Monday, July 24, 2006

The world's a sea of "shit"

some sink, some swim and some go in boats. I have refrained so far, but feel it is now time to stick my oar in.

Just about everyone is today asking if (or just declaring that) Israel is committing war crimes by its bombardment of Lebanon.

It seems that the approximate test being applied is this:
Is it a civilian death from IDF action?
If the answer is "Yes", then it seems to be a war crime.
Oddly, the corresponding test:
Is it a civilian death from a rocket launched by Hezbollah?
seems only to elicit a response of "Whatever".

As one might expect, there is a proper ding dong on this topic over at Harry's Place and in fact, this is what prompts me to comment.

One commenter asks:
I'm fairly certain there is something in the Geneva Conventions about it being valid to kill civilians, when the enemy is hiding amongst them. I'm researching it further to find the exact wording.
Which prompts dsquared to respond:
The exact wording is that it isn't.
Whilst I wouldn't use the exact wording "valid", the assumption in his response and in all the links above is not so much that it is always "invalid", but that it is always a war crime. This strikes me as wrong.
Let's look at what the Geneva Conventions (or rather Protocol I to Fourth Geneva Conventions). The relevant section is "Art. 51. - Protection of the civilian population":
Here it is:
1. The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations. To give effect to this protection, the following rules, which are additional to other applicable rules of international law, shall be observed in all circumstances.
Let's see how variously IDF and Hezbollah measure up...
2. The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.
Well that seems to rule out Hezbollah's rocket attacks in the general direction of Haifa. Katyushas are not exactly precision weapons. Firing them into a city can have no other effect. I'm going to reserve judgement on the IDF for the time being. I'll explain below.
3. Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this section, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.
So, for the avoidance of doubt, the members (any other term is hopelessly loaded) of Hezbollah are definitely NOT covered by these protections.
4. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:
(a) those which are not directed at a specific military objective;
See Hezbollah rocket attacks above.
(b) those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or
(c) those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.
Paragraph 5 expands on the theme of indiscrimate attacks:
5. Among others, the following types of attacks are to be considered as indiscriminate:
(a) an attack by bombardment by any methods or means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects;


(b) an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
Hmmm. That sounds a little equivocal. If civilian casualties are always a war crime or are never valid, there would be little need for a comparison to the military advantage at all. But it's more important than that. The comparison is between expected loss of civilian life and anticipated military advantage. To be clear, you are within the rules to attack a target even if you KNOW beforehand that the attack will definitely result in the loss of civilian life and even if the target turns out not to be as big as expected (or not there at all).
6. Attacks against the civilian population or civilians by way of reprisals are prohibited.
Fairly self explanatory. To be honest this is covered by Para 2 anyway.
7. The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favour or impede military operations. The Parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations.
Translation: if combatants of Party A set up in the middle of a village, are subsequently attacked by Party B and civilians die, PARTY A has contravened the protocol and is responsible for the death of those civilians. Military targets are always military targets. It is up to the combatants on each side to ensure that they do not put the civilians around them in danger.

Hezbollah sets up in the middle of villages. It hides amongst civilians. When it is attacked by the IDF, it is Hezbollah - NOT THE IDF - that is responsible for any civilian deaths.
8. Any violation of these prohibitions shall not release the Parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians, including the obligation to take the precautionary measures provided for in Article 57.
Doesn't matter what either side does, their opponents still have to abide by the rules.

Art. 52., Para 3. is good too:
In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.
In other words, if a civilian site, such as for example a school, is definitely "making an effective contribution to military action", it becomes a legitimate target and loses the protections of the convention until such time as combatants leave (or are otherwise neutralised), even if there are civilians still there. Whilst there is always going to be a good measure of doubt and some good finger pointing to be done, showing the aftermath of an attack is not tremendously informative.

And whilst we are about it, Art. 57, Para 2(b) is interesting:
[With respect to attacks, the following precautions shall be taken:]
an attack shall be cancelled or suspended if it becomes apparent that the objective is not a military one or is subject to special protection or that the attack may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated;
Israeli fighters returning without dropping their bomb loads anyone?
(c) effective advance warning shall be given of attacks which may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit.
Again, we know that IDF have been issuing warnings and running leaflet drops. Any reports of similar sensible behaviour from Hezbollah?

More importantly, this brings us back to my reserved judgement on the IDF earlier. If the IDF's primary purpose was to kill or generally terrorise civilians, why would they give advance warning? If their primary purpose was to kill or generally terrorise civilians and particularly given the sophistication of their weaponry and the number of raids conducted, they seem to be doing a pretty poor job.

If we are going to start slinging about accusations of war crimes, do we look for a party that:
  • deliberately locates its command centres, combatants and munitions in densely populated civilian areas;
  • refuses to use uniforms and insignia and generally tries to be indistinguishable from the civilian population;
  • launches wildly inaccurate weaponry over long distances into civilian population centres
  • without warning
Or one that:
  • separates itself from its civilian population by insignia, uniforms and location;
  • has a well defined command structure accountable to a democratically elected executive;
  • issues radio and text message warnings and carries out leaflet drops
  • and aborts missions at the last moment if no target can be identified?
Not a very tough choice really.

