Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Hezbollah's human shields

Walter Reich in the New York Sun expands on Hezbollah's human shield strategy and its implications for civilized nations:

On the day an Israeli airstrike inadvertently killed some 28 civilians in the Lebanese town of Qana, a Berlin daily, Der Tagesspiegel, published an amazing letter that summarized the Hezbollah strategy that resulted in those deaths.

The letter-writer, who identified himself as Dr. Mounir Herzallah, said he was a Shiite from southern Lebanon who had lived there until 2002. After the Israelis withdrew from the area in 2000, he recalled, Hezbollah moved into his town, dug rocket depots in bunkers, and then built a school and a residence over those bunkers.

The letter went on: "Laughing, a local sheikh explained to me that the Jews would lose in any event because the rockets would either be fired at them or, if they attacked the rocket depots, they would be condemned by world opinion on account of the dead civilians. These people do not care about the Lebanese population; they use them as shields and, once dead, as propaganda."


Despite [authenticity] uncertainties, I think it's worth quoting from this letter because it formulates, in a way better than I've ever heard it formulated before, the human-shield strategy that is being used by Hezbollah, as well as by Hamas, against Israel — and also by forces with which we and other Western powers have been engaging on battlefields that are unfamiliar to us in this post-9/11 world.

Qana is, in fact, the new face of war. And this letter describes the contours of that face, as well as the mad logic behind its eyes, with the concision and clarity we'll need in order to be able to judge the actions of countries that are forced to respond to it — and in order to respond to it ourselves with a maximum of both humaneness and realism. There will be more Qanas in Israel's future, and many more in ours.

Specialists in military strategy, having recognized the challenges posed by this human-shield strategy, see a solution in better intelligence — in particular, better human intelligence. They argue that in order to avert international condemnation — which can be even more damaging than losing on the battlefield — armies shouldn't attack built-up areas, even ones being used to launch rockets that are killing their civilians, unless they can be sure that their own attacks won't kill civilians on the other side.

The problem is that an army facing such an enemy can almost never be absolutely sure of that. And if the standard such an army has to satisfy is absolute certainty that it will never harm civilians, then it will never be able to fight such an enemy even when the threat is critical — even when the rockets, endless volleys of them, are sure to be fired. Countries needing to protect their citizens will be utterly defenseless.

The letter in the German newspaper shines a clarifying and sobering light on a strategy that, like terrorism itself, is used precisely because it works. In an age in which many organizations and even some countries are prepared to sacrifice their own civilians in the service of killing ours — and are prepared to do so by situating their weapons, even weapons of mass destruction, in places of human habitation — we have to be ready for more Qanas. We have to be ready to place the blame for such Qanas on those who engineer them. We have to learn how to expose the depraved but effective logic that will make those Qanas happen. And we have to learn how to fight a war that's built on that logic even if we can't always be absolutely sure that innocents won't suffer as a result.

All countries have an obligation to minimize the loss of civilian life, both on their own side and on the other. But no country has an obligation to allow itself to be destroyed or its people killed. Demanding that of any country is a perversion not only of the ethics of war but also of the ethics of life.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home