Israel's Threat to Kill Lebanese Civilians

05/22/2015 02:55 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

It's a rare and remarkable event when a government broadcasts ahead of time its intent to commit war crimes. Yet that's just what senior Israeli military officials recently did in the pages of The New York Times.

Israeli military officials gave friendly Times correspondent Isabel Kershner a provocative briefing, warning (in her words) that in the "almost inevitable next battle with Hezbollah . . . many Lebanese civilians will probably be killed, and that it should not be considered Israel's fault."

Claiming that the militant Lebanese Shiite organization has stationed arms and fortified positions in various southern villages, the anonymous Israeli military briefers accused their foe of using civilians as a shield. The officers were "blunt" that those villages "will most likely be the scene of widespread destruction" and heavy civilian casualties in the wake of an Israeli response to rocket attacks.

The reporter made little attempt to check the officers' claims about Hezbollah, but that really wasn't the point. Her story was an apparent trial balloon to test international reaction should Israel undertake an all-out military campaign against the local population, as it did in Lebanon in 1978, 1982 and 1996, and in Gaza in 2008-09 and 2014. Aside from critical notice by a few watchdog bloggers, there has been almost no reaction. The collective silence may lead Tel Aviv to believe the world is willing to give Israel the green light for mass killing of civilians.

A week before the Times story ran, Israel's defense minister was even blunter. Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem, Moshe Yaalon said Israel would not shrink from targeting civilian neighborhoods in the event of a future conflict in Lebanon or Gaza: "We are going to hurt Lebanese civilians to include kids of the family . . . We did it in [the] Gaza Strip, we are going to do it in any round of hostilities in the future."

Chilling as those words were, they simply expressed longstanding Israeli military practice and doctrine. During Israel's most recent invasion of Lebanon in 2006, for example, the Israeli Defense Forces killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians and several unarmed United Nations observers. Reports by Human Right Watch documented serious war crimes by Hezbollah, which engaged in indiscriminate rocket fire against Israel, but also by the IDF for systematically failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians:

"Since the start of the conflict, Israeli forces have consistently launched artillery and air attacks with limited or dubious military gain but excessive civilian cost. In dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.

"The Israeli government claims that it targets only Hezbollah, and that fighters from the group are using civilians as human shields, thereby placing them at risk. Human Rights Watch found no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack. . . . In none of the cases of civilian deaths documented in this report is there evidence to suggest that Hezbollah forces or weapons were in or near the area that the IDF targeted during or just prior to the attack.

"By consistently failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians, Israel has violated one of the most fundamental tenets of the laws of war: the duty to carry out attacks on only military targets."

Investigating similar crimes against civilians during the Gaza conflict of 2008-09, a UN fact-finding mission led by the eminent South African jurist Richard Goldstone drew attention to an Israeli military strategy known as the "Dahiya doctrine" after a suburb of Beirut that was heavily damaged by Israel in the 2006 war.

The Goldstone Report quoted the head of Israel's Northern Command as warning, "What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. . . We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. . . This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved."

The Goldstone mission declared firmly that "reprisals against civilians in armed hostilities are contrary to international humanitarian law. . . . One party's targeting of civilians or civilian areas can never justify the opposing party's targeting of civilians and civilian objects, such as homes, public and religious buildings, or schools."

The Goldstone mission's damning conclusions did not stop Israel from savaging Gaza again in 2014. The United Nations estimates that at least two-thirds of the more than 2,000 victims were civilians. The Israeli group Breaking the Silence recently issued a report-"This is How We Fought in Gaza 2014"-with testimonials from Israeli soldiers about the IDF's mass destruction of civilian infrastructure and casual indifference to civilian casualties.

Israeli civilians of course deserve to live free from fear of rocket attacks, whether fired from southern Lebanon or Gaza. But Israel's chances of reaching a peaceful modus vivendi with its neighbors will remain nil if it continues responding to terror with greater terror; indeed, its collective punishment of civilians in the past contributed greatly to the rise of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Other governments -- particularly Israel's friends in the United States and Europe -- have an obligation to tell Tel Aviv clearly that crimes against civilians will be prosecuted and punished, not tolerated by silence or indifference.

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