Israel and that ‘immediate cease-fire’: Bush and Blair are right, for once

Bush and Blair are right about Israel, Lebanon and the demands for an immediate cease-fire.  There!  I never thought I would start a piece with those words.  But I'm afraid that all the humanitarian clamour for an instant end to the fighting is misconceived, however widespread in Europe and the bien-pensant British media. 

The images of small children's limp bodies being dragged from the debris after an Israeli bomb or rocket attack, of parents' grief, of the suffering of the dreadfully badly maimed and wounded, are almost unbearable, and the natural instinctive reaction to them is to demand that this murderous activity be stopped at once.  But even humane instinct isn't always a safe guide to policy, and reliance on it can be a kind of self-indulgence, especially on the part of those living in comfortable safety in the west.  The Israeli response to constant low-grade aggression by Hezbollah and Hamas (and their Iranian and Syrian backers) may yet open up an opportunity for some kind of interim and provisional settlement that could reduce the level of violence, perhaps for months or even years, but only if the Israeli campaign is allowed time to build up sufficient pressure on Hezbollah to sue for a reasonably durable peace.  An unconditional cease-fire forced on Israel now would save a few lives in the immediate future but at a cost of many more when a triumphant Hezbollah (and probably Hamas) resume their assaults on Israel within a few short days or weeks, with the prospect of an interim political settlement further away than ever.

Our media are full of vehement criticism of Israel's 'disproportionate' response to Hamas and Hezbollah aggression, with very little indication of what the critics would regard as a 'proportionate' response — still less of what such a 'proportionate' response could hope to achieve.  Refusing to call for 'an immediate and unconditional cease-fire' is a bit like denouncing motherhood or apple pie, but in present circumstances it's the right and brave position to take.  I sent the following dissenting comment to the author of one of the articles in today's newspapers (no prizes for guessing which and whom):

>>I'm unhappy, but not unduly surprised, to find that I disagree, sometimes profoundly, with almost everything in your article.  That's worrying in view of the obvious reality that you are an expert and specialist in the area and I'm (thankfully) not.  The difference between us goes right back to root cause and effect.  Where you blame the current disaster on US-UK distraction by the 'war on terror' from pursuing the road map solution, I blame the fundamental irreconcilability of the opposing parties, one side bent on the total destruction of the state of Israel by force if necessary (and accepting that necessity),  the other determined to survive as a state at whatever the cost in blood, treasure and international opprobrium.  If there's to be a settlement by diplomacy rather than force, as we'd all want, one side or the other has to modify its position.  For obvious reasons, Israel won't and indeed can't modify its commitment to its own survival:  it could make concessions such as removing illegal settlements, releasing Palestinian prisoners, compromising over Jerusalem, etc., and would probably do so if it saw any hope that such concessions would lead to acceptance by its neighbours of its right to exist inside secure borders;  but at the moment any such concessions would be gobbled up without any movement towards acceptance of Israel's right to exist at all.  The inescapable logic of this, it seems to me, is that if there's to be any progress towards a political settlement both Hamas and Hezbollah will have to give up their current illegitimate objectives and terminate their attacks on Israel.  Of this there's no sign that I'm aware of (apart from an indication of willingness to recognise Israel by one Hamas leader, not so far followed up, and probably anyway inoperable in the present conflict).   What do we expect Israel to do in the face of constant attacks (on civilian as well as military targets) designed to force it off the map as a state entity?  [The Security Council has ordered the government of Lebanon in a mandatory Chapter VII resolution to disarm Hezbollah and prevent it from further attacking Israel.]* The Security Council has called in resolution 1559 for "the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias" (clearly including Hezbollah).   So far from complying, Lebanon has Hezbollah ministers in its Cabinet.  UNIFIL is supposed to be keeping the warring sides apart but is apparently totally ineffective.  Since the international community continues to fail to stop Lebanese and Palestinian (ie mainly Hezbollah and Hamas) aggression against Israel, Israel has little choice but to try to stop it itself. 

I was initially inclined to condemn the Israeli response to the rocketings and kidnappings (or 'captures') of its soldiers as 'disproportionate' and unnecessarily brutal, but on mature reflection I doubt if that means anything very much.  As an old friend of mine remarked in a recent e-mail, —

The question of proportionality is much over-blown as well in these latter days. I guess we did ask this question of ourselves, but considerably after 1945, above all with reference to Dresden. It seems to me the wrong question. In 1945 the aim was to bring an end to a war which we had not sought. The burning of Dresden did not contribute to that aim – predictably – and was at best a serious and tragic error of judgment. In Israel now, the commonly-agreed objective is to put an end to a long-continuing story of harassment, relatively low-level but cumulatively intolerable. To answer each rocket fired by Hezbollah with a rocket fired from Israel, or to reply to the kidnap of two soldiers by the kidnap of two “freedom fighters” (the proportionate response for sure) will not advance this objective. Hezbollah’s tactics can only be answered by “disproportionate” means.

That seems to me incontrovertible.  The current military campaign by Israel is aimed at removing a real and immediate threat to its own existence as a state, by driving Hezbollah back from the border to a point where most of its rockets can't reach Israel and by destroying as much as possible of Hezbollah's rocket capacity.  This is a war against a well armed and actively aggressive military force and it's no good throwing up our hands in fastidious horror when we see on our TV screens evidence that women and children are among its victims.  Which side has the responsibility and motive for attacking the other?  Which side desperately wants an end to violence and the ability to live in peace with its neighbours?  Of course Israel is to blame for specific incidents involving horrific loss of life, as well as for its intransigence over settlements and other issues, but even these have their origins in  the perceived need to defend itself.  Of course we all want to see an end to the war.  But can it really be maintained that stopping Israel from completing its current mission, ie to drive Hezbollah back and destroy its military capacity for further aggression, by imposing an "immediate ceasefire" which leaves Hezbollah free to resume its attacks whenever it feels ready to do so, is going to save more lives even in the medium term than allowing Israel to finish the job?  Of course the Israeli action is 'inflaming Arab opinion' and outraging bien pensant opinion in much, but not all, of the western world, and Israel pays a heavy political price for that.  But if it's the price that has to be paid for survival, who's to say that it's 'disproportionate'?   

You don't have to buy George W. Bush's simple-minded stuff about good guys and bad guys and the war against the terrrrists to recognise that this is not a simple issue, and not necessarily or even probably one best resolved by knee-jerk demands for an instant cease-fire.  For once Bush and Blair have a strong case on the immediate issue.  If Hezbollah and Hamas and their Arab and Iranian backers can't be persuaded by international diplomacy to modify their aggressive war aims, perhaps the prospect (or reality) of a military hammering by the Israelis (if that's militarily and politically feasible) may be the only remaining way to convince them, however terrible the cost in civilian and other lives.  As my friend pointed out, it was a cost that we accepted in 1939–45.  And standing back wringing our hands while forcing Israel to give up its military response to patent aggression before it has been able to achieve its essentially desirable objectives may well prove even more costly in the end.   

It's very odd, I think, the way that reasonably (or very) well informed and decent people of good will can have such radically divergent opinions about the same international crisis where there's little or no disagreement about the facts.  It's just a pity that some of the knee-jerk 'immediate cease-fire' brigade — certainly not including yourself, I hasten to say — succumb to the temptation to impugn the motives and assail the moral character of those who take a different and perhaps more sophisticated view.   

*I am grateful to a former colleague for pointing out to me that UNSCR 1559 was not in fact adopted under Chapter VII of the Charter and is therefore not legally mandatory, as noted by a former FCO Legal Adviser in a letter to The Times on 28 July 2006 when I was away overseas, or rather on them.  Apologies for my original error.

PS:  For a different and nuançé account of the situation, still on the whole critical of Israel but allowing for a different and tenable view, I recommend Ian Black's article in today's Guardian.   Reading Black's analysis side by side with other, more fiercely partisan and  sometimes shriller pieces is interesting and instructive."<<


38 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    What an excellent write up and I totally agree.  Sometimes I wish I could be so fluent and clear in what I say.

  2. Brian,
    At the moment Israel seems to be making heavy weather of clearing out Hezbollah from Lebanon's southern border.
    Even if you are right and they can, in double quick time, get to Litani River what then? 

