To refute the criticisms[...] is trivial, and worth doing for only one reason. It teaches us something important: by even bothering to refute the criticisms, we are granting the critics a great gift, exactly what they want, and are falling into a trap that they would understand, and avoid.
The best way to evaluate the critique is to look at the entire section to which it refers, the opening of chapter 5 of Fateful Triangle, entitled “Peace for Galilee,” the name of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Note that the name is a complete fraud, a crucially important matter that the critics desperately want us to ignore, and succeed when we focus attention on their critique.
Galilee was at peace before the invasion, though Lebanon was not, because of constant Israeli attacks, brutal and murderous, in a vain attempt to incite some action that would be a pretext for the planned invasion, as reviewed there and elsewhere. These are the crucial matters…
The chapter opens by noting that “Since 1949, Israel has sought to remove the displaced Palestinian refugees from the border areas and to destroy their emerging political and military structures.” That is entirely accurate, beginning with the displacement of Bedouins from the demilitarized zones and other actions for which it was regularly and harshly condemned by international bodies. Since that is not contested, let’s proceed.
The chapter then quotes Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur’s 1978 explanation that from 1948 Israel had been “fighting against a population that lives in villages and cities,” to which he adds examples of major crimes against civilians. The context is Israel’s 1978 invasion of Lebanon, “in retaliation for a PLO terrorist attack on Israel” (my words — not Gur’s).
Next comes the characterization of General Gur’s remarks by Israel’s most distinguished, and quite hawkish military correspondent Ze’ev Schiff, keeping to Lebanon (though the atrocities Gur cites go far beyond):
“In South Lebanon we struck the civilian population consciously, because they deserved it…the importance of Gur’s remarks is the admission that the Israeli Army has always struck civilian populations, purposely and consciously…the Army, he said, has never distinguished civilian [from military] targets…[but] purposely attacked civilian targets even when Israeli settlements had not been struck.”
That is, Israel struck civilian targets when there was no credible pretext of retaliation, as Schiff stresses explicitly — and quite correctly, as the record shows.
Note that Schiff’s comments go beyond Gur’s statement, interpreting Gur as saying that Israel “purposely attacked civilian targets” even when there was no credible pretext of retaliation. I presume the critics [...] did not criticize Schiff for extending Gur’s comments this way, nor has anyone else to my knowledge. The reason is that Schiff’s extension of Gur’s comments is quite appropriate, given what Schiff, his readers — and if we are interested, we too — know about the record to which Gur was referring.
Returning to my text, next comes Abba Eban’s response to Menahem Begin’s review of attacks against civilians under Eban’s Labor government, presenting a picture (in Eban’s words) “of an Israel wantonly inflicting every possible measure of death and anguish on civilian populations in a mood reminiscent of regimes which neither Mr. Begin nor I would dare to mention by name.” Eban is of course referring to the Nazis, to such famous crimes as Lidice and Oradour. Eban does not contest Begin’s account, but explains the reasons: “there was a rational prospect, ultimately fulfilled, that affected populations would exert pressure for the cessation of hostilities.” Noted in a footnote is Ben-Gurion’s earlier advice, in 1948, of the necessity for “cruel and strong reactions” in retaliation for any Arab attack: “If we know the family [we must] strike mercilessly, women and child included,” with “no need to distinguish between guilty and innocent”: that is, we must commit major crimes against humanity in retaliation (as I explicitly quoted).
Ze’ev Schiff does indeed interpret Gur’s comments, accurately, as describing the policy of attacking civilian targets “even when Israeli settlements had not been struck.” Eban recognizes the horrific actions, and provides a rationale. I attributed nothing further to Eban, contrary to the critique…, though in fact Schiff did. I cannot see even the slightest basis for criticism of my chapter.
[The question] “did Eban explicitly say that Israel’s bombing under Labor in the 70’s were not retaliation (whether to actual PLO attacks or fabricated attacks or whatever) but Israeli initiated attempts at terror?” No, he did not, nor did I state that he did. It was Ze’ev Schiff who stated this, not me. And correctly. He was, again, interpreting General Gur’s comments on the entire period of Labor government, 1948-1977, the same period to which Begin and Eban were referring. All of this is explicit in my rendition of these shocking facts, and Eban’s disgraceful justification for attacks on civilians so that they “would exert pressure for the cessation of hostilities” — that is, outright war crimes. I added nothing, though Schiff in fact did.
Note that Eban’s rationale is the same as those given by Palestinian suicide bombers, who also do not say that their acts are “not retaliation,” but rather describe them as retaliation for over 30 years of Israeli crimes in the occupied territories. Osama bin Laden offers the same rationale. Or to take the case to which Eban obliquely alludes, the more extreme Nazi apologists, if any can be found, would make the same claims about Lidice and Oradour, also “retaliations.”
I do not see any basis, even the slightest, for criticism of my rendition of Gur, Schiff, Ben-Gurion, Eban, and the significance of their statements and the actions they describe (also reviewed in the book, and far more extensively elsewhere, e.g., Morris’s “Israel’s Border Wars”). That includes the actual topic of the chapter: first, the criminal invasion of Lebanon in 1978 (a war crime “in retaliation” as I wrote), and crucially the far more extreme and murderous aggression of 1982, when, as distinct from 1978, there was not even a pretext of retaliation.
