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The moral terrain of the Middle Eastern battlefield


The problem that advanced, Western powers like America and Israel face in dealing with less sophisticated enemies on the battlefield turns out not to be our much-bemoaned sensitivity to casualties. That sensitivity varies in inverse proportion to the perceived stakes. If anything, our sensitivity to their casualties, even their well-being, counts for more. This seems to be a shift from the 1990s, when Western militaries seemed obsessed with "force protection," that is, minimizing casualties, even if it might put foreign civilians at greater risk.

Consider, for example, why the U.S. Marines recently were forced to abandon Fallujah, in Iraq's "Sunni Triangle." Last night, President Bush claimed that we chose not to flatten the city for fear of alienating Iraqis. But perhaps we really avoided that method for fear of alienating ourselves. As the late Hafez Asad of Syria proved, utter savagery can subdue restive foes. Saddam Hussein once enjoyed some success with those methods as well. But America, which once annihilated entire German and Japanese cities from the air, won't use them anymore.

Or consider the recent, anguished remarks of Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, concerning house demolitions conducted by Israel's military along the Gaza-Egypt border:

"On TV I saw an old woman rummaging through the ruins of her house looking for her medication, and it reminded me of my grandmother who was thrown out of her house during the Shoah," or Holocaust, Lapid said in a radio interview after the weekly cabinet session.

"We look like monsters in the eyes of the world," he added. "This makes me sick."

Justice Minister indeed. As cruel as the house demolitions are, they encapsulate the frustrations of Israeli (and Western) superior firepower. After the Philadelphi corridor killings, and the savage and inhuman treatment of the dead bodies of Israeli soldiers, Israeli decisionmakers undoubtedly felt the same urge as anyone else would to exact retribution on their foes, and they had at their disposal effectively unlimited power to do so, if they were willing to use it. But they found it more acceptable to wreck buildings than people. And even that makes Tommy Lapid sick. And he's no bleeding-heart liberal.

So the problem isn't that we in the West really have a greater aversion to casualties than our adversaries in the Middle East. It's another kind of asymmetry entirely. One side wages war with high tech, the other side with low restraint.


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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000264.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

by Analyst @ 11:55 PM CST [Link]


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Replies: 3 comments

President Truman dropped the atom bombs on Japan in order to save the thousands of American lives it would have taken to invade the islands and wage a land war. Israel would have saved the lives of many of it's citizens if it had fought an all-out war against the PLO, using it's air power to destroy all infrastructure, and kill Arafat and the leadership. Instead Israel tried to be humane, taking care not to harm civilians, at terrible cost to it's own citizens and army. Until the West learns that it has no choice but to use maximum methods to rapidly knock out the enemy and destroy his ability to wage guerilla war and terrorism, the West will lose.

Posted by mike levine @ 05/26/2004 01:42 PM CST

If Israel thinks that it can win the war against the terrorists by military means then it is deceiving itself. Engaging in street battles in Gaza and the West Bank simply causes more civilian casualties.
Israel would be far better seeking to alienate the fighters from the local and international support it receives. This means running a factual propoganda campaign in the media highlighting the damage the PLO / PNA causes to their current supporters. For instance the British National Criminal Intelligence Services have stated that the PLO funds itself via ***** & arms trafficking, money laundering and counterfeiting, and is in large part little more than a criminal cartel. These activities damage the very nations that the PLO seeks and obtains political support from.
It would be better to highlight how EU citizens are paying for the terrorism via stolen EU funds. Nothing irks EU citizens than having their money stolen.
In addition Israel should establish a line in which it simply repeats that acceptance of the current PNA kleptocracy and administrative failure will result in the creation fo a major threat to regional stability if is allowed to continue.
The Palestinians have been successful in their propoganda war by simply repeating the same message time and time again until everyone knows it and accepts it.
It is much cheaper to buy advertising space and hold press-meetings than to fight battles.
If a single Kalshnikov bullet costs $3 then a magazine full can be equated to numbers of school books, medicines, etc etc.. Israel should start stating over and over the cost to the Palestinian people in terms of resources that ordinary people elsewhere can understand. And then repeat over and over how EU & UN funds are paying for this.
It will take time but in the end the flow of money the PLO needs to fight will dry up.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 05/26/2004 05:02 PM CST

“A simple statistical analysis of the casualties on both sides demonstrates this point. While approximately 80% of all the Israelis killed in the violence and terrorism since September 2000 are non-combatants, the compatible figure for Palestinian non-combatant casualties is no more than 45%.”
“Moreover, the lower casualty figures among Palestinian non-combatants, despite Israel's superiority in arms, clearly demonstrates Israel's respect for the safety of civilians. For while the terrorists use whatever weapons they have available against any Israeli they can hit, Israel uses only as much force as necessary in order to address specific terrorist targets.”

