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Cluster bombs, morality and anti-Israel rhetoric: two views

When discussing Israel, one of the most difficult challenges that confronts passionate moderates like me is criticism that holds the Jewish state to a different moral standard than the one that is used to judge other nation states. By and large, I am suspicious of people who are obsessed with singling out Israel and the Israelis for supposedly immoral behavior, who spend their spare time combing the Internet ONLY for stories of injustice perpetrated by Zionists and then spreading the word about them.

One common response of Israel’s defenders is to ask these people why they aren’t spending just as much energy denouncing the Sudanese government for Darfur, or Somalian war lords, or the Lebanese who bombed a Palestinian refugee camp and killed innocent civilians in order to root out Islamic radicals. Horrific things happen in war, according to this argument. The Americans firebombed Dresden and Toyko, look what the Russians did in Chechnya…Why single out Israel?

In general, that argument is appropriate when Israel’s attackers are Westerners who have little personal connection to the conflict, and whose arguments are so vituperative that their motives deserve to be questioned. It is not hard to detect those who lack all sense of proportion, who have decided that there is something singularly evil about Israel or Jewish self-determination, and who cannot fathom that there are two sides to most of the stories they choose to tell. One wonders where all their rage is coming from. Perhaps it is derived from that portion of the collective unconscious that always blames the JEWS. Perhaps it comes from a simple need to hate something or someone, to transfer all wrongs into one, totemic hate object and focus on it to the exclusion of everything else.

On the other hand, the argument that “other people do bad things” is not a defense when Israel does them. It makes sense when it is used to call the motivations of reflexively belligerent Israel-bashers into question. It falls apart when it is used to justify Israeli behavior that is simply WRONG.

Last month, on the Americans for Peace Now web site, Leonard Fein had a great post on the cluster bombs that Israel scattered throughout southern Lebanon in the last 72 hours of the war two years ago. (See “A Modest Proposal: Pay the Bill to Clear Cluster Bombs,” Sept. 8). All of the complex, nuanced arguments in the world can’t obscure the fact that Israeli military officials took actions that they knew would jeopardize the lives of civilians AFTER the end of an armed conflict, in order to stop Hezbollah from becoming entrenched once again. The end was understandable; it did not justify the means.

Fein proposes that Israel pay for the cost of removing the “bomblets” because the UN can’t afford it. I won’t repeat his arguments. Check them out yourself. For a contrary view, what follows is an essay that Tom Mitchell sent to me. I think he is wrong.

Among other points, Tom writes: “While..[cluster bombs] may be against international agreements—I’m not an international lawyer—it is a fairly common military strategy used by the U.S. in the Vietnam War and France in Vietnam and Algeria. I contend that Israel should be held to the same standard of conduct as Western democracies in similar situations, and not to the standard of blind compliance with paper agreements that many of the signers had no intention of complying with.

I think his casual dismissal of international law in this case implies that Israel should never be bound by international law. His casual acceptance of killing civilians in order to stop the movement of enemy troops when no war is being waged implies that Israel can and should ignore basic standards of human decency. I disagree, passionately. Here is his essay:

by Thomas Mitchell

Leonard Fein has a rather interesting piece on Israeli use of cluster bombs during the Second Lebanon War and who bears the responsibility for the cost of their cleanup on his “The Conversation” blog at the APN website (www.peacenow.org). Fein relates that Israel used cluster bombs extensively in Southern Lebanon during the last two days of the war when plans for a ceasefire were imminent. He also claims that the munitions used were older American-manufactured bombs with a much higher failure rate than those experienced with Israeli-manufactured cluster munitions. Fein suggests that this selection was due to cost consideration…I would suggest that price was probably not the main consideration involved, and that deterrence rather than revenge was the proper motive.

