Open Letter to Israel’s Supporters: Where Do You Draw the Line Between 'Defense' and Atrocities?
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Dear U.S. supporters of Israel in Gaza:
If you believed the IDF could destroy Hamas by employing portable gas chambers or chemical weapons to publicly gas over 1,400 Gazan civilians, including 400 children, chosen at random, would you favor doing so? I guess not. Perhaps you even feel insulted at the suggestion that you might. But this raises a basic question: if you would not favor gassing Palestinan civilians, how do you justify your support for blowing them to bits?
The controversial issue is not Israel trying to destroy Hamas tunnels. Nor is it the attempt to destroy rockets, as if the Israelis can claim that they reasonably suspected the 46-48,000 U.N.-estimated buildings they either partially or totally destroyed contained rockets. Nor is it rightfully condemning Hamas for rocketing civilian targets as well. As even long-term apologists for Israeli violence like the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier acknowledge, the issue is massive Israeli bombing and shelling of the civilian infrastructure in Gaza, which is wholly disproportionate to combatting tunnels and/or rockets.
This raises the basic question: as a human being, where do you draw the line? How do you justify your support for mass misery inflicted on hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians? The bombing and shelling campaign, whatever its stated intent, has not only murdered 1,400 civilians and maimed thousands more, but destroyed hospitals, schools, businesses, and Gaza’s only power station, plunging 1.8 million Gazans into darkness and depriving them even of drinking water, created over 400,000 refugees, and traumatized a U.N.-estimated 373,000 children. Your own integrity requires that you at least acknowledge the facts rather than, as so many of Israel’s supporters do, accept at face-value Israeli claims that it sought to avoid civilian destruction.
I answered such questions for myself 45 years ago, when I discovered that civilians were well over 90% of the victims of U.S. leaders’ mass bombing of northern Laos. I concluded then that there is never any moral or legal justification for mass bombing or shelling of civilians. Period.
The World Can’t Wait website has just posted a PowerPoint presentation on the years-long bombing of northern Laos, perhaps the worst unknown crime of the 20th century. It combines an analysis of automated war, the writings of the rice farmers who suffered most and were heard from least, and my personal story in discovering and trying to expose it to the world. A Lao mother summed up the nature of mass bombing of civilians for all time: “There was danger as the sound of airplanes led me to be terribly, terribly afraid of dying. When looking at the faces of my children who were losing the so very precious happiness of childhood I would grow increasingly miserable. In reality, whatever happens, it is the innocent who suffer.”
The question of protecting civilians in wartime far transcends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it is a basic measurement of the progress of human civilization. Not only Israel’s humanity, but yours is at stake in your support for Israel’s recent attacks on Gaza.
There are two basic questions regarding warfare: 1) whether a given war is considered legitimate, e.g. whether it is “aggressive war”; and 2) how civilians are treated once a war is launched. These are two distinct questions—even if you consider a given war legitimate there is no moral or legal justification for waging it in a way that mainly murders and maims civilians.
The evolution of international law on this question, beginning with the 1907 Hague Convention, has been slow and painful. But it is today unequivocal: waging war in a way that results primarily in civilian deaths and damage is a punishable war crime. Article 85 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions states categorically that “the following acts shall be regarded as grave breaches of this Protocol… launching an indiscriminate attack affecting the civilian population or civilian objects in the knowledge that such attack will cause excessive loss of life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects.”