Monday, August 21, 2006

Saving Corporal Shalit, Part Two

"Disproportionate Response"

The question as to whether Israel's response to the abduction of two soldiers by Hezbollah and the deaths of eight others had been "disproportionate" arose when it was confirmed that the ratio of deaths had reached ten Lebanese for each Israeli ("With Israeli Use of Force, Debate Over Proportion," NYT, front page, July 19), but it might well have been raised over "Operation Summer Rain" in Gaza weeks earlier.

"Operation Summer Rain," which still proceeds and which has resulted in the deaths of at least 165 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier killed by friendly fire, was commenced in response to two things, the abduction of Corporal Shalit, and the rain of several hundred Qassam rockets on Israeli territory, mainly in and around the town of Sderot, since January. The firing of these rockets by Hamas from northern Gaza has constituted an unendurable and even maddening provocation in the eyes of Israelis and their allies. Thus David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, writes (July 31), "Palestinian fighters, with the encouragement of the new Hamas government, lobbed more than seven hundred rockets into Sderot and other towns in southwestern Israel. Olmert had to respond." The American Israeli Michael B. Oren, the historian of the Six-Day War, wrote in the LA Times ("Israel: One Nation Under Attack," July 26) that "The attacks from Lebanon coincided with aggression from Gaza, where Hamas terrorists fired about 1000 Kassam rockets at Israeli towns and farms." These assaults from both Lebanon and Gaza imperil Israel's very existence, Oren wrote. "Israel's purpose is not retribution but survival." An outraged Yossi Klein Halevi--the sulfurous Halevi is always outraged--wrote, "No Israeli town within the 1967 borders has experienced the kind of relentless attacks Sderot has suffered." (TNR, July 30)

Usually the Qassam rockets have a range of about three miles, but on July 4, one landed on an empty high school in Ashkelon, six miles from the border. Olmert called this "an escalation of unprecedented gravity in the campaign of terror waged by Hamas..."

One thing that is hardly ever mentioned about the Qassam rockets, however, is the number of Israelis who have been killed by them since January, when the firing began. Whether the number of Qassams fired is 700 or 1000, the fact is that no Israeli has been killed by one. I believe four have been injured. This is remarkable, indeed astonishing, is it not? At least 700 rockets launched and not a single fatality. The futility is almost perfect.

What accounts for it? The rockets are home-made. This Spring a BBC reporter with a cameraman interviewed three or four Hamas "fighters" making the rockets, guys in black ski masks with green Hamas scarves. The rockets looked lethal enough: machined steel pipe, rocket fins, shiny black warheads. But they don't work. Moreover, the Israelis often seem to know the locations of the "factories" in which they're made, so these guys are far more likely to be bombed to bits than to kill an Israeli. Yet the rocket launchings enjoy wide support among Gazans. Why? Because, as a New York Times story reported, what with their power knocked out, sonic booms shattering their sleep every night, huge Israeli tanks roaring through daily, bulldozers destroying their orchards, and Gaza City being bombed nightly, Gazans figure that with the rockets being fired, a few thousand Israelis are losing their sleep every night too.

Here is an example of the weak and powerless finding refuge from their helplessness in purely symbolic retribution. Al Jazeera reported last month that "the resistance" had been just at the point of calling off the Qassams. Hamas was for it, also the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, but a third group--I forget which--said "No," that would be a humiliating capitulation to the Zionist entity, and so the others, not wanting to be branded traitors, reluctantly agreed to the continuation of the "campaign." Here, then, is one of the dire threats to Israel's very existence.

Oh yes, the debate in the American media over Israel's possibly disproportionate response to Hezbollah "aggression." There was hardly any debate, really; you might almost call the response of Israel's supporters "preemptive," so quick out of the box were they. Jonathan Chait, Martin Peretz's most promising young man at the New Republic (Chait's not even thirty), struck a pose of lofty and contemptuous amusement in his LA Times column. The charge of disproportionate force, he said, "is just silly." True, "Israel has taken the lives of several hundred Lebanese civilians (many entirely innocent, others who sheltered Hezbollah rockets)," and true too that "Every innocent death is a tragedy," but look at the big picture and the issue of Israeli intent: "Where Israel has bombed civilian areas, it has been in an attempt to strike Hezbollah's rockets." Anyway, "The brutal fact is that civilian deaths are Hezbollah's strongest weapon." Boy, has young Mr. Chait ever earned his Peretz stripes! Promote that lad to captain.

The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen ("...No, It's Survival," Tuesday July 21) said calls for "proportion" "rankle." "Israel is, as I have often said,..gentrifying a pretty bad neighborhood." (So Cohen likes to think of Israelis as middle class urban pioneers buying up abandoned Victorians in a ghetto, gamely sprucing them up, dry-walling interiors and restoring their original color schemes, while trying to live with the drug-dealing openly going on down at the corner and the pimpmobiles cruising insolently by.) As Cohen notes, these protests against allegedly disproportionate Israeli force mainly came from "a whole lot of European newspapers" (they certainly didn't appear in American ones) and, he said, "they fall on my ears not as genteel expressions of fairness, some ditzy Marquess of Queensberry idea of war, but as ugly sentiments pregnant with antipathy toward the only democratic state in the Middle East." In other words--must one spell it out?--Anti-Semitism!

