Monday, August 07, 2006

Hezbollah, Israel, & war crimes - Some lies & smears by Adam Shatz

A Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by Adam Shatz, "'Oops, Sorry' Doesn't Let Israel Off the Hook" (August 1, 2006) has been widely cited, praised, and quoted. To my great disappointment, one person who recommended it favorably is a journalist and blogger for whom I generally have considerable admiration and respect. Unfortunately, I think his response to the current Israeli/Lebanese crisis has been surprisingly unbalanced--in more than one sense of the term--and in my opinion his sympathy for this appalling piece by Shatz is one symptom of his loss of perspective. I wrote him about this. (I am leaving him anonymous because, in his case, I think this is an aberration.)

--Jeff Weintraub

Hi X,

It would take a long discussion to spell out all the things that are wrong and offensive about Adam Shatz's argument in his piece on the Qana massacre ("'Oops, Sorry' Doesn't Let Israel Off the Hook"), which you recommended in your blog. But as a start, one passage in particular happened to leap out at me.
Another argument made by Israel's defenders is that it cannot be held responsible for killing civilians in militant strongholds.
Michael Walzer, the influential Princeton moral philosopher and author of "Just and Unjust Wars," recently opined in the New Republic that when Arab guerrillas "launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible — and no one else is — for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counterfire." One expects this rationalization of collective punishment from a defense minister; coming from a "just war" theorist it is most odd. (By this criterion, the French Resistance would have been "responsible" if the Nazis had destroyed a village sheltering anti-Fascist partisans.)
Walzer was trying to compress a complex argument about the ethical imperatives of "just war" theory into one sentence here, and the result is open to misinterpretation if one is determined to misinterpret it (and if one also doesn't bother to read the rest of Walzer's piece, but just takes this one sentence out of context). However, Shatz had the chance to read the whole piece, and has presumably also read Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, so he knows better.

I trust you are aware that Shatz's characterization of Walzer's position here is entirely mistaken--or, more likely, deliberately dishonest. Walzer says quite clearly that, even in cases where Hezbollah is totally guilty for having deliberately exposed non-combatant civilians to danger, the Israelis are also obligated to take extreme care to avoid harming these civilians, even if that means exposing themselves to additional risk. This kind of smear (there is no other word for it) is Fox News stuff, or worse. (And if you're not aware of all this, why not?)

=> I also noticed that, when it comes to war crimes, Shatz doesn't entirely give Hezbollah a free ride. There are a few brief and dismissive references, half-buried in other points, to the fact that Hezbollah's whole mode of waging this conflict is an unambiguous war crime. But these are brief cosmetic qualifications. Broadly speaking, Shatz does give them a free ride. (Well, so do most other people. So what's the big deal, right?) Since Shatz also argues that there is no fundamental difference between accidentally killing civilians and deliberately murdering them--I almost wish I were exaggerating, but I'm not--I guess it's not surprising that he and Human Rights Watch don't see eye-to-eye on these matters.

Essentially, Shatz's position here is (a) we must not trivialize the killing of civilians if it's done by Israel (I agree with that principle), but (b) it's perfectly OK to trivialize the deliberate murder of civilians as long as they're Israeli. (I hope you won't be tempted to insult my intelligence by suggesting that this is not the overall message of Shatz's piece.) Saying sorry isn't enough to get Israel off the hook, but Hezbollah doesn't even have to say it's sorry.

I know you don't believe this. Frankly, although I don't know Shatz personally, my guess is that even he doesn't really believe it (entirely). So why doesn't this piece of dishonest & morally despicable propaganda bother you? (A rhetorical question.)

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub