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War on Civilians: A MADRE Guide to the Middle East Crisis

Posted on: Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Keywords: Peace Building, Iraq, Middle East

As the crisis engulfing Gaza, Israel, and Lebanon continues into its second week, MADRE reiterates its call for the protection of civilians in the Middle East. On July 12, MADRE immediately condemned Hezbollah's rocket attacks on civilians in Israel, and Israel's disproportionate and inhumane reaction targeting civilians in Lebanon. Israel's decision—undertaken with full US support—to escalate a border skirmish into an all-out war threatens to drag the whole region deeper into crisis. Meanwhile, Israel continues to target another 1.5 million civilians in the Gaza Strip with a military siege that is violating international law and producing a humanitarian disaster. 1

MADRE calls for:

  • An end to attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure through an immediate cease-fire by Israel and Hezbollah and an end to Israel's invasion and blockade of Gaza.
  • The protection of civilians in the conflict zone, including the provision of emergency relief, humanitarian assistance, and recovery efforts guided by UN Resolution 1325, which calls for women's leadership and representation in international peace-building and reconstruction processes.
  • An exchange of prisoners and the application of due process and human rights protections for all political prisoners and prisoners of war in the region.
  • An end to Israel's occupation of the territories conquered in 1967 based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338.
  • Negotiations brokered by the United Nations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and Israel and the government of Lebanon, including representatives of Hezbollah. Negotiations should aim to resolve outstanding disputes in order to avoid future outbreaks of violence.

What is the situation for civilians in Lebanon, Israel, and Gaza?

Lebanon: Civilians are enduring the biggest military assault since the Israeli invasion of 1982. Within the first week of the war, over 310 people were killed, most of them civilians.2 Homes, hospitals, roads, bridges, and airports were bombed. Half a million people have been displaced from their homes and many have been caught in attacks while fleeing.3 In some places, access to food, water, sanitation, medicine, and other necessities is limited. As Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said, "nothing is safe" in Lebanon.4

Israel: Arbitrary Hezbollah rocket attacks on civilian areas have killed 25 Israelis within the first week of fighting; 13 of them were civilians.5 Thousands more in Israel's north have been forced to take shelter underground. The most vulnerable sector of Israeli society are Palestinians in northern Israel (20 percent of the national population) for whom the state does not provide bomb shelters.

Gaza: Palestinians in Gaza, including three-quarters of a million children, are facing severe shortages of food, water, and medicine, and continue to be threatened by an Israeli military campaign that has killed more than 103 people since June 28.6 The Israeli siege is producing a public health crisis, as garbage piles up in sewage-strewn streets and people go without refrigeration or water in scorching temperatures. Seventy percent of Gazans are now unable to meet their daily food needs, the health system is nearing collapse, and children are showing signs of trauma and exhaustion.7 (See MADRE's call for an end to the invasion in Gaza)

War on Civilians, War on Women

Civilian attacks overwhelmingly affect women. That's because women are primarily responsible for meeting people's basic needs for food, shelter, and health care, whether there's a crisis or not. When bombs destroy homes, hospitals, bridges, and food markets, women must intensify their work to meet their families� needs. During war, peoples� needs also intensify, and a sharp rise in trauma, disability, disease, and homelessness compound women�s responsibilities. Women also face increased violence from within their own families in times of war.

Who bears responsibility for the widening crisis?

  • Hezbollah's attack on civilians in Israel is a violation of international law.8 Hezbollah made a strategic decision to launch this attack with no immediate provocation from Israel, which ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.
  • Israel's disproportionately ferocious assault has killed and continues to endanger many more civilians than the Hezbollah attacks. By deliberately targeting civilians in Lebanon and ignoring its legal obligation to respond in proportion to the threat posed by Hezbollah, Israel has escalated the conflict into a major political and humanitarian crisis.

Why did Hezbollah attack Israel?

