August 4, 2006

In News

Ori Nir

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 more than 54 civilians dead, most 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
otential 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
e 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

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

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

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

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 noted 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.

“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.”