Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Those infallible Israelis: through the fog of war, Annan jumps the gun

The killing of the four UN observers in Lebanon is a tragic and regrettable event, to be sure. But it's the sort of event that occurs with some regularity in war, and is one of the many reasons why war is universally regarded as a very bad thing--although not always the worst of things.

The expression "the fog of war" is a cliché for a reason, and that's because it's a useful and descriptive term for the confusion that inevitably occurs on all sides in a war--for the commanders, the fighting forces, the civilians, the obervers, and the commentators.

When events such as the shelling of the UN post, and the resultant deaths of the UN personnel, occur--and occur they will, almost without fail, in every hot war, no matter how careful the military might be--each side makes statements about what has happened. It's understood that all such statements are preliminary. An investigation can help dispel the fog, but only imperfectly, and only over time.

In this instance Israel has said that this was a tragic accident--no surprise there. One would also imagine that the UN--an institution at least theoretically dedicated to damping down conflicts, judicious restraint, withholding judgment until all the facts are in--would avoid making premature statements about what happened and what Israel intended.

But in this case, the UN is also the injured party, which makes the fog even thicker. And Kofi Annan's response has been to interpret this action in the worst light for Israel. At the same time that Annan said he is "trying to get the details" of the attack (a reasonable response), he also called it an "apparently deliberate targeting" on the part of Israel.

It seems clear to me that the latter statement is so excessively inflammatory that it should never have been uttered by any UN official in the absence of strong and incontrovertible evidence that it was true.

So, what gives? Annan was clearly upset by the deaths--as well he might be. In moments of strong emotion, people often let words slip out that would otherwise--and should otherwise--have remained unsaid. And in those moments, people often reveals their biases. However, none of this is the sort of behavior the Secretary General of the UN should display.

It's not as though Annan's biases--or those of the UN--were hidden prior to this, though. Case in point: this article, written by Alan Dershowitz on July 20 (prior to the deaths of the UN observers), lists some examples for Annan. And anyone familiar with the history of the UN and Israel since the 1970s knows the sad story there (see also this).

What happened at that UN outpost, and why? I don't pretend to know. If this report is true--and I have no reason at the moment to think it isn't--the fog of war must have been unusually thick at the time, allowing some sort of total breakdown of communication that led to the incident.

But, as Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor has said, the accusation that Israel would have deliberately targeted UN officials simply makes no sense:

"Why on earth would we deliberately target U.N. observers?" he asked. "What good would that do either on the military or the political level, because it so obvious that this would be harmful. Of course it is a tragedy for the observers and their bereaved families and we truly share their sorrow and we deeply regret the incident. It was obviously a fatal mistake.

Palmor has said it's obvious that the accusation makes no sense "on the military or political level," and I agree. So where does the accusation come from? The charges do make sense in one way, and that is on the emotional level of those making the accusation.

To those who are predisposed to believe that Israel and Israelis are not demonic Nazis, but merely citizens of a country that's been fighting for its very existence ever since the beginning of that existence, it would seem obvious that this was an error rather than a top-down policy of the Israeli government. But it's not obvious at all to those who have bought their own rhetoric about Israeli evil.

Those who believe that this was a case of deliberate targeting of UN personnel are not only operating under the supposition of Israeli evil intent, but of Israeli infallibility. The latter two characteristics--evil coupled with genius, as in "evil genius"--have been part and parcel of anti-Semitic thought for centuries. Now that type of thinking has been transferred to those who demonize Israel.

Israel--unlike its enemies--attempts to be a country that fights wars in a relatively humane way. It tries to avoid killing civilians; it does not deliberately target them. This, of course, is in contrast to its enemies, whose main stock in trade is to deliberately target civilians--both Israel's and its own. And that is no secret; it is obvious and up-front. The enemy targets Israeli civilians directly by methods such as suicide bombing in pizza parlors and restaurants, as well as firing unguided Katusha rockets into Israeli cities. And it targets its own civilians by hiding weaponry and "insurgents" among the civilian population (see this for a discussion).

Israeli weaponry (like that of the US) has developed a remarkable degree of sophistication. In an effort to kill only the guilty, amazing advances have been made. Smart weaponry and good intelligence cannot, however, be infallible, and they can never dispel the fog of war entirely, nor protect innocent civilians (or UN obervers, or reporters), who will always remain at risk.

It is paradoxical, then, that those very advances in "smart" weaponry--and the intent behind those advances, which is the desire to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible--have backfired. Because Israeli attacks are targeted as opposed to indiscriminate, the Israelis are somehow assumed to be omniscient and omnipotent in this regard. And this, combined with the idea that they have evil intent, gives rise to statements such as Annan's.

[ADDENDUM: Belmont Club offers his usual detailed and knowledgeable analysis of the situation. A must-read.

See also, this: Claudia Rosett on how the UN has grievously mishandled the Lebanese situation since the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from that country. Strong stuff.]

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