The Israel/Lebanon war was started by Israel.
It has been left to the Israeli media to begin rewriting the history of last summer. Last weekend, an editorial in the liberal Haaretz newspaper went so far as to admit that this was “a war initiated by Israel against a relatively small guerrilla group.” Israel’s supporters, including high-profile defenders like Alan Dershowitz in the US who claimed that Israel had no choice but to bomb Lebanon, must have been squirming in their seats.
There are several reasons why Haaretz may have reached this new assessment.
Recent reports have revealed that one of the main justifications for Hezbollah’s continuing resistance – that Israel failed to withdraw fully from Lebanese territory in 2000 – is now supported by the UN. Last month its cartographers quietly admitted that Lebanon is right in claiming sovereignty over a small fertile area known as the Shebaa Farms, still occupied by Israel. Israel argues that the territory is Syrian and will be returned in future peace talks with Damascus, even though Syria backs Lebanon’s position. The UN’s admission has been mostly ignored by the international media.
One of Israel’s main claims during the war was that it made every effort to protect Lebanese civilians from its aerial bombardments. The casualty figures suggested otherwise, and increasingly so too does other evidence.
A shocking aspect of the war was Israel’s firing of at least a million cluster bombs, old munitions supplied by the US with a failure rate as high as 50 per cent, in the last days of fighting. The tiny bomblets, effectively small land mines, were left littering south Lebanon after the UN-brokered ceasefire, and are reported so far to have killed 30 civilians and wounded at least another 180. Israeli commanders have admitted firing 1.2 million such bomblets, while the UN puts the figure closer to 3 million.
At the time, it looked suspiciously as if Israel had taken the brief opportunity before the war’s end to make south Lebanon – the heartland of both the country’s Shi’ite population and its militia, Hezbollah – uninhabitable, and to prevent the return of hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites who had fled Israel’s earlier bombing campaigns.
Israel’s use of cluster bombs has been described as a war crime by human rights organizations. According to the rules set by Israel’s then-chief of staff, Dan Halutz, the bombs should have been used only in open and unpopulated areas – although with such a high failure rate, this would have done little to prevent later civilian casualties.
After the war, the army ordered an investigation, mainly to placate Washington, which was concerned at the widely reported fact that it had supplied the munitions. The findings, which should have been published months ago, have yet to be made public.
The delay is not surprising. An initial report by the army, leaked to the Israeli media, discovered that the cluster bombs had been fired into Lebanese population centers in gross violation of international law. The order was apparently given by the head of the Northern Command at the time, Udi Adam. A US State Department investigation reached a similar conclusion.
Another claim, one that Israel hoped might justify the large number of Lebanese civilians it killed during the war, was that Hezbollah fighters had been regularly hiding and firing rockets from among south Lebanon’s civilian population. Human rights groups found scant evidence of this, but a senior UN official, Jan Egeland, offered succor by accusing Hezbollah of “cowardly blending.”
There were always strong reasons for suspecting the Israeli claim to be untrue. Hezbollah had invested much effort in developing an elaborate system of tunnels and underground bunkers in the countryside, which Israel knew little about, in which it hid its rockets and from which fighters attacked Israeli soldiers as they tried to launch a ground invasion. Also, common sense suggests that Hezbollah fighters would have been unwilling to put their families, who live in south Lebanon’s villages, in danger by launching rockets from among them.
Now Israeli front pages are carrying reports from Israeli military sources that put in serious doubt Israel’s claims.
Since the war’s end Hezbollah has apparently relocated most of its rockets to conceal them from the UN peacekeepers, who have been carrying out extensive searches of south Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah under the terms of Resolution 1701. According to the UNIFIL, some 33 of these underground bunkers – or more than 90 percent – have been located and Hezbollah weapons discovered there, including rockets and launchers, destroyed.
The Israeli media has noted that the Israeli army calls these sites “nature reserves”; similarly, the UN has made no mention of finding urban-based Hezbollah bunkers. Relying on military sources, Haaretz reported last month: “Most of the rockets fired against Israel during the war last year were launched from the ‘nature reserves.'” In short, even Israel is no longer claiming that Hezbollah was firing its rockets from among civilians.
According to the UN report, Hezbollah has moved the rockets out of the underground bunkers and abandoned its rural launch pads. Most rockets, it is believed, have gone north of the Litani River, beyond the range of the UN monitors. But some, according to the Israeli army, may have been moved into nearby Shi’ite villages to hide them from the UN.
As a result, Haaretz noted that Israeli commanders had issued a warning to Lebanon that in future hostilities the army “will not hesitate to bomb – and even totally destroy – urban areas after it gives Lebanese civilians the chance to flee.” How this would diverge from Israel’s policy during the war, when Hezbollah was based in its “nature reserves” but Lebanese civilians were still bombed in their towns and villages, was not made clear.
If the Israeli army’s new claims are true (unlike the old ones), Hezbollah’s movement of some of its rockets into villages should be condemned. But not by Israel, whose army is breaking international law by concealing its weapons in civilian areas on a far grander scale.
The Association has looked at northern Arab communities hit by Hezbollah rockets, often repeatedly, and found that in every case there was at least one military base or artillery battery placed next to, or in a few cases inside, the community. In some communities there were several such sites.
This does not prove that Hezbollah wanted only to hit military bases, of course. But it does indicate that in some cases it was clearly trying to, even if it lacked the technical resources to be sure of doing so. It also suggests that, in terms of international law, Hezbollah behaved no worse, and probably far better, than Israel during the war.
The evidence so far indicates that Israel:
* established legitimate grounds for Hezbollah’s attack on the border post by refusing to withdraw from the Lebanese territory of the Shebaa Farms in 2000;
* initiated a war of aggression by refusing to engage in talks about a prisoner swap offered by Hezbollah;
* committed a grave war crime by intentionally using cluster bombs against south Lebanon’s civilians;
* repeatedly hit Lebanese communities, killing many civilians, even though the evidence is that no Hezbollah fighters were to be found there;
* and put its own civilians, especially Arab civilians, in great danger by making their communities targets for Hezbollah attacks and failing to protect them.
It is clear that during the Second Lebanon war, Israel committed the most serious war crimes.