Monday saw the interim publication of the long-awaited (or, in Olmert’s case, long-dreaded) Winograd Committee report (the full version isn’t due for five months). It basically concluded what everyone already knew – that the war on Lebanon was entered into with misguided expectations about a quick, easy victory over Hizbullah and was handled incompetently from start to finish.
- `The decision to respond with an immediate, intensive military strike was not based on a detailed, comprehensive and authorized military plan, based on careful study of the complex characteristics of the Lebanon arena’
- `Consequently, in making the decision to go to war, the government did not consider the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy of `containment’, or combining political and diplomatic moves with military strikes below the `escalation level’, or military preparations without immediate military action’
- `The support in the cabinet for this move was gained in part through ambiguity in the presentation of goals and modes of operation, so that ministers with different or even contradictory attitudes could support it.’
- ‘Some of the declared goals of the war were not clear and could not be achieved, and in part were not achievable by the authorized modes of military action.’
- `The Prime Minister did not adapt his plans once it became clear that the assumptions and expectations of Israel’s actions were not realistic and were not materializing.’
I’ll leave for now the question of what Israel’s true objectives were in invading Lebanon – suffice to say, the official claim that it was an attempt to rescue two captured soldiers doesn’t withstand even the briefest scrutiny. Indeed, a top Israeli military commander, Gadi Eisenkott, recently admitted that it became clear that the two soldiers could not be recovered through military means after only “a couple of hours”.
What the Winograd report concludes, in essence, is that Olmert, Peretz, and Halutz are massively incompetent. The Israeli public have known this for months – this report may be the final blow to Olmert’s career, but his popularity ratings have been terrible for quite a while now (a fact also influenced by allegations of fraud and improper conduct while he was industry and trade minister). Now, of course, they are positively dire – an instant poll for Israel’s Channel 10 showed that if elections were held tomorrow, Olmert would get a total of 0% of the votes. That’s a score that would make even George W. Bush blush. In a poll taken Tuesday and published in Ha’aretz, 68% of respondents said they wanted Olmert to resign, while only 9% expressed support for the current government.
And sure enough, like rats fleeing a sinking ship, Olmert’s closest allies have begun to desert him. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livny, traditionally a close ally of Olmert, has called on him to resign and announced her intention to replace him, whilst the head of the Kadima faction and coalition, Avigdor Yitzhaki, resigned earlier today. Defence Minister Amir Peretz could soon follow. Needless to say, none of these principled figures resigned when it might have made a difference. Olmert is stubbornly clinging to power, insisting that he can “repair” and “correct” the failures highlighted by the report – as Ari Shavit writes, he doesn’t even have the integrity to resign. In this respect, he is similar to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George Bush – Israel’s two principle backers during last year’s war (a front cover from The Independent last year illustrates this point well).
But there is something missing from the Winograd report and the public and political outrage it induced. Most Israeli commentators seem not to have noticed, but, for reasons that should be obvious, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora most certainly has:
“The report on the unjust war… did not make a single mention of the massive material, human losses and destruction Israel inflicted on Lebanon”.
He’s right – it didn’t. That Israel committed gross war crimes repeatedly and systematically over an extended period of time against a largely defenceless population went totally unmentioned in the report. It also seems to be missing from most of the ample press coverage since its publication, which has instead focused almost exclusively on the report’s domestic political consequences. As Nir Hasson writes, the Winograd report `lacks a serious examination of the military conduct of the war. Its authors chose instead to focus on the performance of the senior decision makers. Even the abduction of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers, the incident the sparked the war, was not analyzed in detail, nor are the IDF’s bombings inside Lebanon in the days that followed it.’
Indeed, this was inevitable from the outset. As the report states,
`On September 17th 2006, the Government of Israel decided, under section 8A of The Government Act 2001, to appoint a governmental commission of examination “To look into the preparation and conduct of the political and the security levels concerning all the dimensions of the Northern Campaign which started on July 12th 2006′ [my emphasis]
So the Committee’s mandate from the start excluded any examination of the legality or morality of the war – it was instead `charged with examining the preparedness and behaviour of the political and military leadership’. This is important, because it means the true horror of what Israel inflicted on thousands of innocent Lebanese last year will remain confined to the history books. Olmert should not resign; he should be tried and convicted for war crimes.
