There is no escape from the inevitable. Every day without a cease fire in Lebanon means more civilian deaths there.
During the 13 days in which Hezbollah rockets have killed about 40 Israelis in northern Israel, Israeli airstrikes have displaced more than 700,000 Lebanese, destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, and killed about 380 Lebanese-most of them civilians, and about a third of them children. Last Sunday's targets included two ambulances racing an injured family to a hospital in Tyre--but not moving quite fast enough. They were directly hit by Israeli bombs that wounded six Red Cross volunteers and left the injured family still more shattered.
On the same day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that she and President Bush "have great concerns about the suffering of innocent people throughout the region."
If so, why has President Bush authorized the Israelis to prolong their suffering indefinitely? Why is he not calling for an immediate ceasefire?
To that question both the president and Secretary Rice answer that the U.S. will not call for a ceasefire until they can be sure it will be "sustainable." And they do not think it can be sustained until Hezbollah has surrendered its arms, withdrawn at least 12 miles from the Israeli border, and given up control of southern Lebanon to the Lebanese army or to an international force. And of course Israel must also have its two soldiers back. As Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Der Spiegel in an interview published today, the two soldiers must be "unconditional[ly]" released and "Hezbollah must be completely disarmed."
But if those conditions must be met before a cease fire can start, hundreds and perhaps even thousands more Lebanese civilians will die. Would the U.S. and Israel really prefer to sacrifice those lives rather than stop the bombing and start negotiating?
On both sides, this has become a civicidal war--a war that kills civilians. We must of course distinguish between those who intentionally target civilians and those who kill them in the process of targeting enemy soldiers, their installations, and the routes by which they get their weapons. We must also recognize that Hezbollah often fires its rockets from areas densely populated by civilians--thereby using them as a shield (of sorts) against counter-attack. But does this mean that Hezbollah alone is responsible for all civilian deaths in Lebanon, that Israel and the U.S. can meet their moral obligations here by simply expressing "regret" for the collateral damage caused by their bombs--as Livni does? Or can Israel absolve itself by claiming--as Livni also does--that it warns the civilian population to get out of the areas it plans to strike, that in showers of leaflets, on radio, and on television it urges them "to leave their homes and get themselves to safety"? Just weigh that statement against the facts on the ground in southern Lebanon right now. With radio and television stations blasted by airstrikes, how many warnings can get through? With civilians terrified of walking outside, how many leaflets are they likely to pick up? With gasoline all but impossible to find, with roads cratered by explosives, with a taxi ride to Beirut costing $500, how many people can even consider making the trip? Just remember what happened to those two ambulances.
Regardless of its intentions, a civicidal course of action is one that predictably and inevitably causes the deaths of civilians. By that definition, Israel's war on Hezbollah is cividical.
As such, it has ample U.S. precedent--most notoriously in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But a much nearer and more apposite precedent is our invasion of Iraq. I distinctly remember that at the press conference he gave just before launching this invasion, President Bush promised that U.S.-led forces would take the greatest possible care to spare civilian life. Yet one of their first acts was to bomb a densely populated neighborhood of Iraq because they believed -- wrongly, it turns out -- that Saddam Hussein was hunkered down in one of its houses. The result was about 30 civilian deaths-the first of what are now estimated to be more than 30,000 Iraqi civilians killed in the name of liberation.
Let us remember too what drove us into Iraq: a refusal to negotiate, a refusal to trust the weapons inspectors, or to consider anything short of absolute conquest and total surrender to our vision of a democratized Iraq. Likewise, all that Israel and the Bush administration can see in southern Lebanon right now is a band of terrorists that is bent on obliterating Israel and that must itself be obliterated. "In southern Lebanon," says Livni, "there can be no more Hezbollah bases. The Lebanese army must be stationed there in its place." No doubt Secretary Rice said something like this yesterday in Beirut, when she met Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese Parliament. But she must know by now -- if she did not know it already -- that Speaker Berri is an ally of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah; that thirty percent of the Lebanese parliament represents the Hezbollah party; and that approximately fifty percent of the Lebanese army supports Hezbollah. Siniora and the Lebanese army would no more crack down on Hezbollah than Bush would crack down on the NRA. Let's face a simple fact. If anyone is left alive in Lebanon after the bombing stops, Israel will still have to reckon with Hezbollah--just as it will sooner or later have to reckon with Hamas in Gaza. Both are political parties as well as military organizations: parties that have gained their political power by means of democratic elections that we have warmly supported.
Democracy means nothing if it makes no allowance for conflicting agendas. We are often reminded these days that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 (from 2004) mandates the disarmament of Hezbollah. But no one in Israel or the Bush administration seems to remember that UN Resolutions 242 (from 1967) and 338 (from 1973) both mandate Israel's withdrawal from the lands it has occupied-including the Golan Heights. Does anyone really believe that still more bombing can settle these questions once and for all?
So I end by repeating what I urged in my last blog. Let the U.S. and Israel show the world that they are not just militarily capable of crushing their enemies but morally bold enough to initiate a cease-fire--unilaterally. As I said before, it could be simply a two-day pause in the bombing accompanied by a challenge to Hezbollah: the pause continues if and only if Hezbollah stops the rocket attacks on Israel. Then negotiations could begin-on prisoners and everything else.
The surest mark of true strength is not aggression but restraint. At his presidential inauguration John F. Kennedy memorably declared that "we will never negotiate out of fear, but we will never fear to negotiate." When Soviet missiles threatened the United States from just ninety miles away in Cuba, Kennedy's generals all urged that he take them out with a military strike. But with a brilliant combination of naval power and negotiation, Kennedy forced Nikita Khruschev to withdraw the missiles--without firing a single shot. Kennedy knew how to negotiate from strength.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration does not know how to negotiate at all. It knows only how to demonize, threaten, and attack its enemies. But unless it really wants to fight a third open-ended war--on top of those already raging in Iraq and Afghanistan (where the Taliban are fighting hard again)--it had better start learning something else.