Tuesday, March 10, 2009
This picture, from a Swedish protest against the Israeli Davis Cup team at Malmo, Sweden (which went on to defeat the Swedish team), gets at one of the more pernicious elements in the way anti-Israel criticism operates.
Israel came under significant criticism for its use of White Phosphorus in the Gaza campaign. I'm not an expert on international law nor the law of war, so I might be wrong in the details, but here are the facts as I understand them. White Phosphorus' primary function is as an illuminating device and a smoke screen, and it is incontestably legal to use it against military target for these purposes. It also can be used as an anti-personnel device due to its potential to cause severe burns. The legality of this use is disputed, but the weight of the evidence seems to be that it is forbidden.
The critiques of Israel were not that it was using White Phosphorus as an anti-personnel device. Rather, the criticism was that it was being used (as illumination and smoke screen aides) in dense urban environments where it was known it would affect civilians. Again, the legal status of this use is open for criticism: The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, Protocol III (of which Israel is not a signatory to) prohibits indiscriminate incendiary attacks against military forces co-located with civilians, but exempts materials whose incendiary properties are secondary, like White Phosphorus. Still, it would be a fair claim that morally if not legally such use should be highly constrained, as the potential for unintentional damage to civilians would seem to be very high.
So, that's where I'm at: there are at least some grounds to allege that Israel used White Phosphorus in violation of the laws of war, though this is hardly beyond dispute; the case that Israel used WP in a way that isn't consistent with the highest moral standards, by contrast is much stronger. Hence, I don't think there is any problem, per se, with criticizing their usage.
But, I do think there is a problem with what the Malmo protesters compared it to. Zyklon B was the gas used in the planned, deliberate murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. The usage of Zyklon B was not a "war crime" in any meaningful sense, as it wasn't used in the context of a battlefield: it was just Hitler's preferred method of executing his genocide. The atomic bombings of Japan killed over 200,000 people, nearly all civilians. Napalm was used as an anti-personnel device and unlike WP its primary purpose is as an incendiary -- making its use in civilian areas a clear violation of Protocol III (the US, it's worth noting, is not a signatory either). I don't know what event they're referring to with Mustard Gas, so I can't comment on that.
Israel's WP use has not been alleged to have caused a single death, albeit severe burns on a few dozen victims. That's bad, of course, but it doesn't put it in the same breath as the other weapons on the poster. Of course, the Holocaust comparison is particularly repugnant, and in a significant way represents a form of Holocaust denial: If one can't understand why using White Phosphorus in a military campaign (which harms a handful of civilians but is responsible for zero deaths) is distinguishable from rounding up millions of civilians and gassing them to death, you clearly don't understand what the Holocaust was.
By trying to group Israel's actions into categories it clearly doesn't belong, the protesters significantly distort the terms of the debate and implicitly counsel responses to Israel's actions that would not be justifiable outside cases where they actually were doing something like napalming civilian areas. Ultimately, this is another example of criticism as moral hatred, with all the implications that flow therein.
There is very little probability that "criticism" such as this will have any meaningful impact towards creating circumstances of justice for the Israelis and Palestinians. But that is not its intent. Its intent is to externalize the bad actors as supreme evildoers, affirm that the protesters are not them by drawing strict lines between those inside and outside of society, with the latter group worthy of whatever hatred, scorn, prejudice or violence that is heaped upon them. It is primarily self-indulgent, and for that reason repugnant when actual people are suffering from the fact that too many people are content to mouth (or scream) ideological platitudes rather than work for solutions.