Weekly Commentary -- Another Massacre at Qana
It seems that Israel has an inexplicable hatred of Qana, the small Lebanese town whose inhabitants claim that here President Bush’s favorite political philosopher once turned water into wine.
Ten years ago, the liberal Labor government of Shimon Peres (with the generous Ehud Barak as Defense Minister) shelled a U.N. compound in Qana where several hundred of the half a million Lebanese refugees created by Peres’ “Grapes of Wrath” bombing campaign were sheltering, killing 106. The Israeli government claimed it was an accident; an Amnesty International investigation concluded that the bombing was deliberate, as did a Dutch general investigating for the U.N.
This time, it was an apartment building, shielding some 60 of the roughly 1 million refugees created by Operation “Change of Direction;” 56 people, 34 of them children, were killed, bringing the official Lebanese death toll to around 700. Israel once again claims that it was an accident, and that they were aiming at a Hezbollah rocket-launcher nearby.
This claim may give pause to any of you who have been asleep for the last three weeks and also during every previous Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon. In this connection, one need simply note the circumstances of Israel’s shelling of a U.N. post near Khiyam on July 25, killing four U.N. observers. Over a period of six hours, Israeli artillery shells landed close to the post 10 times and after each one the observers called the Israeli military, which promised to stop shelling. Somehow, Israel still claims it was an accident
So there’s a bit of a problem for those who want to maintain a hard distinction between Israel’s supreme morality and Hezbollah’s terrorism. Either Israel hit the U.N. post on purpose, which is to say it kept shelling the immediate area without any regard for the observers’ safety, or its shelling is not very accurate. Similarly with the latest Qana massacre, where the argument can only be that its bombing is again inaccurate. In that case, why is it that Hezbollah’s rocket attacks, universally agreed to be inaccurate, is terrorism while Israel’s use of inaccurate bombing and artillery fire is moral warfare? After all, if we look at the results, two-thirds of those Hezbollah has killed in this war are soldiers, whereas about 90% of those Israel has killed in this war are civilians.
Perhaps, if all of the commentary and analysis was not so ridiculously biased, the least people would do is acknowledge that a weapon’s accuracy is only one relevant issue; another is the fact that the bombs Israel drops are far more powerful than the piddly Katyusha rockets Hezbollah shoots off at random. A 500-pound bomb has a quarter-mile blast radius; how does one justify using such a weapon against a temporarily placed mobile rocket launcher near apartment buildings?
The ridiculous claims of Israeli moral superiority also rest on the claim that Hezbollah is using civilians as human shields. This is the same refrain we hear any time the United States kills civilians, even after the gruesome bombing of the al-Amariyah bomb shelter in the 1991 Gulf War, which killed about 400 women and children. This is somehow used to shift the blame for the assault onto the enemy.
The truth, as Mitch Prothero of U.S. News and World Report writes, is that, far from using civilians as human shields, Hezbollah goes out of its way to do the opposite. Unlike Hamas and Fatah, for example, members of Hezbollah’s military wing shy away from contact even with their own civilian supporters when they are on military operations.
If the claim is meant to mean simply that Hezbollah conducts its operations in towns and villages, rather than perhaps flying to the Sahara Desert to fight from there, it is true but vacuous. When Israeli ground troops move in, as they have done several times during this war, they shelter in civilian residences as well – as do American troops in Iraq. They don’t remain on open ground, without cover, even though the weapons they face are far less formidable than those Hezbollah faces. If they occasionally salve their consciences by forcing civilians to flee, creating say 1 million refugees who will languish for weeks or months without adequate shelter, food, water, or medical care, then return to homes that have been destroyed by ceaseless shelling, how exactly does one claim that this does not constitute targeting civilians?
Violence is not simply the domain of those who massacre children with high-tech weaponry. The ones who construct convoluted arguments to justify them in the face of facts and reason do violence to – to the truth and to humanity.
Eqbal Ahmed -- Selected Writings
I just got a communication from Columbia University Press that they are coming out next month with a 664-page edition of Selected Writings by Eqbal Ahmed. I never do advance publicity for books, movies, music albums, and so on, but this is pretty exciting.