Neither Israel nor the United States signed the anti-land mine treaty of the 1990s, as both rely extensively on land mines for defensive purposes. The U.S. Army uses them along the DMZ in Korea to defend against a North Korean invasion. Israel uses them on the Golan and in northern Israel to defend against both invasion and terrorist infiltration. From the time of the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, the Zionists/Israelis have used a strategy of reprisal raids against villages and countries hosting, either voluntarily or involuntarily, insurgents who have infiltrated into the yishuv/Israel. Israel practiced this on a small scale during the Arab Revolt against Arab villages and on a much wider scale from 1953-56 and in 1966-67 and in Lebanon since 1972. The idea is to signal to the Arab governments that there is a high price to pay for allowing terrorists to operate from their territory. This same strategy was copied by Rhodesia in 1979 against economic infrastructure targets in Mozambique and Zambia and by South Africa in the 1980s.

I would argue that Israel probably deliberately used old cluster bombs as a sort of aerial mine dispersal system so as to deny economic use of swaths of Southern Lebanese territory. Since 1969 Israel has faced a war of attrition from terrorists in Lebanon: first the Palestinians (Fatah, PFLP, etc.) and then from 1982-83 from Hezbollah. Both sides in the conflict consider themselves to be fighting a prolonged war of survival.

Fein argues that Israel or its supporters should pay the cost of cleaning up the mines. I argue that cleaning up the mines while the conflict continues is a waste of money as Israel is likely to remine the area as long as Hezbollah continues to act against Israel. One respondent argued that this creation of a cordon sanitaire was a war crime. While it may be against international agreements—I’m not an international lawyer—it is a fairly common military strategy used by the U.S. in the Vietnam War and France in Vietnam and Algeria. I contend that Israel should be held to the same standard of conduct as Western democracies in similar situations ,and not to the standard of blind compliance with paper agreements that many of the signers had no intention of complying with.

In a recent three-part PBS program British historian Niall Ferguson, who teaches at Harvard, argued that the Allies won World War II by using the same basic tactics as the Axis powers. The Allied governments argued that the initial use of such prohibited practices as sinking of merchant vessels by submarines without prior warning or bombing of civilian targets by the Axis powers first allowed them to also violate the agreements in a similar fashion. The democracies did not shoot prisoners of war or run death camps (although the Soviets certainly did). But copying German submarine tactics allowed the U.S. Navy to win a guerre de corse against the Japanese Empire and the British RAF to mount a bombing campaign against German cities with its inaccurate bombsights.

In the Second World War both the British and Soviets felt that they were fighting for their survival (or the survival of their empires) and thus allowed themselves to take measures that they would not normally take. The United States was not even fighting a war of survival but merely a war to avenge Pearl Harbor in the Pacific. Similarly Israel feels that it is involved in a struggle for survival against terrorists who do not recognize its right to exist. Average Israelis feel that Arab terrorism allows Israel to use similar methods against those same terrorists and their host governments, even if Jerusalem does not make this same argument out loud. I argue that Israel should be held to the same standards of practice as France in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, and the British and Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush claimed that the U.S. was involved in a global war on terror (GWOT); Northern Ireland is, and Algeria was, an integral part of a national homeland.

Leftists and pacifists may argue that either war should be outlawed or that multilateral agreements create a “customary law” prohibiting certain activities. I think that Israel should model its conduct after the actual conduct of the leading democracies. This may violate the Biblical principle of “or l’goyim” (a light onto the nations) but it is in line with the Zionist principle of creating an “am kakol ha’amim” i.e. a normal state. The trick is to define the standard of normality according to Western norms, rather than the norms of Israel’s neighbors and enemies. Although, as Niall Ferguson would argue, in a crisis the two meld seamlessly.

13 thoughts on “Cluster bombs, morality and anti-Israel rhetoric: two views

  1. What if placing the cluster bombs there ends up saving more lives of innocent Lebanese civilians because it would help to prevent Hezbollah from becoming entrenched and provoking more Israeli retaliation?

    I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, military morality is to morality as military music is to good music –i.e. there is a resemblance, but they are not quite the same. War really is hell, and, as Tom notes, other Western powers have understood what they had to do in order to win, so why should Israel not be put in the same category? On the other hand, Shimon Peres, the Winograd Commission and others criticized the Israeli commanders responsible for not following procedures and, in general, for screwing up. That was an unconscionable screw-up…

  2. Teddy,

    That is the most twisted argument I have ever heard…No, I take that back. It is as twisted as the remark made by an American military official during Vietman “we bombed the village in order to save it” (or something like that).

