Can we justify killing the children of Lebanon?

Israeli soldier coming back from the Second Lebanon war (picture Dor Posner)

Yet again, an article by Boris Johnson spurs this blog into action. Read the whole article here, but the important bit is this:

“Whatever the hideous shambles of the past few days, it is still true, in principle, that when Israeli rockets kill civilians, they have missed their targets, and that when Hizbollah rockets kill civilians, they have scored a deliberate hit.”

Yes, but there is much more to it than that. A glance at the casualty rates – many hundreds of Lebanese civilians are reported to have been killed in the last three weeks – suggests that more analysis is needed than simply Israeli inaccuracy.

First, let’s note that Hizbullah deliberately disperses its rocket launchers and sites them close to civilians or other inadmissible targets. The four UN observers who were killed were caught up in precisely this tactic. Hizbullah knows that any civilian casualties that result will increase the pressure on Israel to desist.

In effect, they are taking the people of Lebanon hostage. And that of course is a reprehensible course of action, which a weak Lebanese state has been unable to resist. Boris Johnson is right to point out what Hizbullah is trying to do.

However, it takes two sides to fight a war, and the Israeli attackers cannot escape their responsibilities either.

Like individuals, states are entitled to defend themselves if attacked, but, also like individuals, they are not entitled to do so indiscriminately. The deaths of Lebanese civilians are the foreseeable consequence of deliberate acts. They are not accidents. We are perhaps looking at the difference between murder and manslaughter. Boris Johnson ought to acknowledge that, too.

This is the origin of the point about proportionality, for which William Hague was castigated when he raised it. The unintended consequences are just as significant as the intended ones.

A previous blog entry on the subject of Iraq noted that this kind of thing is inevitable in war. War is never clean and precise, and indeed there might be good reasons for worry if it were.

I am reminded of an article that appeared in the Guardian in February 2003, during the build-up to the Iraq war (as we now know it was), comparing the deaths of innocents in war with the considerations of medical ethics. An illuminating and important piece, that deserves attention again. You can read it here.

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