Ahmed was a remarkable anti-imperialist thinker (he died in 1999). A brilliant man, he was deeply informed by experience and not just by books. He met and toured with Gandhi as a young boy. He lived for several years in Algeria and worked with Frantz Fanon and the FLN. He was very active in the anti-Vietnam-War movement in the United States and from the mid-1970's was much involved with Palestinian liberation.
As a result of his personal and organizational involvement, his analysis is much more attuned to questions of tactics and strategy and in particular to workable solutions, focusing less on simple condemnation.
He wrote quite a bit, but it is to our collective misfortune that he never brought his ideas together in a book. This edition of his selected writings will likely be the closest we'll be able to get to understanding the insights he gleaned from a very tumultuous lifetime of experience.
You may also find it interesting to read his interview book with David Barsamian, "Confronting Empire." His pronouncements on political Islam, jihadism, and terrorism are so prescient that people who read some of his old speeches online thought they were given after 9/11.
Weekly Commentary -- John Bolton and Collateral Damage
n U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton kicked up quite a stir recently when he suggested that the killing of Lebanese civilians can simply not be compared with the killing of Israeli civilians.
Asked to comment on the Israelis’ killing of eight Canadian citizens, a Montreal pharmacist and his family, he said, "I think it would be a mistake to ascribe moral equivalence to civilians who die as the direct result of malicious terrorist acts," drawing a distinction between the Israeli civilians killed by “malicious terrorist acts” and the ten times as many Lebanese civilians who have died as a result of the “sad and highly unfortunate consequences of self-defense.”
Although Bolton has often been derided as an extremist for his views on the United Nations, in this he was simply articulating the dominant mainstream position.
Pundits routinely distinguish between acts where there is supposedly a deliberate intent to kill civilians and those where, although civilians might die in large numbers as an utterly predictable consequence of the act, there is no specific intent to kill civilians. One is condemned as terrorism, something that places the committer of the act completely beyond the pale of civilization, while the other is merely collateral damage, an unfortunate but necessary part of the civilized way of war, engaged in by virtuous people and governments whose righteousness is not even subject to question.
In order to truly respect the distinction between civilian and fighter that is at the heart of the laws of war, it’s necessary to eliminate the doctrine of collateral damage.
One obvious flaw of the doctrine is that it provides great cover for actual war crimes. Israel has deliberately targeted airports, ports, bridges, and tunnels. Of the close to 400 Lebanese killed, the vast majority were not fighters, although a very large number are children. Israel has bombed residential areas in south Beirut and throughout southern Lebanon, the only concession to their civilian population being the dropping of leaflets warning residents to evacuate the entire area. Recently, a family fleeing a border village was targeted, with three killed, because they were driving in minivans – among Israel’s rules of engagement is indiscriminate targeting of trucks, minivans, and motorcycles, supposedly because Hezbollah either uses such vehicles often or could use them to carry missiles and launchers. Trucks are also used to carry food and medical supplies, but that, apparently, is just tough luck.
But beyond narrow questions of fact about whether a particular killing really is collateral damage lie deeper flaws with the doctrine. First, in its application it is consistently entangled with racism and an ignorant and blind cultural supremacism. We “know” that Israelis and Americans don’t intend to kill civilians, just as we “know” that Hezbollah does. If nothing else, we point to the fact that Hezbollah’s missiles, with which it has been attacking Haifa and other northern cities, are extremely inaccurate and cannot possibly be used to reliably attack a particular military target.
Of course, when the United States bombed North Vietnam, its weapons were also incredibly inaccurate, yet there we still “knew” that targeting civilians was not the “intent.”
How about the idea that Hezbollah and Hamas would much rather kill soldiers than civilians, they just don’t have much ability to do that (although Hezbollah has fought well against the IDF in southern Lebanon)? If Israel’s bombing of civilian areas, targeting minivans, is justified because it doesn’t want to sustain the casualties that would come with a more discriminating approach, why not justify Hezbollah’s rocket attacks because it doesn’t have the technology to do better? What, other than our intrinsic knowledge that Israelis are like us, thus civilized, and that Hezbollah is a bunch of Arabs, thus uncivilized, prevents us from giving Hezbollah’s excuse more credence than Israel’s?
