Sunday, January 11, 2009

Israel in Gaza: Unjustifiable Tactics ...

While Israeli spokespersons may claim they care about Palestinian civilians:
Israeli officials say that they are obeying the rules of war and trying hard not to hurt noncombatants but that Hamas is using civilians as human shields in the expectation that Israel will try to avoid killing them.
(New York Times, 11 Jan. 2009)
In fact, they don't really seem to care about Gaza's civilian casualties at all, beyond the negative publicity they cause.

The same New York Time Article states:
The most important strategic decision the Israelis have made so far, according to senior military officers and analysts, is to approach their incursion as a war, not a police operation.

Civilians are warned by leaflets, loudspeakers and telephone calls to evacuate battle areas. But troops are instructed to protect themselves first and civilians second.

Officers say that means Israeli infantry units are going in “heavy.” If they draw fire, they return it with heavy firepower. If they are told to reach an objective, they first call in artillery or airpower and use tank fire. Then they move, but only behind tanks and armored bulldozers, riding in armored personnel carriers, spending as little time in the open as possible.

As the commander of the army’s elite combat engineering unit, Yahalom, told the Israeli press on Wednesday: “We are very violent. We do not balk at any means to protect the lives of our soldiers.”

... Today, he said, “the mind-set from top to bottom is fight and fight cruel; this is a war, not another pinpoint operation.”
Again yesterday, Israel dropped leaflets telling Gazans that Israel is about to increase its offensive, and that civilians should take steps to protect themselves. But how do you protect yourself, when you live in a city that is surrounded. Where do you run to?

In contrast, Jewish law and ethics, demands that you protect civilians, even if it negatively impacts your military goals.

The following was originally published, last May, in the London Jewish Chronicle.
Hardly a day has gone by in recent years when Kassam rockets and mortar shells launched by militants in Gaza have not landed on the Western Negev. Inevitably, Israel’s military response has provoked controversy in the wider world because of civilian casualties. Israel counters that it is not always possible to protect civilians when returning fire in densely populated areas like Gaza.

But should Israel be worried about protecting them at all? Some rabbis do not believe so. The Yesha Rabbinical Council, the settler umbrella organisation, recently ruled that it was permitted to return indiscriminate fire on Palestinian civilian areas whence an attack had been launched. In 2006, under the leadership of Rabbi Dov Lior, the council issued an even sterner ruling. It stated that there is no such thing as a civilian in warfare, and that such a view was attributable to the influence of so-called “Christian morality”.

However, there exists a halachic tradition that offers a radically different approach to civilians in war. In his book Laws of Kings and Wars, Maimonides codifies the religious obligations pertaining to the siege of a city. A siege, he writes, should not surround the city on all four sides, but only on three, allowing an escape path for anyone who wishes to save his life (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:7). It is an opinion that the Rambam bases on a Talmudic reading of the Israelite war against Midian.

A law requiring besiegers to leave open the fourth side of a city flies in the face of military logic. After all, a city besieged on three sides is not really besieged. Allowing open passage could aid the escape of civilians, but it could also facilitate the passage of supplies and weapons into the city. Gaza is a case in point. Unsurprisingly, it is an approach that stands in marked contrast to siege warfare as practised throughout European history.

So why take the risk? Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Book of Commandments (Hasagot Haramban L’sefer Hamitzvot, positive commandment 5), explains: “God commanded us that when we lay siege to a city, we leave one of the sides without a siege so as to give them a place through which to flee. It is from this commandment that we learn to deal with compassion even with our enemies, even at a time of war.”

When the fourth Chief Rabbi of Israel, the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, was asked whether this law would not aid the armament of terrorists, he defended it, saying: “We do not understand the secrets of God” — in other words, the God who gave the law will save us. Our concern should be to act ethically and in accordance with the commandments.

Aharon Barak, the former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, argued in a similar vein in an influential legal opinion in 1999. He stated: “This is the destiny of a democracy — it does not see all means as acceptable, and the ways of its enemies are not always open before it. A democracy must sometimes fight with one hand tied behind its back. Even so, a democracy has the upper hand.”

