Some Thoughts From Israel
Here are some thoughts that were sent to me by my good friend Michael Bavly, who is watching all this unfold from Haifa and the Galilee. He is 33, a lawyer, a Lieutenant in reserve and a gentleman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I have benefited from his viewpoint and thoughts. Here they are in three seperate essays:
The View from Northern Israel
When I just arrived to the US, back in 1996, I was afraid I would get mugged while riding the subway. So, each time I would ride it by myself I would sit tight, hold on to my luggage, and occasionally look around, jilting my head sporadically, moving my eyes rapidly, and even growl, all in order to create the impression that I am a madman not to be messed with. Such is the strategy employed by Israel these days – so all will know that the landlord lost it. Beware, and back off!
The problem with this war, besides the fact that the IDF has already killed more than 120 Lebanese civilians, and the Hezbollah killed more than 12 Israeli civilians, is that it has no clear objective. One can name several probable outcomes, but at the end of the day this war is about payback. All the chatter since Wednesday noon is about "making them pay", "taking Lebanon back 20 years", and simply "showing them". Needless to say, that's not how one should wage war.
War cannot be based on revenge. War, and any use of military forces, necessitates clear political objectives. These objectives are meant to activate as well as restrain the military. As of today, such objectives have not been clearly defined by Israel, and instead we hear an array of slogans based on the whim of the current spokesperson – "Hezbollah shall not remain near the Israeli border", "Hezbollah shall not fire rockets at Israel"… Hold on a second, does anyone remember Gilad Shalit? Ehud Goldwaser? Eldad Regev?
Let's pause for a second and try to award real value to the events we have been witnessing. No doubt that the current round of blows has been instigated by the Hezbollah. But let us not get carried away with allegations of escalation, because there Israel is to blame. Israel was the first to massively attack civilian targets and cause civilian fatalities. Israel is the one that killed 10 Lebanese civilians for every 1 Israeli civilian fatality. There is no doubt that Israel has retaliated with great force, massive bombardment, and indifference which we have not seen in years, but it cannot all be justified. The Israeli Air Force circles the skies of Beirut, the Beirut International Airport has been bombed and taken out of commission, the border crossings to Syria are jammed-packed and most of the main roads have been bombed as well, and lastly, the Israeli Navy has placed a blockade on the shores of Lebanon. Vengeance is understandable, but we mustn't ignore the fact that the destruction and suffering experienced by the Lebanese people is 10 times greater than that which the Israeli people experience.
And then there is the Hezbollah—an organization that behaves like a true enemy: it hates us, taunts us, stuns us, kills us. Truth be told, the Hezbollah does not represent, by any means, an existential threat to the state of Israel; but occasionally it carries out a successful military operation. And when it succeeds, Israel is rattled, politicians get more airtime, and anchors and commentators quench their egos. Essentially, this entire round of violence is due to the fact that the Hezbollah's military operation last Wednesday was successful – perhaps because the IDF soldiers were not prepared, perhaps because the reserve soldiers were overconfident, and perhaps because the Hezbollah soldiers were simply better, and maybe they were plain lucky.
In any event, I look at all of this and I think to myself 'what losers'. What a loser is the IDF that soldiers are kidnapped from within Israeli territory. What arrogance is displayed by the IDF when a Navy boat is hit by a missile and the best excuse to offer is "we didn’t know they had that type of missile." What loser of a nation stands still at the news that the leader of its enemy is about(!) to broadcast a pre-recorded speech. What losers are the Israeli leaders (supported by zealous media) that arrogantly blabber baseless commentary as if victory is at hand, as if triumph is measured by the destruction we shed on Beirut… as if we were never part of this movie before.
And behind the arrogant and egocentric Israeli attitude, the main problem is revealed – that of the Israeli public. The Israeli public, which we all support and care for, the society that withstands so much but also flees the northern towns, this public is now revealing its true colors. These colors are of a blood thirsty public, full of vengeance, and, above all, a crybaby public. A child often cries not because of the pain, but because of the surprise it got hit. And such is the Israeli public: surprised, embarrassed, egocentric, and seeking vengeance! In the morning of last Wednesday, not knowing what had happened, I could hear the Boom-Boom-Boom; by the afternoon it was replace with Kill-Kill-Kill.