    Brian replies:  Tony, I have no idea whether Israel can achieve this objective or, if it can, how quickly.  I simply suggest that it's a highly desirable objective, one that conforms to the Security Council's demands, and one that changes the situation in a way that opens up new options.  If Israel can radically weaken Hezbollah and create a de facto buffer zone between Hezbollah and Israeli territory, (i) it improves the chances that the Lebanese government will feel strong enough to disarm Hezbollah or otherwise neutralise its malign activities vis-à-vis Israel, (ii) it creates a situation in which it may become possible to insert an international military and civilian force into the new buffer zone without requiring it to fight its way in (which no contributing state will agree to do), (iii) it creates a motive for Hezbollah and its backers, in order to avoid further damage being inflicted by Israel on its military capability, to sign up to at least an interim settlement that might reduce the level of violence for many months or even more,  (iv) it would embolden the anti-Hezbollah, anti-Shi'ite, anti-Iran governments in the middle east to use their muscle with Iran, Syria and Lebanon (and a future Shi'ite Islamic extremist government in Baghdad) to prevent a fresh bout of assaults on Israel and to make a serious effort to take part in at least an interim settlement, (v) it would enable — or even force — Hamas to revive its cautious initial feelers towards a change of policy under which it would recognise Israel's right to exist within secure recognised borders in accordance with Resolution 242 principles, and (vi) it would pave the way to a revival of consultations on step-by-step implementation of the road map.  Obviously this is the most optimistic possible scenario and it's unlikely in the extreme that all six of these desirable consequences would flow from an Israeli success in driving Hezbollah back to the river and greatly diminishing its aggressive capacity;  but (a) at least some of those consequences might flow, and above all (b) not one of them will become possible if Israel is forced by the well-meaning clamour from much of western Europe (and the blogosphere!) to agree to "an immediate cease-fire" before it has had time to accomplish its objective.  An immediate cease-fire now would be rightly seen as a defeat for Israel and a victory for Hezbollah, it would permit Hezbollah to replenish its rocket armoury ready for the next attack, it would make it almost impossible for Hamas to move towards recognition of Israel's right to exist, it would encourage the hawks in Israel in their view that in the last resort they can't rely for support on a fickle West and that their sole hope of survival as a country lies in their own military toughness, and altogether it would set back any prospect of movement towards a settlement for (perhaps) a very long time.  Is that really what the advocates of an immediate cease-fire want?

  3. Brian,
    Magisterail analysis….but hasn’t this been tried before?

  4. Oh for crying out loud Brian, Israel is an aggressive, expansionist and  supremacist state – the very fact that this discussion is being couched in terms of proportionality makes me ashamed to be British.  Our country has been used to ship the bombs that slauightered those civilians in Qana.  This will not be forgiven and we will be hated and vilified across the world for generations to come (if there are any generations to come). 

    Israel is engaged in collective punishment of an entire nation.  And all this talk about Hezbollah being committed to the destruction of Israel is nonsense – they are a national resistance movement formed after Israel's 1982 invasion. 

    Brian comments: Israel evacuated its forces from southern Lebanon six years ago. 

  5. Rob says:

    "An unconditional ceasefire forced on Israel now would save a few lives in the immediate future but at the cost of many more"

    This claim is simply false. Israeli casualties from Hizbullah attacks since 2000, not including the current hostilies, I think are in the tens. The current conflict has already killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians, not to mention the tens of Israeli civilians and conscripts. A resumption of the pre-conflict status quo would, unquestionably therefore, be a significant improvement on a continuation of the conflict in terms of civilian casualties even if it went on for decades. Since your entire argument hangs on the relative desirability of an Israeli victory over the resumption of the status quo, your entire argument is, frankly, crap.

    The attack on the importance of proportionality in military response is also spectacularly wrong-headed. The IRA unquestionably received support from individuals within the Republic of Ireland during the troubles. British civilians doubtless died as a result of that support. Presumably, if proportionality does not matter, the British army would have been entitled to bomb Dublin and fire shells at farms all along the Republic's northern border.

  6. Rob,

    "Presumably, if proportionality does not matter, the British army would have been entitled to bomb Dublin and fire shells at farms all along the Republic’s northern border."

    And a small slice of Boston as well!


  7. Peter Harvey says:


    A very well-written and well-argued piece. My mind has been working along the same lines in the last few days, particularly with regard to the analogy with the annihilation of Nazi Germany. I will be in Berlin next week, as I was last summer, and this time I will combine it with a trip to Dresden and then will go on to Warsaw and Krakow, with a day in Auschwitz. Germany’s cities were obliterated in the war in firestorms that equalled the nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities, yet very few people indeed in Germany now question the rightness of what was done to their country in 1944-45, and those who do are almost all on the neo-Nazi extreme right.

    I believe that the analogy can be taken further: not only are the Arab political entities (for want of a better expression) that are opposing Israel deeply anti-Semitic, they are or would be totalitarian dictatorships of the very kind that would be widely opposed if they were supported by bishops in Latin America but which are tolerated, even excused, if they are supported by mullahs in Arabia. I well remember that on a visit to Britain a few years ago I saw a TV clip of Hitler addressing a Nuremberg rally – and later the same day I happened to see that old blind cleric, a leader of Hamas, preaching to the faithful; the similarity was uncanny.

    However, and depressingly so in this case, such analogies are never perfect. Germany is a European country that had given birth to the Reformation and had contributed mightily to the Enlightenment; such contributions to civilisation from the Arab world have been conspicuous by their absence since the Middle Ages. Without denying Germany's responsibility for the First World War, it was the diplomatic blunder of seeking revenge at Versailles that destroyed Germany (a consequence of the Treaty that was explicitly predicted at the time by some commentators and that worried Lloyd George himself), leading to the collapse of society and of the state and thus to the evil aberration of Nazism; but can the present dictatorial attitudes of the Arabs be regarded as an aberration? No-one, we must believe, is incapable of democracy; but if it took the Marshall Plan to impose democracy in the continent that invented it, what will be needed in the Middle East if Hamas, Hizbollah and the Syrianh and Iranian fascists are ever destroyed? And how will such destruction come about? Not, presumably, by appeasement.

  8. Dan Goodman says:

    I think the fundamental mistake is this:

    "The current military campaign by Israel is aimed at removing a real and immediate threat to its own existence as a state…"

    The existence of Israel as a state is a fact, and it will not change, regardless of the rights and wrongs. Even if Hezbollah, or for that matter Hamas, wanted to destroy Israel, they don't have the means to do so. As someone pointed out above, the number of Israeli deaths due to these rocket attacks is in the tens. They could probably save more Israeli lives by lowering their speed limit by 5 mph than by wiping out Hezbollah.

    If Israel's existence were really threatened, there might be some substance to what you say. Actions like they are taking might then be considered proportionate.

  9. Peter Harvey says:


    The IRA and ETA wanted to damage the British and Spanish states respectively in order to achieve their limited political goals in their own territories. The statutes of Hamas (available on the Internet) expclictly intend to eliminate Israel, a member of the UN. The President of Iran has said the same. I have no reason to doubt that Hizbullah and Bachir Asad of Syria would also wish for that. The UK and Spain faced no such existential threat so your analogy doesn’t work.

    Saudi Arabia is now seen as a source of moderation–heaven help us! But when I was there 25 years ago there was a map of the Middle East on the wall of my school, clearly handmade by the boys or teachers. It showed all the countries of the Middle East with their names in Arabic; all that is except for an anonymous sliver running down the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. That was the nameless Zionist entity.

  10. Peter,

    The UK and Spain faced no such existential threat so your analogy doesn’t work.

    Didn’t mention Spain, but I can recall the IRA trying to blow up the Tories in conference at Brighton. And slightly lower down the scale there was that rocket that landed in the garden of 10 Downing Street whilst J. Major was in Cabinet. Not perhaps an existential threat, but a significant one.

  11. Peter Harvey says:


    The IRA assassinated a Governor-General of Ireland in Phoenix Park in about the 1870s, but that doesn’t mean that they wanted to obliterate the whole of Britain as a state. You say that the IRA was a threat, but what was it a threat to? It was a threat to the stability of  the UK made in the hope of forcing a withdrawal from Ireland (the same basis as ETA’s tactics). It was not, and was not intended to be, a threat to the very existence of the state as such.

