Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Salon: "hiding among civilians" is a myth

Check it out:

Throughout this now 16-day-old war, Israeli planes high above civilian areas make decisions on what to bomb. They send huge bombs capable of killing things for hundreds of meters around their targets, and then blame the inevitable civilian deaths -- the Lebanese government says 600 civilians have been killed so far -- on "terrorists" who callously use the civilian infrastructure for protection.

But this claim is almost always false. My own reporting and that of other journalists reveals that in fact Hezbollah fighters -- as opposed to the much more numerous Hezbollah political members, and the vastly more numerous Hezbollah sympathizers -- avoid civilians. Much smarter and better trained than the PLO and Hamas fighters, they know that if they mingle with civilians, they will sooner or later be betrayed by collaborators -- as so many Palestinian militants have been.

For their part, the Israelis seem to think that if they keep pounding civilians, they'll get some fighters, too. The almost nightly airstrikes on the southern suburbs of Beirut could be seen as making some sense, as the Israelis appear convinced there are command and control bunkers underneath the continually smoldering rubble. There were some civilian casualties the first few nights in places like Haret Hreik, but people quickly left the area to the Hezbollah fighters with their radios and motorbikes.

But other attacks seem gratuitous, fishing expeditions, or simply intended to punish anything and anyone even vaguely connected to Hezbollah. Lighthouses, grain elevators, milk factories, bridges in the north used by refugees, apartment buildings partially occupied by members of Hezbollah's political wing -- all have been reduced to rubble.

In the south, where Shiites dominate, just about everyone supports Hezbollah. Does mere support for Hezbollah, or even participation in Hezbollah activities, mean your house and family are fair game? Do you need to fire rockets from your front yard? Or is it enough to be a political activist?

The Israelis are consistent: They bomb everyone and everything remotely associated with Hezbollah, including noncombatants. In effect, that means punishing Lebanon. The nation is 40 percent Shiite, and of that 40 percent, tens of thousands are employed by Hezbollah's social services, political operations, schools, and other nonmilitary functions. The "terrorist" organization Hezbollah is Lebanon's second-biggest employer.
If this IS true, then Israel is in a world of trouble, because it's highly unlikely that this particular line of argument is going to remain restricted to Salon for very long.

It does make sense, though. The bombing is, in all honesty, a political operation- it's an attempt to convince the Lebanese that they cannot both support Hezbollah and be free from the repercussions of Israeli reprisals. The Hezbollah fighters aren't going to change their opinion, but the supporters might, if they understand that Israel's reaction is justifiable and, more importantly, inevitable. Without that support, Hezbollah is isolated and eventually can be removed entirely.

Of course, that's not what's happening. Truth be told, that's NEVER what happens. I can't think of any situations off the top of my head where such a strategy worked. People always end up rallying around the insider against the outsider, especially when the outsiders' strategy is so easily seen as immoral, if not monstrous.

(Hezbollah's attempts to wildly fire rockets in the hopes of causing damage in Israel is, of course, no more morally justiable. It's certainly not going to stop the Israelis. Constantly using that as an attempt to justify what's going on isn't going to benefit the Israelis, though, outside of maybe Washington.)

What the Israelis seem to be discovering is that Hezbollah isn't the enemy they thought they were:

"You can be a member of Hezbollah your entire life and never see a military wing fighter with a weapon," a Lebanese military intelligence official, now retired, once told me. "They do not come out with their masks off and never operate around people if they can avoid it. They're completely afraid of collaborators. They know this is what breaks the Palestinians -- no discipline and too much showing off."

Perhaps once a year, Hezbollah will hold a military parade in the south, in which its weapons and fighters appear. Media access to these parades is tightly limited and controlled. Unlike the fighters in the half dozen other countries where I have covered insurgencies, Hezbollah fighters do not like to show off for the cameras. In Iraq, with some risk taking, you can meet with and even watch the resistance guys in action. (At least you could during my last time there.) In Afghanistan, you can lunch with Taliban fighters if you're willing to walk a day or so in the mountains. In Gaza and the West Bank, the Fatah or Hamas fighter is almost ubiquitous with his mask, gun and sloganeering to convince the Western journalist of the justice of his cause.

The Hezbollah guys, on the other hand, know that letting their fighters near outsiders of any kind -- journalists or Lebanese, even Hezbollah supporters -- is stupid. In three trips over the last week to the south, where I came near enough to the fighting to hear Israeli artillery, and not just airstrikes, I saw exactly no fighters. Guys with radios with the look of Hezbollah always found me. But no fighters on corners, no invitations to watch them shoot rockets at the Zionist enemy, nothing that can be used to track them.
This isn't the behavior of your typical terrorist group. Terrorists want, CRAVE attention. It's the entire point. William Gibson's bit in Neuromancer about the symbiotic relationship between terrorists and media is as true now as it was then. It's also their weakness- attacks are chosen for maximum visibility, instead of maximum impact and effectiveness.

