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No, Israel Should Not Flatten Beirut

A debate over whether Israel should commit war crimes and wipe out a city of at least 1 million people is somehow acceptable.

This week, the prominent Israeli newspaper Haaretz ran an opinion piece by Amitai Etzioni, titled “Should Israel Flatten Beirut to Destroy Hezbollah’s Missiles?”

The short answer is yes – but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Who, you may ask, is the fellow who has taken it upon himself to ponder this important matter? As it turns out, Etzioni is not some random foreign policy novice but rather a professor at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, having formerly taught at other prestigious US universities including Columbia and Harvard. Also on his CV are stints of service in the Palmach militia, which fought for Israeli “independence” until 1948, and the Israeli military.

Etzioni begins his philosophy session with a claim from an anonymous “Israeli representative” in DC that Hezbollah’s alleged stockpile of “100,000 missiles [is] now Israel’s number two security threat,” second only to a nuclear-armed Iran.

He then jumps across the ocean to a previous conference in Herzliya, Israel, where he says the Israeli chief of staff “revealed that most of these missiles are placed in private homes,” raising another question on top of the to-flatten-or-not-to-flatten one: “If Hezbollah starts raining them down on Israel, how can these missiles be eliminated without causing massive civilian casualties?”

Never mind that Hezbollah has never started raining anything on Israel without serious provocation – or that civilian casualties generally haven’t been at the top of that country’s list of concerns.

According to Etzioni, some of the participants at the Herzliya conference were invited to an Israeli military base near Haifa, the amenities of which include a model Lebanese village. There the guests were “treated to a demonstration of the way Israel plans to clear these missiles – by Israeli soldiers dashing from building to building to find them.”

To Etzioni’s dismay, a “minor breeze” arrived mid-performance and blew away the grenade smoke intended to conceal the troops’ movements, leaving them exposed to hypothetical snipers.

Given the time-consuming and likely casualty-heavy nature of the house-to-house strategy, Etzioni reasons that there must be superior option. In debating “what else could be done,” he mentions a recollection by someone in the visiting group that, in the 2006 war on Lebanon, “Israel was charged with bombing Shia neighborhoods in Beirut in order to pressure Hezbollah to stop firing missiles.”

He goes on to caution, however, that “many studies have shown that such bombing … do not (sic) have the expected effect, nor did it in 2006 (assuming that such bombing actually occurred).” Indeed, when I myself visited Shia and other varieties of Lebanese neighborhood a month after this particular war, it still wasn’t clear from the ubiquitous rubble-and craters in the ground where buildings had once stood-whether “such bombing” had actually transpired.

More to the point, the fact that Israel has already flattened large sections of Lebanon, in Beirut and beyond, would seem to make the article’s title a bit redundant.

Upon returning to the US from Israel, Etzioni says that he “asked two American military officers what other options Israel has” for missile eradication. And what do you know: “They both pointed to Fuel-Air Explosives [FAE].”

These bombs, Etzioni explains, “disperse an aerosol cloud of fuel which is ignited by a detonator, producing massive explosions.” And that’s not all: “The resulting rapidly expanding wave flattens all buildings within a considerable range.”

Lest we devote too much thought to the fact that this professor at a prestigious American institution of higher learning has literally just advocated for the total destruction of a “considerable” piece of territory, Etzioni stages a slight retreat: “Such weapons obviously would be used only after the population was given a chance to evacuate the area.” But this obviously fails to account for the Israeli military habit of ordering civilians to evacuate areas and then bombing them en route.

And it may be news to Etzioni, but the intentional targeting of civilian areas and civilian infrastructure happens to be a war crime.

Etzioni himself acknowledges that, “still, as we saw in Gaza, there are going to be civilian casualties.” Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of civilian casualties in Lebanon, where in 2006 the majority of the estimated 1,200 fatalities were not Hezbollah.

During my own recent visit to south Lebanon, I spoke with a young man from a village near the Israeli border who was 13 at the time of the war and who remained in his village for the duration of the 34-day assault. He described the pain in 2006 of encountering detached heads and other body parts belonging to former neighbors, blasted apart by bombs or crushed in collapsed homes.

But forget sympathy. The moral of the FAE story in Etzioni’s view is that, because there will inevitably be FAE-induced casualties, “the time to raise this issue is long before Israel may be forced to use” them – presumably so that the international community can warm up to the idea of a flattened Beirut. He writes:

“One way this can be achieved is by inviting foreign military experts and public intellectuals, who are not known to be hostile to Israel, to participate in war games in which they would be charged with fashioning a response to massive missile attacks on Israeli high rise buildings, schools, hospitals, and air bases.”

There are various problems with this reasoning. For one thing, Israel takes the cake when it comes to “massive” attacks. For another, the obsessive portrayal of the Israelis as forever engaged in legitimate and retaliatory self-defense severely obscures reality. If you invent a country on land that doesn’t belong to you and begin regularly slaughtering and otherwise harassing people, you’re pretty much permanently denied the whole “victim” alibi.

Regarding his proposed FAE public relations strategy, Etzioni concludes: “In this way, one hopes, that there be [sic] a greater understanding, if not outright acceptance, of the use of these powerful weapons, given that nothing else will do.”

A better hope might be that such warmongering ravings were not permitted to pass as civilized analysis.

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