Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The "Missing" in Gaza

Listening to Israeli Defense Force briefings for the press and then talking to UN and non-governmental organizations that work in Gaza, even the more attentive person might be forgiven for thinking the media are describing two separate conflicts that by some accident of misperception have in common the same territorial boundaries.

Israeli Ministry of Defense representatives claim that the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) killed 130 Hamas militants in the first eleven days of Operation “Cast Lead” which began December 27. UN personnel living and working in Gaza report “more than” 500 fatalities among the Palestinians, with “more than” 100 of these being civilians (Associated Press). Assuming – not unreasonably – that the two “more thans” are approximately the same, somewhere there are 270 individuals reportedly killed who have no identity. (Do the math: 500+ killed minus 100+ civilians = 400 “others.” Subtract the 130 militants Israel claims to have killed and the remainder = 270.)

What most Americans don’t realize is that the Israelis have developed a “standard” for reporting “enemy” killed that minimizes the death total, thereby avoiding the U.S. military’s Vietnam-era “body-count” foolishness that said the Viet Cong had buried IN the ground twice the number of fighters the American command said were ON the ground shooting.

The IDF’s practice is to count only those who clearly can be identified as militants or combatants either by engaging in actual combat with IDF units or preparing for combat by possessing weapons, weapons parts, explosives, etc. But there are two other possible categories for fatalities: “collateral damage” – those killed “unintentionally” because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time – and “civilians” – a less discriminate and therefore larger category of people who can be any non-combatant, including those killed when an attacking force commander targets civilians.

European cities of the late medieval or early Renaissance eras were fortified so that meandering hostile tribes could not simply ride in and destroy the settlements. But rather quickly, even rumors that invaders were nearby would send streams of people into the city in search of the safety provided by the walls. In so doing, however, the local populace signaled its “allegiance” to the rulers of the city and implicitly accepted the same fate – should the city succumb – as would be visited on the full-time city dwellers. (Europe’s “discovery” of gunpowder and the development of field artillery after 1350 would rapidly decrease the utility of fortifying cities.)

Efforts to limit the growing problem of civilians killed on the battlefield go back at least to 1863 when the first meetings were held in Europe to transform what could loosely be called “rules of engagement in land warfare” into international law. Since the levee en masse of the French Revolution first mobilized the whole nation for war, citizens lost the option to simply hunker down and ride out the storm. Neutrality might avoid being killed by a bullet during battle, but it offered little comfort if unrestricted warfare condoned scorched earth policies that deprived local inhabitants of food and clean water. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea” in the final months of the American Civil War is routinely rolled out as “Exhibit A” of scorched earth warfare even though he was neither the first nor the only commander to use this tactic to subdue the secessionists.

Over the next 80 years to the end of World War II, with its deliberate targeting of cities by incendiaries and the destruction of two Japanese cities by atomic weapons, civilians more and more were deliberately targeted as war became “total” and “breaking the enemy home front’s will to resist” was seen as a legitimate objective of war.

The 1907 Hague Regulations on Land Warfare and the 1949 Geneva Conventions together with the 1977 Protocols to the latter sought to tighten the bans against targeting civilians. But while the sheer absolute scale of deaths from the deliberate targeting of civilians may have been reduced (raising expectations that war might be tamed), perversely the frequency and the brutality of massacres seemed to mushroom in the second half of the 20th century, putting the lie to the hopes of many. Then too, the generals and admirals touted the ever-increasing accuracy of “precision” munitions that reduced “collateral damage” and thus the total civilian casualties from battle.

Nonetheless, in the month preceding the Israeli assault on Gaza that began eleven days ago, both sides disregarded prohibitions on deliberate targeting of civilians. Israel claims that it has the right to defend itself by any and all means, a right written into the UN Charter and one, they assert, was endorsed last summer by president-elect Obama during his visit to Israel. But the “right” of self-defense via armed conflict is not an absolute right; it is limited by the possibility that one party or the other has the ability to alter the context of a dispute by unilateral action. In Gaza, Israel, as the stronger contender, could change the context to favor an immediate ceasefire (and thus end its deliberate targeting of civilian areas) by withdrawing land forces from Gaza. In return, Hamas would stop firing rockets from Gaza into Israel and the UN would deploy a new peacekeeping force to monitor the border between Egypt and Gaza to preclude Hamas from re-arming.

Beyond the immediate crisis, the whole idea that wars can be fought without targeting civilian areas is outmoded. In 1863, 1907, 1945, and in some parts of the world today there were (and still are) large areas that are relatively uninhabited by humans and thus unlikely to be fought over. But the explosive growth of urban development in much of the developed and developing world renders inoperable – prima facie – the original basis on which commanders could weigh the possibility and accept as a necessity of war an extensive (bordering on disproportionate) level of civilian casualties while attacking an otherwise legitimate military target in the same locale. With 1.5 million souls packed into 144 square miles, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, and military “installations” have in many cases become surrounded by the press of civilian development.

In short, armies must both give up the “right” to target urban areas and abide by the complementary rule that prohibits combatants from using civilians and civilian areas as shields to ward off attacks on what would otherwise be legitimate military targets.

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