I make no comment here on the scale or overall proportionality of response of the IDF. To be honest, I think the Israelis ought to be aware of the propaganda value of images of wounded children and they appear to be handing their enemies stuff on a plate.

War is shit. People get killed. Stuff gets destroyed. That's the deal. The question is how to stop it and to do that we have to look at what each side wants. Broadly Israel wants to exist within internationally agreed borders - it spends a great deal of time saying so. By contrast, Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran are quite clear that they want to wipe Israel off the map: cue Fred Halliday in Open Democracy (via the Norm)
... there was no margin of doubt in the sheikh's view that Israel was an illegitimate state and that it should be abolished. This position was bolstered... by the deployment of quotes from the Qu'ran denouncing Jews and calling for a struggle against them.

I put it to the sheikh that this use of the Islamic tradition, in a context of modern political conflict, was racist, a point he evidently did not accept. An alternative, open and respectful, attitude to Jews can also be derived from other parts of the Islamic tradition, but this, like the racist reading, depends on contemporary political choice.


From one roadside vantage-point, they had pointed to the still unresolved Shebaa area to the southeast. As we looked over to this Israeli town, with people clearly visible walking in the streets, the chief guide turned to me with an unambiguous message: "It took us twenty-two years to drive them out of here [Lebanon]", and it may take us up to forty years to drive them out of there [occupied Palestine]".

I long ago decided, in dealing with revolutionaries and with their enemies, in the middle east and elsewhere, to question their motives and sense of reality, but to take seriously what they stated to be their true intentions.
Israel has nothing to gain by a further occupation of Lebanon, other than to subdue the militants. But, now that those nice gentlemen in Iran have equipped Hezbollah with the longer range Fajr rockets, Israel is going to have to occupy a damn sight more than they did last time to provide an effective buffer zone to protect Israel-proper. I can't see how a ceasefire would be in their gift.

By contrast however, I can't fault Bush's logic: if "they" really could
"get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop this shit"
it really would be over. I'm not holding my breath.


Mr Free Market said...

I rather like the concept of an EU military force occupying a DMZ in Sth Leb - I am sure that the Izzies would be up for that, esp if there were a few boxheads!

Tim Newman said...

dsquared really can be a pompous twat. A repeated comment over at HP sums him up nicely:

Dsquared isn't an apologist, he holds nuanced views which appraise the full complexity of any chosen situation; a complexity which he fully understands and which he knows others fail to see. Everyone else only sees black and white, some may see shades of grey he may admit, but he sees swashes of colorful interpretations, dabs of iridescent complexities, and shimmering mirages of meaning. He is a giant Redwood able to look far and wide, surrounded by lowly manicheaen gorse bushes.

That is why he has to pop up occasionally to tell us why we misunderstand certain situations. You should all be thankful that he is willing to perform this vital public service.

The Pedant-General said...


Thank you and thank you for the link as well.

Mr FM,

Hmmm.... I can think of more downsides than that. Probably worth a post.


There is nothing in this world better than a really finely crafted and elaborate insult. That one is almost baroque.

I vividly recall a heated debate at supper time "up to house" when in the Sixth Form. Two individuals were having a really good - but nonetheless very good-natured - verbal spat on some topic. One party to the discussion waited for a suitable pause and intoned, casually,

"You see, the problem with having your head up your arse is that you can't avoid talking shit"

He won the argument.

As for the substance of the post, work got in the way and I subsequently saw that "Left But Not Anti-Zionist" has a much more thorough analysis than mine.
I shall have to console myself with the fact that mine is at least better than Norm's. (Which is not to be sniffed at....)

Nice to have you on board.


Akaky said...

Oh estimable P-G, the Shebaa farms area is a crock and a half; the Israelis took it from the Syrians in 1967, not the Lebanese. If Hezbollah has a problem with this, they should take it up with Syria, which is not likely to happen, as Syria does not play by the Geneva Conventions but by the Hama Convention, which broadly speaking means do as we say or we will kill you all. What the Hama Convention lacks in intellectual depth it makes up for in empirical utility. Since the Syrians wiped Hama off the map, they've had no trouble with the people there.

Tim Newman said...

Is there any legitimate point that the anti-Israeli crowd makes that is actually a legitimate one?

Their opposition to the settlements built in the occupied territories is probably their most sound point, and one I broadly agree with.

The Pedant-General said...

Tim & ninme,

"Their opposition to the settlements built in the occupied territories is probably their most sound point, and one I broadly agree with."

And even that is on pretty shakey ground (artillery impact notwithstanding).

The occupied territories were, err..., occupied during a war. So they are legitimately Israel's until a peace agreement is concluded. There is also the minor issue that we have two fairly illuminating examples in the last 6 years that land does not buy peace for Israel. Because the other side clearly stated aim is "all of Israel" not just the bits that our handwringing lefties seem to get in a fluster about.

Completely disengaging from the West Bank would, I grant you, give Israel a better crack at the moral high ground. The problem there is that - as with Golan Heights - it gives the actual, physical high ground to people who want to use it to shell Israel....


"What the Hama Convention lacks in intellectual depth it makes up for in empirical utility."

Snort! I might have used the phrase "elegant simplicity", but I fear we are straying into the territory (occupied or otherwise) of, shall we say, "Occam's Qassam"...