    The shepherds and farmers and shopkeepers of southern Lebanon should be grateful to the Israelis for maimed legs, lost arms, shattered lives, death and destruction, huh?

  3. I think that Israel should model its conduct after the actual conduct of the leading democracies

    When did the RAF ever drop cluster bombs on the Republic of Ireland, or bomb Dublin, or even worse demolish whole suburbs?

  4. I don’t think that Lebanon nor Hezbollah would accept Israeli citizens on their soil, if it could be avoided. And, more specifically, Hezbollah would not accept Israelis in proximity to their military infrastructure.

    Likely, Israelis would improve on their intelligence capacity there. Satelites, drones, overflies already collect intelligence. On the ground cameras, recorders, seimographs, would go much farther.

    Its a rhetorical recommendation. Definitely a serious and required commitment on Israel’s part following reconciliation between the Arab world, including Lebanon, and Israel.

    All of the requirements of international law should be implemented. In Lebanon, the ratified UN resolution included the guarantee that Hezbollah would not be allowed to set up military and specifically missiles between the Litani and the frontier.

    They have, and they have been allowed to.

    Lebanon is sovereign in Lebanon, not Hezbollah. Hezbollah initiated its military aggressions in Israel without the permission of the Lebanese military, state, or legislature.

    Israel over-reacted, and per the Israeli review document (that did not admit over-reaction), Israel failed to form a specific objective, and therefore failed to LIMIT its operations to a specific objective.

    The chain of events at the time was very fast, and included violations of human rights on the part of Hezbollah, including the initiation of hostilities by shelling of a military base and of a civilian border town, and at a time when Israel was engaged in military confrontations in both Gaza and the West Bank, representing a third front.

    Hezbollah shelling cities as large as Haifa (roughly 40% Arab) constituted a very grave assault on Israeli civilians. If that was intended as deterrent, it was not communicated to Israel effectively in the slightest.

    In practice, it confirmed the intent of Hezbollah to escalate to actual war, not merely an idiotic opportunistic mission to secure the release of a sadistic murderer.

    In both Syria and Lebanon, Israel is obliged to clear the land of mines that it was responsible for the origination. It will ONLY occur though AFTER Lebanon, Syria, Palestine accept Israel’s existence formally, and act as if they regard Israel as an accepted part of the regional society.

    It can happen, and does in some respects.

    The leftist and very conservative pan-Arab and pan-Islamic view that Israel is only a pariah state, prohibits that.

    Its a very big shift, a decision to be made on the part of those that are attracted by the anti- position, and on the part of Arab states.

  5. Richard,

    I’m not at all sure that Israel’s strategy of pressuring Beirut to control Hezbollah is effective, because of Beirut’s lack of control over Hezbollah. This, however, is the template that Israel has used in its relations with other Arab states to control terrorism and as militaries tend to prize uniformity this will probably continue.

    Mr. Kirby,

    Britain never bombed Dublin directly. Sinn Fein and many republicans believe, however, that the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in May 1974 claimed by the UVF were really an example of collaboration between the loyalist terrorists and either Britain or rogue elements in British military intelligence. I have no opinion on the matter other than to note that the case against Britain rests on the supposition that the loyalists were too incompetent to carry out the degree of synchronization needed for the three bombs–two in Dublin and one in Monaghan–to go off within minutes of each other.

    The Republic of Ireland was never a willing host to the IRA or the INLA or any other terrorist organization operating in Northern Ireland. Although Dublin sometimes balked at extraditing terrorist suspects or convicted terrorists to the North, the Garda Siochana cooperated closely with the Royal Ulster Constabulary to combat terrorism. Remember that during the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) the British army carried out many atrocities against civilians and civilian property. These essentially destroyed support for continued occupation of Ireland among the British public.