On this view, the purpose of the halachah is to teach us to remain sensitive to the value of human life. Military strength must be balanced with a concern for the human cost. The law makes it clear that there are two types of individuals in war: civilians and combatants. These two populations must be separated before the onset of battle. Protection must be offered to civilians and restrictions must be placed on the military in the event that civilians are unable to escape. And it states unequivocally that this protection of civilians is a religious obligation.
Intriguingly, a biblical story makes a similar point. It concerns Abraham’s confrontation with the four kings. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, has been taken captive and Abraham launches a military campaign to free him. Abraham is victorious, yet after the fighting, God tells him: “Fear not, Abraham” (Genesis 15:1). This is somewhat puzzling. Surely the time to be afraid would have been before or during the battle. Why be afraid after the battle is over?

The following midrash makes a striking suggestion: Abraham was afraid he might have caused the deaths of innocent people. “Abraham was filled with misgiving, thinking to himself, ‘Maybe there was a righteous or God-fearing man among those troops whom I slew’” (Bereishit Rabbah 44:4).

From the outset, our tradition makes it clear that military strength, while necessary, is not sufficient. Abraham was courageous in going to war to free his nephew from captivity. Yet courage is not the only value. Our tradition also attributes to Abraham moral concern regarding the harming of civilians in the midst of that war.
We read in Proverbs: “Praiseworthy is the one who is always afraid” (28:14). How can it be praiseworthy to be fearful? Again, a midrashic commentary suggests a possible explanation: “This refers to Abraham, who was worried lest he had caused the deaths of innocent people in battle” (Tanchuma Lech Lecha 19).

As Israel continues to negotiate the difficult road ahead, we should take strength from Abraham’s courage. However, we should also be guided by Abraham’s imperative not to harm the innocent among the enemy. It is an imperative that forms the nucleus of an ethic codified in our law and authentically grounded in the Jewish tradition.
Too bad that, today, anyone who today takes such a position, is branded, by the majority, as a fryer (a sucker), or a bogen (traitor.) An exception to this is the Israeli paper Ha'aretz. In today's editorial it writes:
Around two weeks after the start of fighting in Gaza, there are only vague reports on Israel's success in damaging Hamas' terrorist infrastructure. On the other hand, statistics on the harm done to civilians accumulate. More than 800 Palestinians have been killed and around 3,000 have been wounded, an overwhelming majority of them from air strikes. According to UN figures, half of those killed are civilians, and half of the civilians killed are women and children.

Alongside reports on the number of dead and injured are reports of doctors being denied entry, the inability of aid groups to reach refugees and give them food, and a serious shortage of medicine and supplies. Blame does not rest with the Israel Defense Forces for all these issues. Hamas and other Palestinian organizations deliberately fired at a food convoy heading to Gaza because it sought to enter the Strip through a different crossing than what Hamas had desired. Hamas also liquidates its adversaries at home and is not ready to adopt the Egyptian cease-fire initiative. But these cannot serve as a pretext for a cruel, all-out war against 1.5 million Palestinian civilians.

Yesterday Israel announced, by dropping leaflets into densely populated areas in Gaza, that it plans to escalate its military operation. This stirs concerns that, similar to what occurred during the Second Lebanon War, the reason for going to war has been forgotten and replaced by an unrealistic desire to topple the Hamas regime in the Strip. If a few years ago the public cried out in protest over the bombing of a home in Gaza and the statement by former pilot and chief of staff Dan Halutz, who said he felt a "slight shudder on the wing" when he bombed a house, today it responds indifferently, even satisfactorily, to the harming of Palestinians.

The lessons of previous wars, during which the IDF destroyed infrastructure targets and the homes of civilians but did not gain the quiet it had sought, have not been internalized. Israel's justified rationale in acting against rocket launchers has been increasingly damaged over two weeks. The legitimacy and understanding extended to Israel melt away amid the pictures of killing and ruin. Accusations of war crimes are already being bandied about in Israel. This war needs to move immediately to the diplomatic track and agreements that will end the fantasies and delusions of both sides.

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