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 agreementsâ€”Iâ€™m not an international lawyerâ€”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:
CLUSTER BOMBS AND MORALITY IN WARFARE
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 â€œThe Conversationâ€ 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 agreementsâ€”Iâ€™m not an international lawyerâ€”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 â€œcustomary lawâ€ 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 â€œor l’goyimâ€ (a light onto the nations) but it is in line with the Zionist principle of creating an â€œam kakol haâ€™amimâ€ i.e. a normal state. The trick is to define the standard of normality according to Western norms, rather than the norms of Israelâ€™s neighbors and enemies. Although, as Niall Ferguson would argue, in a crisis the two meld seamlessly.