  • Hezbollah says its aim is to compel Israel to trade its captured soldiers for Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.
  • Hezbollah appears to be exploiting Israel's quagmire in Gaza in order to shore up its own political position in Lebanon, where the issue of the Israeli-held prisoners is a rallying point for public opinion.9
  • The Hezbollah raid may also be an attempt by the group and its backers in Syria and Iran to throw a life-line to the Hamas leadership in Gaza by forcing Israel to divert its attention to a new crisis on its northern border.
  • While the Hezbollah attack was planned months ago, its timing indicates an attempt to take advantage of a high-point of anti-Israel feeling in the region stoked by Israel�s attack on Gaza.

Why does this crisis carry the threat of a regional war?

Although the fighting is being waged mainly on the bodies of civilians in Lebanon, Gaza, and Israel, broader regional forces are driving the conflict:

  • Israel recently threatened Syria by flying a fighter plane over President Assad's residence because of Syria�s support for Hamas. Syria supports Hezbollah and condoned its July 12 raid, leading to more speculation that it may become a target of Israeli attack.
  • Iran, which also supports Hamas and Hezbollah, has promised to retaliate against Israel if it attacks Syria. As the second-strongest country in the region, Iran is Israel�s main competitor and is at logger-heads with Israel's sponsor, the US, over its nuclear program.
  • If Iran were to attack Israel, the US would have a strong pretext for attacking Iran.10
  • The Bush Administration has recklessly inflamed the crisis by pinning blame on Syria and Iran and casting the conflict as part of its wider "war on terror."
  • Hezbollah and Iran have similarly portrayed the conflict as a "clash of civilizations." For example, Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasrallah said that Hezbollah is "fighting a battle for the Islamic nation."11 But attempts to mobilize public opinion on the basis of identity - whether the words are Islam or democracy - can easily escalate violence.

What should Israel have done when Hezbollah captured two of its soldiers and demanded a prisoner exchange?

  • Negotiate. There are many precedents for successfully negotiated prisoner exchanges, including three between Israel and Hezbollah since 1996.
  • The Lebanese prisoners Israel is holding were captured inside Lebanon in raids similar to that carried out by Hezbollah against Israel. Israel is imprisoning these men in violation of international law.
  • Throughout the crisis, Hezbollah has offered an immediate cease fire in exchange for a prisoner trade.

Doesn't Israel need to protect its population and act to secure the release of its soldiers?

  • Yes. Negotiations are the best way to achieve both aims. The course that Israel chose instead has further endangered its population and is the least likely to secure the release of its soldiers.
  • When Israeli security officials warned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that attacking Lebanon would trigger reprisal assaults from Hezbollah on Israeli civilians, he gave this contradictory response: "There are times when the state needs to protect its citizens, even at the price of a rocket threat."12
  • Eighteen years of Israeli military occupation in Lebanon and 39 years of occupation in Gaza have demonstrated that there is no military solution to political violence. Lasting peace can only come through negotiations.

Israel removed troops from Gaza and Lebanon and is now being attacked from those places. Doesn't that show that Israel should not have left those territories?

  • On the contrary, it shows that negotiated settlements have a better chance of supporting lasting peace than unilateral actions like Israel's policy towards Gaza and Lebanon.
  • The Israeli occupation of Gaza has not ended. Israel's unilateral "disengagement" in 2005 merely altered the means of Israeli control of the territory. (See The Reconfigured Occupation: Gaza Disengagement Will Not Ease Suffering for Palestinian Women and Families)
  • Israel legally ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. However, it did so unilaterally, outside the framework of any comprehensive peace settlement with its neighbors.
  • In contrast to Gaza and Lebanon, Israel negotiated peace settlements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Since those peace accords were signed, there has been no violence between Israel and those countries.

What is motivating Israel's actions in Lebanon and Gaza?

