George Washington U. Refuses to Condemn Professor's Call to 'Flatten' Beirut With Extreme Weapons

Where are the defenders of civility in academia now?

Photo Credit: Screen shot of Haaretz

George Washington University is refusing to condemn one of its most celebrated professors, who wrote an article this week calling for Israel to “flatten” Beirut with overwhelming use of extreme weapons including fuel air explosives that incinerate everything in their path.

Endowed chair Amitai Etzioni published the article on Monday in the Israeli paper Haaretz, a supposedly liberal bastion, originally using the headline, “Should Israel Flatten Beirut to Destroy Hezbollah's Missiles?”

In the latest version of the piece, the headline has been modified.

In the piece, the Israeli-American scholar Etzioni argues that “it is time” to seriously consider unleashing extreme weapons against Beirut with the power to incinerate and level everything within a wide range. Beirut's greater metropolitan area is home to over one million people.

“Most of Hezbollah's 100,000 missile arsenal are hidden in civilian areas,” Etzioni writes, echoing rhetoric from Israel’s brutal 2006 onslaught on Lebanon, in which it justified killing large numbers of civilians and dropping over a million cluster bombs by dubiously claiming innocents were being used as human shields.

That war saw the birth of the “Dahiyah Doctrine,” named after a highly populated suburb of Beirut that Israel almost completely destroyed. In October 2008, Gadi Eisenkot, then head of Israel’s northern command and now the general chief of staff of the Israeli Defense forces, invoked this attack to declare, “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction.” That strategy has since been used in the 2008-2009 and 2014 military assaults on Gaza, leading to astronomical civilian deaths and injuries and the decimation of public infrastructure.

Now, Etzioni appears to be advocating for further escalation. “Israel should examine now the ethical and logistical consequences of its first use of extreme conventional weapons against them,” he wrote.

Israel is the only nuclear weapons state in the Middle East, possessing at least 80 warheads, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, with some putting the number far higher.

In one particularly chilling section, Etzioni describes a consultation with two unidentified U.S. military officers. “They both pointed to Fuel-Air Explosives [FAE],” he wrote. “These are bombs that disperse an aerosol cloud of fuel which is ignited by a detonator, producing massive explosions. The resulting rapidly expanding wave flattens all buildings within a considerable range.”

Etzioni included the questionable disclaimer that such weapons would be used "after the population was given a chance to evacuate the area. Still, as we saw in Gaza, there are going to be civilian casualties."

When asked whether the article violates academic standards of civility, GWU spokesperson Jason Shevrin told AlterNet, "The George Washington University is committed to academic freedom and encourages efforts to foster an environment welcoming to many different viewpoints. Dr. Etzioni is a faculty member who is expressing his personal views."

Etzioni, who teaches in the department of international affairs and is the director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, is no ordinary professor. At the private school, he has the highly competitive rank of University Professor, described as a status “reserved for a select few individuals who have attained the accomplishments and associated stature to be so recognized.” The position is funded through an endowment, according to GWU materials.

Etzioni did not immediately respond to a request for comment, submitted through his publicly available office contact.

But Steven Salaita, who was fired in August 2014 from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for social media posts criticizing Israel's military assault on Gaza that year, was quick to weigh in. The vague charge of “incivility” played a key role in Salaita’s wrongful termination, for which Salaita eventually sued the university and settled. However, he never got his job back and maintains he has suffered a major blow to his career.

“I can think of no better example of the profound moral inconsistency within academic spaces than this article by Amitai Etzioni, in which he advises Israel to ‘flatten Beirut,’” he said. “Will all of the pious academics so devoted to civility dare speak out? Will they express deep concern about the safety and comfort of Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians in Professor Etzioni's courses? Will they wonder about his ability to be properly disinterested and balanced?”

Salaita contrasted Etzioni’s prizes, awards and media access with his own experience: “Condemn settler colonization, police brutality, mindless patriotism, structural racism, or state violence? Controversy. Castigation. Termination.”

Unfortunately, Salaita’s experience was not unique. A report released last year by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights notes, “Israel advocacy groups often target academics critical of Israeli policies or supportive of Palestinian rights. Campaigns against faculty — from Columbia University to the University of California at Los Angeles — sully reputations, instigate university investigations, and can even lead to termination of employment.”

One pro-Israel group, the AMCHA Initiative, maintains a blacklist of hundreds of professors it claims are anti-Israel, which it falsely conflates with anti-Semitism.

This climate has a profound impact on students, including at the institution where Etzioni teaches. In October 2015, GWU police forced student Ramie Abounaja to remove a Palestinian flag hanging from the window of his dorm room. A week later, the university sent him a warning letter, prompting a civil rights complaint from the advocacy organization Palestine Legal. GWU president Steven Knapp eventually apologized for the incident.

But Zein El-Amine, a Washington D.C.-based poet and writer who teaches at the University of Maryland, told AlterNet that the Palestinian flag incident compounds concern over Etzioni's latest article.

"It is outrageous for a professor at a university located within a stone's throw of the capital to coldly speculate on the murder of thousands of civilians, in a public forum," he said. "What this professor is describing has actually been done in 2006 when Israel used bunker busters and cluster bombs to decimate an urban area in Beirut, an action that was a textbook application of state terrorism in accordance with the UN's definition."

Update:

After publication, Etzioni sent the following comment to AlterNet:

I agree with you that any suggestion to bomb or "flatten" Beirut (or any other city) would be beyond horrible and outrageous. As you see from the body of my article, I never mentioned such an act. Haaretz changed my caption from "the second greatest threat to Israel." Indeed Haaretz corrected the headline. Ethics aside--Beirut is not where the missiles are housed.

The issue though stands how is a nation to respond if another nation or non state actor rains thousands missiles on its civilian population?

In fact, the details of Etzioni's prescription for the Israeli military amount not only to a call to flatten Beirut, the only Lebanese location mentioned by name in his entire piece, but also to incinerate countless civilians.

The fuel air explosives he prescribes the use of, which are also referred to as "thermobaric weapons," were used by Russia in Chechnya in 1999. Here’s how Human Rights Watch describes their impact: “FAEs are more powerful than conventional high-explosive munitions of comparable size, are more likely to kill and injure people in bunkers, shelters, and caves, and kill and injure in a particularly brutal manner over a wide area. In urban settings it is very difficult to limit the effect of this weapon to combatants, and the nature of FAE explosions makes it virtually impossible for civilians to take shelter from their destructive effect.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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