I read no columnist in an American newspaper who called the month-long bombing of south Beirut what it surely was, a war crime. I read today that the number of "homes" lost to the Lebanese in this war is 15,000. Would it be a fair guess that perhaps 10,000 of these were in Beirut? Contrary to the opinion of young Mr. Chait, there were no Hezbollah rockets fired from there. This atrocity was masked by the American networks' and NPR's quite routine description of south Beirut as a "Shiah stronghold."

My Concise Oxford provides two meanings for stronghold: a fortified place, or a "center of support for a cause, etc." Thus, for example, "the South Bronx has long been a Democratic Party stronghold." South Beirut is a Shiah stronghold only in that sense, but the repeated use of the word "stronghold" implied that the area was a legitimate military target.

One journalist/columnist who has been simply magnificent through the whole month of the war is Gideon Levy, the leftwing columnist of Ha'aretz who Sunday after Sunday has denounced Israel's prosecution of the war, and who called for a cessation even while Condolleeza Rice was using diplomacy to sabotage diplomacy. "Israel is sinking into a strident, nationalist atmosphere and darkness is beginning to cover everything," he wrote on July 30. "The insensitivity and blindness that has characterized Israel in recent years is intensifying."

"The devastation we are sowing in Lebanon doesn't touch anyone here and most of it is not even shown to Israelis. Those who want to learn what Tyre looks like now have to turn to foreign channels." "Lebanon, which has never fought being detroyed by our planes and cannons and nobody is taking into account the amount of hatred we are sowing." "Maariv, which has turned into the Fox News of Israel, fills its pages with chauvinist slogans reminiscent of particularly inferior propaganda machines..." And on he went.

Even in peacetime, Israel has had, as Joel Beinin of Stanford has written, "a hypermilitarized political culture," but it has been at floodtide for the last month, and it ran over Levy. Ha'aretz attaches "blogs" to its columns--responses from readers--and those attached to Levy's have been savage. The first one I read said, "How do you spell 'Gideon Levy'? Y*E*L*L*O*W." Subsequent ones were pretty much in that spirit.

Human Shields

It has often been said in American media that Hezbollah, such is its indifference to the loss of innocent life, has employed human shields to protect its fighters. Thus, David Remnick of the New Yorker, while deploring the recklessness of Israel's bombing of Lebanon, felt it necessary to balance this with the observation that, "The Party of God, for its part, uses civilians as both shields and targets, and boasts of its own escape." Dan Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, said, in the NY Times' paraphrase, "Hezbollah had used Lebanese civilians as human shields and had deliberately exposed them to danger in the hopes of stirring expressions of outrage against Israel." (Times, Mon July 31) Then as we have seen, Jonathan Chait, while regretting the loss of "innocent" civilian life, said an indeterminate number of civilians were "sheltering" rockets (I suppose we must call these people voluntary human shields).

So routine were such allegations that NPR anchors felt obliged with some frequency to ask correspondent Ivan Watson, who was in the thick of it in southern Lebanon, if he had witnessed such activity. And Watson wearily replied again and again that he had not. Few Hezbollah were to be seen in the destroyed villages and towns he reported from. The rockets, he said, always seemed to be fired from the next ridge, or from the valley beyond. On one occasion near the end of the conflict he did say he'd spoken to a man in a Christian village who said the Hezbollah had commandeered his house the night before and fired rockets from the second floor. But that was it.

Human Rights Watch's "Summary" of its findings regarding violations of human rights noted (, 8/9/06) "The Israeli government claims that it targets only Hezbollah and that fighters from the group are using civilians as human shields, thereby placing them at risk. Human Rights Watch found no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attacks." Further, "In none of the cases of civilian deaths documented in this report is there evidence to suggest that Hezbollah forces or weapons were in or near the area that the IDF targeted during or just prior to the attack."

None of which deterred Dubya from saying on August 15 that "Hezbollah terrorists used Lebanese civilians as human shields, sacrificing the innocent in an effort to protect themselves from Israeli response."

The full absurdity of such allegations can only be understood if you try to imagine how a Hezbollah fighter with a couple of Katyushas would endeavor to protect himself from an airstrike with a human shield. "Holy shit, here comes an F-16! I'll just have to grab this woman and hold her in front of me! The kid, too--I'll be safe behind two."

So, no use of human shields in Middle Eastern conflict? Wrong. Ask yourself in what circumstances a soldier might find a human shield a handy thing to have. Say when he's a member of an infantry squad. Patrolling a rubble-strewn bombed out hostile town. A town in which a guy with a Kalashnikov might be drawing a bead on him right now from behind one of any number of dark windows. If that soldier grabs a local man or woman to walk in front of him....

B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories reports "20 July 2006: Israeli Soldiers Use Civilians as Human Shields in Beit Hanun, Northern Gaza." The soldiers seized six people, two of them minors, on 17 July, and had them stand at the entrances of rooms in a house where the soldiers had stationed themselves, and made their captives stay there for six hours, during which time there were intense exchanges of gunfire between the soldiers and armed Palestinians outside.

This sort of thing has been routine in the West Bank and Gaza since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000.