Tag Archives: IDF

The Sabra-Shatila Massacre And The End Of A Love Affair

It is time for western activists, academics and journalists dealing with the Middle East to look at the region with an objective eye when covering conflicts and condemning human rights abuses. All parties to conflicts should be judged by the same standard.

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1983 Sabra refugee

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Last autumn marked the 30th anniversary of the Sabra-Shatila massacre, the most well-known incident of the Lebanese Civil War. Between the 16th and 18th of September 1982, Christian militiamen rampaged through the alleyways of the Sabra & Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in West Beirut, raping, butchering, and executing unarmed Palestinian civilians. Many of their bodies were horrifically mutilated. Some were castrated, scalped, or marked with Christian crosses etched into the skin. When asked why they killed pregnant women in the camps, militiamen answered to the effect that the unborn children were destined to become Palestinian terrorists and therefore represented legitimate targets. The militiamen responsible for these actions were mostly from the Phalange, a right-wing Lebanese Christian paramilitary group allied to the Israeli military forces that had invaded Lebanon three months earlier. The exact number of people killed in the massacre is unknown, and subject to dispute. It is likely that 1000-1500 civilians died.

Israel faces a string of accusations for its role in the massacre. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) had fully secured the camps’ perimeters prior to the Phalangists’ operations. It granted the Phalangists access to Sabra and Shatila ostensibly to seize Palestinian militants’ weapons. It guarded the exits throughout the Phalangists’ operations, fired flares for illumination, and turned back civilians attempting to flee. Israeli troops had a direct line of sight into the camp, and Israeli officers received radio calls bringing their attention to the killing of civilians. Still they failed to act to stop them.

Though extremely brutal, the Sabra-Shatila massacre was by no means unique within the context of the Lebanese Civil War. Thousands of civilians also died in the massacres of Karantina, Damour, and Tel al-Zaatar. At Tel al-Zaatar, the perpetrators and victims were precisely the same: primarily right-wing Christian militiamen massacring unarmed Palestinian civilians.

Indeed, the Tel al-Zaatar massacre was likely even bloodier than Sabra and Shatila. The United Nations-administered camp was besieged on-and-off by Christian militiamen for several months, and eventually overrun. Most estimates state that at least 2000 Palestinian civilians lost their lives. Even more shocking than this is the fact that Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) militants defending the camp repeatedly and deliberately aggravated the situation in order to increase the number of civilian “martyrs” slain and earn correspondingly greater media attention and sympathy for their cause. According to Robert Fisk, Arafat personally ordered his men to fire upon Christian fighters during a ceasefire in order to provoke a bloody counter-attack.

Both Tel al-Zaatar and Sabra-Shatila stand as bloody and horrific examples of the cynical inhumanity often characteristic of armed conflict. They are examples, too, of the great suffering experienced by Palestinian refugees in the Lebanese civil war.

And yet the Sabra -Shatila massacre was unlike the massacre of Tel al-Zaatar in one significant respect: it generated a massive international response. Where Arafat had failed, for all his “martyrs”, to generate a lasting story at Tel Al-Zaatar, Sabra-Shatila would change the world’s impression of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict forever. In the fallout, the New York Times ran a ten-thousand word article on the massacre. The United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of condemning it as genocide. The largest demonstrations in Israel’s history took place in Tel Aviv. The Israeli “Kahan” Commission was set up, and called for Ariel Sharon to be dismissed as Defence Minister. Defence Appropriations Committee member and pro-Israeli lobbyist within Congress, Charlie Wilson, pointed to Sabra and Shatila as marking the moment when he fell out of love with Israel. The massacre remains important in popular culture. As recently as 2009, freshly-released film Waltzing with Bashir won a Golden Globe. The film follows the story of an Israeli war veteran seeking to remember his experiences in the 1982 war who finally discovers that he was suppressing memories of his involvement at Sabra-Shatila.

