With Israeli use of force, debate over proportion
The asymmetry in the reported death tolls is marked and growing: some 230 Lebanese dead, most of them civilians, to 25 Israeli dead, 13 of them civilians. In Gaza, one Israel soldier has died from his own army’s fire, and 103 Palestinians have been killed, 70 percent of them militants.
The cold figures, combined with Israeli air attacks on civilian infrastructure like power plants, electricity transformers, airports, bridges, highways and government buildings, have led to accusations by France and the European Union, echoed by some nongovernmental organizations, that Israel is guilty of “disproportionate use of force” in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and of “collective punishment” of the civilian populations.
Israel has heard these arguments before. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, “Proportionality is not compared to the event, but to the threat, and the threat is bigger and wider than the captured soldiers.”
Israel is confronting a regional threat, she and the government argue, which begins with Iran and Syria and their proxy, Hezbollah, and stretches to the radical Islamic Palestinian group Hamas.
Nor does Israel deliberately single out civilians, she argued, as Hezbollah and Hamas do through rocket attacks and suicide bombings. Intent matters, she said.
But in Gaza and Lebanon, civilians are inevitably harmed when militants hide among them. And in Lebanon, she said, some of the dead may be civilians associated with Hezbollah, assisting it or storing its rockets.
“Terrorists use the population and live among them,” Ms. Livni said. “It’s difficult to target like a surgery. Unfortunately, civilians sometimes pay the price of giving shelter to terrorists.” Under pressure or not, she said, citing Israeli intelligence, many civilians in southern Lebanon have Katyusha and other rockets under their beds.
“When you go to sleep with a missile,” she said, “you might find yourself waking up to another kind of missile.”
Those arguments leave Lebanese and Gazans cold.
Dalia Harati, 33, a Lebanese Sunni in Beirut, said: “The world is just standing by while Israel kills more and more. They come here and urge Hezbollah to free the prisoners and then stop firing rockets against Israel, with only about 30 killed so far, and then ask the Israelis to stop their attacks when they have already killed more than 200.
“It is as usual the West’s famous double standards, but we were hoping that would change when so many innocents are being killed.”
Last week, Khamiz Essaid sat beside the Gaza hospital bed of his son, Muhammad, 18, who had been wounded in the liver by shrapnel when an Israeli rocket hit the escape car of some Hamas military leaders, who had survived the bombing of the house where they were meeting. Muhammad, resting after an operation, had gone out to try to help the survivors, his father said.
What did Mr. Essaid think of Hamas having a meeting in his neighborhood and the consequences? “Gaza is too small,” he said. “Where can they go?”
Despite the damage, he says he supports Palestinian efforts to hit Israel, however ineffective. “We don’t have F-13’s or 14’s or 17’s, or whatever they are,” he said. “What do we have? These little rockets, like needle pricks. And the Israelis exaggerate the impact of these needles and say we’re destroying their state! But we have to resist any way we can.”
A ground attack is more surgical than airstrikes. The operation in Gaza, for example, has killed more militants than civilians, often through direct exchanges of fire. But Israel wants to avoid being bogged down on the ground, as it was in Lebanon for 18 years.
Israel has been careful to drop leaflets warning civilians in southern Beirut and southern Lebanon where it knows that Hezbollah keeps stores of rockets and launchers in apartment houses, garages and homes.
Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of Israel’s general staff, said there were military rationales for the targets Israel had chosen: to reduce and destroy the ability of Hezbollah or Hamas to attack Israelis, to move freely and to be resupplied from Syria and Iran. He insisted that “the Israeli military tries our utmost to avoid civilian casualties.”
Israel attacked the Beirut headquarters of Hezbollah, the specially built “Security Square,” where leaders like Sheik Hassan Nasrallah live and have offices, and where they are now in bunkers.
The point was strategic and also psychological, he said, to destroy “the symbol for the power of the state-within-the-state of Hezbollah” and attack Sheik Nasrallah’s “image as the defender of Lebanon.”
Israel has now “demolished the entire compound, and the residents, the leaders of Hezbollah, are now living underground or as refugees, and that’s a significant achievement,” the general said.
While a vast majority of Israelis support the operation in Lebanon, some argue that once Hezbollah attacked across an international border whose path had been drawn by the United Nations, Israel could have demanded that the United Nations Security Council insist that the Lebanese comply with its Resolution 1559, which requires Hezbollah to disarm.
“You don’t have to be a political genius to realize that once you have the moral high ground, you should use it,” said Ari Shavit, a columnist for the daily Haaretz. “And then if we had to act, we would have more legitimacy to act and prove how serious we are about our borders.”
Wars end with diplomacy, he said. Opinion polls show that Israelis back the Lebanon campaign because they see Hezbollah as a clear threat. They have also become inured to international criticism. Uri Dromi, director of international outreach for the Israel Democracy Institute, said, “Public opinion is not so sensitive, because we feel, generally speaking, the world is against us and we’re a little island in an ocean of enmity.”
Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University and a former diplomat, said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was under pressure to project strength.
“If you don’t respond, it’s perceived as weakness,” he said. “If you do respond, it strengthens the extremists. But only if you respond robustly do you have a political horizon in Israel. Compromises can only be made from a position of strength.”
There is nostalgia, Mr. Dromi said, “for the good old days, when we had deterrence, and when it failed, we went to a real war, kicked butt and went home.”
“Those days are over,” he said, “but there’s a yearning for something lost. Olmert is trying to bring back some of this deterrence.”
Referring to complaints that Israel was using disproportionate force, Dan Gillerman, Israel’s United Nations ambassador, said at a rally of supporters in New York this week, “You’re damn right we are.”
“If your cities were shelled the way ours were,” he said, addressing critics, “you would use much more force than we are or we ever will.”
Raji Sourani, a Gazan lawyer who founded and directs the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, is running out of patience.
“What is happening here is resistance to the occupation,” he said. “What Israel is doing in Gaza now has nothing to do with the captured soldier. I don’t think bridges, power stations or airports have anything to do with the soldier. I don’t think denying access for goods and people has anything to do with the soldier, or denying medicine, or bombarding one of the world’s most densely populated areas by day and night.”
Mr. Sourani said he was becoming discouraged. “People can’t be expected to be ‘good victims,’ ” he said. “People like me who are committed to coexistence are losing patience. People are being held hostage in Beit Hanun and no one is talking about it anymore, and Israel will pay very dearly for what is happening here.”
The problem, said Ms. Livni, the foreign minister, is that Israel is dealing with two semi-states, Hezbollah and Hamas, which have pledged to destroy Israel.
“The leaders who support an acceptable process are the weak ones,” she said, citing the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen. “This is a real problem and a real similarity. Siniora is against the Syrians and has the same ideas as the international community, and Abu Mazen favors a two-state solution, but neither of them can deliver.”
Mr. Avineri said United Nations resolutions had never been enforced properly here. “So they become a piece of paper to which foreign ministries respond, but not terrorist organizations.” Resolution 1559 gave Mr. Siniora legitimacy to take his army to the border, but no means to do it.
“It’s the Middle East,” Ms. Livni said. “It’s always choosing between bad options. And that’s true for the international community, too, and not just for us.” Autor: Steven Erlanger