Friday, August 04, 2006

Israel-Lebanon Crisis – Is there justice in war?

'War is the continuation of policy by other means' – Carl von Clausewitz

What autrocity. That was the first thought that flashed through my mind as I read, with distress, news of an Israeli attack in the Lebanese village of Qana that killed over 50 people and more than half of them were children.

I was left thinking... What plausible reason can justify the shelling of residential buildings in Qana? Does not international law and conventions attempt to protect the innocent young lives that were cruelly cut short in the Qana attack?

For sure, war is a brutal enterprise that has remained central to human society, for all its humanity. Is war not a barbaric slaughter, an act of violence (to quote von Clausewitz) intended to compel the enemy to fulfill one’s will? Or can war be fair, sensible and rational? Is war just? Is Israel waging a just war?

‘Just war’ tradition has a long distinguished pedigree, including the likes of St. Augustine, Cicero, Hugo Grotius… (Refer to bbc’s discussion on the ethics of war) There are three key considerations in a ‘just war’: jus ad bellum – the justice of resorting to war in the first place; jus in bello – the justice of conduct within war; and jus post bellum – the justice of peace agreements and termination phase of war. (Refer to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

I do not doubt that the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah or by Palestinian militants is an act of aggression against the Israeli society. It necessitates an act of self defence. International law indeed guarantees the right of political sovereignty and territorial integrity. An aggression that violates this right permits a violent resistance from the Israeli forces.

The question, however, is whether Israel’s conduct is ‘right’ (‘just’) in the midst of battle when it has responded to the kidnappings with much ferocity. Clearly, what has become a point of contention are the attacks on civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, whether accidental or intended. The Beirut airport was closed by Israeli attacks, and similarly bridges, roads, power stations and ports are shut down under Israeli firepower. Some 400 people, including civilians, have been killed in Lebanon and the death toll is expected to rise.

What’s for sure, the easy criticism is to say what cannot rightly be done – i.e., direct attacks against civilian targets. However, it can be expected that the Israeli forces will over time exhaust the set of targets in Lebanon that are clearly linked to Hizbollah. This is especially so when Hizbollah elements hide amongst civilian populace in Lebanon. One fears that Israel may well fall prey to ‘agitprop’ methods employed by Hizbollah and overreact with excessive force. This may lead to the portrayal of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict as a “Zionist-crusader conspiracy” and fuel further escalation of the conflict, especially when each attack generates a collateral damage in civilian deaths.

Well, the challenge therefore is how then Israel can conduct its offensive against Hizbollah without further escalating the conflict. My take is that Israel may want to consider making the ‘prevention of war’ rather than ‘winning the war’ its defence doctrine. Surely, fire-power alone does not guarantee lasting peace in the long term. It is important to note that dislodging Hizbollah from its stronghold in southern Lebanon does not annihilate the threat of terrorism posed by Hizbollah (or other like-minded groups) to Israel and Israeli interests. Surely, there are other Hizbollah elements that will emerge elsewhere like a hydra-headed monster. Paul Rogers’ “Lebanon: the world’s choice” argues how the first two weeks of August will be decisive in determining whether Lebanon war escalates further or can be contained. A cease-fire is necessary and perhaps also the involvement of international peacekeepers. But the role of international community to affirm strongly the importance of peaceful solutions cannot be understated.

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