Missing from Winograd

It is rare that anyone pays attention to the serious moral dilemmas that officers (and political leaders) face in war.

cluster bomb 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
cluster bomb 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Winograd Committee has informed MK Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) that it will, in its final report, address the issue of how the Second Lebanon War was fought from an international law standpoint. This is a welcome and important subject for investigation, but it is not the only significant area that was missing from the interim report. During the war, the IDF used cluster munitions against Hizbullah strongholds, most of which were deeply embedded in civilian areas. This prompted groups such as Human Rights Watch to glibly charge that "both sides in this conflict violated the laws of war." The attempt to equate Israel's use of certain munitions against military targets with Hizbullah's deliberate rocketing of Israeli civilians is an obscenity that debases the fundamental moral values that underlie humanitarian law. This sort of leveling both unfairly tars Israel and exculpates those who proudly engage in war crimes as their principle mode of action. It is precisely because this dishonest approach has been so commonly employed against us and in favor of our enemies that the Winograd Committee should investigate and shed light on the facts, even if some are troublesome from Israel's perspective. Whether or not our critics are interested, we need to know if we acted according to international principles and our own. MK Ephraim Sneh, former deputy minister of defense, called the use of cluster bombs "a mistake." Former ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon, by contrast, explained that cluster bombs were used "only after we verified two things. First of all, that the areas we were shooting at... had been taken by Hizbullah; and secondly, after the civilians in these areas had been warned time and again to leave. So only under these conditions were the orders issued to use these cluster bombs and only after [we] realized how deeply Hizbullah was entrenched in and among populated Lebanese areas." These two perspectives, both from senior Israeli officials, need to be reconciled. This is an appropriate task for an investigative body such as the Winograd Committee. Cluster bombs are a military device designed for use against entrenched military targets. Unexploded bomblets can kill and maim civilians long after a war is over. But regular munitions are of limited use against armed fighters in trenches and bunkers. The committee needs to ask: Was the use of cluster bombs militarily necessary to spare the lives of Israeli soldiers who otherwise would have had to go trench by trench on the ground, taking many casualties? Were civilians really warned sufficiently to escape the area before their use? How should the IDF balance the need to limit its own casualties with the need to limit civilian casualties on the other side, even when those civilians are being used as human shields by the enemy? These are the tough questions that "human rights groups" did not bother to ask, much less seriously address. But we as a nation should. It is rare that anyone pays attention to the serious moral dilemmas that officers (and political leaders) face in war. This brings us to a related aspect that was also missing from the interim report: public diplomacy. Israel's enemies have internalized much more profoundly than our leadership the obvious fact that wars are not only fought on the battlefield but also in the court of world opinion. While there is now wide recognition that the IDF was unprepared militarily and that the government failed as well on the home front last summer, the public diplomacy arena is a third aspect of negligence that has gone largely unnoticed. Our failure in this arena is illustrated by a friendly country like the US, where the war quickly became perceived as one "against Lebanon" rather than against an Iranian division parasitically perched in Lebanon. Further, much of the humanitarian outrage was not directed at Hizbullah for starting the war, hiding behind Lebanese civilians and targeting Israeli towns, but against Israel for the suffering of Lebanese caught in and fleeing the war. Perhaps the public diplomacy side of the war could not have been won, but it should have been systematically and strategically fought. It was not. The Winograd Committee must not ignore this failure, because silence amounts to acquiescence and ensures that such failures will be repeated in the future.