MIDDLE EAST CONFLICT: A CIVILIAN CATASTROPHE

July 23, 2011

The outbreak of war between Israel and Hezbollah means disaster for civilians. Four student readings consider civilian losses now and historically.

Once war meant battles between armies on battlefields away from civilians and their homes in villages, towns, and cities. Today when national armies, guerrillas, militias or terrorists go on the attack, whether non-combatants (that is, civilians) are deliberate targets or not, they will suffer and die in countless terrible ways.

The outbreak of war between Israel and the Lebanese organization Hezbollah—and the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants—inevitably means disaster for civilians. This is the primary subject of the following readings.

Also available on this website are a number of sets of materials on the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

 


Student Reading 1:

Hezbollah, Lebanon and Israel; Palestinians, Gaza and Israel

Israel is currently involved in wars on two fronts: with members of the Lebanese organization Hezbollah on its northern border with Lebanon; and with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Below is a very brief overview of these conflicts. For more context, please see additional activities on this website.

On July 12, 2006, members of the Lebanese group Hezbollah crossed the northern border of Israel, killed eight Israeli soldiers, and captured two others. The following day Israel sent troops into southern Lebanon and bombed the Beirut airport. Hezbollah fired more than 120 rockets into Israel. Israel was also conducting military operations in the Gaza Strip to free a soldier captured by Palestinian militants on June 25.

Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim organization, means "Party of God" in Arabic and was founded in the early 1980s to support the resistance to an Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The purpose of the invasion was to destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which had been firing rockets and artillery shells into northern Israel. Israeli troops occupied southern Lebanon for 18 years, clashing repeatedly with Hezbollah. In 2000, Israel evacuated its troops from all but a relatively small disputed area.

Hezbollah has both a military and a civil arm. Some of its members are in the Lebanese parliament, but its military has operated independently of the Lebanese government. Hezbollah is regarded by Muslim nations in the Middle East as a legitimate resistance organization against Israel. The U.S. government, Canada, and Britain have designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The US charges that Hezbollah receives weapons, including laser-guided missiles, and money from Iran and logistical support from Syria. Iran and Syria deny these allegations, but declare that they do support Hezbollah's efforts against Israel.

Fuad Siniora, the prime minister of Lebanon, denied that he had any advance knowledge of the July 12 Hezbollah attack in Israel and condemned it. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel said the attack was "an act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason."

The Security Council of the United Nations in 2004 called for the "disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias," which would include Hezbollah.

In the period after July 12 Hezbollah continued to send volleys of rockets into Israel, including some that hit the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Israel bombed the Lebanese capital of Beirut repeatedly as well as other towns in Lebanon. On a visit to Beirut, Jan Egeland, the emergency relief head of the United Nations, expressed shock that "block after block" of apartment buildings had been leveled. "It makes it a violation of humanitarian law," he said, according to BBC News. The destruction is "horrific." (news.bbc.co.uk, 7/23/06)

Another conflict is underway in the part of Palestine called Gaza. In the summer of 2005, Israel evacuated all of its settlers and troops from Gaza. Members of the Palestinian group Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, won a majority in a Palestinian election that gave it control of parliament. Despite Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, Palestinian militants repeatedly fired aimless short-range rockets into Israel. On June 25, they captured an Israeli soldier. Demanding the return of the soldier and a halt to all rocket attacks, Israel began bombing and sent tanks into Gaza.

Israeli officials demanded the return of Hezbollah's and the Palestinian militants' Israeli prisoners without any conditions. Hezbollah and the Palestinians stated they will return the soldiers only if Israel frees prisoners from their groups.

The US government supported Israel's right to defend itself against Hezbollah and Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza. It opposed calls from other countries for a ceasefire. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blamed Hezbollah for starting the conflict and said, "An immediate cease-fire without political conditions does not make sense." (7/21/06) The US also is rushing a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel. These and other munitions are among the weapons the US sold to Israel in a multimillion-dollar arms deal made last year and that Israel can draw on when it wishes.

What are the "root causes" of expanding warfare in the Middle East? Answers depend upon who answers the question. They include: radical Islamist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas; Islamic leaders in Iran and Syria who are also deeply hostile to Israel; Israel's denial of Palestinian rights and its occupation and theft of Palestinian lands over the past 40 years; and the mostly uncritical support of Israel by the US
 

For Discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How do you understand the "root causes" of the Middle East conflicts? What questions, if any, would you need to have answered before you would feel qualified to respond to the question? How would you get answers to these questions?
 


Student Reading 2:

Some Effects of Warfare on Palestinian, Lebanese and Israeli Civilians

• An Israeli bombing in Gaza City, which it said was aimed at leaders of the Palestinian faction Hamas, killed nine members of the Salmiyeh family, according to Dr. Jumaa al-Saqqa, the spokesman for Al Shifa Hospital, where the bodies were taken.

