John August - The Israel Lebanon Conflict
Delivered 16 Aug 2006


I'll be reviewing the Israel Lebanon conflict. Importantly, I'm going to be focusing on principles and less on details of the conflict, and what details I will consider will be those early in the conflict.

A lot of what I say will be contingent on assumptions and interpretation, and it is very easy to reach different conclusions. Certainly, I may be wrong on points of fact. But I'm making the best sense of what I can find. Still, I hope it will be worthwhile even if you disagree. In trying to weave the threads together, I hope the position will help you to make up your own mind.

I've relied upon several sources, including commentators for and against Israel, together with the Israeli government's website and Hezbollah's website to the extent we can still get at it through the google cache.

Information on the Israeli website will be subject to political distortions and the military need for secrecy. But, nevertheless, we must distinguish between it and pro-Israel commentators. Ideas in public discussion are significant and part of the world around us, but are separate to those of the Israeli government.

At first I'll focus on the particulars of Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah. But, I will broaden out the discussion further on.

First, let us consider what Israel's concerns. Hezbollah were stockpiling rockets for what I feel could only have been an eventual attack on Israel. Hezbollah claims they were a detterent, but they only made them public after the initial attacks - and there are other reasons to question this claim.

Israel had been drawing attention to these stockpiled missiles, with relatively little interest from the international community. At this stage I emphasise I am being assymetric. Israel is justified being concerned about weapons suited to mass attacks on civilian targets than Lebanon has to be concerned about the Israeli standing military forces.

This does not mean that Israel is entirely innocent, I'll get to that later on.

Hence, when Israel attacked as a result of Hezbollah taking hostages, the fact that Hezbollah had their missile bases inside of civilian areas meant that Hezbollah were part of the cause of civilian casualties in Israeli counter attacks.

But, equally when Israel attacked, they caused more civilian casualties than was necessary or proportionate, and Israel caused its own additional civilian casualties over and above those that would have been caused only through Hezbollah locating its missiles in civilian areas.

The reports are of Israel attacking civilian vehicles, bridges and even vehicles marked with red crosses/crescents - though there are counterclaims that Hezbollah have been using such vehicles for military purposes.

Consider the airport. The IDF justified this attack because the airport could be used to transport weapons or the captured Israeli soldiers. However, HRW noted that Israel had not provided public evidence of this assertion, that Israel could have targeted particular flights, and that there are many other alternate routes given the long border with Syria. HRW therefore suggests that the cost to civilians is excessive for the military advantage gained, and speculates the attack may have been as revenge or intimidation against Lebanon.

HRW makes the same comments about roads and bridges - alternate routes remain if they are knocked out, and again the impact on civilians is excessive in relation to the military benefit.

This particularly so for electricity, because electricity only indirectly if at all facilates rocket attacks and the transport of hostages, but such facilities are crucial to refrigeration, sanitation, hospitals and other necessities; here attacks may be mounted only in very narrow circumstances and HRW suggests these circumstances have not been met.

This represents a disproportionality by the Geveva convention, which says that indiscriminante attacks include :

"An attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated."

A further issue is that helicopters could have immobilised vehicles and given the occupants a chance to get out if they had to attack such vehicles, but rather they preferred to sit off at a distance and fire missiles as a single decisive action. Now, immobilising the vehicle means exposing the helicopter to shoulder launched antiair missiles, and also the so-called "anti-aircraft cannon" portrayed by the IDF. I'll say more on this later.

These are the Geneva conventions, but we can also use just war theory to assess the conflict. Just war theory was originally developed by Christian theologians but has obtained a secular currency. Here again some much more limited response might have been justified on just war theory, but the scale and conduct of the response violates three important principles of just war theory - minimisation of civilian casualties, just cause and right intent. I've already considered minimisation of civilian causualties within the Geneva convention.

Right intent refers to seeing the war as a necessary path to justice, something you do with the greatest of reluctance, and certainly not in pursuit of revenge rather justice.