  12. Rob says:


    so, presumably, all other things being equal, if the IRA had claimed it wanted to destroy the British state, Britain would have been entitled to bomb Dublin and so on. I notice that you don’t dispute that the actual threat, in terms of casualties – rather than the thoroughly mythical one you seem to have dreamed up where it is the state which is invading another country is the one under threat – that Hizbullah presents is on much the same kind of scale.

  13. Peter Harvey says:

    Antipholus Papps,

    As Brian has remarked, Israel removed its forces from southern Lebanon six years ago. Syria, on the other hand, which has been meddling in Lebanese affairs for many decades going back to the Ottoman Empire, removed its occupation forces from Lebanon only last year and no doubt still has its secret and not-so-secret agents crawling all over the country.

  14. Peter Harvey says:


    Firstly, other things are not equal — something that it is difficult for some people to grasp.

    Secondly, if the IRA had, improbably, said that it wanted to destroy the British state no-one would have believed it because it never had the resources. Even in 1916, when the IRA did come close to attacking the existence of the British state, by presenting (organising would be far too strong a word) a rebellion in Dublin, the British state responded in a way that was inevitable. That rebellion was high in emotional content but low, even counter-productive, in practical result.

  15. Brian says:


    You write:

    If Israel's existence were really threatened, there might be some substance to what you say. Actions like they are taking might then be considered proportionate.

    You surely aren't arguing that Israel's existence as a state is not threatened by the declared policies and actions of Hezbollah, Hamas, Lebanon, Iran and Syria?  It is also conspicuously threatened by demography and by the imminent problem of preserving the character of Israel as a predominently Jewish (but secular) state without an unacceptable degree of discrimination on ethnic grounds against its rapidly growing Arab population.  For this to be combined with continuous military attacks on Israeli civilian as well as military targets adds up to a real danger for Israel of extinction.

    Hezbollah is increasingly heavily armed by Iran and probably by Syria, and is now a formidable war machine, not to be underrated.   Israel by contrast  doesn't threaten the existence as a state of any other country:  its military action against Hezbollah is a response to constant attacks on Israel by Hezbollah.  Are you suggesting that Israel should just put up with Hezbollah's (and Hamas's) attacks without any attempt to stop them? 

    Comparing casualty figures inflicted by the two (or three or more) sides is incidentally irrelevant.  This is a war.  Hezbollah's tactics of firing its rockets from heavily populated civilian population areas makes civilian casualties inevitable when its rocket sites are attacked.  How else is Israel to stop them?  The combined pressures of the US, the EU and the Security Council have failed to induce Lebanon, Iran and Syria to stop the constant attacks on Israel and to disarm Hezbollah:  diplomacy having failed, a military response is inevitable.  For a country to attack another, and then to holler for a cease-fire when the victim of the attack retaliates by trying to destroy the source of the aggression, so that the initial aggressor can resume hostilities thereafter unscathed, is a bit rich.


  16. Rob says:

    Again, I  notice that neither Brian nor Peter dispute that the threat presented by Hizbullah, gauged by the casualties it has caused since Israel's withdrawal from the southern Lebanon before the current hostilities, is hardly existential, or equally, that, again, in terms of casualties, a return to the status quo lasting several years would be clearly preferable to even another week of the current conflict. I take it that that means that they accept that, in terms of the casualties resulting from this conflict, the conflict is neither justified as a response to the threat presented by Hizbullah nor as a means of resolving the longer-term conflict. One wonders, since the conflict is justified neither in terms of Hizbullah's threat to Israel's existence or the numbers of Israeli casualties caused by Hizbullah, what Brian and Peter think does justify Israel's actions.

    As for Peter's claim that the IRA never presented, even when it was able to seize, during a war, key parts of the state apparatus, an existential threat to the British state, that's clearly ridiculous. Ireland was, before the Easter Rising, a part of the British state. When the war during which the Easter Rising occurred finished, Ireland very quickly became independent. I think if you were to ask any Israeli politician whether a force which produced tens of casualties over six years was more of an existential threat to them than a force which could, within five years, make it impossible for them to rule over approximately a third of their territory, the answer would not favour Peter's view.

    Quite apart from the clear contradiction involved in also criticising Hizbullah for causing civilian casualties by using civilian sites for its rocket launches, Brian's claim that casualties are irrelevant because this is war is equally clearly ridiculous. Would Brian, I wonder, support Israel using its nuclear weapons in the Lebanon? I suspect, and indeed hope, not. I would imagine this is because of the cost in casualties that would result. Obviously then, the question of the proportionality of the response is open. Rather than avoiding the question, if Brian believes the response is proportional, he, I would hope, can provide some reason why it is that Hizbullah's actions entitle Israel to kill hundreds of Lebanese civilians.

    Brian replies:  Rob, I don't want to sound offensive, but your comment contains so many misrepresentations of my (and Peter's) views that to try to counter and correct every one of them would be both tedious and repetitive.  I can only suggest that you re-read what we have both written, ideally with an open mind. 

  17. Aidan says:

    Brian, thankyou for another well-argued piece, which makes some challenging arguments. However I still think that you make a number of false assumptions – principally:

    1. I don't accept that Israel is under serious military threat as a state. It has the most powerful army in the area, and would get unstinting US support if it began to lose territory. The demographic threat is an interesting point but an entirely separate one.

    2. You imply that the concept of a 'proportionate' response is undefinable. I think it can be defined in two ways:

    a) The Geneva Convention requires Israel to minimise damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure. Any collateral damage should be proportional to the value of the military objective. Israel has deliberately hit power plants, airports and other major and valuable elements of the Lebanese infrastructure, which are of minimal importance to Hezbollah, but vital to the civilian population. I can't see how you could explain this as anything other than collective punishment, and some Israeli quotes have strongly implied that this is the intention. In addition Israel has effectively declared a large area of Southern Lebanon a free-fire zone and hit ambulances, aid convoys and civilians fleeing the area. Once again they have inflicted significant civilian casualties for their own military convenience. It's hard to define exactly what is acceptable, but to my mind this is a long way from the dividing line.

    b) In addition to a) I think there is a moral obligation for Israel to ensure that in its actions to protect its own civilians, it does not inflict disproportionate harm on the Lebanese civilians. Lebanon as a nation is not 'at war' with Israel, and its civilian population is not contributing to the Lebanese war effort – so you could not use the defence that they were a strategic target – as with Dresden. As it stands, Israeli casualties from Hezbollah rockets have been minimal – it appears to take somewhere in the region of 100 rockets to kill a single Israeli. Even if Hezbollah fired off its whole stock they would kill less civilians than the Israelis have killed in the last three weeks alone. The Israelis seem to be protecting one Israeli at the cost of killing ten or so Lebanese. That to my mind is disproportionate.

    3. Another key element of you argument seems to be an 'end justifies the means'. For this to stand up, there has to be a reasonable chance of Israel achieving its ends – a long-term degradation to Hezbollah's capabilities. I don't believe this exists, particularly given the very limited successes that Israel appears to have had. So far:

    • Israel has caused Hezbollah minimal casualties – a few % of their thousands of fighters.
    • Hezbollah popularity has risen within Lebanon, even amongst Christians.
    • The legitimate Lebanese government has been significantly weakened – which will make it much harder for them to supersede Hezbollah as the dominate authority in the area.
    • Damage to the Lebanese economy result in poverty and anger towards Israel, which will benefit future Hezbollah recruitment.
    • Hezbollah's ability to fight back on the ground and launch rockets has dramatically increased their military credibility, and makes it easier for them to gain support as a credible opposition to Israel.

    Why would Hezbollah be discouraged by these attacks? They have benefitted in almost every way. Even if Israel is permitted to  continue its campaign for months, I don't think this would change. Hezbollah are gaining every day it continues.

    This does raise the question what can Israel do? Should it just sit there and take it? I don't really have any suggestions, but I'm confident that their current actions are making their position worse rather than better.

    The Israelis have an extremely difficult task – they have to fight a counter-insurgency war in another country. Worse still the population has more sympathy for Hezbollah than for them, but this is all the more reason to be extremely careful, even if that costs the lives of Israeli soldiers. Nothing loses a counter-insurgency war faster than killing and displacing the civilian population. There may be a short-term military benefit in pushing back Hezbollah, but this is being achieved at huge political costs. There is no such thing as a military victory – Israel must win totally or they it is not a victory at all.