  • It is the Israeli military, and not the new government of Ehud Olmert, that is driving Israeli policy. Unlike most Israeli leaders, neither Olmert nor his unusually low-profile Defense Minister, Amir Peretz, have much military experience. The two are under tremendous pressure to prove their macho credentials by authorizing the use of extreme force.
  • In Lebanon, the military's immediate aim is to save face (referred to as "restoring deterrent capability") in the wake of an embarrassing Hezbollah raid into Israeli territory.
  • More broadly, important elements in the military opposed Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. They see this conflict as an opportunity either to re-occupy southern Lebanon (an option that lacks popular support in Israel) or to re-set the terms of Israel�s withdrawal, for example, by disarming Hezbollah.
  • In Gaza, Hamas' June 25 capture of an Israeli soldier served as a pretext for Israel's attack, but the attack itself was planned months ago. Olmert's stated goals - namely, the return of the soldier and an end to the small-scale Hamas rocket attacks on Israel - are unlikely to be achieved through its assault on civilians. Rather, "applying pressure" to the population (as Israel described its tactics) in combination with the mass arrest of Hamas parliamentarians, is intended to bring down the Hamas leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

What events led up to the crisis in Gaza?

  • The Gaza Strip has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967.
  • Last year, Israel evacuated its settlers from Gaza and redeployed its forces outside of the area. Because of this new situation, many people mistakenly believe that Israeli occupation has ended. In fact (and according to international law) Gaza remains under occupation because Israel continues to control its economy, borders, airspace, telecommunications, water, and electricity as well as people's freedom of movement in and out of the area.
  • In January 2006, Hamas was elected to lead the PA, the body that serves some functions of government in Gaza and the West Bank, but is denied true self-determination by the ongoing occupation.
  • When Hamas won, Israel, the US, and the European Union cut off crucial funding to the PA and Israel tightened its blockade around Gaza. The siege increased poverty, unemployment, hunger, distress, and anger among many people in Gaza.
  • Though Hamas has been responsible for numerous acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians, it had maintained a cease fire for over a year when it was elected.
  • In June, after escalating Israeli attacks on Hamas leaders and civilians in Gaza, including the killing of an entire family on the beach, Hamas ended its cease fire.
  • On June 25, Hamas crossed into Israel, killed two soldiers and captured a third. They demanded the release of Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails.
  • On June 28, Israel launched a major assault on the civilian infrastructure of Gaza.

Why won't Israel negotiate with Hezbollah or Hamas?

  • Taking its queue from the Bush Administration, Israel has opted for "unilateralism." It prefers to avoid negotiations, which require compromises and concessions, in favor of imposing its own solutions, disregarding the human rights and political priorities of its neighbors.
  • Israel is particularly unwilling to talk with the Hamas leadership, which would likely prove to be a much tougher negotiating partner than the PA's former Fatah leadership.
  • Conciliatory gestures from Hamas, like the recent Washington Post editorial by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, which indicated Hamas' willingness to co-exist with Israel, make it more difficult for Israel to claim that it has "no partner for peace."13 Therefore, signs that Hamas may be willing to negotiate with Israel are usually rebuffed by instigating violence. For example, Israel's latest invasion of Gaza came just as Hamas had worked out a compromise deal with its rival Fatah faction that would have set the stage for a unified Palestinian negotiating position towards Israel.

What's the role of the US?

  • The US is being criticized for standing on the sidelines of the crisis, but its role is hardly passive. The US is complicit in Israeli war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza.
  • In both areas, the Israeli military is using US-made weapons against civilians, in violation of international law and US domestic law.14
  • The Bush Administration has given Israel a green light to attack civilians in Lebanon and Gaza. As a July 9 communiqué from the Israel government stated, "The international response to the results of the fighting has been low-key," thus "allowing Israel military freedom of action."15 A week into the war, with hundreds of Lebanese civilians dead, the White House was "still waiting" to initiate any serious diplomatic intervention in order to "give Israel more time to weaken Hezbollah forces." 16
  • The US was the only country to oppose a UN Security Council resolution aimed at defusing the crisis in Gaza.
  • The US gives more money to Israel ($3 billion a year) than to any other country, mostly for military expenditures.
  • The US has been working to undermine Hamas� electoral victory since January by cutting off all funds to the PA (including employee paychecks that support one-third of the population of Gaza).

