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Israel’s Moral Dilemma in Waging Gaza War

The far-reaching implications of the war in Gaza was recently driven home to me when I observed Israeli paratroopers preparing to take out missiles hidden in homes — in Lebanon. On June 11 I was part of a group of students of international affairs who were invited to an Israel Defense Forces base, Eliakim, near Haifa. The base contains a mockup of an Arab town, including the facade of a Mosque, narrow alleyways (our “casbah,” the guide explained) down which tanks and armored vehicles cannot effectively be deployed. Laundry hung from some of the rooftops.

The experience drove home a point I heard made repeatedly during the 2014 Herzliya Conference, a major annual Israeli international conference on security and terrorism. The Israeli chief of general staff, Benny Gantz, said that in many homes in Southern Lebanon there is a “living room and a missile room.” Former major general Yaakov Amidror noted that Hezbollah placed many of its missiles under private homes, including some “10-floor residential buildings.” Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, Israel’s chief military intelligence analyst, made the same point after reporting that Hezbollah has amassed about 100,000 short-range missiles and rockets (that can reach the Haifa-Tiberias line), several thousand of which are middle range (and can reach Tel Aviv) and several hundred that can reach any place in Israel.

All these statements were made on the record. Other sources indicated that Hezbollah has positioned its missiles close to schools, hospitals and United Nations offices. In short, Israel faces in the north the same threat it is facing in Gaza, 10 times over. (Hamas was estimated to have amassed about 10,000 rockets and missiles before the current conflict.)

When the paratroopers moved to practice clearing out missile nests from the mock town, they threw smoke grenades to hide their moves, but the wind quickly dispersed the smoke. When the paratroopers cleared one row of buildings, they found that those who stood in for Hezbollah fighters (marked with green headbands) popped up behind their lines because tunnels connected the buildings still in front of them with those they thought they had already cleared. Hezbollah fighters also popped up from openings of tunnels in bushes around the private homes. It was obvious that there was no way to proceed without engaging those who fired at the paratroopers from the various homes, which in a real-life situation would be populated with civilians.

The moral and tactical challenges involved in such a situation are not limited to those facing the IDF. When I recently reviewed the rules of engagement of American troops in Afghanistan for PRISM, a publication of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Center for Complex Operations, I found that American soldiers were ordered to minimize “collateral damage” by not firing unless they are fired upon first, by not returning fire if it came from mosques and, often, by refraining from shooting at homes. Frequently, when American troops were in a tight spot and sought backup fire from the air or from artillery, their requests were often denied to minimize civilian casualties. Some commanders avoided even asking for backup, because to do so required prolonged explanations to several levels of superiors while under fire. Although the rules resulted in some decline in the loss of civilian lives, there were also indications that they caused increased American casualties — and the rules had a devastating effect on the morale of American troops.

If U.S. Army troops in Afghanistan or those on their way to Iraq or those increasingly active in Yemen and Africa are to face combat, they are very likely to face the same basic dilemma: Either be charged with killing civilians, or let terrorists gain very substantial advantages when they use private homes, schools and places of worship as their bases.

This highlights the importance of achieving moral clarity on the issue at hand. It should be based on the understanding that the rule of distinction, which is the most important rule of armed conflict, applies to all combatants. The rule calls on the military to do its best to separate out civilians from combatants and to spare the former. It should be understood that terrorists who operate out of dense urban areas violate this moral and legal rule. To protect civilians, all combatants must separate themselves from the general population by wearing some kind of identifying markers, putting indicators on their vehicles and locating themselves away from civilians. Otherwise they are the ones who violate the rule of distinction — and the prime reason that civilians are hurt.

One can readily see why people hate to face a choice that has only two very devastating outcomes: Either allow terrorists to act with impunity by mixing in with the civilian population, or be forced to bomb homes from which terrorists launch their rockets. It is easy to walk in the shoes of those who seek to avoid facing such a choice by calling for resolution of the conflict. However, until this is achieved, the sad truth is that civilians on both sides will continue to die unless terrorists abide by the rules of distinction. Those who waffle on this issue unwittingly prolong the agony — an agony I fear we will experience in many places beyond Gaza.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor at George Washington University and the author of “Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World” (Transaction Publishers, 2012).

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