    Brian writes:  Aidan, thank you for this thoughtful and courteous comment — with much of which I entirely agree.  I would only add that the points you make are essentially matters of judgement, on which more than one view is tenable.  You may be right in judging that Israel is incapable of inflicting such damage on Hezbollah as to make it unable to continue its rocket and other attacks on Israel, or at any rate to continue those attacks on the current (escalating) scale:  but the Israeli defence chiefs have evidently made the opposite judgement and it's at least equally possible that they are right.  Similarly, the Israelis assert that they are doing everything possible to minimise civilian casualties in Lebanon, but that these are inevitable given the nature of the conflict, which is different from a conventional battle between opposing national armies.  You (and many others) don't accept that these efforts by the Israelis are adequate — but you acknowledge that you don't have any suggestions for an alternative approach by Israel apart from simply putting up with the constant attacks (in practice not an option available to a democratically elected government).  Again, this is a matter of judgement. You point out that Israel is not in a state of war against Lebanon:  I would argue that Hezbollah is now such a formidable military machine that the conflict it has initiated amounts to a war, especially in the absence of a government in Lebanon with sufficient clout or responsibility to get control of Hezbollah, disarm it, and restore the position under which a government should have a monopoly of the use of force in public affairs.  Again, a matter of judgement.

    One additional point:  even if a suspension of military activity is forced on Israel before it has had time to degrade Hezbollah's capacity for inflicting serious damage on Israel, Israel's response in the past fortnight or so to the accumulated aggressions of Hezbollah will have achieved one positive result: it will have forced the US, UK, the rest of the EU and the Security Council to wake up to what is going on and to initiate emergency action to deal with the situation, including reviving plans for a more durable political settlement (and also reviving the Council's existing demand for the disarmament of Hezbollah).  If Israel had not finally launched a major counter-attack, the rest of the world would have continued to turn a blind eye to this long-running conflict.  So some good may yet come of the whole tragic business. 

  18. Peter Harvey – thank you for affording me a more detailed response than Brian.  And that’s no disrespect to you Brian – it’s nice to see a discussion of these appalling events being held in a reasonable and intelligent manner rather than the ad hominim attacks and name-calling that is prevalent on most threads ("you’re a Nazi, no you’re a Nazi etc etc).

    Yes, Israel left Lebanon six years ago, but the representation of this conflict as having been born from an unprovoked attack of aggression by Hisbollah is nonsensical and couches this event in isolation.  Since withdrawing from the West Bank, Israel has increased its attacks on the Palestinians and, I think, sought to provoke exactly this kind of conflagration with its neighbours – the shelling of the family on the beach being one example.  Israel still holds many Lebanese and Palestinians captive, without trial, often on the basis of acquaintance alone, and this is all part of the problem. 

    At the end of the day, it seems that Israelis view Arabs as untermenschen and hence are able to carry out their appalling war crimes.  How do you defend the deliberate targetting of ambulances, the murder of UN observors, the absolute destruction of civilian infrastructure, telling civilians to flee and then slaughtering them as they go?  The list is atrocious and goes on and on. 

    The pictures of Israeli children writing messages on missiles is as upsetting as the pictures of the children of Qana being pulled from the rubble.  Personally, I don’t see any difference between calling yourself "God’s Chosen People" and calling yourself the "Master Race".  Also, I am extremely wary of the claims regarding Syria and Iran’s involvement in this.  Our war criminal prime minister and his boyfriend in Washington are champing at the bit to invade these countries. 

  19. Dan Goodman says:


    I am arguing that Israel’s existence is not seriously threatened. As I said before, I’m sure Hezbollah and Hamas would love to destroy Israel but they don’t have the means. Aidan and Rob have made the points I would make about this.

    As to what Israel ought to do, I don’t know. What I do know, or at least strongly believe, is that what they are actually doing is substantially worse than doing nothing at all. My feeling is that you can’t solve these problems by military means, and that this sort of action only makes a long term peaceful solution more difficult.

    Incidentally, I think it’s similar in this way to the problem that the US and Western Europe have with terrorism. Our leaders are attempting to solve these problems by absurd security measures, increased surveillance and police powers, etc. If you make it axiomatic that your enemy is acting on pure unreasoned hatred then you have no alternative but a forceful response.

    Sometimes you hear the question ‘why do they hate us?’. Politicians like to say nonsensical things like ‘they hate our freedom’, but these are weasel words designed to make ‘them’ seem irrational and impossible to deal with in any way except a forceful one. It behooves us to look deeper into the matter and attempt to address their real concerns. In much the same way, Israelis have a tendency to blame things on anti-semitism (which cannot be reasoned with by definition), and it behooves them to look deeper and address the real concerns of their neighbours. A fair solution for the Palestinians might well go some way (but not all the way) towards this.

    Finally, I’d just like to say that although we seem to disagree, I appreciate your reasonable and rational approach. Indeed, I only decided to comment on your entry because I anticipated a reasonable debate instead of the usual rubbish you get on the internet about this issue. I just watched Tony Blair’s press conference and he said something along the lines of "The only people who benefit when reasonable people disagree are the unreasonable". I couldn’t disagree with him more, and I find the consequences of this view of his disturbing.

  20. Rob says:


    I’m sorry you feel that I am misrepresenting your position, and that you feel that I have been somewhat intemperate in my criticisms. Perhaps if I attempt if I explain what I take your position to be, you can correct my misapprehensions. You seem to reject calls for an immediate ceasefire on the grounds that Israel has a legitimate interest in attempting to prevent Hizbullah’s rocket attacks on Northern Israel. I, and presumably no-one else sensible, rejects the claim that Israel has a right to take measures to prevent attacks on its civilians. The disagreement therefore centres on the methods with which Israel is attempting to prevent Hizbullah’s rocket attacks on Northern Israel. This why I have attempted to focus on the question of whether those methods are proportionate, if perhaps regrettably through attempts at necessarily provocative reductio ad absurdum arguments.

    For example, you stated, as I quoted, in your original piece that

    "an unconditional ceasefire forced on Israel would save a few lives in the immediate future but at the cost of many more"

    This claim seems to me to be obviously false. I explained why – to re-iterate, that the casualties resulting from Hizbullah rocket attacks in the six years since the Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon caused casualties in the tens, whilst the current conflict in a matter of weeks has killed several hundred. The status quo before the current escalation would therefore have to go on for several decades before it killed as many people as the conflict as it currently is has in a tiny fraction of that time.

    Further, it seems to me that this claim is a crucial part of your argument. Firstly, it shows that those who are, from humanitarian motives, calling for an immediate ceasefire are mistaken: they believe that such a ceasefire would result in fewer deaths, whereas, if the claim is true, that is not the case. Secondly, it shows that the Israeli response, if regrettable, is an appropriate response to the threat posed by Hizbullah: rather than the human tragedy those calling for an immediate ceasefire suppose it is, it is based on a hard-nosed assessment of the damage Hizbullah could cause. If, as I think I have shown, it is false, that calls into question both those facets of your argument.

    Since you replied to a specific comment of mine claiming that it misrepresented your views, I feel I should attempt to explain the particular claims I made in that comment. Firstly, I claimed that neither you nor Peter had shown that the claim of yours I said was false was true, and that this left me somewhat confused as to what you and Peter thought justified Israel’s response to Hizbullah’s rocket attacks. This was merely to re-iterate the point made above.

    Secondly, I sought to respond to Peter’s claim that the IRA never presented an existential threat to the British state, and therefore, what we thought of as an appropriate response to the IRA was not a useful guide to what would be an appropriate response to Hizbullah. Since Peter raised the Easter Rising, it seemed an appropriate event to use as the basis of a comparison. I then pointed out that, within five years of the Easter Rising, and, as I understand it, partly as a result of the British over-reaction to it, Southern Ireland, which represented a large part of the British state in 1916, was de facto independent. The IRA thus played a significant causal role in gaining the independence of a large part of the British state. As far as the survival of a state goes, removing large chunks of it seems to me to present an existential threat. Therefore, the IRA did present an existential threat, and what we think about the appropriateness of the British response is an appropriate comparison to use as a guide to thinking about the appropriateness of the Israeli response to Hizbullah.