There is no doubt that terrorism committed in the name of the Palestinian people has been the biggest factor in holding the peace process hostage. Hamas and the other radical Islamic groups have incorrectly concluded that the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon was in large part due to the Hezbollah campaign of suicide bombings and attacks. They perceived, quite incorrectly that The Israeli society did not have the stomach for coping with an ongoing suicide campaign. However studies have shown the general population has become increasingly less susceptible to being "terrorized" (Genesis of suicide terrorism Scott Atran Science; Mar 7, 2003; 299, 5612; Academic Research Library pg. 1534 being just one example) and have substantially hardened their stance in dealing with the Palestinians.
There is substantial Irony in the fact that the recent incursions into Gaza have given the Israeli Left impetus and a voice for peace once again. The Irony of course being the fact that these repeated incursions are actually starting to make it very difficult for terror groups to operate inside Israel, creating breathing room for the Israeli peace movement to be heard, a situation impossible when busses full of school children are getting blown up. Further Irony can be seen in the apparent trigger of the peace rally - the deaths of 11 IDF soldiers in Gaza - clearly demonstrating a large section of Israeli society sees the cost in blood of maintaining the settlers in Gaza as too high a price to pay. What can be drawn from this is that Israeli society (excluding the ultra-nationalists) is squeamish only when it comes to fighting on foreign soil in a manner at odds with what a modern democracy is supposed to be about, as was the case in the occupation of Lebanon. The Israeli people felt ambivalent about occupying a foreign country, a feeling that got stronger as the Hezbollah’s capacity to attack Israelis on Israeli soil got progressively weaker.
At the latest count in the current uprising around 2,500 (not including those who have killed themselves in suicide attacks) Palestinians have died, 26,500 have been injured, and more than 3,000 homes have been demolished by the Israelis (since 1987, this figure includes demolitions of "unauthorised" homes, collective punishment and counter terrorism measures and does not include the 183 homes recently demolished in Gaza.) not to mention the unknown numbers of Palestinians residing in gaol for participating in the conflict. The Palestinians are severely restricted in their movements outside of their immediate vicinity and are often the subject of curfews and IDF sweeps at all hours. By contrast the Israeli casualties are as follows (source IDF web site) dead 963, injured 6369, Homes of settlers demolished by the IDF or the PNA : 0, curfews and restrictions of movement for Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza: none. The clear disparities between the two sides (which in no way should EVER serve as justification by the Palestinians for further acts of violence) in terms of suffering seem patently obvious.
How is a modern Western style democracy supposed to react when confronted by an enemy willing to go to any lengths in its attempt to destroy the said democracy? Modern democracies (when operating without interference) are prone to great indecisiveness at the best of times. This is not a fault of the system; it is a method, which allows debates of conscience and ideology to air in public and come to some sense of consensus. The actions of the Palestinian terrorists have to a great extent removed any chance of real discourse within Israeli society. The actions of the successive Israeli Governments has been reprehensible by any measure, not in terms of attacking the terrorist infrastructure (it is hard to deny them this right) but in terms of how the day to day blatant colonisation of areas in the West Bank and Gaza, coupled with deliberate denial of Palestinians right to build homes the “C” zones. Coupled with the daily humiliations suffered by Palestinians when being searched, harassed and intimidated by the IDF (not the mention the PNA).
Israeli Settlers vote, and there are around 380,000 of them. Many of the settlements are financially and politically supported by not only the Government of Israel, but also wealthy overseas networks that are able to exert substantial pressure on Sharon’s Government to keep the current settlements and continue expanding them as well.
These two points whilst interlinked present us with a paradox. The actions and desires of the latter are about the forces of democracy pushing for a desired resolution (for the settlers anyway) the former actions have absolutely no place at all, in any aspect of a “Western “ democracy. So whilst the Israeli Government continues along certain policy paths they cannot expect any reduction in radical behaviour from the Palestinians, quite the opposite in fact. The Israelis also find themselves on the false peak of moral high ground in the eyes of many in the West because like the Palestinians, they commit provocative, antagonistic and unjust acts and then dress them up in officialese to make it seem like everything is kosher (the Palestinians on the other hand have in the absence of any real rule of law, used the Quran as their equally rubbish assertions of “martyrdom” and so on). The quotation of a report by a British pro-Israeli group above illustrates the point perfectly. Yes, the IDF is very proficient at targeting mostly terrorists and fighters – especially considering the nature of urban warfare- however that still leaves 45% of the dead as civilians and also ignores the endless provocation and abuse by the IDF on a daily basis, throughout the country

“they had at their disposal effectively unlimited power to do so, if they were willing to use it. But they found it more acceptable to wreck buildings than people”

This comment by the analyst above seems to have quietly forgotten to mention the 50 (disputed) or so dead Palestinians in the latest incursion, some of whom were apparently killed while participating in a demonstration. I also somehow doubt that the 183 families whose houses were destroyed would view their lives as having taken a turn for the better. Also using Japan and Germany in WWII with the Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah as comparable scenarios is quite frankly, surreal.

Lastly to Mike Levine, please make sure you read your history a little more comprehensively. Japan had attempted to surrender to the Americans via the Russians months before they got nuked, the Allies refused to accept the surrender because the Japanese had demanded as a condition of surrender, that the Emperor be given immunity from prosecution of war crimes, something that General Macarthur prevented from occurring anyway. No further negotiations were entered into… The primary reasons the US dropped the Bomb on the Japanese were to send a very clear warning to Stalin about what would happen if he attempted to invade Europe, as well as wanting to see how effective the extent of the destruction would be in a populated city. As one staff US General was reputed to say, “well we’ve got the damn thing, might as well use it!” The dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were quite possibly responsible for giving Stalin pause in his ambitions, thus saving countless lives in the continuation of conflict in Europe. I cannot see how this rationalization has any moral grounds whatsoever, it smacks of leaders so drawn into the conflict that they have lost all humanity. The use of Kamikaze pilots gave suitable public justification to the argument that the Japanese were going to fight to the last man, woman and child. The reality is that the Japs were being systematically obliterated city by city and were in no condition to put up anything but token resistance. A friend of mine (who incidentally has the same view as you regarding the reasons for nuking Japan) once described to me how the Japanese High Command were issuing orders to train women to charge at the marines landing using deadly bamboo spears to drive them back to the boats. If that isn’t the actions of a nation on its knees then I’m not sure what is. Both The Yanks and the Japs new that Okinawa was the last roll of the dice.

Posted by Duck! @ 05/27/2004 10:06 AM CST

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