• Hezbollah missiles struck Haifa, a port city of northern Israel, killing eight people. On July 23, Hezbollah's missiles killed a person in a woodworking factory and a driver of a car.

• Israeli warplanes bombarded Beirut and southern Lebanon, killing 45 people and wounding more than 100. Among the dead were eight Canadians in the border town of Altaroun, where they were vacationing. Six Canadians were critically wounded.

• At least 10 people, including children, were killed in Tyre, Lebanon, when an Israeli bomb aimed at civil defense headquarters demolished the top two floors of the building.

• In a 20-minute period on July 23, Israeli planes dropped at least six bombs on the city. Casualties in a car included two critically wounded children, a nine-year-old and an eight-month old, and their dead father.

• In the Lebanese village of Marwaheen, Israeli warplanes bombed a van filled with fleeing families, killing 16 of the 20 aboard. A bomb also fell near a canal where children were swimming, critically wounding them.

• Two Israeli Arab brothers, aged three and nine, were killed just outside Nazareth by one of the many rockets fired by Hezbollah into Israel.

• In Srifa, southern Lebanon, a neighborhood was wiped out, 15 houses flattened, 21 people killed and 30 wounded after an Israeli airstrike.

• An Israeli air strike at the Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza killed one militant and a 10-year-old Palestinian girl.

• In Hosh, Lebanon, wild dogs gnawed the burned remains of a family killed in an Israeli bombing.

• Officials at the Tyre Government hospital said they counted the bodies of 50 children among 115 in a refrigerated truck.

• In Bilda, Lebanon, residents said they were almost out of bread, water and gasoline.

• Israeli planes dropped leaflets in southern Lebanon warning people to move north of the Litani River, about 15 miles from the border with Israel. Many Lebanese had already fled, but travel became more dangerous and difficult because of Israel's earlier destruction of roads and bridges.

• Hezbollah fired a rain of rockets daily into northern Israel. Many Israelis had left for the less dangerous southern part of the country.

In the first 10 days of warfare at least 370 Lebanese civilians had been killed in bombings and many hundreds more wounded. About 17 Israeli civilians and a larger number of Palestinians had also been killed and hundreds wounded. The Lebanese government reported it had sheltered about 120,000 refugees. The United Nations estimated that 500,000 Lebanese had been displaced. Tens of thousands fled to Syria.

"Water is cut off, the electricity is down, and medicine can only reach Nabatiyeh Hospital [in Lebanon] across broken roads and through Israeli air strikes... It can take hours to ferry the wounded to hospital because some roads are impassable... 'We have 12 corpses in the morgue which can't be buried because the families cannot get to the hospital to take them,'" director Marwan Ghandour said. (Reuters report, www.alertnet.org, 7/21)

A Statement by Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

"The scale of killings in the [Middle East] region, and their predictability, could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control. International humanitarian law is clear on the supreme obligations to protect civilians during hostilities... Indiscriminate shelling of cities constitutes a foreseeable and unacceptable targeting of civilians. Similarly, the bombardment of sites with alleged innocent civilians is unjustifiable... A large and steadily increasing number of persons have been forcibly displaced. The most basic rights of the population are at risk or being violated, including their rights to life, health and food." (7/19/06)

A Statement by Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations

"Both deliberate targeting by Hezbollah of Israeli population centers with hundreds of indiscriminate weapons and Israel's disproportionate use of force and collective punishment of the Lebanese people must stop... While Hezbollah's actions are deplorable and Israel has a right to defend itself, the excessive use of force is to be condemned." (7/20/06)

 

For Discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Louise Arbour refers to "the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in command and control." Who, in your opinion, would have this responsibility?

3. Kofi Annan criticizes both Hezbollah and Israel by name. Which of the two does he view as having the greater responsibility? Why? Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. Both Louise Arbour and Kofi Annan criticize "indiscriminate" shelling. What do they mean? Can civilians be protected from the bombing and shelling of cities that is not "indiscriminate?" If so, how? If not, why not?

5. Which of the items in the reading that involve killings do you regard as "indiscriminate"? Which are discriminate? In each case, why?

 


Student Reading 3:

Routinization of Civilian Mass Killings from the Sky

Iraq, 2004:

"Captain Paul Fowler sat on the curb next to a deserted gas station. Behind him smoke rose over Fallujah. His company of tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles had roamed the eastern third of the city for 13 days, shooting holes in every building that might pose a threat, leaving behind a landscape of half-collapsed houses and factories singed with soot.

"'I really hate that it had to be destroyed. But that was the only way to root these guys out,' said Fowler, 33, the son of a Baptist preacher in North Carolina. 'The only way to root them out is to destroy everything in your path.'" (www.bostonglobe.com, 11/28/04)

After the devastating US assault on Fallujah, more than 2,000 inhabitants of the city of about 350,000 were dead, according to the Iraqi government (www.abc.net, 12/2/04). More than half of Fallujah's 39,000 homes were damaged, 10,000 destroyed (en.wikipedia.org). Most of the survivors were living in tents outside the city.

