Israel and Lebanon

Hizballah’s attack that killed two soldiers on Wednesday was the very minimum retaliation Israel could realistically expect following an air strike earlier this month on a Hizballah convoy in southern Syria. The Lebanese militia appears to want this episode to draw to a close, a message it delivered to Israel via UN peacekeepers. The more pressing question is whether Israel will let the matter drop.

For the first time Israel’s Supreme Court is set to consider evidence that senior Israeli political and military officials committed war crimes in relation to major military operations in Gaza and Lebanon. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Minister Tzipi Livni, the current justice minister, are among the high-level figures accused of breaking the laws.

In recent weeks, Israel has moved from relative inaction to a deepening involvement in Syrian affairs: it launched two air strikes last month, and at the same time fomented claims that Damascus had used chemical weapons. Meanwhile, statements from Israeli officials have tacked wildly between threats to oust Assad one moment and denials that Israel has any interest in his departure the next. Is Israel sending out contradictory signals to sow confusion, or is it simply confused itself?

Olmert slips the noose

7 February 2008

The families of some of the 119 soldiers killed during Israel’s attack on Lebanon 18 months ago, backed by disgruntled reserve army officers and the Likud Party, stepped up their calls for the head of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week after publication of the much-delayed Winograd Report. But for the moment it looks as though Olmert will cling on to power, if only by the skin of his teeth.

It apparently never occurred to anyone in our leading human rights organisations or the Western media that the same moral and legal standards ought be applied to the behaviour of Israel and Hizbullah during the war on Lebanon 18 months ago. Belatedly, an important effort has been made to set that right. A new report, written by a respected Israeli human rights organisation has unearthed evidence showing that during the fighting Israel committed war crimes not only against Lebanese civilians — as was already known — but also against its own Arab citizens.

A human rights organisation has accused the Israeli military of committing a war crime by placing military hardware, including artillery positions, inside Arab towns and villages during the war with Lebanon in July 2006. The group last week published a report claiming Arab communities were used as “human shields” by the Israeli military. The danger this posed to the Arab population was far from “theoretical”: Arab communities hit by Hezbollah’s retaliatory rockets were overwhelmingly those in which the Israeli army maintained a presence.

This week marks a year since the end of hostilities now officially called the Second Lebanon war by Israelis. A month of fighting — mostly Israeli aerial bombardment of Lebanon, and rocket attacks from the Shia militia Hizbullah on northern Israel in response — ended with more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and a small but unknown number of Hizbullah fighters dead, as well as 119 Israeli soldiers and 43 civilians. But many significant developments since the war have gone unnoticed, including several that seriously put in question Israel’s account of what happened last summer.

Israel’s supposedly “defensive” assault on Hizbullah last summer, in which more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed in a massive aerial bombardment that ended with Israel littering the country’s south with cluster bombs, was cast in a definitively different light last week by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. His leaked testimony to the Winograd Committee suggests that he had been preparing for such a war at least four months before the official casus belli.

In an article article criticising Human Rights Watch for singling out Hizbullah rather than Israel for harsher condemnation of its military actions during the Lebanon war, I made sure to quote the organisation fairly and accurately before seeking to refute its arguments. Unfortunately, in her recent response HRW’s Sarah Leah Whitson did not return the favour. Possibly realising that her case was weak, she paraphrased my argument instead, misrepresenting it, and only then tried to rebut it.