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Monday 22 April 2024

Israel Has Targeted Civilians Before


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One of the most incredulous things that people say about the Israeli Defence Force is that it is “the most moral army in the world”. Putting aside how ridiculous this is in the context of the current war on Gaza, this should be incredibly offensive to members of the military of Switzerland, among other places. Switzerland has long take an stance of neutrality in many of the world’s wars, creating for itself a large level of prosperity, but also keeping it from being accused of a variety of war crimes that many modern armies are accused of. It is hard to be immoral in war, if you say no to invading other countries, bombing other countries, and aligning in battle with other countries.  

Part of the basis of this statement about the morality of the Israeli army is the assertion that they go more out of their way to prevent the deaths of civilians than any other state force. But after having read more deeply into the history of the war on Palestine in the last 100 years, I can say that this is certainly not the case. There have been many instances of the IDF targeting civilians. That is not to say that their enemies are particularly moral, because they are not. I wrote about how evil and counterproductive how Hamas fights is, in a previous piece. They are not moral in any way. Fighting hard and dirty appears to be the norm in the Middle East, as it is in many contexts where wars are unceasing. Constant war hardens people. A very good example of this is when you look at how in World War 2 at the start of the war Americans were horrified at Britain’s tactic of bombing civilian cities, but by the end of the war they were going above and beyond what even the Brits had done. War is a corrupting force, it hardens the human soul, especially if it is ongoing.

I also think it could be argued that one of the natures of war anywhere in the Middle East is that it corrupts all sides equally and drags them all down to a pretty deplorable level. A friend of mine has a saying, “Don’t argue with stupid people, because they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” You could adjust this to say, “Don’t get involved in fighting quarrelsome people, they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

Khalidi shows in his book, The 100 Years’ War on Palestine, just how ridiculous the assertion is that the IDF always goes out of its way not to target civilians. He writes about what happened with Israel’s war in Lebanon against the PLO in the early 1980’s,

“It is not hard to understand the reasoning of these leaders and the communities they represented. Southerners, most of them Shi‘ites, had suffered more than any other Lebanese from the PLO’s actions. Besides its own violations and transgressions against the population in the south, the PLO’s very presence had exposed them to Israeli attacks, forcing many to flee their villages and towns repeatedly. It was understood by all that Israel was intentionally punishing civilians to alienate them from the Palestinians, but there was nevertheless much bitterness against the PLO as a result.”[1]

I want to stress here that this is not an argument from Khalidi or myself asserting that the enemies of Israel are any more moral, as he notes here, they too were committing crimes against civilian populations in Lebanon. But the point stands that Israel are happy to use collective punishment when they believe it suits their aims. The current war in Gaza is an example of this, with the IDF setting up a medieval style siege against the Gaza strip to limit severely any food or supplies coming into the city. When Hamas numbers around 30,000 fighters, whereas the population of Gaza is over 2 million people, this amounts to collective punishment and starvation of a civilian populace. This is targeting civilians, but Khalidi goes on to show how Israel have done this previously, as well,  

For the Sunnis, in particular those in West Beirut, the bombardment and siege of the Lebanese capital put an end to their staunch support for the PLO...This was a crucial shift: without the support of Beirut’s largely Sunni population, together with its many Shi‘a residents, prolonged resistance by the PLO to the Israeli offensive was ultimately futile...

...A few more weeks into the war, however, the leaders of the three Lebanese Muslim communities changed their position significantly and became more supportive of the PLO. This shift came after the PLO consented to withdraw from Beirut in exchange for ironclad guarantees for the protection of the civilians who would be left behind.

On July 8, the PLO presented its Eleven-Point Plan for withdrawal of its forces from Beirut. This plan called for establishing a buffer zone between Israeli forces and West Beirut, coupled with a limited withdrawal of the Israeli army, the lasting deployment of international forces, and international safeguards for the Palestinian (and Lebanese) populations, which would be left behind virtually without defenses once the PLO’s fighters had departed. On the strength of this plan, the Lebanese Muslim leaders were convinced that the PLO was sincere in its willingness to depart as a move to save the city. Also, they were deeply disconcerted by mounting evidence of Israel’s overt backing for the mainly Maronite LF, since it underlined the vulnerability of their communities in a post-PLO Lebanon dominated by Israel and its militant allies.

These concerns had been reinforced by the arrival of the LF militias in the Shouf in late June, and the widespread massacres, abductions, and murders that they carried out there and in the areas of the south under Israeli control. At this stage, after seven years of civil war, such sectarian slaughter was commonplace, and the PLO’s forces had served as a primary defender of the country’s Muslims and leftists. The Sunni, Shi‘a, and Druze leaders therefore redoubled their backing for the PLO’s demands in its Eleven-Point Plan.