The other major flaw is the idea that, as Sahr Conway-Lanz documents in his recent book, Collateral Damage, basically you can do anything you want to civilians as long as you claim to have no intent to kill them. Much of the book involves tracing the bit-by-bit evolution of the doctrine in roughly the 10 years after World War 2. In the Korean War, which really put the doctrine firmly on its feet, as he shows, rules of engagement evolved to the point that, in the last half of the war, entire cities were targeted for destruction by virtue of the reasoning that said the cities produced something necessary for the war effort and that they contained roads that troops might travel on. In other words, that they were cities. And yet, even though the American public wanted to retain the idea that targeting civilians was wrong, these decisions never aroused any serious revulsion.
As Conway-Lanz suggests , the sensible criterion by which to judge whether one is targeting civilians is not something totally unmeasurable like supposed absence or presence of intent to kill them, but rather concrete steps taken to minimize or eliminate the possibility of killing civilians. With this criterion, assaults like Israel’s on Lebanon, or the first U.S. attack on Fallujah, where 60% and more of fatalities are civilian, could not possibly make the grade.
It would be an important step toward putting such questions on fairer ground and remedying the extreme bias implicit in our basic framework regarding questions of war. It would also allow for an unbiased definition of terrorism. So, of course, the powers that be will resist it tooth and nail.
Weekly Commentary -- Israel's War on Lebanon
I never imagined myself saying this, but it’s too bad Ariel Sharon isn’t in charge in Israel right now. The old war criminal, who carried out the violent and unsuccessful invasion of Lebanon in 1982, might well have resisted pressure from an Israeli military that, while it can’t protect its own soldiers, is seemingly very willing to indulge in a game of brinksmanship that could easily destroy the tenuous peace Lebanon had recently achieved – without accomplishing any meaningful objectives for Israel.
In 1982, Israeli forces killed some 17,000 people and facilitated Christian Phalangist forces in massacring at least 800 and possibly thousands of Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila. The PLO leadership was forced into exile in Tunisia; other results included Syrian domination of Lebanon for over 20 years and the creation of Hezbollah, which killed over 1000 Israeli soldiers during the course of Israel’s occupation in southern Lebanon.
Now, it seems, Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and other military elements, who have been smarting ever since their withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, have grasped at the chance to drag both countries into the same kind of sordid, pointless mess one more time.
So far, the war has led to the death of over 180 Lebanese, almost entirely civilians, and at least 24 Israelis, about half civilians. The Israeli military has blockaded Lebanon’s coast and bombed a wide range of civilian infrastructure, including Beirut’s main electrical power plant, Beirut International Airport, and bridges, tunnels, and roads.
In addition to its deliberate and declared targeting of civilian infrastructure – Halutz told Israeli TV that they would “turn back Lebanon’s clock 20 years” – Israel has supposedly targeted Hezbollah by bombing the residential neighborhoods in Beirut and in smaller villages where some Hezbollah members live. Since the Hezbollah leadership and active fighters went to ground immediately, it’s no surprise that the victims of this bombing are the hapless civilians who were not so prepared.
Unlike some, however, Hezbollah is fighting back. They have rocketed Haifa and damaged an Israeli warship with a radar-guided missile. They have a stockpile of up to several hundred Fajr missiles, which can reach Haifa and perhaps beyond, as well as 12,000 Katyusha rockets.
The hapless Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz are talking tough about putting Hezbollah out of action. If the 18-year occupation of Lebanon couldn’t do it and only strengthened Hezbollah, it’s hard to imagine how some random bombing could do it. Israel has moved some ground forces in for quick raids, but the kind of sustained ground presence that would be needed to launch a full-scale counterinsurgency against Hezbollah would, needless to say, prove a disaster for everyone involved.
The proximate cause of this particular military adventure was an equally adventurous cross-border attack by Hezbollah in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured. This was an act of aggression. Of course, one could claim that Israel’s assassination of Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Mahmoud al-Majzub in Sidon on May 26 was a violation of Lebanese sovereignty and an act of terrorism by the Israeli state and that Hezbollah was simply responding to that. One thing is certain: the beleaguered and almost defenseless Palestinians saw it as an action in their defense.
Whatever one’s conclusion about the proximate cause, the ultimate causes of this war are deeper. After all, when the first attack on Israeli soldiers, by the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees, was hysterically denounced as an act of terrorism, why did Olmert rush to declare that Hezbollah’s was not terrorism but rather an act of war by Lebanon and then to start indiscriminate bombing?