Let’s just remind ourselves very briefly of what transpired last summer. Here’s what Amnesty International had to say about Israel’s conduct during the war:
`During more than four weeks of ground and aerial bombardment of Lebanon by the Israeli armed forces, the country’s infrastructure suffered destruction on a catastrophic scale. Israeli forces pounded buildings into the ground, reducing entire neighbourhoods to rubble and turning villages and towns into ghost towns, as their inhabitants fled the bombardments. Main roads, bridges and petrol stations were blown to bits. Entire families were killed in air strikes on their homes or in their vehicles while fleeing the aerial assaults on their villages. Scores lay buried beneath the rubble of their houses for weeks, as the Red Cross and other rescue workers were prevented from accessing the areas by continuing Israeli strikes. The hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who fled the bombardment now face the danger of unexploded munitions as they head home.
The Israeli Air Force launched more than 7,000 air attacks on about 7,000 targets in Lebanon between 12 July and 14 August, while the Navy conducted an additional 2,500 bombardments. The attacks, though widespread, particularly concentrated on certain areas. In addition to the human toll – an estimated 1,183 fatalities, about one third of whom have been children, 4,054 people injured and 970,000 Lebanese people displaced – the civilian infrastructure was severely damaged. The Lebanese government estimates that 31 “vital points” (such as airports, ports, water and sewage treatment plants, electrical facilities) have been completely or partially destroyed, as have around 80 bridges and 94 roads. More than 25 fuel stations and around 900 commercial enterprises were hit. The number of residential properties, offices and shops completely destroyed exceeds 30,000. Two government hospitals – in Bint Jbeil and in Meis al-Jebel – were completely destroyed in Israeli attacks and three others were seriously damaged.
In a country of fewer than four million inhabitants, more than 25 per cent of them took to the roads as displaced persons. An estimated 500,000 people sought shelter in Beirut alone, many of them in parks and public spaces, without water or washing facilities.
Amnesty International delegates in south Lebanon reported that in village after village the pattern was similar: the streets, especially main streets, were scarred with artillery craters along their length. In some cases cluster bomb impacts were identified. Houses were singled out for precision-guided missile attack and were destroyed, totally or partially, as a result. Business premises such as supermarkets or food stores and auto service stations and petrol stations were targeted, often with precision-guided munitions and artillery that started fires and destroyed their contents. With the electricity cut off and food and other supplies not coming into the villages, the destruction of supermarkets and petrol stations played a crucial role in forcing local residents to leave. The lack of fuel also stopped residents from getting water, as water pumps require electricity or fuel-fed generators.
Israeli government spokespeople have insisted that they were targeting Hizbullah positions and support facilities, and that damage to civilian infrastructure was incidental or resulted from Hizbullah using the civilian population as a “human shield”. However, the pattern and scope of the attacks, as well as the number of civilian casualties and the amount of damage sustained, makes the justification ring hollow. The evidence strongly suggests that the extensive destruction of public works, power systems, civilian homes and industry was deliberate and an integral part of the military strategy, rather than “collateral damage” – incidental damage to civilians or civilian property resulting from targeting military objectives.’ [my emphasis]
Human Rights Watch, in a report covering the early phase of the conflict, reached similar conclusions:
`This report documents serious violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war) by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Lebanon between July 12 and July 27, 2006, as well as the July 30 attack in Qana. During this period, the IDF killed an estimated 400 people, the vast majority of them civilians, and that number climbed to over 500 by the time this report went to print. The Israeli government claims it is taking all possible measures to minimize civilian harm, but the cases documented here reveal a systematic failure by the IDF 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. [my emphasis]
Israel bombed hospitals, houses, petrol stations, supermarkets, villages, factories, farms, roads, bridges, a power station, a lighthouse and the Beirut airport. It bombed innocent people, and then bombed their funerals. It ordered residents of the south of the country to leave, and then bombed them when they tried to. UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland described “block after block of houses” totally “levelled” by Israeli air strikes. It’s “horrific” and a “violation of international humanitarian law”, he stated. Israeli government officials, on the other hand, repeatedly and openly advocated collective punishment and other war crimes throughout the conflict. Olmert himself boasted of the success of Israel’s policy of collective punishment in an interview with Reuters, declaring,
“All the population which is the power base of the Hizbollah in Lebanon was displaced. They lost their properties, they lost their possessions, they are bitter, they are angry at Hizbollah and the power structure of Lebanon itself has been divided and Hizbollah is now entirely isolated in Lebanon”.
