Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When Liberal and Progressive Israelis Respond to Liberal & Progressive Criticism

The letters of Professors Avineri and Sternhell in Volume 56, Number 13 (August 13, 2009) of the New York Review of Books. One, a proud Israeli, the other, less so.

'Israel: Civilians & Combatants': An Exchange

By Shlomo Avineri, Zeev Sternhell, Reply by Avishai Margalit, Michael Walzer

In response to 'Israel & the Rules of War': An Exchange (June 11, 2009)

To the Editors:

I am afraid that Michael Walzer and Avi-shai Margalit, in their exchange with Asa Kasher and Amos Yadlin [NYR, June 11], have been obfuscating the issue of how an army of a democratic state should deal with civilians on the other side of the front ("enemy civilians" in old-fashioned parlance).

There is no doubt that armies have an obligation not to target civilians, difficult as it may be especially under conditions of asymmetrical warfare; and I am willing to grant that during the Gaza war, the Israeli army was in many cases less than meticulous in avoiding casualties among the civilian Palestinian population. But what Walzer and Margalit argue in their hypothetical "Manara scenario" is that an army should take as much care of the life of "enemy civilians" as it takes of the lives of its own civilian population for whose protection and defense it has gone to war.

This seeming equivalence is preposterous, both on moral and political grounds: no army can treat enemy territory, and its population, as it treats its own territory and its population. And no democratically elected political leader can be imagined to maintain that his government will take the same care, and put its own soldiers in danger in the same way, in defending enemy civilians as it does in defending its own civilian population.

The obvious parallel to Israel's war in Gaza is the current US war in Afghanistan, as undertaken now under President Obama. This will evidently escalate if the US hopes to defeat the Taliban. In this war, the US — just as Israel in Gaza — is using massive airpower, and as is in the nature of such air strikes, in recent weeks large numbers of Afghan civilians were killed: the same happens as a consequence of American air strikes into Pakistani territory. Without going into the details of the American rules of engagement (which unlike the Israeli rules are totally not transparent), I have yet to see any American, philosopher or layman, arguing that the US should take as much care of the lives of Afghan civilians as it takes care of the lives of US citizens in Manhattan, Washington, D.C.— or Princeton — for whose security this war is being waged.

Shlomo Avineri
Department of Political Science
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


To the Editors:

The framework of Israel's recent operation in Gaza was shaped by the main lesson that was drawn from the warfare in Lebanon in the summer of 2006: that Israeli society would not stand for another offensive war that would claim heavy casualties. This was, beyond all the sophistry and mental gymnastics, the true goal of the ideological cover, which Yadlin and Kasher provided the government and the army: "Zero casualties for our troops." It is no coincidence that the new moral doctrine became known in ordinary Israeli parlance as "license to kill."

One instance that accurately reflects the nature of the fighting in Gaza illustrates the attitude of official Israel toward the human destruction that was sown in the war. On January 16, 2009, three daughters of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, as well as a niece, were killed and two other daughters were wounded when two tank shells hit the family's home. The incident would not have come to the attention of Israeli public opinion but for the fact that the Gaza physician is known in Israel. After the tragedy, on January 22, an urgent letter of protest, requesting an immediate inquiry, was sent to the minister of defense. On May 19 the defense minister's departmental staff sent a letter, signed by a ministerial aide, the cynicism of which is matched only by its maliciousness: it said that Dr. Abu al-Aish himself bore sole responsibility for the disaster, for failing to heed the army's warnings to evacuate.

The letter, of course, does not answer the obvious question: Where was the family supposed to go? The street? The beach? In Gaza's streets and open areas, any moving figure was automatically assumed to be an enemy combatant and thus a target for Israeli fire. The Defense Ministry does not contradict the doctor's claim that there were no Hamas or any other militants in the building or on its roof. It only claims that the unit operating in the area identified, on the third floor of the Abu al-Aish home, "figures who aroused the suspicion that they were observing IDF forces and were guiding sniper fire from a different building." How was the local commander able to determine that the figures were those of Hamas militants rather than members of the household? The answer is that he didn't, but according to the zero-risk principle, the local commander called in tank fire, while knowing that there would be many casualties inside the building.

That, of course, is the decisive point. The practical result is that according to the new doctrine of warfare and the moral doctrine promulgated by the new IDF, any place, any person, any home in any village and in any neighborhood in which enemy forces operate can be an enemy position and are therefore legitimate targets for Israeli fire. It is the closing of a circle: the moral, if not the criminal, responsibility is borne not by the junior officers who make the decisions in the field, but rather by the senior command that taught them to do so, the senior politicians who approved the new principles, and above all by the ideologues who formulated this doctrine, which brings disgrace upon all of us, especially those of us who fought in previous Israeli wars.

Zeev Sternhell
Léon Blum Professor Emeritus of Political Science
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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