It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the Israeli military has been wanting to do something like this for a long time. For almost 10 years now, Israeli society has been balanced between two possible futures: one based on a recognition that, no matter how advanced their military, they do not have the power to impose their preferred solution on everyone in the region and must negotiate with them in good faith, and the other based on an ultimately futile continuation of the belief that they can dictate events in the region.
The real causes of this war are twofold. First, the newly elevated principle of unilateralism. If tactical considerations suggest a withdrawal, , make sure you do it simply as a unilateral expression of Israeli will, not based on a meaningful negotiated settlement. This retains for Israel the option of going back in once tactical considerations change; more important, it obviates the need for the society as a whole to recognize that it must deal with its neighbors instead of imposing on them. Sharon and Olmert, in withdrawing from Gaza, simply followed in the footsteps Barak laid down first with Syria and then with Lebanon.
The second cause, and it’s really a shame to say so because the Lebanese deserve to be free of Syrian domination, is last year’s Cedar Revolution. The Lebanese military cannot secure Lebanon’s border, so Syria’s withdrawal created a power vacuum. And one thing that recent events have made very clear is that the Israeli state’s nature abhors a vacuum.
Weekly Commentary -- North Korea and the Use of Force
The controversy surrounding North Korea’s recent failed test of its Taepodong-2 missile, puckishly launched on July 4 as Americans celebrated their narrow escape from Korean, Vietnamese, Nicaraguan, and Iraqi tyranny, offers a window into various prominent views on the use of force.
Former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry and his former assistant secretary, Ashton Carter, made quite a splash on June 22 with an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for a pre-emptive attack to destroy the missile, which was then apparently being fueled up for the launch.
This was not an acceptance of Bush’s famously misnamed pre-emption doctrine. Essentially, the pre-emption doctrine says that if we can make a claim that it might be bad is some country someday got some kind of weapons of mass destruction, the United States can bomb it. Obviously, even a reckless empire like the United States today doesn’t just apply that to every country it doesn’t like – say, Venezuela – but it has asserted the right.
Perry and Carter were simply referring to a much more traditional doctrine that, if a threat to you is clearly in existence and being mobilized for possible use, you have the right to neutralize the threat instead of waiting to be attacked. Of course, the North Korean missile test was not a real threat. Even had the Taepodong-2 succeeded, it couldn’t carry a significant payload as far as the United States. Even if it could, there’s no indication that North Korea would attack the United States. No state has since Japan in 1941, a time before we had a nuclear arsenal that could annihilate every major population center on the planet. And yes, it’s a little strange for a country that menaces the whole world in this way to complain about the threat some other country poses by a missile test.
In any case, though, what matters is not the actual facts but the way the foreign policy establishment perceives them. And there certainly is bipartisan consensus that the North Korean situation posed a threat. The Bush administration does not disagree.
And yet, their response was basically to do nothing. When asked about Perry and Carter’s proposal on CNN, Dick Cheney pooh-poohed the whole notion, saying, “if you're going to launch a strike at another nation, you'd better be prepared to not just fire one shot.”
In fact, Bush and Cheney are anything but mad bombers; they are very discriminating in picking their targets. Bill Clinton was the one who promiscuously used force as an element of diplomacy. In 1998 and 1999, just two years, Clinton bombed Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, and Serbia. Although Reagan had indulged in similar incidents of sort of random bombing as a show of force (as in Beirut and Libya), Clinton established it as a paradigm. Unlike Reagan, who was always highly constrained in shows of force, Clinton inherited a unipolar world.
The Bush administration, on the other hand, deliberately repudiates this method of doing business with the world. If they attack a country, they want to remove its government from power. This is the primary reason why, having taken out Afghanistan and Iraq, they are not moving against the rest of the “axis of evil.” Even presented with a situation where they could have mustered broad support for attacking North Korea, they just sat on their hands. It’s difficult to imagine what short of regime change would induce them to attack Iran or North Korea – and even more difficult to see how they could come up with a plan for regime change with all military assets bogged down in the quagmire of Iraq. Their foreign policy, formerly so aggressive, now appears ineffectual – they won’t attack and they won’t negotiate.
