first published at http://www.martinshaw.org/politics/lebanon2006.htm
In the first days of the war in Lebanon, BBC news repeatedly referred to dying and fleeing Lebanese civilians as victims of the ‘fighting’ between Israel and Hizbullah. Yet in truth there was no fighting. Israel’s planes rained destruction on Lebanon from the safety of high altitudes, killing and wounding with little discrimination between Hizbullah ‘fighters’ and the general population, and causing huge social disruption. Hizbullah’s rockets scattered over northern Israel, remotely killing and scaring Israelis, its propaganda success just as great whether the victims were military or civilian. Neither Israel nor Hizbullah was fighting: they were united in their determination to attack their military enemy by means of harm to civilians, and in their avoidance of direct risk for themselves. The chief difference between their campaigns was that of scale: the big bully, the big coward versus the little bully, the little coward.
In recent days, it is true, Israel and Hizbullah have engaged in something more like fighting, taking battle to the towns and villages of southern Lebanon. Yet even here there has been little direct engagement of the two sets of armed men, merely copious blowing up of buildings and machines, still fairly remote even if directed from the ground, actual hits on enemy combatants being relatively few amidst the general mayhem and the escalating scale of civilian harm. If Israel has killed scores of armed Hizbullah, the disproportion between these numbers and the thousand civilian dead, thousands of wounded and hundreds of thousands forced to flee condemns its war in the eyes of the world – the exceptions being its blinkered blinkered friends in Washington and its increasingly beleagured friend in Downing Street.
As Gideon Levy puts it, all this leads to the depiction of Israel as ‘a violent, crude and destructive state’. Israel claims to know the difference between armed enemies and civilians, but it cruelly punishes all Lebanese for their government’s tolerance of its activities and the political support that some civilians give it. In rhetoric, Israel wages a ‘new’ war, targeting only Hizbullah; it regrets the civilian casualties. In reality, the massive civilian disruption and suffering is its most powerful pressure on the Lebanese government and, supposedly, on Hizbullah itself (although the latter unsurprisingly take it as a cue for new attacks on Israel and a chance to raise their profile as ‘defender’ of the Lebanese population). In this sense Israel’s onslaught is an ‘old’ war, in the strictest sense a degenerate war because although Hizbullah is the enemy, attacking civilians and their life-systems is a major part of its strategy rather than an incidental consequence of its campaign.
(This is confirmed by Amnesty International’s report, Israel/Lebanon: Deliberate destruction or “collateral damage”? Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure, released on 23 August 2006)
The West, especially the USA and Britain, are also tarred with the ‘violent, crude and destructive’ brush because of the encouragement it has given Israel’s attack (however nuanced the language in which Tony Blair wraps up his support). But the discrediting of Israel’s war is also a stark challenge to the legitimacy of the USA’s own wars, in which the UK and (in Afghanistan) the rest of the West also participate. In Iraq too, the West claims to be targeting only the ‘insurgents’, not the Sunni or still less the general Iraqi population. And yet US operations have, ever since the 2003 invasion, constantly involved attacks on civilian districts, often pursuing armed enemies in flagrant disregard of civilian harm, producing civilian casualties in numbers that Israel has yet to match. This casual distribution of harm to civilians can be represented as a deliberate risk-transfer, a new form of degeneracy even in this most ‘pro-democracy’ of campaigns.
True, the USA has not attacked the entire civilian infrastructure of Iraq as a means of pressurising Saddam or the ‘terrorist organisations’ that have replaced him as enemy. In this sense Israel’s readiness for destruction shows it to be, as ever, the extreme outlier of Western power, easily viewed with distaste by those of us in more stable, pacified Western states. But the gap between Israel’s violence in Lebanon and America’s in Iraq is not as large as we might like to think it. (Bush’s and Blair’s support for Israel will make that gap invisible to many, especially Muslims, giving new incentives to al-Qaida and others to renew their own attacks on the West.) Israel shows the backward-looking future of increasingly degenerate warmaking into which Bush, with Blair his willing accomplice, has dragged the entire West. Let us look at our wars in the mirror of Israel’s and call a halt before it is too late.
3 August 2006