Critical Currents: Normative defense

Every strike resulting in civilian "collateral damage" has proven useless and counterproductive.

wounded girl gaza 298 (photo credit: AP)
wounded girl gaza 298
(photo credit: AP)
The tumultuous events of this week demonstrate that the policy of targeted assassinations in Gaza needs to be urgently reassessed. Besides contravening international law and proving tragically ineffective, it is also thoroughly immoral. If Israel wants to live up to its own standards, let alone safeguard its citizens, it must halt these attacks immediately. Israeli bombardments from the air, sea and land during the past month killed several key Palestinian militants, as well as 23 Palestinian civilians (not counting seven members of the Ghalia family detonated on the Gaza beach several weeks ago). Seven were children, one a pregnant woman. In the first two weeks of June, 12 Palestinian bystanders - some sitting quietly in their homes, others engaged in their daily lives - became the victims of Israeli air raids. No technical explanations can justify this outcome. No official expressions of sorrow can mitigate the subsequent outcry. Israel must stop killing Palestinian children, however inadvertently, as a way of protecting its own children. There will never be a moment's quiet when too many civilians - especially the very young and the very old - are being killed, maimed and traumatized. FOR TOO long now there has been intense discussion over who is responsible for the death of particular Palestinian civilians, and totally insufficient debate on the validity of Israel's strategy as a whole. Innocent Palestinians were being killed long before the beach incident, and too many have died since. At issue is the policy itself. Continuing to employ tools that exact such a high human price is simply unacceptable; it cannot but boomerang. For over a century, international conventions have safeguarded the rights of civilians in times of armed strife. Many treaties have been signed, regulations disseminated and understandings ironed out to protect non-combatants. Any breach of these steadfast rules is rightly considered a gross infringement of human rights and a deviation from binding norms. There can be no exceptions to this unwavering standard. Rockets aimed at population concentrations within Israel undoubtedly violate this maxim. So, too, do bombs dropped on central thoroughfares in Gaza, the most densely populated area of the world. And, even if the former are intended to hit civilians and the latter are utilized to avoid exactly such an outcome, the results are all too often the same. There can, therefore, be no compromise on these matters. Suicide bombs and indiscriminate rocket launches are wrong; they constitute crimes against humanity. Targeted attacks, however precise, against armed militants operating in the midst of densely inhabited neighborhoods are equally heinous. No political cause can justify their use. To do so would be to cynically conflate objectives with means, sacrificing one's own moral compass in the process. Some have nevertheless bowed to the seemingly irresistible temptation of denigrating one's opponent as a way of rationalizing one's own conduct. Israelis and Palestinians seem to excel at this exercise. They repeatedly point to the large number of casualties as incontrovertible proof of the inhumanity of the other. RESORT TO the blame game is nothing short of reprehensible. By demonizing the enemy in a feeble effort at self-exoneration, inter-communal enmity has been fueled almost beyond the boiling point. Especially pernicious are recent efforts to accuse the victims of bringing about their own demise. Alan Dershowitz's outrageous charge (Post, June 25) that the Palestinians encourage civilian martyrs by placing rocket factories in apartment buildings is matched only by the similarly nefarious Palestinian claim that Israeli children in Sderot bear the burden of the policy of occupation. Nobody is being forced to kill civilians or to injure children. Highlighting the despicable acts of the other side cannot absolve either Israelis or Palestinians of responsibility for their actions. It is high time both parties realized that each is accountable for its own deeds and must bear the consequences. There is a strong connection between Israel's survival over the years and its commitment to fundamental human values. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that its strategy of targeted assassinations has backfired monumentally. Every extra-judicial execution of a Palestinian combatant in the past few years has evoked a deadly assault on Israelis; every raid on militant bases with civilian "collateral damage" has yielded a barrage of Kassams on the Negev. Indeed, these killings have proven both useless and counterproductive. EVEN THE new wave of particularly ugly violence enveloping Israelis and Palestinians cannot blur the close connection between physical security and moral rectitude. If Israel wants to halt the rockets it must stop bombing areas inhabited by Palestinian civilians. A conscious strategic shift would delegitimize those who insist on threatening Israeli citizens, kidnapping soldiers, and questioning the country's existence. It would give added weight to demands to isolate them from the international community. Opening channels of communication with the Palestinian Authority may provide a desperately needed alternative to the lethal spiral affecting both societies. Above all, however, Israel's future continues to depend on its ability to match its actions to its guiding ethical values. By setting a high normative threshold and upholding it (and this means jettisoning debatable policies), Israel has a chance of maintaining its own human dignity and thereby securing its future.