A reader recently e-mailed to ask if anyone else
was suggesting, as I have done, that Hezbollah's rocket fire may not be quite
as indiscriminate or maliciously targeted at Israeli civilians as is commonly
assumed. I had to admit that I have been plowing a lonely furrow on this one.
Still, that is no reason in itself to join everyone else, even if the consensus
includes every mainstream commentator as well as groups such as Human Rights
First, let us get my argument straight. I have not claimed, as most of my
critics wish to argue, that Hezbollah targets only military sites or that it
never aims at civilians. According to the Israeli army, more than 3,300 rockets
have hit Israel over the past four weeks. How can I know, or even claim to know,
where all those rockets have landed, or know what the Hezbollah operatives who
fired each rocket intended to hit? I have never made such claims.
What I have argued instead is twofold. First, we cannot easily know what Hezbollah
is trying to hit because Israel has located most of its army camps, weapons
factories, and military installations near or inside civilian communities. If
a Hezbollah rocket slams into an Israeli town with a weapons factory, should
we count that as an attack on civilians or on a military site?
The claim being made against Hezbollah in Lebanon that it is "cowardly
blending" with civilians, according to the UN's Jan Egeland can,
in truth, be made far more convincingly of the Israeli army. While there has
been little convincing evidence that Hezbollah is firing its rocket from towns
and villages in south Lebanon, or that its fighters are hiding there among civilians,
it can be known beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israeli army camps and military
installations are based in northern Israeli communities.
An obvious point that no one seems to be making and given a news blackout
that lasted several hours, Israel clearly hoped no one would make is
that the 12 soldiers who were killed on Sunday in Kfar Giladi by a Hezbollah
rocket were, under Egeland's definition, "cowardly blending" with
the civilian population of that community. We know there are still civilians
in Giladi because their response to the rocket barrage was quoted in the Israeli
My second claim was that Israel's military censor is preventing foreign journalists
based in Israel, myself included, from discussing where Hezbollah rockets are
landing, and what they may be aimed at. Under the censorship rules, it is impossible
to mention any issue that touches on Israeli security or defense matters: the
location of military installations, for example, cannot be divulged. It is arguable
whether it would actually be possible to report a Hezbollah strike that hit
a military site inside Israel.
I therefore have to tread carefully in what I say next, relying on information
that is already publicly available, but which at least challenges the simplistic
view that Hezbollah is firing rockets either indiscriminately or willfully to
kill civilians. I draw on two pieces of coverage provided by BBC World.
On Tuesday, the BBC's Katya Adler reported from the northern community of
Kiryat Shmona, which has taken the heaviest pounding from Hezbollah rockets
and from which many of the local residents have fled over the past month. As
she stood on a central street describing the difficult conditions under which
the remaining families were living, she had to shout over the rhythmic bark
of what sounded like an Israeli tank close by firing into Lebanon. She made
no mention of what was doing the firing and given the censorship laws,
my assumption is she cannot. But it does raise the question of how much of a
civilian target Kiryat Shmona really is.
Consider also this. Throughout the four weeks of fighting, the BBC has had
a presenter and film crew at the top of an area of Haifa known as the Panorama,
above the beautiful Bahai Gardens. As the name suggests, from there the film
crew has had an unrestricted view of the port and docks below and the wide arc
of heavily developed shoreline that stretches up to Acre.
The spot where the BBC presenters have been standing, telling us regularly
that they can hear the wail of sirens warning Haifa's residents to head for
the shelters, is in the center of this sprawling ridge-top city, in one of the
most heavily built up and inhabited areas of Haifa. So why have the BBC's presenters
been standing there calmly every day for weeks under the barrage of rockets?
Because all the evidence suggests that Hezbollah has not been trying to hit
the center of Haifa, where it would be certain of inflicting high casualties,
whether its rockets were on target or slightly adrift. Instead, as BBC presenters
have repeatedly shown us, the overwhelming majority of rockets land either in
the mostly-abandoned port area or fall short into the bay and on the
odd occasion travel a little too far, as one did on Sunday landing on an Arab
neighborhood near the port and killing two inhabitants.
