Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I've been pretty happy at the coverage the recent Mideast conflict has received in the Times. Often, newspaper articles tend to parrot the talking points of one (or both) sides; this hasn't happened here. The Times article about the debate over the proportionality of Israel's response is particularly good:

The asymmetry in the reported death tolls is marked and growing: some 230 Lebanese dead, most of them civilians, to 25 Israeli dead, 13 of them civilians. In Gaza, one Israel soldier has died from his own army’s fire, and 103 Palestinians have been killed, 70 percent of them militants.

The cold figures, combined with Israeli air attacks on civilian infrastructure like power plants, electricity transformers, airports, bridges, highways and government buildings, have led to accusations by France and the European Union, echoed by some nongovernmental organizations, that Israel is guilty of “disproportionate use of force” in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and of “collective punishment” of the civilian populations..

Israel [does not]deliberately single out civilians, [Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni] argued, as Hezbollah and Hamas do through rocket attacks and suicide bombings. Intent matters, she said.

But in Gaza and Lebanon, civilians are inevitably harmed when militants hide among them. And in Lebanon, she said, some of the dead may be civilians associated with Hezbollah, assisting it or storing its rockets.

“Terrorists use the population and live among them,” Ms. Livni said. “It’s difficult to target like a surgery. Unfortunately, civilians sometimes pay the price of giving shelter to terrorists.”...

Those arguments leave Lebanese and Gazans cold.

Dalia Harati, 33, a Lebanese Sunni in Beirut, said: “The world is just standing by while Israel kills more and more. They come here and urge Hezbollah to free the prisoners and then stop firing rockets against Israel, with only about 30 killed so far, and then ask the Israelis to stop their attacks when they have already killed more than 200.

“It is as usual the West’s famous double standards, but we were hoping that would change when so many innocents are being killed.”

Last week, Khamiz Essaid sat beside the Gaza hospital bed of his son, Muhammad, 18, who had been wounded in the liver by shrapnel when an Israeli rocket hit the escape car of some Hamas military leaders, who had survived the bombing of the house where they were meeting. Muhammad, resting after an operation, had gone out to try to help the survivors, his father said.

What did Mr. Essaid think of Hamas having a meeting in his neighborhood and the consequences? “Gaza is too small,” he said. “Where can they go?”

Despite the damage, he says he supports Palestinian efforts to hit Israel, however ineffective. “We don’t have F-13’s or 14’s or 17’s, or whatever they are,” he said. “What do we have? These little rockets, like needle pricks. And the Israelis exaggerate the impact of these needles and say we’re destroying their state! But we have to resist any way we can.”

A ground attack is more surgical than airstrikes. The operation in Gaza, for example, has killed more militants than civilians, often through direct exchanges of fire. But Israel wants to avoid being bogged down on the ground, as it was in Lebanon for 18 years.

Israel has been careful to drop leaflets warning civilians in southern Beirut and southern Lebanon where it knows that Hezbollah keeps stores of rockets and launchers in apartment houses, garages and homes.

Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of Israel’s general staff, said there were military rationales for the targets Israel had chosen: to reduce and destroy the ability of Hezbollah or Hamas to attack Israelis, to move freely and to be resupplied from Syria and Iran. He insisted that “the Israeli military tries our utmost to avoid civilian casualties.”

Israel attacked the Beirut headquarters of Hezbollah, the specially built “Security Square,” where leaders like Sheik Hassan Nasrallah live and have offices, and where they are now in bunkers...

Raji Sourani, a Gazan lawyer who founded and directs the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, is running out of patience.

“What is happening here is resistance to the occupation,” he said. “What Israel is doing in Gaza now has nothing to do with the captured soldier. I don’t think bridges, power stations or airports have anything to do with the soldier. I don’t think denying access for goods and people has anything to do with the soldier, or denying medicine, or bombarding one of the world’s most densely populated areas by day and night.”

Mr. Sourani said he was becoming discouraged. “People can’t be expected to be ‘good victims,’ ” he said. “People like me who are committed to coexistence are losing patience. People are being held hostage in Beit Hanun and no one is talking about it anymore, and Israel will pay very dearly for what is happening here.”

The problem, said Ms. Livni, the foreign minister, is that Israel is dealing with two semi-states, Hezbollah and Hamas, which have pledged to destroy Israel.

“The leaders who support an acceptable process are the weak ones,” she said, citing the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen. “This is a real problem and a real similarity. Siniora is against the Syrians and has the same ideas as the international community, and Abu Mazen favors a two-state solution, but neither of them can deliver.”
Here is my opinion:

1. Israel response: disproportinate? Yes. Faced with an attack by Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel sought to respond with an operation whose goal is to undermine the power of Hezbollah and Hamas to launch future attacks.

2. Is Israel's response collective punishment? My current answer is no.

- When terrorists hide among civilians, it is inevitable that strikes on them will carry some civilian casualties. Thus, we would expect a large difference in civilian casualties because the Israeli army is clearly marked, while Hezbollah is not.

- Israel has offered a concrete reason for its attacks on infrastructure, which have not been widely spread out, but targeted on the supply routes used by Hezbollah. This reason is to prevent shipment of weapons to Hezbollah from Syria and Iran, who are its principal backers.

- I have yet to see a single target that could be unambiguously classified as collective punishment. Examples of such attacks would be bombings on infrastructure in the non-Shiite areas not close to the Israeli border - say in North Lebanon - which could not really be used in any way related to the attacks. Such attacks have not, however, happened. Each Israeli attack on infrastructure that has been so strongly criticized has been in Shiite areas with Hezbollah bases.

- It is certainly possible to speculate that Israel is choosing its targets to punish the civilian population - I'm sure everyone has guesses on the true motivations of Israeli leaders. There is, though, no actual evidence to support this.

I may change my answer in the future, as more information on the targets and the rationale for each specific attack becomes available.


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