We see one very provocative thing done by Israel - children writing messages on shells which were being fired into Lebanon. This implies revenge rather than the war being an unfortunate necessity - though one issue is how representative such images are of policy, and some have emphasised the background of the photo, claiming that the children only drew flags.

At a meeting at the Great Synagogue in Sydney, I heard a speaker talk about how the Israeli were on the side of right, and God was on their side. I found this talk disturbing. It may not be representative of Israeli government policy, but if so it was evidence that the Israelis did not have right intent. Certainly the rhetoric in circulation locally has problems.

Meir Shalev did agree that the Israelis had been excessive in their response, noting that some Lebanese did endorse Israel's first attacks which were more clearly measured and aimed at Hezbollah rather than civilians.

To be fair, in many conflicts, the different parties do lack objectivity. You might wonder if any country has even gone to war with right intent. The assessement needs to be made carefully, and some comparisons are worthwhile.

Historically, at the start of the great war, the British behaved graciously, and gave German sailors killed in battle the same military funerals as their own.

More recently, the Americans attacked Iraq using weapons such as cluster bombs. I think it is a very different type of weapon, being much more indiscriminate than the rockets that the Israelis have been using. The Sydney Shove had a recent meeting on the this conflict, and my assessment (in summary) was that the conflict could be justified, but not in its original terms and the Americans went about it in a way which was at best naive and at worse lacked just cause and right intent.

Of course, it is possible judge both the Israelis and US as bad, rather than singling out the Israelis. An important issue is the degree to which we are singling out the Israelis without fair comparisons to other major powers in recent conflicts. We could also say that pretty much all conflict caused by major powers is unjustified, and these recent attacks are merely a local symptom - without singling out the Israelis as such.

Another conflict I can think of by a western force was the British invasion of the Falklands. In that case there was limited opportunity for civilian casualties on either side - the conflict was much more "contained".

Then you have the Yugoslavian conflict - with atrocities in a completely different category to anything the Israelis have done.

So, in comparison to other conflicts, the Israelis probably stack up well, but you can still be critical of them on an absolute level.

The political situation in Lebanon is complex. Hezbollah are a party in Lebanese parliament, but they also operate independently; nevertheless, the Lebanese Government has endorsed elements of Hezbollah's policies.

But, it also seems that Lebanese civilians challenge Hezbollah - Meir Shalev notes that some Lebanese supported Israel's initial attacks, and Robert Fisk reports that Sunni occupants of Sidon stopped Hezbollah launches.

So, it is clear we have a continuum from Hezbollah military personnel to to civilians who will actively disrupt Hezbollah operations. But I find it it worrying that you might taint the innocent Lebanese with the guilty. Dershowitz, in his article "Arithmetic of Pain" states that :

"A democracy is entitled to prefer the lives of its own innocents over the lives of the civilians of an aggressor, especially if the latter group contains many who are complicit in terrorism"

Which seem to state that taint of the guilty marks the innocent, and considers that the lives of Israeli civilians are worth more than the lives of Lebanese civilians. (This was first drawn to my attention by JB.)

But, on the other hand, we must consider that in all war, civilians are going to get killed. If Israel claims to be squeaky clean, or claims to have done everything possible to reduce civilian casualties, we can challenge that. At best it is a distortion, because "everything possible" may amount to very little when military constraints are taken into account. But, a milder claim of "we're not squeaky clean, but we are doing something necessary" would be much more defensible. But, having said all this I don't know exactly how strong the Israeli claim being made is.

But now, I'll review some of the background.

I see Israel as different to Hezbollah, and I see the issue of greater relations with Arabs as different to the Israel-Lebanon issue. Israel is a democracy which has been able to make peace with Egypt and Jordan, and no longer occupies Lebanon. In constrast, Hezbollah does not have the checks and balances of a democracy; rather it is an unnaccountable group which has the objective of not merely seeking justice with Israel, but rather getting rid of Israel and a few other objectives I'll consider later.