  6. Dan,

    My attitude towards international law is that Israel should be bound to both agreements that its government actually signs and to customary practice defined in broad terms. If you read my piece carefully I don’t claim that cluster bombs were necessarily widely used but that a cordon sanitaire created through minefields was and is a strategy employed by many Western militaries. My argument was that Israel may have been using old cluster bombs as a sort of aerial dispersal system for mines.

  7. Tom,
    The ambiguous status of militias controlling rather than states is a square peg reconciling with a round hole.

    In some respects the relationship between states and militias IS the most important element of the conflict in numerous places in the mideast (Lebanon, West Bank Palestine, Gaza).

    Societies that have functioning features of orderly transfer of power and continuity of law between governments, don’t need militias. In those societies, militias are noise, distractions.

    Israel, a state, can negotiate with peer states, much more difficult with militias. If Israel were to negotiate with Hezbollah in some form(which would never overtly), and not with Lebanon, then Israel would be underminding Lebanese sovereignty.

    The UN has identified the transition from militia control to accountable state control as a core component of its UNIFIL and Palestinian commitment, but has not accomplished it.

    Its the chemicals that blow up if in the “right” proportions.

  8. Richard and Tom,

    Both of you are not confronting whether creating this particular cordon sanitaire with these particular weapons (with high “failure” rates, which makes them more dangerous) is morally right. It is one thing to claim that the end justifies the means if rocket launchers are fired from civilian areas, and retaliation inevitably risks civilian casualties. It is quite another to deliberately blow off the legs and arms of innocent people trying to go about their business when there are no enemy militias or terrorists nearby. That’s just wrong, no matter how comparable it is to military actions by other countries.

  9. In this case, the means adopted were idiotic. I abstained from an opinion on this earlier.

    There is no valid basis for using land mines, or cluster weapons of any generation.

    It demonstrated the descent of Israeli military performance, from heightened and concise focus, to insensitive habit, blunder and harshness.

    Cluster weapons are meant to permanently clear out a population. There are FEW situations in which that is a valid tactic.

    Where a population is permanent, even after the reshuffling following a war, this was NOT one of those valid tactics.

    How do you right a wrong like that, and while one is still at war with a militia that has demonstrated that it is willing to do worse?

  10. Dan,

    I’m a realist not a moralist, and hence I make practical not moral arguments. I believe that Israel should attempt to me a normal state, rather than a “light on to the nations.” My argument was precisely about what is normal for Western states involved in prolonged wars that they consider to be about their own survival or status in the international arena. Now the norms may have seemed to have changed because the Europeans have not been in major wars for some time. Since Korea Britain has only fought minor colonial wars, against the IRA in Northern Ireland, in the Falklands against Argentina and in Iraq. France since Algeria has only fought small wars in Africa, Desert Storm in 1991, and in Afghanistan. Only Northern Ireland was a comparable war and as I mentioned above Dublin was an ally in combatting the republicans.

  11. Thomas makes a good statement: Israel should attempt to be a normal state. Unfortunately, what happens with this is quite possibly the end of Jewish championism (in name only; I gather that most “liberated” peoples are still struggling even though they have equal rights that still go abused). Israel was structured on the sole fact that it could be “a light unto nations”, the sole “democracy in the Middle East”. In fact, it is precisely this misleading information about Israel that leads the increasing negative press from people who really have no connection to the region or the state at all, something that Dan finds astonishing.

    Thanks to the strong propaganda machine, I’m positive it led to plenty who decide to search what was really making this conflict tick, myself included.

  12. Anonymous,

    The Republic of Ireland was never a willing host to the IRA or the INLA or any other terrorist organization operating in Northern Ireland.

    That did not stop the IRA conducting cross border raids, not unlike Hezbollah did in 2006. And the IRA did kidnap and execute British soldiers.

    Remember that during the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) the British army carried out many atrocities against civilians and civilian property. These essentially destroyed support for continued occupation of Ireland among the British public.

    An excellent point. One of the most notable critics of the Black-and-tans was none other than the King, George V.

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