On maintaining perspective, despite the media:

  • Many media sources offer brief chronologies of the crisis. Notice that where a source begins a chronology says a lot about how it sees the roots of the conflict. US media often begin to narrate events with a Palestinian attack on Israel, framing Israeli violence as retaliatory and Palestinian violence as unprovoked and without context. The primary context for the violence in the region is the 39-year-old illegal Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands. Ultimately, that occupation must end and Palestinian rights must be respected in order to secure peace in the region.
  • We have seen in-depth coverage of Israelis' fear and suffering. These stories are important: they help humanize the conflict and remind us that real people's lives are at stake. We need to insist on comparable coverage of the experiences of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians being targeted by Israel.
  • US media is brimming with accusations that Iran was behind the July 12 Hezbollah raid into Israel. Despite Iran's relationship to Hezbollah, so far, we've not seen evidence of such a plan. We should be skeptical of arguments that build justification for attacking Iran because the Bush Administration has a standing plan to do precisely that and may be looking for an opportunity.
  • As the violence continues, we are hearing a lot of conspiracy theories along with frightening predictions about ways that this war could spin further out of control. While we need to face prospects of the crisis spreading, apocalyptic scenarios tend to undermine our capacity for rational thought and effective action. We need to be realistic about the dangers of this conflict while doing all we can to support peaceful resolutions and those people most threatened by the crisis.

What's the perspective of people in the region who want to see peace?

  • Despite the dangers they face, there are people in the region calling for a de-escalation of the conflict and respect for human rights and international law. The Israeli peace movement was quick to condemn its government's refusal to recognize the elected Hamas leadership and its attack on Palestinian civilians. Israeli peace activists called for Israel to negotiate with Hezbollah even before the first strikes against Lebanon. In Lebanon itself, where the danger is much greater than in Israel, there is open debate about Hezbollah's raid and its unilateral decision to drag that country into war.
  • In most societies, people who are targeted with political violence rally around their leaders, even throwing their support behind leaders who they might otherwise oppose. For that reason, targeting civilians as a way to bring down their government usually backfires. Moreover, as we saw in the US after 911, when people feel threatened, they are more willing to support a violent response by their own leadership and forfeit their rights to debate and political participation in favor of the promise of safety. All of these dynamics are in play in the Middle East today.

End Notes

  1. Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are grave breaches of international law including: Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions, Article 48 of the Protocol 1 Aditional to the Geneva Conventions, and Article 50 of the Hague Convention. Further, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) includes as war crimes: "Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities," and "Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects" (Article 8 2 (b) (i) and (ii)).
  2. Steven Erlanger and Jad Mouawad, "Israelis Clash With Militia Inside Lebanon," The New York Times, 19 July 2006.
  3. "UN agencies express 'serious concern' over civilian casualties in Lebanon and Israel," United Nations News Center, 19 July 2006.
  4. "Haifa Hit A 'Major Escalation,'" CBS News, 13 July 2006, .
  5. Steven Erlanger, "With Israeli Use of Force, Debate Over Proportion," The New York Times, 19 July 2006.
  6. Ibid.
  7. "Gaza: UN agencies voice alarm at worsening situation, call for urgent action," United Nations News Center, 10 July 2006, .
  8. See Endnote #1.
  9. Yoav Stern, "Israel to Lebanon: Release soldiers, pull Hezbollah back," Haaretz, 16 July 2006, .
  10. For a more in-depth analysis, see: Seymour M. Hersch, "The Iran Plans: Would President Bush go to war to stop Tehran from getting the bomb?" The New Yorker, 17 April 2006, .
  11. "A Week of Violence and Diplomacy," The New York Times, 19 July 2006.
  12. Ronny Sofer, "IDF braces for long-range rocket fire,", 13 July 2006, .
  13. Ismail Haniyeh, "Aggression Under False Pretenses," Editorial, The Washington Post, 11 July 2006, l.
  14. The US Arms Export Control Act (Public Law 90-829) limits the use of US weapons given or sold to a foreign country to "internal security" and "legitimate self-defense". According to the law, US weapons may not be used against civilians.
  15. Israeli Cabinet Communique, 9 July 2006,
  16. Helene Cooper and Steven Erlanger, "U.S. Appears to Be Waiting to Act on Israeli Airstrikes," The New York Times, 19 July 2006

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