There is a vital thread of US responsibility that must be followed to understand what happened next. The consequences were not just the result of decisions by Sharon, Begin, and other Israeli leaders, or of the actions of Lebanese militias who were Israel’s allies. They were also the direct responsibility of the Reagan administration, which, under pressure from Israel, stubbornly refused to accept the need for any formal safeguards for civilians, rejected the provision of international guarantees, and blocked the long-term deployment of international forces that might have protected noncombatants. Instead, to secure the PLO’s evacuation, Philip Habib, operating via Lebanese intermediaries, provided the Palestinians with solemn, categorical written pledges to shield the civilians in the refugee camps and neighborhoods of West Beirut...An American note of August 18 to the Lebanese foreign minister enshrining these pledges stated that

Law-abiding Palestinian non-combatants remaining in Beirut, including the families of those who have departed, will be authorized to live in peace and security. The Lebanese and US governments will provide appropriate security guarantees . . . on the basis of assurances received from the government of Israel and from the leaders of certain Lebanese groups with which it has been in contact.

These assurances were taken by the PLO to constitute binding commitments, and it was on their basis that it agreed to leave Beirut.”[2]

So, having lost the support of the Lebanese population, the PLO agreed to leave the city of Beirut, clear the region, and give it over to Israeli control on the provision that the United States and Lebanon made sure the Palestinians civilians, and others, were protected. But what actually happened? This:

“On August 12, after epic negotiations, final terms were reached for the PLO’s departure. The talks were conducted while Israel carried out a second day of the most intense bombardment and ground attacks of the entire siege. The air and artillery assault on that day alone—over a month after the PLO had agreed in principle to leave Beirut—caused more than five hundred casualties. It was so unrelenting that even Ronald Reagan was moved to demand that Begin halt the carnage. Reagan’s diary relates that he called the Israeli prime minister during the ferocious offensive, adding, “I was angry—I told him it had to stop or our entire future relationship was endangered. I used the word holocaust deliberately & said the symbol of his war was becoming a picture of a 7 month old baby with its arms blown off.” This sharp phone call impelled Begin’s government to halt its rain of fire almost immediately, but Israel refused to budge on the crucial issue of international protection for the Palestinian civilian population as a quid pro quo for the PLO’s evacuation.”[3]

So, Israel continued to bomb the area, even though negotiations to cease fighting were ongoing. This bombing was so horrific that even Ronald Regan, a famously pro-Israel President, called on Israel to stop the onslaught. That is an incredible fact. Note, though the PLO had not yet left, this was still an area filled with civilians, but this did not stop the relentless Israeli bombing. Let’s keep reading,  

The departure from Beirut of thousands of the PLO’s militants and fighting forces between August 21 and September 1 was accompanied by a broad outpouring of emotion in West Beirut. Weeping, singing, ululating crowds lined the routes as convoys of trucks carried the Palestinian militants to the port. They watched as the PLO was forced to evacuate the Lebanese capital, with its leaders, cadres, and fighters going to an unknown destiny. They ended up scattered by land and sea over a half dozen Arab countries...

...As their convoys rolled through Beirut, no one was aware that a sudden and unilateral American decision, taken under Israeli pressure, meant that the international forces supervising the evacuation—American, French, and Italian troops—would be withdrawn as soon as the last ship left. Israeli obduracy and US acquiescence had left the civilian population unprotected.”[4]

The PLO had agreed to leave, but they did not know that America was not intending to keep up their end of the bargain. And of course, it was not an official agreement, as Khalidi notes. The Palestinians had not read their American history, if they had, they would know that America has a long track record of betraying those it makes treaties or agreements with, when it suits them. The Native American peoples found this out the hard way, continually. We read a little further on,

“…The next day, September 16, I was sitting with Kerr and several of my AUB colleagues on the veranda of his residence when a breathless university guard came to tell him that Israeli officers at the head of a column of armored vehicles were demanding to enter the campus to search for terrorists…On the same night, September 16, Raja and I were perplexed as we watched a surreal scene: Israeli flares floating down in the darkness in complete silence, one after another, over the southern reaches of Beirut, for what seemed like an eternity. As we saw the flares descend, we were baffled: armies normally use flares to illuminate a battlefield, but the cease-fire had been signed a month earlier, all the Palestinian fighters had left weeks ago, and any meager Lebanese resistance to the Israeli troops’ arrival in West Beirut had ended the previous day. We could hear no explosions and no shooting. The city was quiet and fearful.

The following evening, two shaken American journalists, Loren Jenkins and Jonathan Randal of the Washington Post, among the first Westerners to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, came to tell us what they had seen. They had been with Ryan Crocker, who was the first American diplomat to file a report on what the three of them witnessed: the hideous evidence of a massacre. Throughout the previous night, we learned, the flares fired by the Israeli army had illuminated the camps for the LF militias—whom it had sent there to “mop up”—as they slaughtered defenseless civilians. Between September 16 and the morning of September 18, the militiamen murdered more than thirteen hundred Palestinian and Lebanese men, women, and children...

...In Waltz with Bashir, Folman refers to concentric circles of responsibility for the mass murder that was facilitated by this act, suggesting that those in the outer circles were also implicated. In his mind, “the murderers and the circles around them were one and the same.”

