Disproportionate by design

Yesterday Human Rights Watch made several specific allegations of war crimes committed by Israeli troops in Gaza. These included incidents where, according to local residents, Israeli forces had shot fleeing civilians when "no Palestinian fighters were present at the time and no firefights were taking place".

Crimes of this kind can occur in any war; individual soldiers or groups of soldiers do sometimes act in contravention of their orders and in violation of international norms. But in the case of the Gaza conflict there are bigger questions to be asked about Israel's overall military strategy and to what extent it complies with international law.

Similar questions can be asked about Hamas too, but Israel's behaviour is a particular concern for those of us living in countries whose governments have broadly supported Israel's "right to defend itself" as well as providing some of the means for it to do so.

The simple fact is that Israel and the rest of the world have very different ideas about what lawful "self-defence" entails. Various western leaders have criticised Israel's disproportionate use of force as if it is some kind of aberration – a misjudgment that can be rectified through persuasion. 

This misses the point entirely, because disproportionate force is a deliberate and integral part of Israel's "self-defence" strategy. Writing in 2008, Gabi Siboni, one of Israel's senior military planners, explained:

"The current predicament facing Israel involves two major challenges. The first is how to prevent being dragged into an ongoing dynamic of attrition on the northern border similar to what in recent years developed along the border with the Gaza Strip. The second is determining the IDF’s response to a large scale conflict both in the north and in the Gaza Strip. 

"These two challenges can be overcome by adopting the principle of a disproportionate strike against the enemy’s weak points as a primary war effort, and operations to disable the enemy’s missile launching capabilities as a secondary war effort.

"With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy's actions and the threat it poses. Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes. The strike must be carried out as quickly as possible, and must prioritise damaging assets over seeking out each and every launcher. Punishment must be aimed at decision makers and the power elite ...

"In Lebanon, attacks should both aim at Hizbullah’s military capabilities and should target economic interests and the centres of civilian power that support the organisation. Moreover, the closer the relationship between Hizbullah and the Lebanese government, the more the elements of the Lebanese state infrastructure should be targeted."

Unlike international law, this strategy makes no real distinction between civilians and combatants: all are regarded as combatants.

In an interview in 2008, Gadi Eisenko, head of the IDF's Northern Command, argued that Israel had made a mistake in Lebanon by trying to distinguish between "good Lebanese" and "bad Lebanese". Summarising the interview, Ynet News reported:

"If we only hit the 'bad guys', we thought, the 'good guys' will grow stronger. But there we have it: The 'bad guys' took over our neighbouring country. Now, the whole of Lebanon is an Iranian outpost ...

"This is both bad and good. It’s bad, because north of us there is a state that is entirely malicious. It’s good, because there is no longer any need for complicated distinctions. Israeli strategists’ new point of view is that Lebanon is an enemy, rather than a complex puzzle of factions, some of which are enemies while the others are victims of a situation not under their control ...

"We have failed in our sophisticated attempts to distinguish between innocent individuals and sinning leaders. We have failed in the effort to distinguish between 'simple people who also have fathers and children' and those who incite those simple folk. Without saying so explicitly, we reached the conclusion that nations are responsible for their leaders’ acts.

"In practical terms, the Palestinians in Gaza are all Khaled Mashaal, the Lebanese are all Nasrallah, and the Iranians are all Ahmadinejad."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 5 August 2014