WASHINGTON — As Jerusalem defends itself against worldwide condemnation over a deadly air strike that killed dozens of Lebanese children, current and former Israeli officials acknowledge that the Israeli military has loosened the restrictions on targeting militants in populated areas.
After an Israeli air force raid Sunday on the Lebanese village of Qana left dozens of civilians dead, many of them children, human rights groups accused Israel of committing a “war crime.” Many critics — including Israeli ones — are questioning the military’s policy of bombing in densely populated Lebanese areas. As of earlier this week, more than 550 civilians had been killed in Lebanon during the current conflict, with Lebanese officials claiming that the civilian death toll has exceeded 750.
Following the Qana deaths, Israeli authors and intellectuals signed a petition calling for an immediate cease-fire and protesting the killing of civilians. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel called for an official commission of inquiry to investigate the military’s bombing policies in Lebanon.
One of Israel’s top political commentators, Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot, also raised questions in his column Monday. “I am ashamed,” wrote Barnea, whose criticism reverberated in Israel this week. Barnea argued that just because he feels that the war is justified “does not grant me an exemption from torturing myself with questions.” The most piercing question, he wrote, “arose when I heard Defense Minister Amir Peretz boasting about how he has freed the army from limitations regarding the civilian population that lives alongside Hezbollah. One can understand the accidental killing of civilians, in the heat of battle. A sweeping order regarding the civilian population of South Lebanon and the Shi’ite neighborhoods of Beirut is rash, injudicious and will lead to disaster. We saw the results yesterday, with the bodies of women and children being brought out of the bombed house in Qana.”
Barnea was referring to several statements that Peretz, leader of the left-of-center Labor Party, made in the course of the past three weeks, saying that he had directed the Israeli military not to be deterred by Hezbollah’s use of civilians as “human shields.” Other Israeli officials also indicated that the military’s rules of engagement in the current fighting in Lebanon are more permissive than they have been in the past. Some said that Israel is attempting to “inflict pain” on Lebanon’s civilian population to put public pressure on Hezbollah to disarm.
The Israeli military’s chief of staff, Dan Halutz, a lieutenant general, was quoted as saying that for every building hit in Haifa by a Hezbollah rocket, Israel would hit 10 high-rise buildings in the Shi’ite residential neighborhoods of Southern Beirut. And Israeli air force pilots indicated that the process of vetting potential targets to minimize the chance of hitting civilians is less meticulous in the current bombings in Lebanon than it was in previous bombing campaigns.
“There are efforts, as always, to minimize collateral damage, but less so than when [Israel] bombs in Gaza,” said Amos Guiora. A lieutenant colonel (reserve), Guiora is the former commander of the Israeli military’s School of Military Law and currently a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. In this case, he said, rockets are launched into Israel by the thousands from a sovereign neighboring country, and therefore “the rules of the game have been significantly changed.”
In particular, what’s changed are the orders regarding the admissibility of striking buildings or other sites adjacent to residential neighborhoods, from which Hezbollah combatants are suspected to be operating. Hezbollah fighters, according to Israeli military reports and other data, launched rockets from sites adjacent to the building that was hit in Qana on Sunday. In addition, Hezbollah fighters appear to have been launching rockets next to the United Nations observation post in Hiam, in which four international observers were killed by an Israeli strike July 26.
Last week, a colonel, who is an Israeli air force squadron commander gave an unusual interview to Ha’aretz, authorized by the military, in which he laid out some of the bombing policies. Often, he said, one of the militants firing rockets is seen seeking refuge in a residential home in South Lebanon. Such a house, he said, “ought to be struck, even if a family lives in it.” Such a family, he said, has allowed combatants into its home, and “hence joined those who are fighting us.” The lives of Israeli civilians are more important to him than the lives of Lebanese civilians, the squadron commander said on condition of anonymity, a routine practice for Israeli military officers.
Asked about the air strikes that leveled the pro-Hezbollah Shi’ite neighborhood of al-Dahiya in southern Beirut, the senior officer said that the area was a legitimate target because it was inhabited by Hezbollah personnel and their families.
Some experts on humanitarian international law say that the policies described by the senior air force officer are being justified on a blatant misinterpretation of international law. At the same time, they add, international law is open to broad interpretation regarding the admissibility of striking civilians.