There is one thing Perry and Carter share with the Bush administration. In all their plans and scenarios regarding attacking these various countries, the attack is to be sold on the basis that the leaders of those countries – Saddam, Kim, the Iranian clerics – are crazy enough to attack a country poised to annihilate them. That’s why we need to strike first. At the same time, they are fundamentally predicated on the sanity of those leaders – assuming Saddam wouldn’t take the chance during a year of saber-rattling to funnel money and weapons to al-Qaeda, assuming they could take out the Taepodong and North Korea wouldn’t retaliate with a devastating barrage on Seoul, and so on. It’s not just extreme mendacity, but actually part of a shared delusive complex. Makes you wonder which country really has the crazy leaders.
Weekly Commentary -- Assault on Palestine
In a grotesque parody of language, Israel’s “Operation Summer Rains” has imperiled access to potable water for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza.
The operation, whose proximate cause was a military operation by the Popular Resistance Committees in which two Israeli soldiers were killed and one, Corporal Gilad Shalit, taken captive, has involved the bombing of Gaza’s only power plant, leaving perhaps 750,000 people with little or no electrical power, air-strikes on numerous Palestinian government offices, and the wholesale abduction of roughly one-third of Palestine’s elected legislators.
Officially, this action is designed to rescue Shalit, with some of the smaller operations aimed at suppressing the ability of militants in some parts of Gaza to fire their inaccurate and utterly ineffective Qassam rockets into a handful of small Israeli towns.
This is undoubtedly true in some very loose sense – the timing of the assault is directly related to Shalit’s capture and the Qassam attacks have been a major political issue in Israel. Of course, what is unspoken but understood by all Israelis is that the military nature of the assault is designed more to make sure that Shalit is killed and thus no longer in custody than to rescue him alive – the most important thing being inoculating him against the moral contagion engendered by exposure to the heart of darkness.
This operation also, however, fits closely into and derives from two larger stories.
The first is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s so-called “convergence plan,” which builds on the logic of the Gaza disengagement to complete a plan for unilateral Israeli solution of the Palestinian problem. As outlined to the Wall Street Journal in April, the plan calls for the removal of roughly 70,000 of the 250,000 settlers in the non-Jerusalem part of the West Bank while annexing large chunks of the West Bank and sealing off the rest. The logic of this plan is severely imperiled when the Palestinians fight back by shooting missiles over the “security fences.”
While it is an improvement over previous right-wing Israeli dreams of annexing the whole West Bank, it would destroy even the incredibly limited potential viability of the future Palestinian protectorate usually referred to with the code-word “state.”
The other story is the Bush administration’s legendary dedication to democracy. The January 26 elections, for which the administration pushed against all advice from its allies (including the Israeli government and Mahmoud Abbas), confident in its ability to manipulate the results by spreading over $2 million in USAID money, proved a real black eye for Bush when Hamas won.
Since then, the United States has embarked on a full-scale “regime change” plan, designed to bring down the Hamas government by cutting off all access to outside money.
The Palestinian government spends about $165 million a month, of which only 35 is internally generated by tax revenues. Israel collects $50 to $60 million per month in taxes that belong to the Palestinian Authority, the United States gives about $400 million per year, and the EU gives about $600 million – all of those funds have been cut off.
Because of rules promulgated by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in April, even the Palestine Monetary Fund, the Palestine Investment Fund (which contributes $170 million a year to the PA budget), and other Palestinian and Arab financial institutions have been forced to cut off the PA.
By starving the government of needed funds and then giving some to NGOs and organizations over which it hoped to have greater influence, under the guise of “humanitarian aid,” the Bush administration planned to undermine Palestinian support for its elected government. According to an International Crisis Group report, it even considered a wholesale shutdown of all social services provided by the government, including education and health care, and replacement of them by NGO-provided services. Only when told by people who actually know something about the situation on the ground, like Quartet Special Envoy James Wolfensohn, that this was absolutely impossible, did they back off.
Since January, we have seen the particularly shocking spectacle of the entire world collaborating in the openly declared destruction of a democratically elected government at the behest of the United States and Israel. It cloaked itself transparently in the language of the “war on terrorism,” even at a time when Hamas was not carrying out attacks and indicating willingness for serious negotiations with Israel, and was implemented with shocking speed, even though the collateral damage would be the Palestinian people.
Perhaps Israel’s “Summer Rains” will wash away that cloak and someone somewhere will stand up for democracy once again.