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Weighing Israel’s way of war

by Ramesh Thakur

There are two alternative models for examining conflicts. Model One assumes that there are at least two parties who disagree over facts, causes, consequenc- es and the best way forward. Both sides are wrong, with neither being entirely blameless. Both will have to live with each other, no matter how the conflict ends. This will be easier if both sides compromise, with mutual give-and-take and accommodation.

Model Two holds one side as totally right and the other wrong. The virtuous should not negotiate with evil but destroy it. Principles are not for sale, cannot be bargained away and must never be compromised. History proves that appeasement merely whets the appetite of the aggressor, not buy lasting peace.

In classroom situations discussing conflicts between others, almost all students pick the interest-based Model One as likely to resolve conflicts just as the value-based Model Two is likely to prolong them. But in an emotionally charged dispute involving their own country, classroom consensus collapses in a chorus of “buts” that would do a smokers’ convention proud. The same is true of comments in the world press critical of Israel’s Lebanon war.

A body of research shows that with our own actions, we tend to remember the cause — why we did something, which provides a rational explanation of our behavior. With opponents, the why is ignored and forgotten. Instead we remember what they did and the damaging consequences for us. The memory festers as a malingering grievance.

To say that both sides must share blame in any conflict does not imply that both are equally to blame. Even if Israel faces existential threats, does it profit Israelis to be judged by the terrorists’ standard — “we are no worse than our enemies?”

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, investigated a number of Israeli strikes on civilian targets. He concluded that “time after time” Israel “hit civilian homes and cars in the southern border zone, killing dozens of people with no evidence of any military objective.” Consequently, he says, “Israel’s claims about pinpoint strikes and proportionate responses are pure fantasy. Israel is prefabricating excuses to justify killing civilians.”

Human Rights Watch concluded that, at best, Israel had blurred the distinction between civilian and combatant. At worst, “The pattern of attacks during the Israeli offensive in Lebanon suggests that the failures cannot be explained or dismissed as mere accidents; the extent of the pattern and the seriousness of the consequences indicate the commission of war crimes.”

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, too, placed the attack on Qana in the context of “a pattern of violations of international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, committed during the current hostilities.” Isolated and occasional operational errors and accidental mistakes are one thing; a systematic pattern suggests possible war crimes.

An independent investigation by Amnesty International concluded that strikes on civilian infrastructure were an integral part of Israel’s military strategy. Amnesty therefore called for an urgent, comprehensive and independent U.N. inquiry into grave violations of international humanitarian law by both Hezbollah and Israel.

The U.N.’s humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland of Norway, condemned the intensified use of cluster bombs by Israel in the last 72 hours of the war — as the deadline for the ceasefire approached — as “completely immoral.” With some 100,000 unexploded cluster bombs strewn about southern Lebanon, every day people are being “maimed, wounded and killed,” he said.

These are not the usual suspects of anti-Israeli individuals and institutions, but people normally very sympathetic to Israel’s predicament of living in a harsh and hostile environment.

It is easy to attack opponents and tempting to try to discredit critics. It requires moral courage to look in the mirror for faults. Yet this might actually prove more productive in solving a conflict instead of perpetuating it for decades.

I have been called a traitor to India and attacked for promoting India’s agenda as a U.N. official; attacked for being anti-American and a career apologist for U.S. foreign policy; denounced for anti-Semitism and promoting closer India-Israel relations despite India’s domestic Muslim population and the damage to foreign relations with many Islamic countries; and condemned for being an apologist for both Palestinian terrorism and Israeli-U.S. aggression. Life would be dull if peace broke out.

Some Israeli and Diaspora Jews have spoken out on Lebanon. Thus Oxford’s Avi Shlaim: “Killing children is wrong. Period. A ‘war on terror’ cannot be won by a democratically elected government acting like a terrorist organization.”

Rabbi David Goldberg: “By creating a wilderness in Lebanon and calling it peace, Israel has recruited thousands of new martyrs to the Hezbollah cause.”

American Norman Birnbaum regrets “the transformation of a significant group of Jewish commentators, intellectuals and scholars from critical advocates of universal values into apologists for U.S. moral superiority and global domination.”

Avi Azrieli, a former Israeli military officer, notes “Israel is the most dangerous place in the world for Jews today” — an ironic outcome for a Zionist movement that sought to establish in Israel a safe haven from murderous anti-Semitism.

In another irony, the Jewish state was established to protect the Diaspora, but now the Diaspora works to protect Israel. To reverse this, Israel must come to terms with its Middle Eastern identity and location and shift “from survival by intimidation and isolation to accommodation and dialogue,” says Azrieli.

Does this mean that Israel is the sole or primary culprit in the endless cycle of Middle East violence? Of course not. The country and the people retain, rightly, a large reservoir of international good will. That good will is neither uncritical nor inexhaustible.