The public is somehow allowed to seek revenge. Leadership, however, must not act upon vengeance. A responsible civil leadership must always ask itself what are the objectives sought, which once attained, would allow the cessation of hostilities. Absent such clearly defined objectives, there will be no exit strategy. Absent an exit strategy, there will be no civil control over the military might. Absent civil control over military might, there will be no utilization of warfare outcomes. And absent utilization of warfare outcomes, an illusion that something was done is created. And illusions, as we know by now, tend to blowup in our own faces.
I wish that Israel would stop acting based on vengeance. I wish my Israeli Prime Minister would finally declare clear and sensible objectives. I wish we would stop being so arrogant, smug, and knowing-all. I wish we would show some respect to the Hezbollah as a military foe, and also show respect to the Lebanese people as a northern neighbor. I wish we would realize and understand that we are killing Lebanese civilians, and that the sufferings we inflict by far exceed that which we endure. I want to know exactly what it is we are fighting for and what we are trying to achieve. And I want us to understand that we are not alone here in the Middle East, and we cannot simply do as we please.
The Price We Pay
The concept of 'a just war' used to be a war to which there was no other alternative. Somewhere along the years, however, the term 'a just war' received a meaning of a war in which we have the legitimate right to act with military force. Therein, perhaps, lies the difference in perspectives between those who support this war and those who criticize it. The majority of Israelis see this war as a legitimate response to an unprovoked attack on Israel. In war, however, it is better to be smart than just.
The sequence of events of that crucial Wednesday, when two IDF soldiers were abducted and the current mess began three weeks ago, was such that it was actually Israel that first massively struck civilian targets. The Israeli government/army chose to attack an array of targets, including civilian ones, in response to an unprovoked, perfectly carried out, military operation. It is true that Israel responded to a clear act of aggression, but Hezbollah's aggression was aimed at an Israeli military objective, not a civilian one.
One may think that Israel's reaction was just and proportional, but let there be no doubt that Hezbollah attacked Haifa and other Israeli civilian targets only after Israel reacted the way it did. In any event, a discussion of Hezbollah's moral standards cannot, and should not, be used as a means to legitimize the Israeli conduct. Israel's behavior needs to be measured against its own moral standards and not based on the conduct of others. Furthermore, the issue is not who struck first, and the responsibility rests on Israel because of the particular manner it chose to react. (Which, by the way, raises the question of what ever happened to the ever so popular policy of "we reserve the right to respond in the place, manner, and time we shall deem fit!" ??)
The immediate, domestic consequence of Israel’s retaliation is that northern Israel is semi-abandoned and mostly shut-down. Except for essential services, food markets, and gas stations, most businesses are closed. In addition, post offices and banks operate irregularly, and much of the population has moved south. The siren is sounding the alarm to find shelter about six times during the day, and reportedly, the Hezbollah is firing an average of 110 rockets per day, at mostly civilian targets in Israel. Luckily, many of the rockets land in open areas, but a sufficient number of them have hit homes, cars, and factories, and they have resulted in a few dozen fatalities and hundreds of injuries. Overall, there is massive support for the government and the IDF's actions in Lebanon, but after three weeks of fighting a few voices of dissent are also heard.
With emotions running high, the situation is often blamed on Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon back in the summer of 2000 – "it is the price we pay for leaving southern Lebanon"; "it is the price we pay for letting the Hezbollah arm themselves uninterrupted for 6 years." Few remember now that during the years leading up to the 2000 withdrawal Israel paid an average price of 100 dead IDF soldiers each year, while since the withdrawal the average number of IDF casualties dropped to two per year. Then came Wednesday, July 11, 2006, and in three weeks the Israeli civilian and military casualties has tripled that of the death toll of the past 6 years combined. On the other side of the border the number of Lebanese civilian and military casualties number in the upper hundreds, and the damage to the civilian infrastructure is huge, but still immeasurable at this point. So, this is the price we pay these days, it is a price we pay for maintaining the illusion that Israel, as a nation, is doing all that it can to bring about peace to the land.
