Guernica in the Middle East

"Guernica" by Pablo Picasso

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

The discussion that follows deals with horrible things, in a (I hope) logical and dispassionate way. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think they are horrible.

Everyone knows that Hizballah has a lot of rockets, and that the next war will be very hard on Israel’s civilian population. For example, in a recent interview (subscription), Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, who is Israel’s “home front commander,” and responsible for preparing Israel’s people and infrastructure to survive the expected onslaught, said,

“…Before 2006, Hezbollah was capable of launching 500 warheads at Metropolitan Tel Aviv. The reason that didn’t happen is that the Iranian-made Fajr rockets were destroyed by the air force on the first night of the war, and the longer-range Zelzal rockets were destroyed in the days that followed. At present, Hezbollah has the capacity to launch about 10 times that number, with the warheads both heavier and more accurate.”

In practical terms, this means that in the event of a war with Hezbollah, the metropolitan Tel Aviv region “will come under a massive missile barrage. Hezbollah has at its disposal about 5,000 warheads, weighing between 300 and 800 kilograms each. In my estimation, the first days will be extremely difficult. I am preparing for a scenario in which more than a thousand missiles and rockets a day are fired at the civilian rear.”

Israel simply cannot afford to build antimissile defenses that could protect most of the population:

“I will recommend protecting the country’s functional continuity and the ability to maintain an IDF offensive effort over time, until the war is won,” he says. “That means protecting power plants and the air force bases before the big cities. Possibly in the future we will be able to do both. But as of now, with the order of battle of batteries and intercept missiles available to us, we will have to introduce an order of priorities in resources.

“We will have to make a tough, trenchant and clear decision,” he adds. “Afterward, we might be able to provide protection for the majority of the country’s population in the regions under threat. But that will happen with a model of ten-plus batteries, and we are not yet there.” …

“The threat is changing before our eyes. In the next war, for the first time, we might have more civilians killed on the home front than soldiers on the combat front.”

It’s frightening. But it ought to be far more frightening for the residents of southern Lebanon or wherever rockets will be launched from. Because Israel, with its small, densely packed population cannot allow this kind of attack and will use whatever degree of firepower is necessary to suppress it. And Israel definitely has the capability to deploy a massive amount of firepower, even if it has not done so in the past for political reasons.

Put simply, the restraints that the IDF operates under in order to protect  noncombatants in hostile territory will go out the window in the face of such a large-scale attack. ‘Proportionality’, in the sense of international law does not mean that civilian casualties on both sides should be equal — rather, it requires that the force used (and consequent collateral damage) be proportional to the military advantage gained.

In other words, even a tiny Qassam rocket fired at a civilian target is a ‘disproportionate’ use of force because it hurts or kills civilians while providing zero military advantage. And the use of a 1000-pound bomb that kills 20 innocent noncombatants would not be disproportionate if it were necessary in order to obtain an important enough objective.

A fundamental part of the argument over the use of the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945 can be expressed by asking “was it a proportionate use of force?” If the objective of forcing the Japanese to surrender could not have been achieved at much less cost in some other way, then it was.

Naturally, such questions can be very complicated. But in the case of Israel and Hizballah, considering also that Hizballah is a pure aggressor with nothing but invented grievances, that it has deliberately placed its rockets in civilian areas, and that if it were allowed to fire its 50 or 60 thousand rockets unhindered it would lead to the end of the Jewish state and the death of countless Israelis, there is no reason for Israel to restrain its response.

There is another consideration. We understand the concept of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) normally as chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, because of the amount of damage they can do. But ‘conventional’ weapons in great enough number, can also be WMD — in fact, it’s said that the first use of the phrase was in reference to the bombing of Guernica, Spain, in 1937, by German and Italian aircraft on behalf of Spanish fascists.

Informed speculation about Israel’s policy is that it would not use its own (supposed) nuclear weapons except in the event of an attack on it with WMD or if the country was in danger of being overrun by conventional forces. The latter is hardly likely today, although it was a real consideration in the past. Now the thought is that Israel maintains its nuclear force as a deterrent against the use of similar weapons.

But how many rockets with thousand-pound warheads striking Tel Aviv, Haifa, oil refineries and power plants, etc. would it take for them to be considered “weapons of mass destruction?”

And then what would it take for Israel to answer them in kind?

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