Meanwhile, Tel Al-Zaatar remains forgotten. Whereas many major international news agencies (including, amongst others, Al-Jazeera; the Independent; the New York Times; Euronews; the Huffington Post; Press TV) ran stories about Sabra-Shatila on the day of its 30th anniversary last year, a search for news articles relating to the Tel al-Zaatar massacre dated August 2006 (the 30th anniversary of the Tel al-Zaatar massacre) returns no results at all. Even pro-Palestinian blogs are mute. Why is that? Why did the massacre of a comparable number of civilians not prompt similar international concern and media coverage? Why was the Tel al-Zaatar massacre not important enough for the UN’s time? Why wasn’t that also genocide?

The answer to all these questions is that Israel was not involved.

Israelis have often complained of international media and foreign governments applying double-standards when they report on, or involve themselves in, Israeli foreign policy. Israelis are not wrong when they do this: the example of Tel al-Zaatar and Sabra-Shatila is a clear-cut case of double-standards. Not only is Sabra-Shatila remembered only because of Israeli involvement, but only Israeli involvement in Sabra-Shatila is remembered. It will be recalled that the Israelis were not the direct perpetrators. No Israeli soldier engaged in the massacres. It was the Phalangists who were directly responsible for the slaughter. Yet the Israelis received such disproportionate blame for their lesser part in the events that the Phalangists’ role became all but forgotten. Journalistic reports at the time focused not on criticising Phalangist militiamen for the ruthless rapes and murders they had committed, but rather on condemning the Israeli military for failing to have predicted the violence the Christians were inevitably going to unleash upon Palestinians in the camps, and for failing to stop it once they became aware of it.

In order for this narrative to be maintained, it must be assumed that the Phalangists had lesser capacities for moral thought and action. It must be assumed that it is natural that they will act violently when given the opportunity. It must be assumed that they are nothing more than amoral, sectarian killing machines: clockwork toy soldiers wound up on a predetermined path of violence intrinsic to their very natures. It is not worth spending valuable column-inches deploring the acts of fighters who lack any capacity for knowing or doing any better. Meanwhile, a second premise of the same narrative is that Israeli soldiers are capable of understanding the barbarity of other combatants, of making independent ethical judgements, and of policing accordingly.

Put simply, in order to be more shocked at the behaviour of a party which has failed to prevent a murder than with the conduct of the murderer himself, we must be forming judgements on the basis of deeply biased opinions of the two parties. We must consider the murderer inherently inferior, or less capable of making moral judgments than the aloof witness in the first place. After all, if the farmer fails to lock the door to the chicken coop and the fox kills the chickens, we blame the farmer. What sense is there in blaming a fox, an animal without reason?

It is often claimed that the extra criticism Israel receives in such situations is rooted in anti-Semitism. This charge has been levelled against scores of academics, journalists and government officials, and has ended many a career. However, it is not anti-Semitism at the heart of this hypocrisy. The opposite is true. We hold Israelis to be superior to their Arab neighbours rather than inferior. The hypocrisy stems from the deeply ingrained, sub-conscious, racist views we in the West continue to hold of Arabs and of Orientals generally. We consider them to be less moral than us, and to be naturally more at ease with violence. Israel has re-enforced this image by presenting itself as a lonely outpost, flying the flag of democracy in a dangerous and savage land in which it is surrounded by nothing but tyranny and threat. It is the fact that we consider Israel superior to the Arabs that leads to our noisily reproaching it.

It is not the case that we go too far in our criticisms of Israel. It is right and proper that we should condemn Israeli activities when they appear to go against international law or common morality, as they clearly did at Sabra and Shatila. What is unacceptable is that when Arab groups and governments commit far greater crimes we do not respond in the same terms. We say nothing because we consider it normal as a result of institutionalised and racist beliefs. We think it natural that governments throughout the Arab World continue to engage in the vicious oppression of their own peoples, opposition groups, and minorities. Most guilty of all are the likes of George Galloway: pro-Palestinian activists willing to express support for dictators like Saddam Hussein and violent sectarian militias like Hezbollah in the same breath as denouncing Israeli human rights abuses.

