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 Watch.
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 media.
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.