As Israel encounters stiffer than expected resistance to its attacks in Lebanon, and world outrage and condemnation of the mounting human toll rises, calls grow for a ceasefire followed by the deployment of a fresh peacekeeping force. The nature and prospects of a new mission will depend crucially on whether it is conceived and designed as a force to punish Israel for its aggression, reward Israel, or prevent attacks on Israel by Hezbollah.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador is publicly contemptuous of the current U.N. peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, called the “U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.” He mockingly notes that “Interim in U.N. jargon is 28 years.”

His condescension betrays an ignorance of history. The United Nations had been extremely reluctant to establish a peacekeeping force in that region in the circumstances of Israel’s 1978 invasion of southern Lebanon. In the end the U.N. caved in to U.S. pressure because Washington wanted to rescue Israel from the ill-advised invasion, but inserted the word “interim” in the name as a compromise.

The force has been renewed every six months partly because of the reluctance to admit failure, partly to prevent Israel from reaping the fruits of aggression, and partly because the force has performed many functions of a de facto local municipal authority and overseen a repopulation of the region under its stabilizing auspices.

U.N. peace missions are meant to give all parties wanting to live in peace space to do so, not to check deliberate attacks. This makes lightly armed peacekeepers and unarmed observers easy targets. A total of 2,272 peacekeepers have died in U.N. operations since 1948. They sacrificed their lives for a cause above and beyond national defense, for an abstract principle of international duty. There is no higher calling nor nobler cause.

With apologies to Wilfred Owen, what passing bells for those who die as U.N. peacekeepers — only the monstrous silence of the disunited nations? In response to four unarmed and neutral U.N. observers being killed by Israel on July 18, against the background of repeated pleas over six hours to stop before a tragedy occurred, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan denounced this “apparently deliberate targeting” of the U.N. post. In the face of furious Israeli protest and indignation, he had to soften and backpedal.

In an act of Christian charity, Western reparations to Jews for centuries of persecution climaxing in the Holocaust were paid mainly in Palestinian coinage. Anytime that Western people and governments dare to criticize any Israeli action or policy, the collective guilt of the Holocaust and the historical burden of anti-Semitism is dumped on them.

As a result, the Christian West seems incapable of drawing any moral red lines that Israel may not cross. Instead the default setting of its moral compass on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is outsourced to Israel.

The result is that behavior that Westerners would find abhorrent and intolerable for themselves or anyone else is still somehow rationalized and unopposed when done by Israelis. Israel was indirectly complicit in the slaughter of innocents in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982. In 1996, Israeli bombs hit a U.N. refugee camp at Qana in southern Lebanon, killing around 100 civilians. Now history has indeed repeated itself as tragedy in Qana, where an Israeli attack killed more than 50 civilians last Sunday.

How many Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese have been killed? Of the total number killed, what proportion are civilians? The answers will confirm or give the lie to either side claiming the moral high ground. Based on the relative kill ratios, form your own conclusions and make your own judgments, if you have the requisite moral courage and intellectual integrity.

There is no moral equivalence between Israel prepared to live in peace if left alone but go to war otherwise, and terrorist organizations dedicated to the destruction of Israel who deliberately blow up busloads of school kids. But the wanton war on Lebanon makes the distinction that little bit thinner. Do Israelis witness the daily scenes of carnage from Lebanon that is the staple of news coverage in most of the world?

Israel’s decision to wage war does not reflect a society living in mortal fear of destruction by its enemies but springs instead from an arrogance of power and an indifference to human suffering by the “other” side. Human-rights advocacy demands an acknowledgment of duty of care by those ensconced in safety toward those living in zones of danger. Perhaps the Holocaust is too tall an obstacle for Westerners’ moral imagination to surmount in order to recognize the suffering of Arabs and Palestinians with anything even remotely resembling equal measure. It may be futile to expect significant progress on resolving the Middle East conflicts until an exorcism of the historical guilt over the Holocaust by the major Western powers.

The open Israeli contempt for U.N. peacekeeping and the deaths of unarmed international observers will make countries much more reluctant to contribute to a bolstered or replacement U.N. force. Having privileged its historic role as the ultimate guarantor of Israel’s security over the minimum degree of impartiality required to play an honest broker role, can the U.S. organize a multinational peacekeeping force?

Any U.S.-led or North Atlantic Treaty Organization force would be seen, resented and resisted as Israel’s instrument. The U.S. and its coalition of the dwindling are tied down in an increasingly lethal civil war in Iraq. According to the most recent U.N. report, the daily toll has reached an average of 100 civilians. The Taliban seem to be resurgent in Afghanistan, challenging NATO forces across increasingly expanding areas of the country. Enlarging the theater of conflict to Lebanon will merely confirm many Muslims’ suspicions of NATO as the armed wing of the Christian West against the rest.

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