Protecting Civilians: Response to Hajjar

by Amitai Etzioni, George Washington University, Washington D.C., USA

Lisa Hajjar has positioned an op-ed I wrote as a next step in a multifaceted Israeli campaign to bring “its violence into the law.” In response, I first outline the motivation for the op-ed, and then try to address – within the space given – what I see as the underlying issue, and how it might be addressed.

I lost most of my friends and witnessed a great deal of killing and sorrow, of both Jews and Arabs, during the 1948-50 war. This formative experience (I turned 20 in the middle of the war) left me with a profound sense that all wars – whether or not they meet the criteria of just war – are tragic, and that we should go a long way to avoid them. I dedicated two books to seeking ways to avoid nuclear war (The Hard Way to Peace and Winning without War); demonstrated in Trafalgar Square against nukes; and nearly lost my job at Columbia University over my activism. I then became one of the first activists against the war in Vietnam (both experiences are described in My Brother’s Keeper: A Memoir and a Message). I opposed the US invasion of Iraq. In Security First, I argue based on extensive academic research that a detailed examination of Islamic religious texts reveals that Islam per se does not legitimate violence. Most recently, I wrote over a score of articles and op-eds warning that the US and China were sliding toward war, and organized Chinese and American public intellectuals into a group supporting Mutually Assured Restraint. In short, although no one has a very good reading of their own work, much of my life since 1950 has been dedicated to curbing violence and to delimiting it.

Regrettably, I have been unable to find many concrete ways to contribute toward moving Israel and Palestine to a two-state solution, which I strongly favor. Together with Shibley Telhami, a Palestinian scholar, I suggested that moving forward might be possible if we stop focusing on the past, focusing on where we can go from here instead of asking who is to blame for our current tragic condition. (Once we had two states, we wrote, there would be ample time to establish a Truth and Justice commission to study the past).[1] And I pointed out that the land contains ample room for both people – in contrast to those who argue that one side needs to throw the other side either into the Mediterranean or into Jordan.[2] I grant you these short statements amount to very little. If only for the sake of my four grandchildren in Israel and their parents, I wish I could have done much more.

Now as to my recent op-ed. Hajjar believes the article seeks to bring violence into the law. Far from that, it seeks to avoid bloodshed. I do take it as factually incontestable that Hezbollah has amassed some 100,000 missiles, and that it seeks to destroy Israel. It has never sought to hide its intentions or powers. Hezbollah surely did not hesitate to rain missiles on Israel in 2006, despite the fact that – as even the UN, hardly biased in favor of Israel, found – Israel lived up to all its international obligations towards Lebanon after withdrawing its forces from Lebanon (where Israel had no right to be in the first place). Moreover, I believe that there is evidence that most of Hezbollah’s missiles are placed in private homes. Surely it is fully legitimate to ask what should be done if this is where they are positioned.

I thus urged in my short op-ed, that before these missiles are once again unleashed, we should ask the ethical and legal and pragmatic question: how should Israel respond to such an attack? The goal is not to legalize violence, but to prevent it. If Israeli troops were to go from house to house to destroy these missiles, I pointed out, there would be a large number of casualties on both sides – and hence this should be avoided. In the past, I noted, the US targeted civilian populations in Tokyo and Dresden; Israel is said to have done the same in 2006 in Beirut. I argued against this response.[3] I then reported that two American military experts suggested that high-power conventional explosives could be used – after the civilian population was given time to evacuate areas in which missiles are concentrated. I acknowledge that whatever precautions are taken, tragically there will be some collateral damage – damage which is found in all armed conflicts, whatever means of warfare are used. Such collateral damage is one of the major reasons all sides should seek to avoid war. I closed with the suggestion that outsiders should be asked to participate in war games, to see if they could come up with better ways to deter Hezbollah’s use of missiles, as well as suggesting better responses if missiles should be launched.

I am not in a position to evaluate either the suggestions of various Israelis quoted by Hajjar, or what effects their statements had. I can point out, however, that this is hardly an Israeli issue alone; treating it as such leads to the wrong conclusions. It is an issue the US and its allies face all over the Middle East (widely understood), a region in which terrorists regularly violate the rule of distinction – the most important rule of armed conflict. They store ammunition in mosques; deliver suicide vests in ambulances; snipe from private homes; position artillery in schools, and use civilians as human shields.

Those who seek to counter terrorists are left with basically two options: either suffer a great number of casualties and be driven out of the area, leaving the likes of ISIS to brutalize the population, or hit civilian targets and cause massive casualties. Neither is acceptable. My op-ed urged readers to consider how this tragic dilemma might be addressed – an exercise about which Hajjar’s extensive statement is all-too silent.

Direct all correspondence to Amitai Etzioni <amitai.etzioni@gmail.com>

[1] Etzioni, A. and Telhami, S. “Mideast: Focus on the Possible.” The Christian Science Monitor, June 17, 2002

[2] Etzioni, A. “Israel and Palestine: There’s Still Room at the Inn.” The National Interest, April 9, 2014 http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/israel-palestine-theres-still-room-the-inn-10212.

[3] Etzioni, A. “Should Israel Consider Using Devastating Weapons Against Hezbollah Missiles?” Haaretz, February 15, 2016  http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.703486.

United States, Volume 6, Issue 2

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