What Hezbollah acts like, at least according to this passage, is a paramilitary that occasionally uses terrorist tactics, and that's a far more dangerous beast. It means that Israel must focus on those members that are visible--the political ones--but since they are civilians, it would make sense that they'd be found in civilian areas, and attacking them is going to naturally involve attacking civilians.

(It's kind of like if you wanted to take out Donald Rumsfeld. You could do it with a big enough bomb, and he IS a theoretically legitimate target of war, being the head of the DoD and all. Unfortunately, you'd take out a LOT of innocent civilians doing it. Israel is faced with the same dilemma, and it's pretty clear they haven't solved it yet.)

Most importantly, though, it's a propaganda nightmare:

Israel, however, has chosen to treat the political members of Hezbollah as if they were fighters. And by targeting the civilian wing of the group, which supplies much of the humanitarian aid and social protection for the poorest people in the south, they are targeting civilians.
The problem with Hezbollah is that they DO do all those positive things, but also launch the rockets. If you draw the distinction, you're left with the tricky job of seperating them out.. but if you attack the former group while
ignoring or missing the latter, the people you're trying to influence will not see your response as a terrible swift vengeance, but as bullying with bombers. Even if your motives are pure, there's no way you can win.

Of course, this article could be overstating things. It likely is. It does show, however, that the situation is not as simple as it seems, and that Israel likely cannot win this from the air.

(Then again, when's the last time anybody pulled THAT one off, either?)

Edit: for another take far more critical of Hezbollah and that says that they DO use civilians as cover, check out the New York Times piece here.

“Hezbollah came to Ain Ebel to shoot its rockets,” said Fayad Hanna Amar, a young Christian man, referring to his village. “They are shooting from between our houses.”

“Please,’’ he added, “write that in your newspaper.”

...Many Christians from Ramesh and Ain Ebel considered Hezbollah’s fighting methods as much of an outrage as the Israeli strikes. Mr. Amar said Hezbollah fighters in groups of two and three had come into Ain Ebel, less than a mile from Bint Jbail, where most of the fighting has occurred. They were using it as a base to shoot rockets, he said, and the Israelis fired back.

One woman, who would not give her name because she had a government job and feared retribution, said Hezbollah fighters had killed a man who was trying to leave Bint Jbail.

“This is what’s happening, but no one wants to say it” for fear of Hezbollah, she said.
So there you go... although this may be due to different Hezbollah groups' tactics, or may be due to a political agenda by the woman with the "government job" who fears Hezbollah political dominance after this is all over.

(It's unlikely considering the situation, but possible.)

Further Edit: And this is the attitude that will hand Hezbollah the war. From one of the response letters:

Have no fear Prothero, the Israelis can't dislodge Hezbollah. Only the Lebanese people, when they finally find their balls, can kick these sons of bitches out.

If the Lebanese people don't like artillery and air strikes, they need to go out into the street with small arms, pistols, rifles, and shotguns, and when ever they encounter a Hezbollah thug, they need to start shooting. I know it's easy to say that from here. But I've got some personal experience with guerrilla warfare and I know for a fact that only the local civilian population can put an end to this.

You Prothero, wouldn't know a Hezby if he walked up and gave you a shave. But every neighborhood knows who belongs there and who doesn't. When guys start showing up with a Toyota with some rockets in the back, it's time for the local civilians to make some hard choices.

It may be a scary thing for a bunch of ordinary people to grab their pistols and rifles and start shooting. But the alternative is far worse. If the guerrillas set up in their street and get a couple of Katyushas airborne, it will only be a matter of minutes before Israel's 155 batteries are putting a dozen H.E.s smack in the middle of the neighborhood.

It's like this: If civilians in a neighborhood start making them bleed when they show up, then the morons will pack up and go somewhere less dangerous. If all the neighborhoods get these guys on the run, then Israel will quickly run out of targets and the shelling will stop.

But the Lebanese for some reason would rather just ignore the shadowy thugs who rule their streets. Then when it's over, like you, they blame Israel for the destruction. When civilians finally get pissed off, they are more powerful than any guerrilla force.

It's time for the Lebanese people to get pissed off and get Hezbollah the hell out of their beautiful country once and for all. They threw out Syria, now it's time to finish the job.
I'm going to make it very clear.


Nor, I suspect, is it really supposed to. It's useless as a prescription and worse than useless as analysis. What it DOES do, though, is provide justification. "If the Lebanese don't kick the bastards out, they deserve what they get". It'd be lunacy if Putin were making it about Chechnya and the Chechan rebels, and it's lunacy now. Pity that it's lunacy of the most common sort.

And, tragically, it doesn't help Israel one damned bit.

Last Edit: Hat tip to the Poorman, who also notes that that picture going around of a bunch of guys hanging out around an anti-aircraft gun in a christian neighbour doesn't imply much. (That should be obvious.... since when do anti-aircraft guns launch rockets into Israel?)

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