Minimizing the damage

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: Apr 26, 2002 12:00 AM
The Web site of the Israeli Defense Forces shows aerial photographs of Jenin before and after the IDF's recent operation there. The second picture zooms in on the refugee camp where most of the fighting occurred. There's a black oval around the combat zone, where buildings have been demolished by Israeli tanks and bulldozers. The area represents about a tenth of the camp, which itself is only part of the city. "The Palestinian claim in the world-wide media concerning the dimensions of the damage does not stand the reality test," says the IDF. "From the photographs one can unequivocally see that the proportions of the damage in the Jenin Refugee Camp following Operation 'Defensive Shield' are significantly smaller than those described and published." As a team appointed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan begins its investigation of the fighting in Jenin, the IDF's point is not trivial: News coverage has created an exaggerated sense of the destruction caused by Israeli forces. But the attempt to put the damage in perspective does not answer the question of whether it was justified. Likewise, it is important to establish an accurate count of civilian casualties. But even if the true number turns out to be far lower than the Palestinians have claimed, that does not mean the IDF did everything it could to avoid killing noncombatants. In a sense, Israel's enemies have made it easy to defend the IDF. By embracing outrageous hyperbole (equating possible military negligence with "genocide") and outright fabrications (the claim of a "massacre" in Jenin), they have encouraged Israel's supporters to dismiss all criticism of the IDF's actions in the West Bank. When Israel is subject to venomous attacks by people with a clear bias against the Jewish state, it's natural for her friends to question claims of IDF excesses. Often this instinct proves to be correct. On April 2, for example, Palestinian television claimed IDF forces in Bethlehem had killed a priest and injured dozens of Selesian monks. The supposedly dead priest later called the Vatican to report that there were no casualties among the Selesians. But sometimes there is truth mixed in with the lies. In an April 15 New York Times story, Israeli soldiers admitted using Palestinian civilians as shields, assuming that snipers would not fire on their neighbors and that residents would not open doors they knew to be booby-trapped. Although it appears no civilians died as a result of this practice, it clearly put them at risk in order to prevent Israeli casualties. The bulldozing of buildings from which soldiers were fired upon is another troubling tactic the Israelis have acknowledged. Although the IDF says it always issued warnings before demolishing buildings, the adequacy of this precaution is open to question. One could argue that any civilians who died in buildings knocked down by the IDF were killed because Palestinian gunmen put them in danger. More generally, the terrorists who chose to operate among civilians have to bear most of the responsibility for the death and destruction caused by the response they provoked. But that observation does not absolve the IDF from its duty to minimize harm to noncombatants. Even when such harm is unavoidable, it should be recognized as tragic. That may sound uncontroversial, but at the pro-Israel rally in Washington on April 15, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz prompted boos, hisses and cries of "Shame!" simply by acknowledging the suffering of Palestinian civilians. Even if one thinks the IDF's operation was a fully justified response to terrorism, it is simple human decency to acknowledge that war hurts innocent people. Israeli officials complain, often justly, that they are victims of a double standard. An Arab dictator confronted by the sort of violence Israelis have suffered in recent years would not hesitate to wipe out an entire town if he thought that would restore order. By local standards, Israel is highly discriminating in its use of military force. Likewise, by the standards of World War II, when the United States and Britain firebombed whole cities, deliberately killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, Israel is punctilious. One could even argue (as some Israelis do) that the IDF's actions look measured compared to the U.S. war on terrorism, in which American bombs have killed hundreds of noncombatants. Maybe that's good enough. But maybe a people identified as "a light unto the nations" should aspire to more.