One of the main critiques (from the left) of Israel’s behavior in Lebanon goes roughly like this: hundreds of Lebanese civilians are dying under Israeli bombs, and hundreds of thousands have been made refugees; therefore, Israel is doing something wrong. Nobody denies that Hezbollah stations itself among civilians, but a lot of folks seem to believe that Israel is capable of targeting its weapons with more precision, and their failure to do so proves that they are not taking due care to prevent civilian casualties.
But none of the people who made this critique have given me a persuasive answer to a simple question: “if you were the Israeli Minister of Defense, what course would you have taken that would have been appropriately proportional and taken appropriate care to protect Lebanese civilians?”
- In 2004, Israel exchanged 430 live Arab prisoners for the corpses of three Israeli soldiers and one Israeli businessman who had been captured in 2000. That swap did not, it seems, do much to improve good relations with Hezbollah. I see no reason why Israel should reward Hezbollah by setting loose a few hundred more of its prisoners.
- Back in the opening days of the second intifada, Israel responded to suicide bombers in a measured tit-for-tat fashion. A suicide bomber would kill a few dozen Israelis, and Israel, holding the Palestinian Authority responsible for not reining in Palestinian terrorists, would bomb a PA police station. Another suicide bomber would go off, and another police station would get bomb. Eventually, the PA police officers realized that whenever they heard news of a suicide bombing, it would be a good day to work from home. The suicide bombings continued even after the PA ran out of police stations.
- Max Sawicky remarked that “Like Bush after 9-11, Israel squandered its moral authority in about 48 hours.” But what could Israel have done in two or three days that would have any significant effect on Hezbollah? (I agree that there’s no way Israel can eliminate Hezbollah entirely through military action, but there’s a long distance between “eliminate entirely” and “speak sternly to”.) After two or three days without bombs flying over their heads, the many surviving Hezbollah guerrillas would have dug in to new positions, the bomb craters in the roads would have been paved over, and new truck-mounted missiles would have been on their way from Syria.
- Well, Israel could have responded to the kidnapping of its soldiers by withdrawing to the 1967 borders, releasing all of its prisoners of war, and granting the right of return to all descendants of the Palestinians who fled or were driven out of the country in 1948. Do I even need to explain why that’s not a serious answer?
Also, just for a point of comparison, here is how the US Army in WW2 showed due care for the lives of German civilians. No, I’m not talking about Dresden, which was arguably an anomaly. This was standard operating procedure:
The Americans, in avoiding the heavy concentration of anti-aircraft fire around military targets, dropped from high altitudes and often with little ability to really aim for what they were after. The fact that such military targets as rail junctions and large-scale processing and manufacturing industries tend naturally to be surrounded by dense blocks of homes meant this tactic could be, and often was, as lethal as deliberate city-bombing.
And how do the ethics of air power apply to a ground war? The U.S. Army pushed through central Germany in the spring of 1945, with the German military before it mostly reduced to small ill-trained units, but when the Americans met any sustained resistance they pulled back, called in artillery, and blasted whatever was in front of them, whether it was a wooded ridge or a farming village.
The experience of Neuhof in the Frankenhöhe was typical of hundreds of other small German towns. The 92nd Cav. Recon Squadron reached it toward evening on April 15 and ran into a battle group of young SS soldiers north of the town. The Americans held off and pounded the town with artillery all night. In the morning, they waited for the fog to lift, then blasted Neuhof with phosphorous shells, setting everything ablaze. They attacked again at noon with infantry and tanks, but they still met resistance, so they poured more artillery and tank fire into the town. They finally took it at 5 p.m. that evening.
I don’t blame Lebanese civilians for having the misfortune of living next to extremely well-armed thugs1. And if IDF officers aren’t making a good faith effort to aim at legitimate targets2, but deliberately trying to turn the country into a wasteland, well, let my words be null and void and let the responsible parties on both sides go to hell (or the ICC). But if Israel is persuaded to call off attacks on Hezbollah positions simply because there are lots of civilians nearby, then that will only encourage other armies devoted to Israel’s destruction to put their own civilian neighbors in the same jeopardy.
1 Alan Dershowitz argues that any civilians who choose to hang around southern Lebanon after Israel dropped leaflets telling them to evacuate are “complicit”. Others go so far as to say that Lebanese civilians don’t deserve our sympathy because, well, they could have evicted Hezbollah themselves, but they didn’t. (They could have? How? Voodoo?) Of course, if you swallow this line, you have no grounds to complain when Hezbollah and Hamas bomb Israeli civilians who voted the current government into power.
2 According to this comment on Matthew Yglesias’s blog, there are tracking systems that are capable of identifying where Hezbollah’s larger missiles are launched from, within seconds of launch.