    We could of course also think about the threat presented by the IRA during the Troubles, and whether that is a useful comparison in much the same way. This is what I attempted to do in an earlier comment. Given that, so far as I am aware, the casualties resulting from Hizbullah’s rocket attacks are similar to those resulting from the IRA’s bombing campaigns on the mainland in the 1970s, for example, the main difference which you and Peter seem to have been able to adduce is that Hizbullah explicitly stated that it intended the destruction of Israel. That seems to then beg the question of what kind of response would have been appropriate had the IRA explicitly stated that it intended the destruction of the British state, since, as I read the argument presented by you and Peter, tens of casualties over a period of years + explicitly stated intention of destruction of a given state = the appropriateness of responses similar to those made by Israel.

    Thirdly, I attempted to show that your claim

    "Comparing casualty figures inflicted by the two… sides is incidentally irrelevant. This is a war"

    was wrong. Were casualties irrelevant, it struck me, then any method which might achieve the destruction of Hizbullah would be legitimate, regardless of how many casualties it resulted in. Using nuclear weapons on the Lebanon would almost certainly destroy Hizbullah. If casualties were irrelevant, then presumably using nuclear weapons on the Lebanon would be an acceptable means to that end – at least as far as casualties were concerned. Anyone who believed that casualties were irrelevant would therefore believe that using nuclear weapons on the Lebanon would – absent concerns relating to anything other than casualties – be an acceptable method of dealing with the threat presented by Hizbullah. I assume that no-one sane does actually believe that using nuclear weapons would be an acceptable method of dealing with the threat presented by Hizbullah, because, amongst other reasons, of the casualties it would cause. That means that casualties are relevant, and therefore, your claim cannot be true.

    I am sorry to have gone on at such length. However, much as you seem to have taken insult at what you regard as my misrepresentation of your views, I take insult at the claim that I have misrepresented your views, since I feel I could have justly been considerably less temperate than I have. I might, for example, have asked, whether Lebanon, given that Israel clearly is threatening its existence by destroying much of its infrastructure and so on – setting aside the question of whether Hizbullah does the same, and what response would be appropriate for the Lebanese to that threat – would be entitled to use its army and air force to destroy much of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

  21. Rob,
    The IRA thus played a significant causal role in gaining the independence of a large part of the British state.

    And post 1920’s the aim of the IRA was to prise another chunk-Ulster- away from the UK.

  22. John Miles says:

    I can't help wondering if you are right to think a "military hammering" of the Lebanon by the Israelis is likely to help achieve any kind of worthwhile peace between the Israel and its neighbours

    Chuck Coulson is supposed to have said, "If you've got 'em by the b—s their hearts and minds will follow," but it seems to me much more likely that in the long run Mother Nature will come home to roost.

    I wouldn't mind betting that many of the bombed out little boys we see on our television screens grow into the next generation of terrrorists, freedom fighters or suicide bombers.

    Brian writes:  I referred (inelegantly, I realise, but you know what I meant) to 'hammering' Hezbollah, not Lebanon — and they are actually different, obviously, even though the unfortunate victims of the conflict in Lebanon might not attach much importance to the difference.

    Of course a military assault involving civilian casualties is no way to make friends or to ensure that you have well-disposed neighbours when the conflict is over.  But this doesn't seem to deter Hezbollah and Hamas from attacking Israel — perhaps because they don't want to have Israel as a neighbour afterwards anyway.  From Israel's point of view, it has to choose between (1) responding to constant attacks from neighbouring territories by trying to eliminate the attackers' military assets, command HQs and local command posts, communications and infrastructure, in order to reduce the scope for continuing attacks; and (2) trying to win over the hearts and minds of the local people in the neighbouring territories.  It can't do both.  And since no Israeli government that remained idle in the face of the daily deaths of its innocent civilian citizens from rockets fired from Gaza and Lebanon into Israel would have any hope of ever being re-elected, there's really very little choice: any Israeli government is obliged to go for option (1), and put up with having to forego option (2).  

    To take a purely hypothetical example, supposing that London were to face daily rocket attacks launched by a determined enemy occupying the nearby coasts of France and Holland and firing the rockets from those countries, the British government would have to choose between using the RAF to try to destroy the rocket launcher sites in France and Holland, and to destroy the supply lines along which rockets were being delivered to the launch pads from the factories in Ger-  sorry, the enemy's own country further inland. The British government knows that its attacks on these targets in France and Holland are bound to kill scores or hundreds of innocent French and Dutch people with whom Britain has no quarrel, indeed people it regards as friends and allies suffering the miseries of occupation.  By killing French and Dutch civilians, Britain knows it risks incurring the bitter anger and hatred of the surviving bereaved after the war.  Does this consideration outweigh the need to try to save Londoners' lives by degrading the enemy's capacity for firing rockets at London?  The analogy is not exact but it's near enough.  As someone who sat night after night as a child in an air-raid shelter listening to the whine and crump of bombs outside being dropped by European airmen trying to kill me, I may be excused for feeling rather strongly that the first duty of a democratic government whose country is being attacked from outside is to do what it can to protect its own people and to minimise the number of deaths inflicted, even if civilians in other countries suffer in the process.  To put it another way, a country that allows a murderous armed militia on its territory to attack a neighbouring country day after day must expect that neighbour eventually to hit back: and when that happens, it's no good pointing out that "this is no way to make friends of us".  Friendship can't come at any price that happens to be demanded!

  23. Brian says:

    Here are some observations on a selection of the points made in some recent comments. I ask forgiveness from those whose arguments and questions I don't have the time, space, or, in some cases, the inclination, to address, or which I feel (perhaps wrongly) I have already dealt with in my original post or in subsequent comments.

    I don't feel 'insulted' by comments which misinterpret what I have written.  I feel sad to think that I may have expressed myself obscurely, thus inviting misunderstanding.  Nor do I resent the forceful expression of disagreement:  those with thin skins shouldn't run interactive blogs.  So far no-one, happily, has overstepped the borderline between robust views and abuse;  if anyone does, his or her contribution is easily deleted.  On the contrary, I appreciate the civil way in which strongly held opinions have been expressed by just about everyone (so far!).

    I understand the intentions underlying the discussion of the supposed analogy with the IRA, but the differences from the situation in the middle east are so many and so great that I doubt if further pursuit of it is illuminating or profitable.

    I can't attach much, if any, useful meaning to the concept of 'proportionality' in Israel's response to attacks on its territory and people from Gaza and Lebanon.  So far as I know, no-one commenting here or anywhere else who has condemned the alleged disproportionality of Israel's action in Lebanon has been able to describe what they would regard as a proportionate (and therefore justified) military response, or to show how such a response would achieve anything.

    A commentator here wrote: "As to what Israel ought to do, I don’t know. What I do know, or at least strongly believe, is that what they are actually doing is substantially worse than doing nothing at all. My feeling is that you can’t solve these problems by military means, and that this sort of action only makes a long term peaceful solution more difficult."  But no Israeli government has the luxury of deciding to do nothing at all when its citizens are being killed daily by rocket and suicide bomb attacks and military incursions.  'Salus populi suprema lex.'

    I am surprised that some commentators have sought to repudiate the idea that Israel's existence as a state is at stake in this conflict, given that the repeatedly proclaimed objective of Hamas and Hezbollah and, even more worryingly, their sponsoring governments of Iran and Syria, is to eliminate Israel from the map.  Those who fail to see the constant military attacks on Israel from neighbouring territory in that context can't begin to put themselves in the shoes of the Israelis or to understand why they do what they do.  Nor can the concept of proportionality, to the extent that it means anything at all, be judged except in that context.  The universally recognised ambition of Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon is all too relevant here.