It is time for western activists, academics and journalists dealing with the Middle East to look at the region with an objective eye when covering conflicts and condemning human rights abuses. All parties to conflicts should be judged by the same standard. If that were achieved there would be a great deal more criticism of Arab governments and militias. If that were achieved, the victims of the Tel al-Zaatar massacre would be as well remembered by everyone, including “pro-Palestinian activists”, as those of Sabra and Shatila.

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Photo Credit: Cliff1066™

The Rise Of The Israeli Far Right

Several months ago, my two-piece article for this website offering an introduction to the upcoming Israeli elections of January 22nd devoted a scant one sentence to the potential merger of The Jewish Home and the National Union, two parties representing Israel’s radical right.

The Middle-East represents a taxing milieu for the clairvoyant and/or budding political pundit. Though the Jewish Home boasted a paltry three representatives in the previous Knesset, the party’s absorption of the National Union has sent shockwaves throughout the political system.

This is thanks to the elevation to the party’s leadership of Naftali Bennett: a risk-taking multi-millionaire venture capitalist with an indisputably patriotic record, having served with distinction in a Special Forces unit. If there is an Israeli answer to ‘The American Dream’, Bennett’s résumé embodies it.

The party’s platform presents a wish-list of nationalist-religious extremism: an increased role for Jewish law at the expense of Israel’s liberal-democratic moorings, a socially conservative agenda and, the icing on this terrifying cake, annexation of 60% of the West Bank.

A poll published this week predicted Bennett’s party becoming the second-largest in the Knesset, after the ruling Likud-Beitenu Party led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a fellow traveler of the political right.

The rise of Jewish Home has eclipsed an even more worrying development; the takeover of the Likud Party by an entryist, far-right group seeking to inject extremist rhetoric into the mainstream right-wing. This is perhaps embodied best by Moshe Feiglin, who will almost certainly represent the Likud in the next Knesset.

Feiglin stood on the ever-so-pragmatic platform of replacing the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, with a rebuilt Jewish Temple. Whereas previously his voice represented a minute segment of the centre-right big-tent, only a small  majority of Likud’s incoming Knesset Members have expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

By betting on two horses, Israel’s far-right has this one in the bag. Whether The Jewish Home enter the cabinet or not, Netanyahu will have to mollify an unprecedented swing to the right amongst Israel’s already conservative electorate. If the world thought Netanyahu represents the unbridled face of Israeli intransigence, they may yet turn out to be as flabbergasted as those of us who follow Israel’s volatile electoral system.

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Image: The grave of Baruch Goldstein, the Cave of the Patriachs murderer.
Credit: Yoni Lerner

Resistance and Retribution: Israel’s Follies in Gaza

The IDF is entering another endless rabbit warren from which it will emerge victory-less after it inevitably fails to achieve its aims. Gaza will be left in a considerably worse shape. Of course, it will be the international community’s fault for not letting them finish the job.

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After reports of 30,000 Israeli reservists mobilising after a day of tit-for-tat attacks between the IDF and Hamas, some commentators are predicting an ‘Operation Cast Lead 2.0’. The situation in Gaza has exploded since the assassination (or targeted killing, whichever your sensibilities prefer) of Ahmed al-Jabari, the commander of Hamas’military wing and many of us have been left trying to comprehend the course of the events.

Despite the tragedy unravelling before us across a multitude of news and social media platforms, swarming us with swathes of information and subtle misinformation. Already journalists are noting the ‘cyber battlefield’ between Hamas and the IDF, and now even Netanyahu himself is jumping into the Twitter front line, unsurprisingly denouncing Hamas as cowards for using their fellow Palestinians as improvised body armour. However, we see a shining example of how too much information is even more debilitating than too little and it has become near impossible to see through the fog of the information war to understand what is going on

Rather than attempt to tackle the course of events from an unfamiliar perspective, if we approach the IDF’s counterinsurgency strategy towards Gaza then we can gain valuable insight into some of the factors at play.