While intentionally targeting civilians or civilian property is forbidden, international law takes a more nuanced approach to the unintentional striking of civilians when pursuing military targets.
Targeting sites that are civilian in nature but used by combatants is permissible as long as such sites provide an “effective” contribution to the enemy’s military activities, and as long as their destruction or neutralization provides “a definite military advantage.” When targeting such sites, the impact of the attack on civilians must be carefully weighed against the military advantage that the attack serves. Attacks should not be undertaken if the civilian harm outweighs the military advantage, or if a similar military advantage could be secured with less civilian harm, experts say. Each attack on such a target is required to be weighed individually under these criteria — known in international law as the “proportionality” test. The term has been used frequently in the context of the current confrontation, but seldom in the appropriate context of what international law prescribes regarding civilian casualties.
Whether Israel’s policies generally pass the proportionality test is a matter of intense controversy.
Michael Walzer, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and a leading authority on morality in warfare, told the Forward that Israel’s conduct is well within the confines of international law. “From a moral perspective, Israel has mostly been fighting legitimately,” Walzer said. If Israeli commanders ever face an international tribunal, he added, “the defense lawyers will have a good case,” mainly because Hezbollah uses civilians as human shields. In several recent articles, Harvard Law School’s Alan Dershowitz has advanced similar arguments.
Human rights groups counter that Hezbollah’s conduct does not relieve Israel from the responsibility to spare civilians, even if they receive adequate warning to flee before their neighborhoods are struck. To argue the opposite “is a complete misunderstanding of international law and is morally bankrupt,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. In a press release issued Monday, the group described the Qana killings as “the latest product of an indiscriminate bombing campaign” in Lebanon, and said that the responsibility for the tragedy “rests squarely with the Israeli military.” The group’s statement argued that Israel had launched indiscriminate bombings that constitute war crimes.
Several groups on the liberal end of the Jewish communal spectrum, including Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Tikkun Community, published a full-page advertisement Monday in The New York Times, demanding that all sides “stop the slaughter in Lebanon, Israel and the occupied territories” and that Israel immediately halt attacks on Lebanon, which are “utterly disproportionate to the initial provocation by Hezbollah.”
The left-leaning New York based Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring this week sent a letter to President Bush, calling for an immediate cease-fire. “Peace cannot be achieved by a war of attrition, which will only cause the death of more and more innocent men, women and children, and increased hatred on both sides,” the letter said.
For the most part, however, few if any of the most influential Jewish organizations are raising any moral objections to Israel’s military tactics. None of the major Jewish groups released statements of condolences, sympathy or regret before or after the Qana incident. In fact, three Jewish communal leaders, in recent conversations with reporters, said that given the large number of aerial strikes and artillery shellings in Lebanon, the number of civilian casualties was rather low.
On Monday, during a New York meeting with Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres, not one member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations asked the veteran Israeli politician about the carnage in Lebanon.
Members seemed to agree when Peres said that whereas some 10,000 civilians were killed in NATO’s 78-day air campaign in Kosovo in 1999, the Lebanese civilian death toll is in the low hundreds. (The number of deaths during the NATO campaign is belived to have been about 500, with Serbian sourcing claiming 1,200 to 5,000 dead.)
“I see 100% support and not an iota of decrease in support in the Jewish community for Israel’s conduct in Lebanon,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The council is a policy coordinating organization that brings together 13 national Jewish agencies and 123 local Jewish communities.
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a leading thinker on the Jewish and Israeli use of power, said that he couldn’t find flaws in Israel’s conduct. “If I have any criticism of Israel, it is that there was an underestimation of the risk” from Hezbollah, Greenberg said.
As extraordinarily painful and cruel a reality as it is, he added, “there was a need to inflict punishment on the host [Lebanese] population” to turn the population against Hezbollah. Although people in the Jewish community “feel anguish that Jews are killing civilians, they honestly don’t think that there is any serious alternative right now,” he said.
The distinctly dovish president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, said that although questions regarding the “appropriate policies to protect [Lebanese] civilians” are warranted, “people are overwhelmingly supportive of this war, across the board” and are confident that Israel’s leadership is acting within the requirements of international law.
“We are dealing with a government that is dovish, moderate, and with a defense minister who is a certified moderate,” Yoffie said. “We are confident that even if they did make mistakes, they will know how to deal with them and maintain a positive course.”