Gaza, Dresden, Hamburg: targeting civilians?
- Gaza, Dresden, Hamburg: Legality of targeting civilians?
Photos and reports on Gaza on TV, in newspapers and Internet websites, remind one of German cities, such as Hamburg and Dresden, following the Allied bombing during World War II. Scenes of destruction in Gaza streets and neighborhoods in 2009 resemble those of Beirut's southern suburbs in 2006. In both events, totally or partially destroyed buildings and infrastructure, and slaughtered civilians were standard outcomes of Israeli attacks. Many late-night TV documentaries of World War II battles show German cities, flattened by Allied bombings in 1942-45, shell-shocked civilians, wandering among the ruins, looking for family members if they are still alive, and searching for morsels of food and shreds of clothing to stay alive in the bitter cold winter. Some scenes from these German cities showed body parts (hands, legs, heads) extending from underneath the rubble, an image that also came up in the aftermath of the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatilla in 1982, following the occupation of Beirut by Israeli forces.
Legal experts may say that bombings of civilians in Germany and Japan during World War II have preceded the Geneva Conventions (1949) on the treatment of civilians in war zones or under occupation, and that after 1949 there was no excuse for countries not to respect modern rules of conduct. The Geneva Conventions (http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/91.htm) made it illegal to target civilians, as targeting civilians by warring armies or paramilitary groups is considered a breach of international law and a serious human rights abuse, let alone the illegal use of weaponry, that is meant for long-range battles between armies, against civilian concentrations in residential areas in short-range bombing (which Israel casually did in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories).
It is true that most media outlets around the world, including news agencies and satellite TV, are preoccupied with civilian suffering in modern military conflicts, and that civil society organizations issue condemnations and launch demonstrations against targeting civilians.
But is there evidence that international law was applied and perpetrators of war crimes were brought to justice? Facts since World War II, and up to the attack on Gaza in 2009, confirm that civilians were and are still "legitimate" targets, in wars and conflicts where the superior side included the Western alliance or the United States alone, Israel and Russia (invasion of Afghanistan in 1978). The US has used nuclear weapons against Japan in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Both cities were flattened and hundreds of thousands of civilians perished. After World War II, the US and several of its Allies waged multiple wars, alone or collectively, in Korea, in Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos from the late 1950s till the early 1970s. Other wars also took place after World War II and produced shocking scenes of civilian causalities.
On its own, Israel committed a long list of massacres against the civilian population in Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt between the 1930s and 2009. In 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon resulted in the murder of 20,000 civilians. The recent attack on Gaza resulted in the death of 1,400 people, the wounding of 5,000, and the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of civilians, with untold damage to the civilian infrastructure, to the economy and to residential neighborhoods. These outcomes were denounced by civil society organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and by conscientious media outlets, but rarely by governments.
The attacks against civilians in Gaza were clearly in violation of international law and of basic human rights, but the Israelis and their Arab and Western sponsors knew that world-wide public anger will pass and threats of suing Israeli soldiers and their commanders and political overseers are just that - threats. And then life will go on. This was proven by the rush of European leaders to Israel to offer their services to Israel to make sure that Gaza never rises again against the 40-year occupation, or by the fact that the new US administration has not said a word about Gaza's agony and death toll, as the world opinion has expected from the new US president, Barack Obama.
During World War Two, 131 German cities and towns were targeted by Allied bombs; more than one third was almost entirely flattened. This bombing killed over 600,000 German civilians, destroyed 3.5 homes, and left 7 million Germans homeless. For many decades, this subject occupied little space in German publications, public discourse or popular culture. That the victims were civilians being targeted in the time of war was put aside when the victorious Allies established courts to bring the Nazi regime to justice, but no Allied soldiers were brought to accountability for their actions. It mattered little what crimes the Allies, including Britain and Stalinist Russia, have committed against the German civilian population between 1943 and 1949.
The British Royal Air force alone dropped one million tons of bombs on Germany cities in 1942-1945. After the war, there were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every person in Cologne (Kln) and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant in Dresden. Similar devastation was to hit Beirut's southern suburbs in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, where the Israeli massive war machine turned urban areas into heaps of concrete and steel.
That there was no political or military logic that dictated the bombing of German cities in 1942-1945, was lost on historians, politicians, lawmakers and judges till today. First, how can a military strategy, directed primarily against civilian population, be defended morally or by the laws of war (the same question goes to Israeli strategists)?
The British government has approved such bombing in February 1942, "to destroy the morale of the enemy civilian population and, in particular, of the industrial workers". However, as many records have shown, even by the spring of 1944, "it was emerging that despite incessant air raids the morale of the German population was obviously unbroken, while industrial production was impaired only marginally at best, and the end of the war had not come a day closer" (cited in W.G. Sebald, The Natural History of Destruction). However, the British still needed to continue the bombing to boost public morale at home and claim that Britain is still capable of hitting the Nazi homeland.
It is common knowledge that the Germans fought on every square inch on their territory and that Berlin had to be taken street by street from the German defenders by the invading Allied Forces. Bombing German cities did not help the Allied war effort and killing civilians and destroying cities were unnecessary whether back in the 1940s or today in Gaza or Beirut. This brings us back to the innermost reprehensible principle of every war, which is to aim for as wholesale an annihilation of the enemy with his dwellings, his history, and his natural environment as can possibly be achieved. How can one explain that in 2009, a country (Israel) can still bomb hospitals, schools, United Nations relief buildings, and over-crowded residential areas, and still get away with it? Isn't this enough proof that the most basic instincts of humanity's dark side still prevails in relations among nations (which are supposed to be civilized)?
A Lebanese poet (Khalil Gibran) once said: "Where is the justice of political power if it executes the murderer and jails the plunderer, and then itself marches upon neighboring lands, killing thousands and pillaging the very hills? ... where the murder of one person is a heinous crime, but the mass-murder of an entire people is somewhat an excusable act". How true these words are today when the world provides funds and human resources to bring individuals to international tribunals at The Hague for the murder of one individual, while little is done to apply international law when 1.5 million people in Gaza were bombed for four weeks without anyone raising a finger.
Kamal Dib is a Canadian economist with research interest in the Middle East and an observer of German culture ~ kamaldib@...
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