First and foremost, Gaza is not an existential threat to Israel. Short of Hamas acquiring a nuclear bomb, there is very little that could develop in Gaza that could alter Israel’s threat picture. Existential threats are a classification reserved only for threats such as a hostile Egypt – the linchpin in any conventional assault on Israel – and the Iranian nuclear programme. Hamas’ rockets, however, do pose and existential threat to the government. While sporadic rocket attacks on southern Israeli settlements closest to the border with Gaza are to be expected, Fajr-5 rockets falling on Tel Aviv will start making people question their government’s ability to protect its citizens.

Second, there are number of international factors at play whose influences are still obscured by the ‘shock of capture’ from the rapid deterioration of events. There’s the ongoing chaos in Syria, which has started to draw in the IDF after exchanges of mortar bombs and tank shells in the Golan. In early October, Hizbollah flew an Iranian-made reconnaissance drone into southern Israel, while the rest of Lebanon simmers from the tension exacerbated by the Syrian conflict. There is the ongoing crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme and the international sanctions, combined with the drop in the Rial, are straining Iran’s ability to support the Assad regime, Hizbollah and Hamas. In the US, Obama’s re-election has foiled Netanyahu’s hopes of a Romney-Ryan presidency.

What is the IDF trying to achieve? It is blatantly clear that their assassination of al-Jabari has escalated the situation. Fajr rockets dropping on Tel Aviv is a very significant development. The fact that Hamas has only decided now to bring them to bear on the cosmopolitan Israeli city indicates a red line has been crossed. There are two possible conclusions: the Israeli government underestimated Hamas’ reaction or they intentionally provoked a reaction out of the organisation. Considering the reported competence of Israel’s intelligence organisations, the former is very unlikely and there is little chance the IDF was caught off guard. The latter is far more likely to be the case. Furthermore, they will have calculated Hamas’ most dangerous course of action as firing Fajrs onto Israelis cities and have considered it as an acceptable risk to their larger aims.

We need to backtrack to Lebanon in 2006 to get a better sense of what is going on. In 2006, after a month of heavy fighting with Hizbollah, Israel withdrew from Lebanon defeated. Both the Israeli civilian and military leadership were shocked at the IDF’s poor performance against an enemy they had badly underestimated. After the war, the government conducted a probing investigation into what went wrong.

Israeli operations in Lebanon and Gaza show the reality of COIN doctrine without all the fuzzy frills of ‘winning hearts and minds’. The doctrine determined the IDF’s operations in Lebanon during its occupation from 1982 to 2000, again in 2006 and once more in Gaza in 2009 in Operation Cast Lead. Not-so-coincidentally, Israel failed to achieve any of its aims in these operations. But while US and British thinkers are beginning to criticise COIN as a viable strategy after NATO’s experience in Afghanistan, it seems that 6 years on from Lebanon the only visible adjustment the Israeli government has made towards it strategy on the Palestinian issue is to set up the IDF with a Twitter and You Tube account.

According to an IDF tweet, one of their objectives is to ‘cripple Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure in Gaza’. There is no single, universally accepted definition of a terrorist. If you cannot agree upon the definition of a terrorist, then it is impossible to define the limits of ‘terrorist infrastructure;. It is an ambiguous (presumably intentionally) term that could be applied to Hamas’ leadership, their rocket launch sites, roads, mosques and the list goes on. It does not define the end state for IDF’s operations and gives them considerable scope to cause significant damage across the Strip.

The IDF’s actions are the most telling sign that the conflict is even further from peace, and not just because of another explosion of violence. After a moment of national introspection following the 2006 war, the Israeli government has decided to stick with a military solution to the Palestinian issue. The IDF is entering another endless rabbit warren from which it will emerge victory-less after it inevitably fails to achieve its aims. Gaza will be left in a considerably worse shape. Of course, it will be the international community’s fault for not letting them finish the job.

And, of course, the operation has nothing to do with the Israeli elections in January.

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Photo Credit: Rahuldlucca

Israel’s Deadly Game of Politics

Desperate times call for desperate measures and it seems Israel has decided that the only way to deter Palestine from achieving an observer state status at the United Nations is to destabilise the region and use the argument that Palestine is not ready to become a state due to its violent and confrontational nature.

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israel flag gaza palestine hamas

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On Wednesday 14th November Israel killed the military commander of Hamas in an airstrike on the Gaza Strip. Hamas said Ahmed Al-Jabari, who ran the organization’s armed wing, Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, died along with a passenger after their car was targeted by an Israeli missile. Jabari has long topped Israel’s most-wanted list. Israel blames him for a string of attacks, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006. The Israeli military says its assassination of the Hamas military commander marks the beginning of an operation against Gaza militants.

The consequences of Israel’s actions were already noticeable just a few hours after the announcement as immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio and smaller groups also warned of retaliation: “”Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the responsibility for the consequences,” Islamic Jihad said.” There is now a real chance that this event can lead to another full-blown conflict similar to the three week conflict in 2008 and 2009.

However perhaps a full blown conflict in the region is exactly what Israel wanted. On the 29th of November, Palestine will put in a resolution to upgrade the status of Palestine to that of a non-member observer state in the organization. Unsurprisingly Israel with the support of the United States have opposed this move arguing that it will hinder real negotiations, despite the fact that the majority of UN members believe Palestine should be granted a full state membership at the international organisation. Israel has bluntly said that they will consider partial or full cancellation of the Oslo Accords if the United Nations General Assembly adopts the resolution. On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry sent an urgent cable to all Israeli representatives around the world, asking ambassadors to deliver a number of messages to senior officials in those countries as soon as possible. “You are asked immediately at the beginning of the work week to contact the foreign ministry, prime minister’s office, national security adviser or president’s office and request to do all possible to halt the Palestinian initiative because of its far-reaching consequences,” the cable to the ambassadors said. As opposed to the decisions of the UN Security Council, General Assembly decisions cannot be vetoed, therefore the USA cannot play its ace card to prevent Palestine achieving its objective. Despite strong pressure from Israel, the Palestinian President has defiantly said he will not back out from his plan to table the resolution at the United Nations.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and it seems Israel has decided that the only way to deter Palestine from achieving an observer state status at the United Nations is to destabilise the region and use the argument that Palestine is not ready to become a state due to its violent and confrontational nature. Hamas have always argued that asking the UN to grant Palestine a member status would be purely symbolic and would not achieve anything on the ground. For this reason, it is likely that Hamas will retaliate against Israel after the death of Al-Jabari, which is exactly what Israel wants them to do. Abbas is likely to plead to Hamas not to seek revenge at such a crucial time for the Palestinian state, but Hamas (who are already on cold terms with Abbas) are unlikely to listen, giving Israel more ammunition to claim that Palestine is a divided nation and thus do not deserve a place at the United Nations.

While many claim that it would be purely a symbolic matter if Palestine were to become an observer non-member state, the consequences are far greater than that. Netanyahu is fully aware of the fact that the new status as a non-member state would allow Palestine to be accepted as a member of the International Criminal Court of the UN in The Hague and demand Israel and its leaders be tried for war crimes. This is a very serious threat to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian land and teh Israeli officials will not take this lightly.

One may argue that the two events (UN resolution vote on the 29th November and Wednesday’s assassination of the Hamas militant) are purely coincidental in their close timing. But as Roosevelt said: “In politics nothing happens by accident”. Not much else needs to be said.

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Photo Credit: Lilachd

Equality In The US Army: Santorum Has It All Wrong

One wonders if Mr. Santorum is actively inhibiting this natural instinct to protect women when he is formulating his stances on policies regarding our reproductive health.

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In the wake of the Pentagon’s announcement of a loosening of restrictions for female service-members last week, we were treated to Rick Santorum’s considered opinions on these matters.  Last week CNN asked him about his support for measures that might eventually allow women to serve in all combat positions. It wasn’t surprising that he opposed the idea, voicing his reticence to John King.