    A central element in the equation that seems to be largely ignored by the fiercer critics of Israel is the Lebanese government's lack of control over its own territory and inability to bring Hezbollah under its own authority, a non-government army armed and funded by foreign governments (those of Iran and Syria) of which one actually occupied Lebanon until very recently.  The UN Security Council has formally called for the disarmament of Hezbollah and other non-governmental militias, but those concerned in Lebanon, Iran and Syria have either refused to comply  or else have been too weak to be able to implement it.  The existence of an increasingly heavily armed non-government army not subject to the control of the government of the country where it operates is a central factor in the problem.  Those who condemn Israel's attempt to deal with it, in self-defence, have a duty to explain how else it can be resolved.  The prime minister of Lebanon has been on television all day stressing that a central element in any settlement package, as well as a cease-fire, must be the strengthening by the international community of his government's authority and control over the whole country, with the government the sole institution able to own and use arms — i.e. his main aim is disarming and reining in Hezbollah.  He also stresses that he wants good relations with Iran and Syria but that neither should interfere in Lebanon's internal affairs nor exercise influence in those affairs.One commentator wrote that "I might…have asked, whether Lebanon, given that Israel clearly is threatening its existence by destroying much of its infrastructure and so on … would be entitled to use its army and air force to destroy much of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem."  But Lebanon's government has no desire or motive to do any such thing.  If its army and air force were strong enough, they would be used to disarm Hezbollah, which would produce far more immediate benefit for Lebanon than attacking Israel, by removing any reason for Israel to attack Lebanon in the future and by restoring the government's control over its own territory.
    Some dispute my assertion that an immediate cease-fire on its own would save lives in the short term at the expense of more lives lost in the medium and long term.  The Lebanese prime minister has implicitly supported this view by emphasising that the last thing he wants is a cease-fire and a return to the status quo ante which will merely permit both sides to resume hostilities when they are good and ready.  Of course Hezbollah is demanding an immediate cease-fire: that would relieve them of the pressures of Israeli attacks, enable them to replenish their supplies of rockets, food, etc., claim that they have defeated the Israeli attack, and resume rocketing israel with redoubled force after a short interval.  This would almost certainly result in the collapse of the Olmert government and its replacement by a much more hawkish military regime likely to launch, when ready to do so, an all-out and uninhibited attack on Hezbollah which would take many more Arab and Israeli lives than any saved in the short term by the initial cease-fire.  A ceasefire now that's not accompanied by a package agreement which includes the disarming of Hezbollah, the release of detainees by both sides, the positioning of a much strengthened international military and civilian presence in southern Lebanon and the restoration of Lebanese government control over the whole of its territory, will do more harm than good as well as representing a lost opportunity for a reasonably durable settlement.  If there's a cease-fire before there's a parallel agreement on these other measures, Hezbollah will have no motive for agreeing to the rest of the package.

    As Blair rightly remarked at his press conference today, calling for an immediate cease-fire on its own doesn't mean that there will be one.  It achieves nothing except to make those who demand it feel better.  The need is for a cease-fire plus.  The plus is what could make the difference.  But getting the agreement of all the parties to all these measures, including the assembling of the necessary international force, is bound to take time and to require a degree of continuing military pressure (or the threat of it) on those most likely to be intransigent.  Sometimes patience is as valuable a commodity as outrage.

    One or two commentators have denounced Israel with 'disproportionate' (sorry) vehemence, referring to war crimes and the Master Race and claims that "Israelis view Arabs as untermenschen", that they deliberately target ambulances and children, and other unmistakeable implied identifications of Israelis as comparable with Nazis, suggesting such a strong revulsion against Israelis as a people that it's hard to imagine the writers being able to take a balanced and dispassionate view of the rights and wrongs of the situation or the kind of measures that are likely to remedy it.

    Finally, much of the criticism voiced here of Israel's actions depends on the belief that Israel is incapable of achieving its main military objectives of substantially degrading Hezbollah's capacity for continuing its attacks on Israel at the same or higher level, and pushing Hezbollah back to the river.  That prediction may well turn out to be right.  But the Israeli strategists presumably believe that their objectives are attainable, or that there's a good enough chance that they will be attainable to justify having a go at them.  If a cease-fire and settlement package (including an internationally guaranteed buffer zone and Hezbollah disarmament) are imposed by the Security Council before Israel has had the time required to achieve all its own objectives by its own military efforts, they will have achieved the most important of their aims via international action which would not have been taken if Israel had not launched its major counter-attack against Hezbollah.

    I shall continue to read any further comments with interest and appreciation, but with this I have said all I have to say on the subject;  and like, I assume, the readers of this, I do have other things to do!


  24. Rob says:

    Just briefly, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has a list of Hizbullah attacks between May 2000 and June 2006. By my tally, these attacks killed 15 soldiers and 8 civilians, and injured 29 soldiers and 6 civilians, while 5 people, 2 of them civilians and 3 soldiers, were kidnapped. Israel retaliated in many of these cases, as the list details. I don’t know how many people were killed by those retialiations, but I’d imagine it was on a similar scale. So that works out at about 0.8 deaths per month, assuming similar numbers of deaths in the Lebanon. Around seven hundred people have died in a less than a month so far. Thus, the status quo would have to go on for nearly seventy three years to kill as many people as the conflict has so far. Yet the idea that we might attempt to return to it is unacceptable to Brian.

  25. Peter Harvey says:

    I know perfectly well what the IRA’s aims are; I referred to them when I said that they wanted ‘to achieve their limited political goals in their own territories’. But I still say that the analogy about bombing Dublin in retaliation for the IRA ’s atrocities is flawed. Yes, they got independence for a part of Ireland, but the British State was not destroyed; it remained in existence just as before despite the loss of 26 counties. Would you suggest that the IRA ever wished to occupy the island of Great Britain, destroy the State and  its institutions and take power in its own name, expel its Saxons back to Germany, and establish a Christian republic based on the principles of the true, pre-Nicaean, Celtic Church? The very idea is absurd and it is the difference between a peripheral threat and an existential, one; it is the  difference between losing a couple of fingers and being dead.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that a good analogy, a different Irish analogy, can be made. Let us suppose that things had gone wrong in the Irish Republic and that by the 1960s and 1970s the State was under the effective control of the IRA, which decided at that point that the time had come to enforce the clause in the Constitution of the Irish Republic that claimed sovereignty over all 32 counties of the island of Ireland; suppose that the IRA had the active support of the extremely conservative Catholic Church in the Republic, as well as support from the Catholic dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and a handful of Ibero-American countries, all of them willing to provide human, material and financial support for this enterprise; suppose, furthermore, that a Catholic fundamentalist President of the United States called for the destruction of Northern Ireland and of Unionism (a fair analogy with the President of Iran’s stated view on Israel and Judaism) and was actively supporting that end with serious military assistance to the IRA.

    Now, as it happens, I don’t like Northern Irish Unionism and I don’t like Zionism – for the same reason: I don’t like nationalism in any form and I don’t like to see politics being based on an ethnic basis (which, by the way, is what is wrong with the Basques). But there is another dimension: I don’t like to see the established order being changed by bully-boys. Whatever one thinks about the State of Israel, and I am aware of the controversial way in which it was founded, it is a fact; it is a country that is a member of the UNO and that is recognised widely, just as the unfortunate and  unpleasant statelet of Northern Ireland was legally accepted and should not have been brought down by force, whatever  its internal politics may have been.

    A further point is that in considering Israel and Northern Ireland, an analogy can also be made with South Africa; but that is a case where a peaceful accommodation was found. The ANC never wanted to expel the Boers and drive them back to Europe.

    Please note: I am going on holiday this weekend so this will almost certainly be my last message here. 

  26. Brian says:

    Rob, thank you for your comment.   In view of your last sentence I feel compelled to break my vow of silence (already!) and reply.

    Even if your assumptions are all correct, I don’t think you can make this kind of choice by counting actual and likely deaths. Returning to the situation before the current Israeli counter-offensive (whose purpose is plainly purely defensive even if you see it as unnecessarily brutal) without any accompanying settlement package of the kind that the Security Council is trying to put together would obviously be the worse option, involving a resumption of Hezbollah attacks on Israel and Israeli retaliation, eventually culminating in another major Israeli counter-attack comparable with the current one, and probably a much more hawkish Israeli government replacing Olmert. The present situation looks as if it has a sporting chance of leading to an agreement under which there will be an international peace-keeping force in a buffer zone in south Lebanon replacing the Israelis, a cease-fire by both sides (not just Israel), release of detainees by, probably, both sides, and the disarming or other neutralising of Hezbollah by the establishment of Lebanese government control over the whole of its own territory. Don’t you think that this, if it can be achieved, will be preferable from all points of view to a resumption of conflict, even at a low level initially but certain to escalate again soon, between Israel and Hezbollah?

    It’s anyway questionable whether a return to the status quo ante without any overall political package is an option after what has happened and is happening. Are the tens of thousands of Israeli refugees from northern Israel who have been forced out of their homes by Hezbollah rockets likely to feel able to return if the rocketing is going to continue unchecked? And the same question applies, mutatis mutatis, to the even greater numbers of Lebanese who have fled north from southern Lebanon to escape both Hezbollah using their homes and streets as cover for rocket launching and Israeli attacks on the rocket launch sites and Hezbollah communications.