If Hezbollah's primary goal is to kill as many civilians as possible in Haifa,
it seems to be going about it in a very strange manner indeed unless
we are to believe that none of its rockets could be fired the extra 1 km needed
to hit central Haifa. Instead, as is clear from the view shown by BBC cameras,
the port includes many sites far more "strategic" than the roads,
bridges, milk factories, and power stations Israel is destroying in Lebanon:
it has the oil refinery, the naval docks, and other installations that, yes,
I cannot mention because of the censorship laws.
At the very least, we should concede to Hezbollah that it is not always targeting
civilians, and very possibly is not mainly targeting civilians, which might
in part explain the comparatively low Israeli civilian casualty figures.
That said, there are two valid criticisms, both made by Human Rights Watch,
of Hezbollah's rocket fire though exactly the same or worse criticisms
can be made of the Israeli army. Those, unlike HRW, who single out Hezbollah
are being either disingenuous or hypocritical.
One is that Hezbollah has filled many of its rockets with ball bearings. Most
critics of Hezbollah take this as conclusive proof that the group's only intent
is to kill and injure civilians. Anyone who has seen the damage done by a Katyusha
rocket will realize that it is not a very powerful weapon: it essentially punches
a hole in whatever it hits. The biggest danger is from the shrapnel and from
anything added like ball bearings that sprays out on impact. The
shrapnel can kill civilians nearby, of course, but it can also kill soldiers
as we saw at Kfar Giladi and can puncture tanks containing flammable
liquids such as petrol, causing explosions.
The damage inflicted by the ball bearings is not in itself proof that Hezbollah
is trying to kill Israeli civilians, any more than Israel's use of far more
lethal cluster bombs is proof that it wants to kill Lebanese civilians. Both
are acting according to the gruesome realities of war: they want to inflict
as much damage as possible with each rocket strike. That is deplorable, but
so is war.
The second criticism made by HRW is that because Hezbollah's rockets are rudimentary
and lack sophisticated guidance systems they are as good as indiscriminate.
That conclusion is wrong both logically and semantically. As I have tried to
show, the rockets are mostly not indiscriminate (though presumably some misfire,
as do Israeli missiles); rather, they are not precise.
This, according to Human Rights Watch, still makes Hezbollah's rocket attacks
war crimes. That may be true, but it of course also means Israel's missile strikes
and bombardment of Lebanon are war crimes on the same or a greater scale. Hezbollah's
strikes against civilians may be intentional or they may be the result of inaccurate
guidance systems trying to hit military targets. Israel's strikes against civilians
are either intentional or the result of accurate guidance systems and very faulty,
to the point of reckless, military intelligence.
Finally, what about the defense offered by Israel's supporters that its air
force tries to avoid harming Lebanese civilians by leafleting them before an
attack to warn them that they must leave? The argument's thrust is that only
those who belong to Hezbollah or give it succor remain behind in south Lebanon
and they are therefore legitimate targets. (It ignores, of course, hundreds
of civilians killed in areas that have not been leafleted or who were trying
to flee, as ordered, when hit by an Israeli missile.)
Hezbollah, of course, has done precisely the same. In speeches, its leader
Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly warned Israeli residents of areas like Haifa,
Afula, Hadera, and Tel Aviv that Hezbollah will hit these cities with rockets
days before it has actually done so. Hezbollah can claim just as fairly that
it has given Israelis fair warning of its attacks on civilian communities, and
that any who remain have only themselves to blame.
This debate is important because it will determine in the coming months and
years who will be blamed by the international community and future historians
for committing war crimes. Hezbollah deserves as fair a hearing as Israel,
though at the moment it most certainly is not getting it.
Like every army in a war, Hezbollah may not be acting in a humane manner.
But it is demonstrably acting according to the same standards as the Israeli
army and possibly, given Israel's siting of military targets in civilian
areas, higher ones. The fact that the contrary view is almost universally held
betrays our prejudices rather than anything about Hezbollah's acts.