I do have concerns about women in front-line combat, I think that could be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interest of the mission, because of other types of emotions that are involved. It already happens, of course, with the camaraderie of men in combat, but I think it would be even more unique if women were in combat, and I think that’s probably not in the best interest of men, women or the mission”

He called this behavior the “natural instinct to protect someone that’s a female.”  One wonders if Mr. Santorum is actively inhibiting this natural instinct to protect women when he is formulating his stances on policies regarding our reproductive health.

Santorum is arguing that when women are present on the battlefield it activates a male urge to engage in risky behavior in order protect them. This argument is a sneaky ploy; it’s the “it’s not about the women, it’s about the men” claim. At least, that’s what it is superficially. This argument side-steps trying to respond to the incredibly convincing evidence that women have proven their battlefield mettle repeatedly and instead goes for an assertion about male nature and military culture that embeds itself in social assumptions about gender not necessarily factual evidence.

Rick Santorum’s distaste for a mixing of the genders in combat is part of the broader “unit cohesion” argument, which has been similarly leveraged against the open service of lesbians and gays in the military. This is the sister argument to the original “men’s emotions will get the better of them” ploy. It says that the presence of women will serve as a distraction and weaken in the unit’s ability to carry out it’s mission and to function effectively as a whole. This argument is also a fear argument: the fear that women will destroy the sanctity of the masculine environment; that they will endanger their comrades perhaps by being overcome by their female emotions in a time of high stress. It is the presumption that some things are for men alone and that, for reasons that range from cultural to physical, women are simply incompatible with real combat. It is really a challenge to the idea of femininity on the battlefield.

Do women really make the battlefield more dangerous? Former Army Sergeant Kayla Williams, when interviewed on NPR early this week, said “I never saw that happen while I was deployed when we were in dangerous situations”.

Empirical evidence to support this idea of women posing threat to cohesiveness, as Megan Mackenzie has pointed out at the Duck of Minerva blog, is few and far between. A 1997 RAND study cited by Mackenzie found female inclusion to have little effect on unit effectiveness, readiness or morale. This body of research, and recent experience with mixed-gender units, has not seen the kind of unit cohesion breakdown that so many predict, and there are even reports that mixed units can be more effective.

There is one piece of evidence brought up frequently by detractors as proof that women and men cannot be mixed in combat for the reason that Santorum gives, that natural protection instinct. I’ve often seen people citing Israel as a model, saying that the Israeli Defense Force’s stance on gender integration was informed by knowledge of heightened male aggression and risk-taking in the face of an endangered woman. This is an interesting piece of evidence to consider, first because the Israeli army is highly integrated, preventing women from serving in only 12 percent of service positions and showing successes with mixed units, not to mention that it also drafts women. The IDF has operated like this since legislation in 2000 which followed a mid-1990s discrimination suit. It’s also interesting because this claim is never accompanied by a link to a broader report or study, yet remains considered to be unassailable fact.

A little research comes up with nothing on this front except for a 1996 book by a Lt. Col. Dave Grossman titled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. In Chapter 4, he writes that:

“The Israelis have consistently refused to put women in combat since their experiences in 1948. I have been told by several Israeli officers that this is because in 1948 they experienced recurring incidences of uncontrolled violence among male Israeli soldiers who had had their female combatants killed and injured in combat, and because the Arabs were extremely reluctant to surrender to women.”

This support is shaky at best, referencing something much more casual and unscientific than an official report, and based on the military experiences of 64 years ago. After finding this, I consider it safe to largely dismiss the claim in the face of other more recent and relevant experiences, like those of Kayla Williams, and the contrary findings of actual studies.

Rick Santorum’s argument sounds convincing at first, and has won him countless nods of agreement. Rhetorically attractive as it may be, the argument is specious and remains centered more on cultural misconceptions of both gender and of the military than it does solid fact or researched evidence.