It’s understandable that accurate rendition of this shameful record should outrage apologists for mass murder, expulsion of huge numbers of people, destruction and devastation; and should drive them to seek desperately to find some error in it. But this attempt [...] is a total failure. To be precise, it is a total failure in narrow terms, keeping to the text and the critique.
The critics are resorting to what is sometimes called the “thief, thief” technique, well known to any criminal or defense lawyer with a hopeless case. If you’re caught with your hand in someone’s pocket, point to someone else and shout “thief, thief.” That may shift attention elsewhere, to someone else, who now has to prove that he is not the thief. The effort succeeds, if others spend even a moment on the deception; even more if the actual crime is then put into the background and ignored. As has just happened… I have spent a lot of time refuting the charges, meanwhile ignoring the issues, and immobilizing ourselves, taking time away from important activities that could be undertaken with regard to the ongoing and past crimes that are defended by these pathetic apologists. That’s their highest goal.
Let’s turn now to what is being avoided.
First, Operation “Peace for Galilee,” the topic of the chapter. I mentioned that the name is a fraud: the region was basically at peace, apart from murderous Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon in an attempt to elicit a pretext for the planned invasion.
Second, the invasion was indeed retaliation: retaliation against PLO diplomatic efforts, which were becoming a “veritable catastrophe” for Israel, as Israel’s leading (and by no means dovish) academic historian of Palestine, Yehoshua Porath, pointed out at once in explaining the reasons for the invasion, confirmed by the highest political and military echelons, as I quoted. That is very important, for reasons that should be too obvious to review — though I did review them there, and in further detail later, as more evidence emerged.
Third, the invasion was a major crime. The death toll of Lebanese and Palestinians may be on the order of 20,000 (with tens of thousands more, according to Lebanese records, in the following years of Israeli crimes in Lebanon and occupation for 22 years in defiance of Security Council orders). The bombing of Beirut was a major post-World War II crime in itself, the destruction of southern Lebanon even worse.
Fourth, the atrocities are not properly described as Israeli crimes: they are United States-Israeli crimes. They could not have been carried out without the support of the US: military, economic, diplomatic (including veto of Security Council resolutions that sought to halt the carnage), and doctrinal. The doctrinal contributions are crucial: falsifying the record, suppressing the facts, and if everything else fails, resorting to the “thief, thief” technique, the ultimate resort of the scoundrel, which succeeds even if it fails if we fall for it, as [...] I have just done.
The fourth point is the most crucial of all, for us… We are not speaking of the crimes of Genghis Khan, or of the Tamil Tigers, but of crimes for which you and I and the critics bear direct responsibility, and can therefore do something about, as we could then, and we can now — if we are not immobilized and diverted, by such shameful tactics as the “thief, thief” technique [...].
To bring out what is at stake here, consider a thought experiment, taking off from Eban’s oblique reference to such Nazi crimes as Oradour and Lidice. These are commonly, and rightly, bitterly denounced, usually without reference to the irrelevant fact that they were retaliation. Scholars and commentators commonly and rightly discuss the pronouncements of Nazi leaders, and use them as the basis for bitter condemnation, attribution of responsibility, even judicial prosecution. One rarely if ever finds such statements as: “let’s strike mercilessly against women and children in the rational expectation that civilians may pressure the resistance to cease its actions.” True, sometimes we do find such statements. One recently appeared in the NY Times, the discovery of orders to carry out “a massive bombing campaign” against another country: “Anything that flies on anything that moves.” It happens to be Kissinger in this case, conveying his master’s orders. But such direct calls for extreme war crimes are very rare. If Milosevic’s prosecutors could find anything like it, glee would be unrestrained, the trial would be over, and he’d be sentenced to many consecutive life terms, the death sentence if it was a US court. In this case, the discovery was marginally noted and quickly disappeared, for the usual reasons: wrong agency.
Let’s continue with the thought experiment. Suppose some analyst of Nazi crimes not only quoted statements of Nazi leaders describing and providing a rationale for them, but went on to attribute to these leaders a justification for striking civilians even when there is no pretext — as Schiff did in this case, and as the critics cite[d] falsely claim I did. Suppose now that we can find some Nazi apologist so grotesque as to condemn the analysts of Nazi crimes for this extended interpretation. Would we waste even a minute exposing their lies and deceit, or responding if their charge was correct (as in the Schiff example)? Or would we just leave them to rot in their sewers? I think the latter.
Notice that the thought experiment is not quite fair. It would be shocking enough for us to find a Nazi apologist here who is willing to resort to this miserable device; it is far worse when the apologetics are offered for our own crimes, not those of others.
I’d suggest thinking all this through, and paying attention to the morass into which we are being drawn by refuting, or even paying a moment’s attention to, these desperate efforts of extreme apologists for horrendous crimes.
If I may, I’ll just refer [...] to something I wrote in the introduction to my first collection of political essays, 35 years ago. Discussing apologists for Nazi crimes, I wrote that we demean ourselves by even entering into debate with them, entering into the arena of footnotes, citations, distortions, lies, justifications, etc. That’s correct, and even more correct when we allow apologists for our own crimes to draw us into this arena. It would be correct even if there were a shred of credibility to their charges, unlike the example…describe[d].
These, I think, are the important issues, all displaced by the “thief, thief” technique.