Israel repeatedly rejected a ceasefire, aided in no small part by the United States, despite repeated calls for a truce by both Siniora and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. After declaring the entire south of Lebanon to be a free-fire zone, populated entirely by terrorists, Israel destroyed the roads and bridges necessary to allow those those civilians who remained, primarily the elderly, the sick and the very poor, to flee. Israel waged what the Lebanese president termed a “war of starvation”, destroying facilities and infrastructure `indispensable to the survival of the civilian population’ (Amnesty International), and then refusing to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to the suffering.
In a final act of destructiveness, Israel fired over a million cluster bomblets into southern Lebanon, 90% of them in the final 72 hours of the conflict, when it was clear that there would be a ceasefire. Jan Egeland described Israel’s use of cluster bombs as “shocking” and “completely immoral”, whilst a commander in the IDF’s Multiple Launch Rocket System unit (responsible for firing the cluster bombs into Lebanon) said,
“In Lebanon, we covered entire villages with cluster bombs, what we did there was crazy and monstrous.”
Since the war ended, there has been a Lebanese civilian killed or injured by one of these cluster bomblets – 10%-40% of which remained unexploded on impact – almost daily since the conflict ended last August. It is estimated that it will take “probably three to five years” to clean-up all the unexploded ordinance littered throughout southern Lebanon – Israel continues to refuse to provide the necessary coordinates and maps to help the clear-up operation.
Amnesty International concluded,
“Many of the violations examined in this report are war crimes that give rise to individual criminal responsibility. They include directly attacking civilian objects and carrying out indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. People against whom there is prima facie evidence of responsibility for the commission of these crimes are subject to criminal accountability anywhere in the world through the exercise of universal jurisdiction.” [my emphasis]
After all of this, it is pretty disturbing that the harshest official criticism levelled at the Israeli government is that it “mismanaged” the war. Unfortunately, the problem extends way beyond the Winograd Committee. As Jonathan Freedland explains,
“This round of self-flagellation was not prompted by concern that the 2006 pounding of Lebanon was “disproportionate”, to recall the word of that hour. Israelis still believe they had every right to take on Hizbullah, who had abducted two Israeli soldiers from Israeli soil and had thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilian towns. The criticism is not that Olmert fought the war but that he fought it badly. That he didn’t achieve his stated aims of freeing the soldiers and de-fanging Hizbullah; that he sent troops in harm’s way with no coherent plan and insufficient protection; and that a non-victory against a mere guerrilla movement has shattered the IDF aura of invincibility essential to deter Israel’s enemies. It’s for that series of failures that he has been slammed.”
Not that Freedland expresses any problem with this – indeed, he praises the Winograd report for proving Israel’s democratic credentials (an opinion shared, oddly enough, by Hassan Nasrallah), despite the fact that it wasn’t independent and despite the fact that it totally ignored the main problem with the Lebanon war; namely, it’s moral and legal depravity. Indeed, Israeli society in general took precisely the wrong lessons from the Lebanon war, just as it did following the Gaza disengagement. Instead of feeling disgust at the mass suffering inflicted on innocents by the IDF, most of the Israeli public seems more concerned with the fact that Israel lost. This perverse focus on who `won’ or `lost’ the war was exemplified by Ehud Olmert, who uttered the following chilling remark last September:
“Half of Lebanon destroyed; is that a loss?”
If anything, the Israeli public is of the opinion that Israel was too restrained in its assault on Lebanon. Hence, if elections were held tomorrow, Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party would probably win. Rather than being `anti-war’, the majority of the Israeli public appears to be merely `anti-losing’. This does not bode well for prospects of peace and calm in the future. In paragraph 18 of the Winograd report, its authors state,
“The war thus brought back to center stage some critical questions that parts of Israeli society preferred to avoid.”
And, thanks to this report, they can go on avoiding those difficult questions that little bit longer.
Cross-posted at The Heathlander