Proportionality in the War in Lebanon

By Abraham H. Foxman


Israel’s case before the world in its military conflict against Hezbollah is as strong as the nation has ever had. Not occupying territory from whence the aggression came, facing a foe which is recognized by the international community as terrorist and illegitimately in control of the southern part of Lebanon, being the victim of an unprovoked attack and kidnapping by the terrorist group, Israel is seen even by the usual knee-jerk critics of the Jewish state as having the right of self-defense.

The problem for Israel lies beyond first causes, in the now oft-repeated accusation that Israel is engaged in a «disproportionate» response.

Sometimes this charge takes the form of accusing Israel of destroying Lebanon just to redeem two soldiers.

Sometimes it takes the form of comparing the ratio of the civilian death toll, about ten Lebanese for every Israeli. Or other times it appears in the comment that Lebanon had finally begun to emerge from three decades of war, division and destruction, and now Israel was setting the country back irreparably.

These are serious charges. Israel does have a responsibility to itself and the international community to avoid, if possible, civilian casualties and destruction of Lebanese infrastructure. However, the accusation against Israel completely fails to recognize the context out of which this conflict has come to pass.

Israel did not go to war because of kidnapped soldiers, though the redemption of these soldiers is and must remain a priority.

The war came because of Israel’s need to eliminate the missile attacks on its population in the north and incursions into its territory from Hezbollah.

Israel’s northern cities and towns have continuously been under threat of missile attacks, especially as Hezbollah amassed an arsenal in the years since Israel left southern Lebanon. If not dealt with by Israel, Hezbollah would have evolved into a far greater threat to the fundamental security of the State of Israel.

Because the international community did nothing about Hezbollah’s control of southern Lebanon despite the Security Council passing UN resolution 1559, the terrorist group had already accumulated an estimated thirteen thousand rockets, some reportedly with a range of 125 miles. Had Israel not acted when it did, Damascus and Tehran would have undoubtedly proceeded to elevate the quantity, quality and range of missiles, with chemically-tipped weapons surely part of the future mix.

So when the issue of proportionality is raised, one must consider the size of the threat of a semi-autonomous, terrorist entity in southern Lebanon, committed to Israel’s destruction, and with an open-ended supply of ever more sophisticated weapons from Syria and Iran.

Moreover, the Hezbollah infrastructure within Lebanon is significant. It would be a difficult enough task for Israel to deal with rocket launchers, thousands of missiles, logistical support and media outlets in different parts of the country.

It is made even more difficult by the fact that Hezbollah places its missiles in civilian locations, that it is continually looking for re-supply through Damascus and is being egged on and armed by Tehran. In other words, Hezbollah is a big and complex operation that poses a big threat.

Also, let us not forget that the international community has known for a number of years exactly what was going on. Resolution 1559, demanding the dismantling of Hezbollah and its replacement in the south by the Lebanese army, understood this was hardly a small matter, but a big deal that would have involved major actions and confrontations. In the end, unfortunately, neither the Lebanese government nor the international community implemented 1559 seeing it as too big a job. So proportionate to what?

Additionally, as Alan Dershowitz pointed out in the Wall Street Journal on July 18, the element of proportionality which comes into play because of civilian deaths and infrastructure damage must take into consideration Hezbollah’s sinister strategy.

By deliberately targeting Israeli civilians with its admittedly inaccurate missiles while making it well-nigh impossible for Israel to hit its military infrastructure and arms without harming civilians; they calculatedly put Israel in an impossible dilemma: avoid imposing civilian casualties in Lebanon by leaving Hezbollah missiles intact, putting israeli citizens in a vulnerable position, or taking out Hezbollah missiles with civilian casualties, leaving Israel condemned by the international community.

In the end, Israel won’t allow itself to be paralyzed by this conundrum. It observes the first responsibility of a state – to protect its people from outside attack. And, in the process tries its best to minimize the damage to the Lebanese.

The results may be mixed in this regard but this is not only the moral posture to assume but the wisest, since Israel needs to avoid alienating the Lebanese people who must fill the vacuum when Israel defeats Hezbollah.

Finally, the proportionality accusation is presented in the context of a Lebanon which was returning to normalcy prior to this conflict. On many levels this is true and it is sad what has occurred, though it is Hezbollah that is ultimately responsible for what has happened.

On a deeper level, however, it must be stated that it was an illusion to talk about a normal, independent Lebanon as long as a terrorist group, armed to the teeth by two of the most dangerous states on the planet, held sway in the southern part of the country.

Looking at the conflict from this angle, as a big picture, Israel’s response is not out of proportion at all. Fortunately, the Bush Administration understands this and supports Israel in its historic, proportional struggle.

This article originally appeared in Ha’aretz on July 23, 2006.

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