The uncompromised-pursuit-of-peace illusion is a myth that has been blinding the Israeli public for years. It is a myth because the 2000 withdrawal was unilateral, and because after the withdrawal Israel simply sat there without genuinely campaigning to make peace between itself, Syria, and Lebanon. The illusion was further nurtured by portraying the withdrawal to the Israeli public as yet another huge gesture towards peace; however, following the withdrawal Israel closed itself off within its borders, it publicly rejected the Saudi peace plan of 2002, and IDF airplanes continued to violate Lebanese airspace. In reality, the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon was simply an act that ended an 18 year military occupation of a foreign land, and the decision to withdrawal was based on purely selfish reasons – the cost of IDF fatalities was too high to bear. But now, it seems, the price of warfare has become lucrative again.
This military campaign has been going on for more than three weeks now, and with casualties mounting and no visible military or political achievement in sight, the time has come to stop arguing over legitimacy and start focusing on how to end this current round of violence. And while you are at it, don’t forget Gaza. It is time to cease-fire and to find a different way to move on and out of this bloody stalemate. Surely, the price we have paid by now is high enough.
What should Israel do?
First of all, even if my answer would have been "I don't know," it still does not make the current military action the only viable option. One can always name threats to Israel and therefore can always name possible military "necessities". But even when the IDF is required to act, certain ground rules must apply. First, it is the civil leadership that activates the army and not vice versa. Second, the civil leadership needs to decide on clear objectives and guidelines for the military action. Third, no military should be deployed without having an exit strategy. Fourth, comprehend that a stick is only as painful as the carrot beside it; absent a carrot, in the form of attainable and sensible political objectives, the stick ultimately looses its effect. Fifth, military targets must be distinguished from civilian targets. And lastly, the civil leadership must be ready to accept the ramification of its actions, including the probable harm inflicted on its own citizens.
I would like Israel to understand all of the above. I would like Israel to act within the moral standards it aspires to hold. Israel should stop hurting the Lebanese society. If the numbers do not speak for themselves, I don’t know what does. More than 200 Lebanese civilian casualties, and about a 15 Israeli civilian casualties. If Israel decides to use the IDF, with its sophisticated military force and high moral grounds, then such civilian death toll is simply unacceptable. Israel has to do a better job in reducing the amount of civilian Lebanese casualties.
After taming the use of its military force, Israel needs to embark on an equally massive diplomatic campaign. It must get the active involvement of neighboring Egypt and Jordan, of the EU, the UN, and of course the US. Numerous international players can be of aid here, and Israel should ask for their assistance in attaining the goals set out by the civil leadership. A combined effort is the way to go, combined military and diplomatic, combined regional and international.
What should be Israel's objectives? Achieving security and peace in the northern front, and the safe return of its kidnapped soldiers. Achieving security and peace means that Lebanon would assert its sovereignty over the entire country. As far as Lebanese foreign affairs is concerned there can be just one sovereign. As far as domestic Lebanon, it is up to no one else but the Lebanese themselves to decide. Lebanon is home for distinguish ethnic groups, and the Hezbollah is the vocal representative of the Shiite population in Lebanon; they are Lebanese citizens, and Israel cannot expect them to simply vanish, it's just not going to happen. But there can be a just and fair expectation for a quiet border between Israel and Lebanon, much like the one between Syria and Israel.
Achieving a quiet border between Lebanon and Israel would probably necessitate the dismantling of arms of the Hezbollah. It would mean that someone other than Hezbollah would have to secure the border from the Lebanese side. This means that Israel, Lebanon, or some sort of an international task force, would take over the positions in the south. Israel already occupied southern Lebanon once – not a good idea. In any event, any sustainable solution would necessitate some sort of international cooperation.
Ultimately I fear an uncontrolled Israeli military action that would further complicate Israel. I fear that the IDF will dictate (deliberately or by accident) the policy instead of the civil leadership dictating to the IDF. Force alone never solved things, it only made people eventually realize that the price of warfare is too high, and then they all talked. The expectation that Israel is able to simply impose a solution as it deems fit is a fundamental misunderstanding of international relations.