    On a slightly different issue, BBC interviewers and the writers of outraged letters to the Guardian continue to assail Tony Blair for his ‘failure’ to call for an "immediate unconditional cease-fire" at the outset of the Israeli counter-offensive, apparently believing that if he had done so, the Israelis would immediately and unconditionally have terminated their campaign. In fact such a call by Blair would have had not the slightest practical effect on the ground, apart from demonstrating to the Israelis that Britain was not prepared to adopt an even-handed approach to the crisis and could not therefore be trusted to take part in brokering an eventual settlement that would take account of the legitimate interests of both (or all) sides. The idea that Blair’s refusal to make an empty and self-defeating gesture of this kind can logically be interpreted as proof that he wants the killing and destruction to continue is, frankly, at best naive and at worst malignant. If only life were that simple!

    It needs to be said again and again that the root cause of the present crisis is Hezbollah and the Lebanese government’s inability to disarm it.

    I hope now to return to purdah.

  27. John Miles says:

    Apologies for contributing so late – I'm afraid it takes time for slow thinkers like me to digest what people have to say, let alone other people's comments thereon.

    I'm afraid your analogy between the Lebanese and the wartime Dutch and French seems to me to be seriously flawed.

    Though the Dutch and the French were under the Nazi jackboot at that time they were mostly on the side of the allies, and hoped eventually to be liberated by them.

    Dutch people have said that hearing the engines of our much-maligned Bomber Command on their way to Germany every night was "like music to our ears,"

    I doubt if many Lebanese would say the same about the noises made by Israeli jets.

    Anyway, I'm prettty confident that, under the circumstances you hypothetize, the Dutch (or the French) would have been much readier to forgive us any collateral damage than the Lebanese will be to forgive the Israelis for what they are doing today.

    I'm not here talking about the morality of what the Israelis are doing, but about what are likely to be its effects; one of which, it seems likely to me, will be to put off the admittedly meagre chances of peace for several more years.

    Hightech state terrorism – shock and awe, pinpoint accuracy and all that kind of thing – leads to "extremism" among its victims. Hardly surprising really, it's just about the only way they can get a bit of their own back.

    You mention your memories of being bombed during the war.

    Had things gone the other way and we been occupied by the Nazis, do you think your experiences woud have made you more likely to embrace their values?

    Or would it have stiffened your resolve to get rid of them as soon as possible, even if this involved collaborating with foreigners like the USA or even the Russians?

    You say that nobody's suggested what a "proportionate" response might be.

    Perhaps the most obvious would be for Israel to target its sophisticated weaponry exclusively on rocket sites but leave everything else alone.

    Surely this would be better than what they're currently doing?

    Many people think, rightly or wrongly, that the establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine was – to borrow a phrase from your anonymous old friend[1] – a serious and tragic error of judgment. You and I, and the Israelis themselves, may find it easy to see this as water under the bridge and let byegones be byegones, but it doesn't seem to be quite so easy for dispossessed Palestinians and their friends and families; and they've mostly done their pretty feeble best to do Israel down.

    Consequently, as you point out, Israel is always having to take steps to defend itself, and each time it does so it makes itself even more disliked … and so it goes on.

    I'm afraid I can't see an end to all this until one side runs out of men or money.

    If I were an Israeli, a Palestinian or a Lebanese I think I'd emigrate!

    I'm afraid those who compare the Israelis to the Nazis may, just possibly, have a bit of a point. I certainly met one or two like that when I was Israel, and you hear that kind of thing occasionally among Jewish peole in North London.

    How widespread it is I've really no idea,

    [1] Brian points out that his anonymous friend did not use his phrase "a serious and tragic error of judgment" with reference to the establishment of the state of Israel.  He was talking about the burning of Dresden during the second world war (which may or may not have been an error of judgment:  historians differ on the point).

  28. Rob says:


    thank you for that. I continue to disagree with you, and believe that your position depends for whatever force it does have on a series of deep misrepresentations of the facts of the matter – not mainly about the likely outcomes of any eventual settlement, I have to say, but bthe nature and intentions of both the Israeli and the Hizbullah campaign about which I think it is very unlikely we will ever agree on. But thank you anyway.

  29. Martin says:


    Of course Hezbollah cannot presently defeat or destroy Israel. They are, however, a client of and proxy for Iran. Who are building nuclear weapons. Their President repeatedly announces his wish and intention to eliminate Israel. What would make you disbelieve him?

    To denigrate the threat faced by Israel as insignificant, is at once ludicrous, infantile, and can only be the product of negative preconceptions directed at one of the actors, namely Israel.

    When faced with an enemy that wants to kill you, and will not settle for anything else, you can only respond by killing him. Or being killed by him.

    It’s really that simple, once you get your head out of editorial pages of The Guardian.
    A ceasefire would simply provide resupply and recouperation time to Hezbollah. This thing needs to be finished, and job one is serious degradation of Hezbollah and Hamas.

  30. Martin,
    This thing needs to be finished, and job one is serious degradation of Hezbollah and Hamas.

    I don’t follow.
    If you say that the real problem here is Iran and possibly Syria arming Hezbollah then why on earth does Israel not go after organ grinders? And if  Israel is not prepared to do that,  then your "serious degradation" of Hezbollah, however you define that, is just a pipe dream.

  31. Brian says:


    I’m surprised by your comment.  Would you really prefer the absolutely essential neutralising of the military capacities of Hezbollah to be effected by an Israeli attack on Iran and Syria (as well as on Hezbollah-controlled parts of Lebanon) rather than by the placing of an international peace-keeping force in a buffer zone with the mandate of restoring Lebanese government control over the whole of its country to enable it to disarm Hezbollah and turn it into a legitimate political party, and ending Iranian and Syrian interference?  Of course there’s no guarantee that the latter option will succeed: but wouldn’t you agree that it’s infinitely preferable to give it a go than either to do nothing (except to issue futile demands for an ‘unconditional cease-fire’) or to encourage an all-out war between Iran, Syria and Lebanon on the one side and Israel on the other?

    And incidentally there wouldn’t be a UN plan for the international option if Israel had not launched a major counter-attack on Hezbollah’s rocket sites and logistics.


  32. Brian,
    Of course I wouldn’t.
     But Rob’s and anyone else’s- including the Israeli government’s, suggestion that Hezbollah be neutralised, destroyed or even significantly degraded, must, I’m afraid, face up to that reality. Their argument is that Iran/Syria/Hezbollah are determined to "eliminate" Israel". I heard Bibi Netanyahu on Sky last night saying very much the same. He even added, in terms, that  if Israel failed, we would see the terrorists  on UK streets. It reminded me of GWB’s comment about beating the "insurgents" in Iraq.

    At the moment I’m very pessamistic about resolving the difficulties in both Lebanon and, just as important, in Gaza.
    The Lebanese government seems to be getting very little from the present draft SC Resolution.The Australian phrase " the rough end of the pineapple" comes to mind. And whatever the permanent five suggest, it’s unthinkable for them, as part of a peace solution, to impose a UN force on the Lebanese without their consent. In any event, it seems to me that the UN process could go on for many more weeks, and during that time, almost irreparable damage could be inflicted on the Lebanese state and more suffering on her people
    I acknowledge that an immediate cease-fire is not a permanent or even semi-permanet solution, but  the carnage in both countries is becoming so frightful, it is surely  the only answer to the looming  humanitarian disaster.

  33. John says:

    This is rubbish – it is Israel that attacked Lebanon and destroyed infrastructure, civilians, etc. Israel has killed 30 times as many civilians than have died in Israel.,,31200-galloway_060806,00.html#

  34. matt says:


    Did you see this?   What do you think?


    Brian writes:  Thanks for pointing us all at this splendid piece of invective.  If the Observer story (referred to in the Register article)  is true, Gordon Brown seems to be heading in the opposite direction to just about everyone else in  the country who is beginning to realise that the whole ID card and National Identity Register project is a mad and sinister pipe-dream that's mercifully unlikely to see the light of day.  If the Tories were to announce now that they will scrap it the day after taking office, it might win them enough extra seats to tip the next election.   (But why am I giving the Tories advice?)  Worrying about Mr Broon, though.  Perhaps it's all just a deliberate and mendacious leak from the Broon camp to reassure the Blairs, Reids, Straws, Blunketts, etc., that if permitted into No. 10 Gordon will be more Blairite than Blair.

