As international human rights organizations decry the high toll of civilian deaths suffered in the Lebanon war, America’s main organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis is calling on the Israeli military to be less concerned with avoiding civilian casualties on the opposing side when carrying out future operations.
Following a solidarity mission to Israel last week, leaders of the Rabbinical Council of America issued a statement prodding the Israeli military to review its policy of taking pains to spare the lives of innocent civilians, in light of Hezbollah’s tactic of hiding its fighters and weaponry among Lebanese civilians. Because Hezbollah “puts Israeli men and women at extraordinary risk of life and limb through unconscionably using their own civilians, hospitals, ambulances, mosques… as human shields, cannon fodder, and weapons of asymmetric warfare,” the rabbinical council said in a statement, “we believe that Judaism would neither require nor permit a Jewish soldier to sacrifice himself in order to save deliberately endangered enemy civilians.”
The directive from the Orthodox rabbi comes at a time when both Israel and Hezbollah have been subjected to intense scrutiny from the media and from international human rights organizations about the Lebanon war’s grueling impact on civilians. Israel has taken the brunt of the criticism, with the number of Lebanese civilians killed in the month-long conflict put at about 1,000.
Civilian deaths on the Israeli side, which totaled 43, were markedly lighter despite Hezbollah’s steady rain of rockets over heavily populated towns and cities in Israel’s northern region. Defenders of the Jewish state say that Israel has been unfairly blamed for Lebanese civilian deaths, which, they contend, are largely unavoidable given Hezbollah’s practice of hiding in innocent people’s homes.
Condemnation of Israel by international groups for inadvertently killing civilians when targeting terrorists “has happened in all of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, but this has brought it front and center in very clear ways that everybody now sees,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress.
“You can’t conduct a war in Lebanon without killing civilians,” he said. Stern added that Hezbollah is part of a cadre of groups, including Hamas and the Sri Lankan rebel group Tamil Tigers, which live within the general population, making it impossible to wage war on them without attacking civilians.
At the United Nations, the Lebanon war has sparked renewed debate over the enforcement and usefulness of international humanitarian law, which governs wartime conduct. The newly assembled United Nations Human Rights Council, which replaced the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights after years of allegations that the body was ineffective and anti-Israel, recently authorized an investigation of alleged Israeli war crimes in Lebanon. The 47-member council opted not to look into war crimes on the part of Hezbollah — a decision that has prompted accusations that the council is dominated by its Islamic member states.
Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, has condemned civilian deaths on both sides of the conflict, and is considering opening a “commission of inquiry” under the auspices of his office that would investigate possible war crimes by both parties.
Some Jewish organizations have criticized the U.N., saying that the 192-nation group and the cohort of charities that carry out humanitarian work on a global scale place too much emphasis on laws protecting civilians. Among the aid groups criticized has been the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is charged with promoting adherence to international law.
The AJCongress sent a letter August 7 to the president of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, assailing the international organization for its “selective reading” of international law. According to Stern, both the U.N. and the Red Cross have failed to address Hezbollah’s commingling with civilians as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, while both international bodies continue to castigate Israel for a disproportionate military response.
At the same time, the AJCongress is waging a campaign to amend international law, which it views as out of step with fighting terrorism. In a letter sent in mid-August to the Senate Armed Service’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Stern wrote that “international law, as it is currently applied by the United Nations, the Red Cross and unofficial international human rights groups, enhances the military capability of irregular forces at the direct expense of states and thus exacerbates the difficulties of nations engaged in asymmetrical warfare.” In an interview with the Forward, Stern said that given the stipulations of Additional Protocol 1 — a 1977 amendment to the Fourth Geneva Convention that, among other caveats, excuses “irregular” fighters from wearing military attire — Western nations are at a distinct disadvantage in waging wars.
As Jewish groups rush to defend Israel’s conduct in Lebanon, a feud has erupted in recent weeks between Human Rights Watch, an international organization that monitors human rights abuses, and a handful of Jewish leaders who have countered the international watchdog group’s assessment of Israel’s behavior throughout the conflict. That debate was sparked by the release in early August of “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” a report by Human Rights Watch detailing more than 20 instances of Israel’s killing of civilians — including an attack on Qana, which claimed the lives of at least 28 Lebanese, among them 16 children — as the war raged during the last two weeks of July. Despite Israel’s insistence that it limited its targets to areas where Hezbollah fighters were known to be operating, the rights organization says that in the cases of civilian deaths that it investigated, no evidence emerged to suggest a Hezbollah presence.
The controversy over the Human Rights Watch report has largely played out in the editorial pages of The New York Sun, a neoconservative daily established by Seth Lipsky, the Forward’s founding editor. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, published an opinion article in the Sun chiding the human rights group for failing to consider the existential threat that Hezbollah, as an agent of Iran and Syria, poses to the Jewish state. A heated back-and-forth ensued between Kenneth Roth, the rights group’s executive director, and the newspaper, which published its own series of editorials accusing Roth of anti-Israel bias. Roth and the Sun’s managing editor, Ira Stoll, debated the issue on an episode of the television program “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Alan Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of “The Case for Israel,” issued harsh rebukes to Human Rights Watch in opinion pieces that appeared in the Sun and on the left-leaning blog the Huffington Post. Dershowitz, who along with many Jewish communal leaders has long maintained that Human Rights Watch disproportionately singles out Israel for human rights abuses, cited examples of reporting that illustrated Hezbollah’s hiding behind civilian targets. In an interview with the Forward, Dershowitz said that Human Rights Watch has lost all credibility as a neutral organization. “Human Rights Watch has become part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he said.
Roth shot back that his critics, including Dershowitz, have mischaracterized the report. “There is a shocking lack of factual engagement by the reflexive defenders of Israel. They will focus on irrelevancies, they will twist what we said, but nobody takes on what we actually said.” According to Roth, his organization has never denied that Hezbollah places its weapons in civilian areas. “What we found was that the Israeli government’s cover story was to blame all civilian deaths on Hezbollah hiding between civilians, but it didn’t explain these deaths,” he said. Meanwhile, Roth may find support for his stance among some college and high school students affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, American Jewry’s largest synagogue movement. A loose coalition of 48 Reform Jews, culled from universities across the nation, earlier this month sent a letter to the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, calling on the movement to condemn the Israeli military’s “killing of unarmed Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, as well as its premeditated targeting of civilian infrastructures, which has put additional lives at risk and hampered relief efforts.”
Matt Adler, the Washington University in St. Louis liaison for Kesher, the college branch of the Reform movement, said that he circulated the letter because he felt that his views were not being voiced in his movement’s policies and public statements on the Lebanon war. “While we certainly agree with condemning Hamas and Hezbollah’s attacks, we didn’t see more of a pro-peace statement reflected,” Adler said. Adler, 20, also said that he was “thrilled” by the Reform union’s swift response. The same day that Yoffie received the students’ plea via email, he wrote a letter, saying: “No side is completely blameless in a war, but I am confident that the government of Israel has taken all reasonable precautions to avoid civilian casualties.”
In an effort to continue the dialogue, Adler said, the Union for Reform Judaism has scheduled an August 28 conference call between the signatories to his letter and the leadership of Arza, the Reform movement’s Zionist arm. “I think we’re going to see what comes out of that call for what our next steps are going to be,” he said.