Descent into barbarism

14 Aug 2006


Prem Shankar JhaBy the standards of recent conflicts the Lebanese 'war' is still a small affair. By Sunday evening, after three weeks of fighting, the Israelis had killed somewhat over a thousand Lebanese civilians and wounded three times as many. Hezbollah had killed 95 Israelis and injured 700. But two features of this conflict make it unique, and bode ill for the future of the world.

This is the first time that that a state has deliberately declared war on a civilian population in order to force compliance by its government. It is also the first time that permanent members of the UN Security Council have applauded the action instead of censuring it, and used their veto power to prolong the war instead of terminating it. Thus has every norm of behaviour upon which the post-war international order was built at San Francisco in 1945 been turned on its head.

Israel is not a willing, or for that matter the only sinner. The Hezbollah has been doing this for some time, because its rockets are simply too inaccurate to do anything else. Israel also claims that it is hitting civilian areas only because Hezbollah is using these as human shields for its offices, storage sites, and rocket launchers. But there is a critically important difference between Hezbollah and Israel. The latter is a modern state, and signatory to a host of treaties and conventions that specifically prohibit attacking another state except in self-defence and make attacks upon civilians a war crime. However reluctantly it has done so, Israel has breached all of these. And instead of censuring it the self-appointed keepers of the international order have encouraged it to continue to do so.

The western world's insensitivity to civilian casualties has not developed suddenly. Two world wars and a holocaust within the span of 30 years have numbed human beings to mass slaughter. As a result, the distinction between civilians and combatants has slowly been whittled away. The end of the Second World War saw several attacks that were intended to kill only civilians in order to terrorise the opponent into surrender. The most infamous of these were the fire-bombing of Dresden, and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the principle that war was fought only between armed forces was reaffirmed after the Second World War and nations continued to draft and sign treaties that proscribed the targeting of civilians as a weapon of war.

This dividing line has now been erased altogether by Israel. In three weeks of bombing it has destroyed roads, airports, bridges, overpasses, power stations, transmission towers, oil storage tanks and just about everything else that pilots in search of targets to drop bombs upon, can think of. It has paralysed Lebanon's transport system, and cut off the power supply that is necessary to sustain daily life. Essential services such as hospitals are now being run on diesel generators. But the oil is running out.

Meanwhile, oil from bombed storage tanks is flowing into the sea and now forms a 200km long, 50km wide oil slick along the Lebanese coast. This is not only an environmental disaster but will kill the local tourism and fishing industries upon which the bulk of the Lebanese depend for their livelihood. Worst of all, the transport system has been destroyed just when crops are ready to be harvested. These are rotting in the fields and on the vines. A third of Lebanon's population therefore faces destitution. It took 15 years of civil war from 1975 to 1990 to reduce Lebanon's per capita income by two thirds. Israel has done it in 21 days.

Israel's claim that it is targeting only the Hezbollah, and that civilian casualties in Lebanon are a tragic byproduct is not sustained by its behaviour. Two oil tankers, which are hovering offshore, cannot come in because Israel refuses to give the minimum assurance of safety for their insurance companies to insure the ships. Israel has so far given no indication of willingness to allow international agencies to tackle the oil slick. It also initially refused to create safe corridors or declare temporary cease fires to allow food and medicines to be delivered to the people trapped inside the combat zone.

But the most damning evidence that it is deliberately targeting the civilian population comes not from Lebanon but Gaza where, in January, it decided to starve and terrorise an entire people into throwing out the government they had elected. The plight of Gaza has not received the media attention that it deserves, but is even more desperate than Lebanon's threatens to become.

Israel has cut off its tax revenues, blockaded its coast, closed the crossing points for Palestinian workers with jobs in Israel, and is bombing and shelling large parts of its cities into rubble. With few jobs and even less income, Palestinians have sunk into an absolute destitution that few people in the rest of the world can imagine. Power has almost ceased to flow, the food shops are empty and life-saving medicines are harder to come by than gold. What Israel is doing to Gaza is akin to keeping a lion in a cage and then starving it to death.

Israel is not doing this because its people are evil or uncaring, but out of a growing desperation that borders on panic. Its policy makers cannot but be aware that they have taken the wrong track. In Gaza the denial of revenues has made the moderate Palestinian Authority impotent, even as its economic and military onslaught on the population has transferred power from the parliamentary wing of Hammas to its Syria-based military wing.

The attack on Lebanon has turned the Hezbollah into heroes even for its Christians. According to an opinion poll carried out under difficult circumstances earlier this week, 85 per cent of the Lebanese now support it, against 50 per cent before the war. Three weeks of war does not seem to have dented the Hezbollah's fighting capacity — the rain of rockets on Northern Israel had doubled. It is also a safe bet that the supply of arms from Iran through Syria and of volunteers from all over the Arab world has not dwindled.

Lebanon and the entire Arab League have rejected it's bid, through a US-crafted Security Council resolution to allow it to stay in South Lebanon, till its troops can be replaced by an international peace-keeping force. In any case, as numerous experts have pointed out, even an international force will be able to do nothing if Hezbollah does not cooperate.

So what if Hezbollah does not cooperate? Should Israel widen its attack to include southern Syria or should it and the US go straight for the 'head of the snake' and bomb Iran back into the Stone Age. By now even Israeli children should have learned that all that will do is to destroy the Syrian and Iranian states and enlarge the area in which guerrillas are being recruited and sheltered from Afghanistan to Lebanon.

The truth is that Israel cannot achieve peace by waging war. This may have been possible when civilians could fight only with knives and muskets. But the revolution in military science has empowered the guerrilla far more than it has empowered the state. The only way to counter an insurgency or fight a terrorist / guerrilla war is to seek political accommodation with its more moderate elements to isolate its extremists.

Hezbollah's readiness to cease its attacks if the Israeli army withdraws and is replaced by the Lebanese army backed by an augmented UN peacekeepers' force, may only be a tactical ploy, but it can open the only road that remains towards peace.

To get on it Israel needs to signal its willingness to change tack unequivocally. One way would be to announce that it will accept the Lebanese proposal and simultaneously lift its blockade on Gaza if both Hezbollah and Hamas agree to a long-term cease fire. This will immediately shift Arab pressure from Israel to Hamas and Hezbollah. Even Syria and Iran are likely to urge restraint. The resulting cessation of hostilities will give time for wounds to heal. That may, in time, open other roads to peace

* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.

(The author's articles can be read at

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