Certainly, it is logically possible that Israel's obstinacy is an important part of the ongoing conflict with Hezbollah. However, in this case, we need to explain why it was that Israel was able to make peace with Egypt and Jordan, and has now changed to be unable to broker peace with, for the sake of argument, a reasonable Lebanon or Hezbollah.

But, it seems that Hezbollah was not reasonable, stockpiling missiles for what I find difficult to recognise as defensive purposes.

Also, we could argue that Israel has been unreasonable in its dealings with the occupied territories; but it did recently make the decision to pull settlements out of these territories. While you might argue they needed to do more, it was to my way of thinking a definite positive gesture on their part.

A last detail is whether Hezbollah was reasonable in taking hostages in order to force some deals with Israel, because it is otherwise unable to attract their attention. Normally, no. This is only valid if Hezbollah's overall objectives are reasonable while Israel is brick wall obstinate.

Hezbollah has two worrying goals - a first of eliminating Israel, and a second of reclaiming disputed territories. A third desire to return the Palestinian refugees is perhaps more reasonable.

You might think that Hezbollah are nowadays more moderate, but what seems to be their website has every reference to Israel in quotes, which seems to me offensively biased, refusing to recognise it even as a concept to deal with.

It seems to me that if Lebanon had appreciated the gesture of Israeli withdrawl you might have had a development similar to Egypt and Jordan. Further, a major reason for the formation of Hezbollah was to resist the occupation of Lebanon, and it could have moved towards being peace after this. Yes, the issue of the disputed territories is going to be a thorn in your side. But nobody is going to ever be entirely happy, and I do think Hezbollah should have moved on. But others might disagree.

I've also heard the rhetoric at the Great Synagogue be very critical of the UN and what has resulted, while at the same time assuring us that Israel has operated in good faith. The UN system has a lot of difficulties, and I don't know why we cannot say that the UN also acted in good faith. The speaker was particularly critical of Kofi Anan, but he is as much a victim of the processes of the UN and its abuse by the major players as anyone else.

Lastly, I am assuming Israel has perogative to continue, while its opponents have a right to challenge it by non violent means. Clearly, if you want to deny Israel this perogative, you will end up with different conclusions.

I stop short of using the term "right" because I do not think rights exist in the sense that they are commonly used. Such "rights" are granted by God, or in the absence of a God, through some sort of universal moral code. But, to my way of thinking "rights" only exist when we are in a society and could potentially stop someone else from doing something - for someone alone on a desert island, everything is their perogative, and it is meaningless to talk of rights. Further, if a set of universal moral principles do exist, they only represent guiding principles to inform someone in approaching the world, but not "grand licenses" in any sense of the word.

I hope this has been of interest, even if you wish to differ with my presentation.

A note added after the speech

Since my presentation, its become clear that Israel has been using the artillery equivalent of cluster bombs. Israel has been claiming that their use has been in accordance with international law. Perhaps.

Regardless, in my original presentation, I felt that the US' use of cluster bombs in Iraq was a significant point of difference to the Israeli attacks in Lebanon. This distinction is no longer as valid.

Clearly, all weapons kill. And they have the potential to kill civilians. But, used effectively they will hopefully kill, maim or otherwise disable enemy combatants with minimum civilian casualties.

However, cluster bombs and land mines are in a different category - they have much greater potential to kill people after the conflict has ended, and by definition all such people must at least be innocents and are very likely civilians.

At the presentation given at the Great Synagogue in Sydney, speakers emphasised that the construction of the warheads of the Hezbollah rockets was based around shrapnel and designed to cause civilian casualties. I did not reference in my original talk because it did seem to be an emotive assessment of weapons that did not add much. However, it now seems to strike a bad chord with the use by the Israeli Defence Forces of cluster artillery. But, again, we must separate statements in support of Israel from the actual situation and the justification and commentary given by the Israeli Government.

Further Reading