August 10, 2006
Hypocrisy About Hezbollah
A reader recently e-mailed to ask if anyone else was suggesting, as I have done, that . I had to admit that I have been plowing a lonely furrow on this one. Still, that is no reason in itself to join everyone else, even if the consensus includes every mainstream commentator as well as groups such as Human Rights Watch.
First, let us get my argument straight. I have not claimed, as most of my critics wish to argue, that Hezbollah targets only military sites or that it never aims at civilians. According to the Israeli army, more than 3,300 rockets have hit Israel over the past four weeks. How can I know, or even claim to know, where all those rockets have landed, or know what the Hezbollah operatives who fired each rocket intended to hit? I have never made such claims.
While there has been little convincing evidence that Hezbollah is firing its rocket from towns and villages in south Lebanon, or that its fighters are hiding there among civilians,
An obvious point that no one seems to be making – and given a news blackout that lasted several hours, Israel clearly hoped no one would make – is that We know there are still civilians in Giladi because their response to the rocket barrage was quoted in the Israeli media.
Under the censorship rules, it is impossible to mention any issue that touches on Israeli security or defense matters: the location of military installations, for example, cannot be divulged.
I therefore have to tread carefully in what I say next, relying on information that is already publicly available, but which at least challenges the simplistic view that Hezbollah is firing rockets either indiscriminately or willfully to kill civilians. I draw on two pieces of coverage provided by BBC World.
On Tuesday, the BBC's Katya Adler reported from the northern community of , which has taken the heaviest pounding from Hezbollah rockets and from which many of the local residents have fled over the past month. As she stood on a central street describing the difficult conditions under which the remaining families were living, she
Consider also this. Throughout the four weeks of fighting, the BBC has had a presenter and film crew at the top of an area of Haifa known as the Panorama, above the beautiful Bahai Gardens. As the name suggests, from there the film crew has had an unrestricted view of the port and docks below and the wide arc of heavily developed shoreline that stretches up to Acre.
The spot where the BBC presenters have been standing, telling us regularly that they can hear the wail of sirens warning Haifa's residents to head for the shelters, is in the center of this sprawling ridge-top city, in one of the most heavily built up and inhabited areas of Haifa. So why have the BBC's presenters been standing there calmly every day for weeks under the barrage of rockets?
Because – unless we are to believe that none of its rockets could be fired the extra 1 km needed to hit central Haifa. Instead, as is clear from the view shown by BBC cameras,
That said, there are Those, unlike HRW, who single out Hezbollah are being either disingenuous or hypocritical.
One is that Hezbollah has filled many of its rockets with ball bearings. Most critics of Hezbollah take this as conclusive proof that the group's only intent is to kill and injure civilians. Anyone who has seen the damage done by a Katyusha rocket will realize that it is not a very powerful weapon: it essentially punches a hole in whatever it hits. The biggest danger is from the shrapnel and from anything added – like ball bearings – that sprays out on impact. The shrapnel can kill civilians nearby, of course, but it can also kill soldiers – as we saw at Kfar Giladi – and can puncture tanks containing flammable liquids such as petrol, causing explosions.
Both are acting according to the gruesome realities of war: they want to inflict as much damage as possible with each rocket strike. That is deplorable, but so is war.
The second criticism made by HRW is that As I have tried to show, the rockets are mostly not indiscriminate (though presumably some misfire, as do Israeli missiles); rather, they are not precise.
Finally, what about the defense offered by Israel's supporters that its air force tries to avoid harming Lebanese civilians by them before an attack to warn them that they must leave? The argument's thrust is that only those who belong to Hezbollah or give it succor remain behind in south Lebanon and they are therefore legitimate targets. (It ignores, of course, hundreds of civilians killed in areas that have not been leafleted or who were trying to flee, as ordered, when hit by an Israeli missile.)
This debate is important because it will determine in the coming months and years who will be blamed by the international community – and future historians – for committing war crimes. Hezbollah deserves as fair a hearing as Israel, though at the moment it most certainly is not getting it.
Like every army in a war, Hezbollah may not be acting in a humane manner. But it is demonstrably acting according to the same standards as the Israeli army – and possibly, given Israel's siting of military targets in civilian areas, higher ones. The fact that the contrary view is almost universally held betrays our prejudices rather than anything about Hezbollah's acts.