous blocs of fanaticism and hatred. There are countries that are (or at least were) starting to experiment w/ democracy emerging from within, such as Lebanon (RIP) and Kuwait; and in other countries too, there are moderate forces as well as Islamic radicalism, and also many people wavering in-between. The devastation of Lebanon by Israeli bombs isn't exactly helping the moderate Arab forces in their uphill struggle against extremism, just as Hizbullah's rockets make it much harder for the peace movement in Israel (and people like me) in our struggle against nationalist chauvinism. Believe me, I've met some of the protagonists of the progressive forces in Egypt and in Palestine, and they're so exasperated and disapppointed at the way Israel thwarts their efforts time after time w/ its brutal displays of force.

Matityahu said...

is it not HIGH time to search for alternatives to more and more bombing, to more civilian deaths on both sides of the Israeli/Lebanese border and ever more destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure that will have minimal impact on the number of rockets on Northern Israel but are bound to create a humanitarian desaster in addition to desastrous effects on the Lebanese state, society, economy and ecology ???
There WERE chances early during the war and perhaps there IS STILL a window of opportunity to place a multinational force in the South of Lebanon and demilitarize Hizb'ollah. What else can the Israeli government and Tsahal hope to win ?
Asaf stressed an important point. I agree, that a major shift has to occur in the overall political and strategic thinking of Israel. It has to start seriously negotiating, to build constructive relations, to use diplomacy, to win friends and allies among the surrounding populations and - last not least - among the palestinian population instead of brutalizing them.
Humanitarian gestures and cooperation with the "willing" will do much more than further sacrifices.
Despite mounting international criticism on Israel's apparent strategy, there is widespread support for and understanding of Israel's right to defend its citizens and borders; and to contain non-democratic forces like Hizb'ollah, Taliban and many others.