How many Iraqi civilians have died as a result of American air strikes and other attacks? President Bush estimated about 30,000. In September 2004, Lancet, a British medical journal, reported a study estimating 100,000 civilians had died, most violently, and many as the result of US bombings.
 

A Hundred Years of Civilian Slaughter

At Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers' plane flew for 12 seconds and 120 feet. Eight years later their invention was used by Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti for the world's first bombing attacks on North African oases at Tagiura, near Tripoli, and Aiz Zara. He leaned out of his monoplane and dropped four hand grenades, each weighing a little more than four pounds.

By the 1930s bombing attacks on civilian populations horrified the world. German and Italian bombers assaulted the Spanish town of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish civil war, killing hundreds in this town of 5,000. Early in World War II, German bombings of London and other European cities, non-military targets where millions of civilians lived, were called barbaric by British, American, and other allied leaders.

Yet, before long, Britain and the US assaulted German and Japanese cities with even more vicious bombings, creating firestorms at Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo in which tens of thousands of civilians died. World War II culminated in the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where 200,000 died instantly and many thousands later from wounds and radiation.

In later 20th century US wars, notably in Korea and Vietnam, American bombings killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Now in the early 21st century repeated US bombings of Fallujah and other towns and cities in Iraq are so routine that they are rarely mentioned in news reports.

Hezbollah apologized for its rocket attacks on Nazareth that killed two Israeli Arab boys, not because they were Israeli but because they were Arab.

Officials from the US, Israel, and Russia, whose bombing attacks on the Chechen capital of Grozny destroyed that city, frequently praise their "precision" bombings and "surgical" strikes. They insist that every care is taken to avoid civilian casualties and contrast their country's bombings with those of terrorist organizations whose bombings often deliberately target civilians.

"It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it," said an American commander of the US assault on the Vietnamese town of Ben Tre. Forty years later an American captain said of the US assault on Fallujah, "The only way to root them out is to destroy everything in your path."
 

For Discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is your understanding of the title of the reading? How would you explain why "civilian mass killings" have become "routine"?

3. Why is it so difficult to determine accurately the number of Iraqi civilian casualties?

4. What do you think about Hezbollah's apology for killing two boys? What do you think about what national leaders say to explain the potential for civilian casualties in their attacks?

5. What do you think the American commander speaking about Ben Tre, Vietnam meant by "save."

 


Student Reading 4:

The Geneva Conventions

In 1859, Jean Henri Dunant observed the Battle of Solferino in Northern Italy. The fighting resulted in thousands of casualties and terrible suffering. He felt he had to do something about what he had seen.

Dunant's experience ultimately led to the creation of the Geneva Conventions and the International Red Cross. The First Geneva Convention was composed in 1864. Others covering various elements of warfare, including the treatment of civilians, followed. Today there are four Geneva Conventions as well as additions to them called "protocols" that have been signed and ratified by virtually every nation on earth. These conventions or agreements represent the international community's effort to provide humanitarian rules for the savage human behavior called war.

Excerpt from Protocol 1, 1977

Article 48: "In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian populations and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives."

Article 51: "The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the objects of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population is prohibited. Indeterminate attacks are prohibited: Indeterminate attacks are...those which are not directed at a specific military objective..."
 

For Discussion

1. What do you understand to be the purpose of the Geneva Conventions?

2. Does anything in Articles 48 and 51 apply to Reading 1's brief description of what has happened to civilians in Lebanon, Israel and Gaza? If yes, what and how? If no, why not?
 


For Further Inquiry

Students might investigate questions such as:

1. What is the origin and background of Hezbollah? Hamas? the Geneva Conventions?

2. How did Jean Henri Dunant inspire the creation of the Geneva Conventions and the International Red Cross?

3. What is the official US policy toward Israel? Why? How is this policy implemented? Give special attention in the annual US subsidy of Israel and how this money is spent.

4. What recourse is there, if any, if a group or nation is charged with violation of one or more articles in the Geneva Conventions?

5. Why did Israel invade Lebanon in 1982? With what results?

6. Why did Israel evacuate Lebanon in 2000? With what results?
 

For Writing and Citizenship

Organize the class to write and reproduce a magazine that includes short, clear articles and op-ed pieces on issues, especially those affecting civilians, that students regard as basic to the Middle East conflict. Like any magazine, this one might have a chief editor, a feature editor, a circulation editor and the like. Distribute student work to other classes, administrators, and parents.

Encourage students to express their views on the plight of civilians caught up in the Middle East conflict to public officials and to local newspapers.

 

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org