There is a story from the Holocaust and it goes like this –In the darkest despair of a Nazi concentration camp, an old Jew is constantly praying so a fellow inmate asks him why he occupies his time in this way. The old man replies that he is praying because he wants to thank his god.
His companion is both shocked and puzzled and asks the question “why?”
After all, hadn’t the Germans murdered his wife and children, hadn’t they deprived him of his home and belongings and hadn’t they made his life miserable to the point where his existence lacked any semblance of dignity? Why the need to thank his god?
The old man answered,
“I’m thanking god because he didn’t make me like them!”
A simple story and one that has a moral which, I regret to add, is not necessarily borne out by the history of my people. Our Bible is full of tales of bloodthirsty wars fought in the name of the same god and even as I write today, there are battles being fought and questions raised about whether they are just and whether the manner of their prosecution is fair and in accordance with “international humanitarian law”.
Some commentators find it easy to level the accusation but have difficulty in understanding that what they consider to be “law” might not even exist at all in the context of the current war in Lebanon – a war that is so different from other wars of the past.
So what does “the law” say a nation like Israel should do when threatened by Hezbollah, a state within a state, backed by two sovereign nations in Syria and Iran (whose leader calls or its destruction and ironically denies the Holocaust), a coalition partner in the Lebanese Government, a movement that has been designated a terrorist organization and one which in spite of a United Nations Security Council resolution has not been disarmed but to the contrary has armed itself to the teeth and is pointing an estimated 13,000 missiles directly at civilian populations without a care as to whether the targets are Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druze? What should it do when Hezbollah violates Israeli sovereignty, kills Israeli soldiers and abducts others and then shells non-combatants deep within the Jewish state? What should it do when this enemy embeds itself in a cowardly manner among its own civilian populations and which uses residential areas to store munitions and to fire them at their targets?
The “law” gives Israel the right to do that which is the prerogative of every other sovereign state. It is entitled to defend itself and to do so by fighting back to deal with the threat posed by its enemy. And if one believes the words the enemy uses, that threat is existential. Just as Hitler’s aim was to destroy the Jews, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah wants to do exactly the same thing as he clearly stated in a 2002 interview with Lebanon’s Daily Star, “If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them world wide.” These are the words of an enemy that is fighting a racist war of extermination: an enemy that apologizes to the parents of two Arab children killed in the Israeli city of Nazareth and calls their sons “martyrs” but expresses no regret whatsoever at the deaths of the Jewish civilians it kills.
Therefore, if Israel needs to bomb airports, roads, installations, supply depots and buildings that might be considered vital to enemy conduct of the war it is entitled to do so and given the strength of its fire power, the civilian death count after almost four weeks of such fighting (estimated in the hundreds, not thousands) however regrettable and sad, can in no way be considered excessive or disproportionate. Not in circumstances, where Israel is fighting an enemy that actually forces civilians (and United Nations peacekeepers) to remain in dangerous locations specifically so they can be used as human shields and where no differentiation is made between genuine civilian casualty numbers and those of the terrorists who wear civilian clothing most of the time. In those circumstances, the placing of non-combatants in harm’s way by Hezbollah does not make Israel responsible for them. It can only do its best to minimize harm, the fault for which lies clearly with Hezbollah.
Israel’s critics will often ignore its legal right to defend itself and point to the destruction caused by its forces as proof that it has defended itself far too stridently. But how does this compare with the damage and devastation inflicted by other armies in other wars?
This question inevitably brings us back to the time and the place of the old Jew languishing in that Nazi concentration camp but the focus of the story is moved a few miles away to the beautiful German city of Dresden.
The date is 13 February 1945. The Allied forces have combined in a bid to save themselves from Hitler and his beasts (dare it not be said that they were there to save Jews and others being brutally persecuted by the Nazis!) and on this day, 773 British RAF bombers will rain fire on the city. This action will be followed up in the coming two days by 527 bombing sorties from the USAAF and as a result, Dresden will be totally destroyed. As a result, at least 35,000 Germans, mostly civilians will be killed. Incinerated. Burnt alive.
In the months to come, other German cities and towns will be bombed and there will be more civilian casualties. Half a year later and half way across the world, American pilots will drop two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and an estimated 100,000 civilians will die as a result.
What did men and women of goodwill around the world feel at the time about such actions which, after all, brought the six year long Second World War to such an abrupt end; this war that took millions of lives including six million of my own people and which to this day haunts not only the survivors but their next generation and the next?
Is it possible that they might have considered the firebombing and the unleashing of nuclear weaponry, er … a trifle disproportionate or excessive?
Some might argue that the Second World War is ancient history when talking of how nations should react to violence and terrorism within civilian areas. So how has this concept of proportionality fared in more “modern” times?
I can take you through countless examples and will start with the United Nations firing missiles and 20mm cannon on a crowd of Somali militiamen and local civilians who were being used as human shields in Mogadishu in 1993. This resulted in 100 deaths. This is the same U.N. whose current Secretary General, Kofi Annan,was swiftly to rebuke Israel for its “apparent deliberate targeting” of four of his personnel who died at Kheam a fortnight ago. Having denounced the Israelis Annan thought it might be a good idea to have an investigation into what had actually taken place!
The investigation will no doubt consider the words of the Canadian peacekeeper who died in the U.N. outpost and who emailed his former U.N. commander telling him that Hezbollah was using the U.N. outpost as a shield for attacks on Israel. And it will no doubt take into account Annan’s sentiments when he described the Indonesian guerrilla encampments from which they attacked East Timor in 2001 saying that the “blurred lines between the civilian and militia character of camps expose civilians inside to the risk of attack by opposing forces where camps are perceived to serve as launching pads for renewed fighting.” The world is indeed fortunate to have a U.N. to protect it from murderous militias. Just ask the dead of the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990’s and the dead in Darfur today!
I can also take you through many instances of Muslim versus Muslim slaughter starting with the treatment by Jordan’s King Hussein in razing the PLO headquarters and other targets inside two refugee camps near his capital, Amman in September 1970 right through to present day atrocities involving Kurds, Shias and Sunnis in Iraq. We can visit the Chechen capital of Grozny where Russia set the example killing more than 100,000 people, mostly civilians when it leveled the city in the 1990’s, to Yugoslavia where NATO’s attack in 1999 left at least 500, mostly civilians, dead and left most of that country’s infrastructure in ruins. Why not go to the Ivory Coast where the French were so upset by the accidental killing of nine soldiers that they wiped out the entire Ivorian air force, took control of the country’s airport and killed 27 civilian protesters? And I’ve only just taken you to the tip of the iceberg.
The point is that war’s a real bitch but it’s even bitchier when the aggressor party wants to commit genocide as Hezbollah and Iran have clearly and expressly indicated they wish to do with Israel. Now that’s a breach of “international law” for you – a direct violation of the international genocide treaty’s prohibition of “direct and public incitement to commit genocide.”
And that leaves the Israelis with two choices. They can be like the non Arab black minority of Darfur that relies on a U.N. Security Council Resolution (#1556) which calls for the Sudanese government to disarm and disband the Arab Janjaweed militias. This resolution, passed almost two years ago, has been largely ignored by the Sudanese as has U.N. SR #1559.which requires Hezbollah to be disarmed by Lebanon.
The other alternative for the Israelis is to do what international law principally allows them to do – defend themselves.
Of course, that’s not easy when the enemy melts into the civilian infrastructure so that it can be found in every town, in every street and in almost every house and your own actions are being scrutinized by armchair experts sitting in the comfort of suburban homes whose basements are full of gym equipment and golf clubs rather than missile launchers.