The statement is as true of the war as a whole as it is of the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. A commission of inquiry set up after the events, chaired by Israeli Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Kahan, established the direct and indirect responsibility of Begin, Sharon, and senior Israeli military commanders for the massacres. Most of those named lost their posts as a result of both the inquiry and the general revulsion in Israel over the massacres. However, documents released by the Israel State Archives in 201246 and the unpublished secret appendices to the Kahan Commission reveal even more damning evidence of these individuals’ culpability, which was far greater than the original 1983 report lays out. The documents expose long-deliberated decisions by Sharon and others to send the practiced Phalangist killers into the Palestinian refugee camps, with the aim of massacring and driving away their populations. They also show how American diplomats were repeatedly browbeaten by their Israeli interlocutors and failed to stop the slaughter that the US government had promised to prevent.”[5]

What is important to note here is that the Israeli investigation itself found the senior Israeli military leaders responsible for this massacre. One of those leaders would eventually become the Prime Minister of Israel. We also read,

“According to these documents, after the entire PLO military contingent had left Beirut at the end of August 1982, Begin, Shamir, Sharon, and other Israeli officials falsely asserted that some two thousand Palestinian fighters and heavy weaponry remained in the city, in violation of the evacuation accords. Shamir made the claim in a meeting with an American diplomat on September 17,49 even though the United States government knew for certain that this was not the case—Sharon himself told the Israeli cabinet a day earlier that “15,000 armed terrorists had been withdrawn from Beirut.” Moreover, Israeli military intelligence undoubtedly knew that this number included every single regular PLO military unit in Beirut.”[6]

Consider the import of these words. This was planned and carried out and the United States did not stop it. The US knew that all of the fighters had left, but they did nothing to actually stop this event. And the reason why this is significant will be seen soon. The Israel military did not do these attacks directly, but through their proxies, 

...Unbeknown to Draper or the US government, at that very moment the LF militias that Sharon’s forces had sent into the refugee camps were carrying out the killing of which he spoke—but of unarmed old people, women, and children, not supposed terrorists. If Sharon’s forces did not carry out the actual slaughter, they had nonetheless armed the LF to the tune of $118.5 million, trained them, sent them to do the job, and illuminated and facilitated their bloody task with flares.”[7]

This is incredibly chilling. As is how closely America supported its ally in this attack which killed thousands of civilians, by arming them in this conflict. To avoid American interference in this war, which they had faced in 1956 when they wanted to attack Egypt, Israel made sure that they had full US backing before they attacked,  

“Now, in 1982, launching this “war of choice,” as many Israeli commentators called it, was entirely dependent on the green light given by Alexander Haig, a point confirmed by well-informed Israeli journalists soon after the war. The new and fuller details revealed in previously unavailable documents make the case clearly: Sharon told Haig exactly what he was about to do in great detail, and Haig gave his endorsement, amounting to another US declaration of war on the Palestinians. Even after a public outcry over the deaths of so many Lebanese and Palestinians civilians, after the televised images of the bombardment of Beirut, after the Sabra and Shatila massacres, American support continued undiminished.

In terms of what Ari Folman called the outer circles of responsibility, American culpability for Israel’s invasion extends even further than Haig’s green light: the United States supplied the lethal weapons-systems that killed thousands of civilians and that were manifestly not used in keeping with the exclusively defensive purposes mandated by American law…

…Because of this knowledge, because of American backing for Israel and tolerance of its actions, its supplies of arms and munitions for use against civilians, its coercion of the PLO to leave Beirut and refusal to deal directly with it, and its worthless assurances of protection, the 1982 invasion must be seen as a joint Israeli-US military endeavor—their first war aimed specifically against the Palestinians."[8]

They say history does not repeat, but that it rhymes. And when it comes to Israel’s wars against Palestinians, there have been previously recorded and investigated examples of civilians being targeted. The United States is on record having known what was happening and supplying them the weapons which they used in these attacks. And yet still Israel claims that it has "the most moral military in the world." What we see recorded in history with these attacks is being repeated today and yet still people make this claim. 

This all does not mean that Israel’s enemies are any more moral, Hamas is known for targeting civilians regularly, they are not the friends of civilisation or the West. But Israel is guilty of targeting civilians as well, and the US is guilty of not doing anything to stop it. And this is on record. Many people are ill-informed about the nature of the ongoing war in Gaza. It stretches back about a century now, and both sides have committed atrocities. This is not a situation where westerners should be getting involved in defending one side as “good”. It is a situation where the entire world should be divorcing itself from the problems of the Middle East, cutting aid, especially military aid, to the any of these nations, and judging each nations actions according to an objective standard. Israel is not the innocent party many westerners think it is. And getting involved in wars in the Middle East is a recipe for moral corruption. 

List of References

[1] Khalidi, Rashid . The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: The New York Times Bestseller, Profile. Kindle Edition. Chapter 4.

[2] Ibid, chapter 4.

[3] Ibid, chapter 4.

[4] Ibid, chapter 4.

[5] Ibid, chapter 4.

[6] Ibid, chapter 4.

[7] Ibid, chapter 4.

[8] Ibid, chapter 4. 

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