Criminalizing Civilians

A general view for the demolished trucks by Israeli warplanes in Beirut the Capital of Lebanon July 26, 2006. (MaanImages/Raoul Kramer)

In the days before the US-commanded forces unleashed the second siege of Falluja in November 2004, a quarter million women, children and old men fled the city, but males between the ages of 15 and 45 were denied passage. They were essentially criminalized and forced to remain in a zone upon which hell was about to descend. These poor souls were condemned to a legal category that philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls hominus sacres, those without rights who can be killed without it being called the murder of a human, homicide.

Israeli leaders have a decision to make. After the IDF’s devastating losses at Bint Jabeil on Wednesday, the Washington Post Foreign Service reported this statement from former Mossad officer Yossi Alpher: “I dare say, based on what we’ve seen so far, these may be the best Arab troops we’ve seen so far.” An Nahar today reported that, Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon proclaimed: “Everyone who is still in south Lebanon is linked to Hizbullah, we have called on all who are there to leave.” He then suggested that “maximum firepower has to be used.” As justification, he cited the meeting in Rome, from which “we have in effect obtained the authorization to continue our operations until Hisbullah is no longer present in southern Lebanon.”

Look at this logic: since Israel has asked civilians to leave - any that disobeyed have forfeited their status as civilians. Because the United States and its British followers have blocked the resolution to stop the killing, Israel will continue until Hezbollah “is no longer present.” But remember Hezbollah has been redefined to include all those “still in south Lebanon.” This crude logic renders all the people of southern Lebanon hominus sacres.

A serious war crime may be imminent. The responsibility to protect civilians does not end when an invading army asks them to clear out. An Nahar also reported that hundreds of people were trapped in southern villages. Moreover, there is evidence that some who tried to flee north in cars have been targeted.

On his web log, Juan Cole argued on Monday that since Hezbollah fighters cannot effectively aim their rockets, and since they must understand they are most likely to hit civilians, they are therefore guilty of war crimes themselves. Hezbollah leaders would undoubtedly respond that they are not intentionally targeting civilians. From the beginning of the war, Israeli leaders have justified the deaths of Lebanese civilians by claiming that they also never target civilians; it is simply that Hezbollah fights from civilian areas and there is a lot of collateral damage when they are targeted.

All of this is bad enough, but what may be in store if the frustrated IDF begins to treat all people in south Lebanon as enemies will be a war crime of a different magnitude. In most past wars, the victors had the luxury of telling the story, and prosecuting the war crimes. In this war, the eyes of the world are squarely fixed on what is about to happen. Israel’s powerful alley may be able to prevent prosecutions of its decision makers, but all will know what decision they made. Most importantly, in the Arab world, we know, and will not forget. Israel has a decision to make.

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Patrick McGreevy heads up the American Studies Program at the American University of Beirut