Massacre at Kfar Giladis
Retaliation’s Mutual Injustice
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, August 6, 2006
A massacre, now at Israel’s expense: “At least ten people were killed Sunday afternoon and nine injured, four of them seriously, in a direct hit an open area in the northern community of Kfar Giladi as Hezbollah renewed its rocket fire against Israel with what was described as an enormous barrage,” Haaretz reports. “A resident of Kfar Giladi who is on the community's security board said that the victims did not adhere to warnings sounded ahead of the attack. ‘This shouldn't have happened,’ he said. ‘We sounded the alert several minutes before the rocket hits.’ […] Witnesses described the barrage of rockets as ‘enormous’ and that it lasted more than fifteen minutes.” But let's specify: most of the dead were reserve soldiers, not civilians.
Two obvious points: no matter how deep or intense the Israeli assault inside Lebanon , Hezbollah’s capability to strike back is not being affected. Lebanon is a small country; south Lebanon is the size of a county or smaller. That doesn’t alter the fact that what Israel should have learned after 1982 has not sunk in: guerilla warfare in a terrain not its own is unwinnable. You can carpet-bomb all you want. The most you’ll get are the inevitable “unintended” massacres of civilians and the consequent outrage. I’m not saying this by way of celebrating Hezbollah’s capacity to hit back in any way, only to point out that Israel is involved in a war of futility. It cannot win. But it can prolong futile and mutually criminal destruction on and from, both sides as long as it doesn’t change strategy. Its current strategy is only intensifying the madness. Israel could drive its invasion all the way up to the outskirts of Beirut . It won’t make a difference. Especially when we note this disturbing fact: Hezbollah has yet to unleash its most powerful weapon yet, the one it used so effectively to drive back the Israelis to their “buffer zone” in the 1980s, and finally back across the border in 2000: the suicide bomber. Surely there are many of those strapping around Hezbollah bunkers, waiting for the order. Many of them the sons and daughters of mothers and fathers killed at Qana in 1996, for example. Again: this is not to portray Hezbollah in any heroic way. But that’s how it’s coming across in Lebanon and the wider Arab-Islamic world. And the longer Israel keeps up its crushing tactics, the higher it lifts those AK-47-brandishing arms in Hezbollah’s yellow-and-green flag, and in the eyes of Hezbollah’s growing ranks of supporters. Israel is literally swelling Hezbollah’s fan-base. And fanatical it will be.
But the second obvious point: So far Hezbollah has managed to gain more sympathy than lose it (an astounding feat for an organization that cut its teeth, and others’ skulls, on terrorist tactics in the 1980s) because the death toll Israel has inflicted on Lebanese civilians has been so overwhelmingly criminal, while the death toll inflicted by Hezbollah on Israelis has been small in comparison—about 60 killed up until this weekend—and two-thirds of those deaths were Israeli soldiers, buttressing Hezbollah’s claim that it does not, as a rule, target civilians, but only in retaliation to Israeli strikes doing the same (you won’t hear those claims in the United States, but the numbers do bear them out). Sunday’s killings of at least ten Israelis with Hezbollah’s latest barrage on Kfar Giladis might erode Hezbollah’s advantage in the propaganda wars only to the extent that the killings are spinned in such a way that reserve soldiers are somehow treated as civilians. That sort of spin wouldn't work if it was attempted on lebanon's side of the border, where every able man 15 and older is looked at not only as a Hezbollah sympathizer, but as a "terrorist." But rest assured, the spin is on. The killings at Kfar Giladis may have been, in that absurd differentiation between military and civilian targets, "legitimate" (tell that to the dead soldiers' parents, on either side of the border). But Israel and the American press are certain to treat the deaths as if they were all children in a day care center. The point about the men not heeding alarms was interesting, too: soldiers sometimes think themselves beyond harm.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah could do nothing smarter than fire its missiles at empty fields, maybe near cities, but not at them—or at least fire them at military targets. (This, by the way, was one of the arguments Harry Truman heard in 1945: why drop the Bomb on a city, when its effects could be just as devastatingly convincing without harming civilians, by being dropped on an empty atoll or some empty Japanese expanse?) Sending missiles at a remove from civilians sends the same message (“we can strike you anywhere no matter how deeply you invade us”) but it doesn’t damage the standing Hezbollah needs if it’s to keep what western public support it has on its side. (It doesn’t need Arab support; it has that regardless, and it’s mostly meaningless because Arab support won’t translate into political pressure in western governments or at the United Nations). Of course, firing at civilians is what’s also giving Hezbollah its boost among Arabs and Muslims, in that arithmetic of infinite fanaticism that’s been these wars’ most common denominator. If one discards the stupid differentiation between civilian and military targets, there is, or there ought to be, no way to look at today’s killing of Israelis at Kfar Giladis and not feel the same revulsion—no qualifiers, no ifs, no buts—than the revulsion we’ve felt day after day, killing after killing in Lebanon. There is nothing to justify either. (But who's courageous enough to discard those qualifiers and not face all sorts of fanatical accusations in return?)
And there is nothing to justify what will follow. Israel is famous for many things. One of them, proven since day one of this atrocity, is to respond with the kind of disproportion that makes the word disproportion sound like an understatement. Yesterday our friend Ahmad in Saida informed us about an Israeli plane’s comical attempt to drop leaflets on his town— Lebanon ’s third city, on the coast, a former Crusaders’ port. The plane missed several times before finally managing not to hit just fish. But the leaflets message was clear enough: evacuate. What’s coming next will be anything but comical.