    But this is terribly off-topic!   Let's please get back to Lebanon. 

  35. JulianN says:

    No one questions the bombing of Dresden and other German cities? John Keegan  wrote in (yes) the Daily Telegraph a year or so back that Bomber Harris would be considered a war criminal in today’s terms.

  36. John Miles says:

    A postcript or two

    JulianN is almost certainly right to say that Butcher Harris – and with him most of Bomber Command – might today be liable to prosecution for war crimes, and I have lots of sympathy with this point of view.

    But Harris could've have taken Churchill and Attlee down with him.

    Throughout the war – or anyway from 1942 – these two gentlemen backed Harris 100%.

    Once we'd won, they both ratted on him.

    A forecast:

    the harder Israel manages to clobber Hezbullah, the more terrorists there will be 2015 – 20, depending of course on whether the Israelis manage to kill off all the the inhabitants of the Lebanon or not.

    Unfortunately the chances are I shan't be here to know if I'm right or not.

    We read that American freighters carrying arms to Israel are allowed to land in our country to refuel.

    Yet the Government doesn't allow our own arms industry to do business with the Israelis.

    How can this possibly make sense?

    More Lebanese children have been killed in this war, so far, than Israeli troops

  37. Michael Hornsby says:


    I have followed with interest and admiration your intrepid (reckless?) plunge into the treacherous waters of Middle East politics, and the lively comment and correspondence it has stimulated. I find that I agree, rather boringly, with almost everything you say. There are, indeed, few subjects more likely to provoke outpourings of humbug and pious platitude from the commentariat than the Arab-Israel conflict and the shocking willingness of Israel to defend itself when attacked – Cet animal est méchant, lorsqu'on l'attaque, il se défend. The slaughter of civilians caught up in armed conflicts through no fault of their own is, it goes without saying, dreadful and horrific, whatever their ethnic or national provenance and wherever it occurs. But Israel's wickedness in this regard is no greater (or less) than any other country's, including our own. Since at least the Second World War, all governments have regarded civilian "collateral damage" – merely the latest euphemism for an ancient horror – as an unavoidable, if regrettable, consequence of pursuing a justifiable (in their eyes) military objective. It largely comes down to whether or not you approve of the objective. Among the bien pensant liberals who cheered the bombing of Belgrade in NATO's war against Milosevic are no doubt many of those who now accuse Israel of "war crimes" in southern Lebanon.

    The total contempt of the "holy warriors" of Hes[iz]bo[u]llah (what is the correct spelling?) for all civilian life is, or ought to be, self-evident: firing rockets randomly in the direction of Israeli towns (reminiscent of Hitler's "buzz- bombs" aimed at London in the dying days of WWII) from launchers deliberately located in densely populated areas (or alongside UN observer posts) which they know will be the target of an Israeli retaliation from which they themselves are able to take shelter in undergound bunkers.

    So far, so much in total agreement. Setting morality and pious sentiment aside, and judging Israel's actions by a brutal calculus of efficacy, it is, I think, permissible none the less to ask whether its strategy is working, even on its own terms. When the accidental collateral damage is at least as great as, and on the prima facie evidence much greater than, the intended damage, you have to ask whether Israel is not paying, politically and diplomatically, a steep price for a meagre or at best very short-term military gain. In that sense, the use of the adjective "disproportionate", to which you take exception, to describe the effects of Israel's military activity may, I suggest, be fair – disproportionate in the sense that the gains seem so far to be greatly outweighed by the costs. The main components of the latter are pretty obvious – further inflammation of international hostility, Arab and non-Arab alike, towards Israel (so what's new?, you may say), and perhaps more importantly the spawning of a new generation of young Lebanese recruits for Hesbollah, the revival generally of support within Lebanon for that organisation and its malign Syrian connection, which public opinion there seemed decisively to have rejected only a year or so ago, and the undermining of what little chance the central Lebanese government may previously have had of establishing full control over its national territory. It always seemed to me an oddly optimistic, not to say unrealistic, idea that Hesbollah, given the nature of the beast and the ability of its operatives to meld into the general population, could be "cleaned out for good" by a mixture of aerial attack and artillery bombardment, as Israeli generals seemed to think. Any illusions about the viability of such a strategy against an elusive enemy ought surely to have been dispelled by the American experience in Iraq. One wonders whether a full-scale ground invasion, of the kind now underway, will fare much better, unless Israel plans an occupation of southern Lebanon lasting months or even years.

    The best alternative, I guess – pace Simon Jenkins (see,,1839984,00.html) and other non-interventionists who think the warring parties should be left to fight themselves into a state of exhaustion and/or mutual obliteration (an option certainly, but a counsel of despair) – is still that some form of UN intervention can be achieved, including the insertion of a UN-backed military force into southern Lebanon operating under rules of engagement that would enable it to hold the ring and work with the weak Lebanese government to disarm and dismantle the military wing of Hesbollah. That could still achieve Israel's objective by other, more internationally acceptable, means, and provide retrospective justification for its actions. But it is, I admit, a slender hope, precisely because any UN intervention along those lines  – and they are the only lines likely to offer a durable cessation of hostilities in the area – would seem to Arab eyes too much like an endorsement of the Israeli position.

    As for that ignis fatuus that so mesmerises the political chattering classes – a lasting settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute – I dare say, Brian, that you and I and a few other reasonable souls could with no great difficulty and in short order draw up a sensible blueprint, involving the acceptance by all Arab states in the region of Israel's right to exist, Israel's dismantling of settlements on occupied territory and its withdrawal to secure but internationally defensible borders based broadly on the pre-1967 position, the establishment of a properly constituted and economically viable Palestinian state in full control of its own territory and committed to peaceful co-existence with its Jewish neighbour, reinforced by a similarly empowered and inclined government in Lebanon. But it would all be hot air because the political will to enforce and maintain such a settlement does not exist among any of the parties to the conflict, nor is likely to for the foreseeable future. No amount of emergency debates in the House of Commons will alter that. MPs are more profitably and usefully employed improving their sun tans on the beach. 

    Brian writes:  I don't disagree with any of that.  As for the Israeli action's asserted 'disproportionality' on your assessment that the costs will far outweigh the probable gains, of course that will depend on the extent of the gains.  If Hezbollah (however spelled!) is pushed out of the border area and its capacity for aggression against Israel substantially reduced, either by the Israeli Defence Force or by international action under the UN resolution that seems to be within a couple of hours of adoption at the time of writing, then I wouldn't blame an Israeli for concluding that the price in terms of disaffected Arabs (and perhaps other Lebanese) has been worth paying.  If on the other hand neither Israel nor international intervention succeeds in those two objectives, then this will be a resounding defeat for Israel and a corresponding victory for Hezbollah and militant Islamism, with grim implications for the whole middle east.  In that event the costs, and not only to Israel, will indeed outweigh the (negligible) gains.  But does that make the Israeli action 'disproportionate'?  'Ill-judged', conceivably;  but it was presumably undertaken on the basis of a rational calculation that it had a better-than-evens chance of success, and if it succeeds (whether by Israeli military success or by UN proxy), it won't have been disproportionate, since it will have goaded the international community into a serious effort to tackle root causes instead of succumbing to the pressures of those naively demanding an 'immediate unconditional cease-fire', sure recipe for avoidance of any attempt to address the causes of the conflict and for the certainty of its early resumption in spades.  Well, we should know before very long.  In a war a country uses as much force as it deems, or finds, to be necessary to achieve the military objective sought, and it's really a waste of time and breath to complain that it's excessive if reducing it risks failure for the whole campaign.  That's why I still think that in some senses proportionality is a red herring, whatever it says in the Geneva Conventions.  Your analogy with the NATO bombing of Belgrade is extremely telling, especially as the bombing failed utterly to achieve its objective — the eventual settlement and withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo was brought about by secret US-German-Finnish-Russian diplomacy, not by the bombing which indeed was a serious obstacle to it.

  1. 6 August, 2006

    Britblog Roundup # 77…

    Welcome back. In UK blogging news this week, well, there’s a couple of books out. Girl With a One Track Mind was, at least at one point this week, top of the Amazon pre-order lists. I have a feeling that…

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