The Israeli Commission which investigated the 2006 Lebanon war handed down its final report last month. Retired Judge Eliyahu Winograd, who headed the Commission, told a press conference in Jerusalem in late January that the war was a “major missed opportunity.” The Report itself is the real missed opportunity.
The first, partial Winograd report, released in April 2007, had found that Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and the government had displayed lack of judgment. "The decision to respond [to the cross-border attack] with an immediate, intensive military strike,” it said, “was not based on a detailed, comprehensive and authorized military plan…" and blamed the Prime Minister, the then minister of defense Amir Peretz and the Chief of Staff for these failings.
The final Winograd Report found shortcomings in the political and decision-making, poor communication and lack of preparedness but failed to address the decision to go to war.
The Commission was established in part as a response “to respond to the bad feelings of the Israeli public of a crisis and disappointment caused by the results of the 2nd Lebanon war…”
The Report also contains some frank admissions that may have been painful to make. The result of the war was all the more shocking for an Israeli army and public used to quick victories, that the enemy in Lebanon was not a regular army but a small guerrilla organization: “Israel initiated a long war,” the Report said,”… A semi-military organization of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages.”
The Report admits that Israel did not achieve a military victory that could have been translated into political gains, yet Israel managed to secure a UN Security Council Resolution favorable to it: “At the end of the day,” the Report said, “Israel did not gain a political achievement because of military successes; rather, it relied on a political agreement, which included positive elements for Israel, which permitted it to stop a war which it had failed to win.”
The Report gives some credit for this remarkable achievement to the Foreign Ministry. In fact, most of the credit goes to Washington and London who unashamedly worked hard to delay a cease-fire resolution at the United Nations-as Lebanese civilians were dying everyday- to allow the Israelis time to achieve some military goals against the unexpectedly tough resistance from Hizbollah fighters.
Thanks to Washington and London Israeli military failures on the ground were turned into political advantage at the United Nations.
The Israeli Report praises the performance of the Israeli air force: ”The air force,” the Commission said, “should be congratulated on very impressive achievements in this war.”
But the Commission did not say that these impressive achievements included indiscriminate bombings of civilian targets, illegal use of cluster bombs, the commission of acts that may amount to war crimes, and the dropping, in the final 72 hours before the ceasefire, of 1,800 cluster rockets on southern Lebanon, containing 1.2 million sub-munitions, without discriminating between military objectives and civilian targets.
You will not find soul-searching questions about these issues in the Winograd Report. And this is not because of scarcity of information or absence of independent investigations.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) Report (Sep 07) states “Our research shows that the primary reason for the high Lebanese civilian death toll was Israel’s frequent failure to abide by a fundamental obligation of the laws of war: the duty to distinguish between military targets… and civilians.”
The HRW Report, entitled Why They Died: Civilian Casualties in Lebanon during the 2006 War, found that of the 510 cases of civilian deaths it investigated in Lebanon, at least 300 were of women and children,
“In critical respects,” The HRW Report said,” Israel conducted the war with reckless indifference to the fate of Lebanese civilians and violated the laws of war.”
“Responsibility for the high civilian death toll of the war in Lebanon, “said the HRW Report, “lies squarely with Israeli policies and targeting decisions in the conduct of its military operations.”
HRW estimated that there were as many as one million hazardous unexploded Israeli sub-munitions in towns and villages in south Lebanon.
Amnesty International reported that “as many as 40 people, including 27 civilians and 13 de-mining personnel, have been killed by such munitions since the end of the war and over 240 people have been injured.”
Moreover, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry Report (November 2006) found:
"A significant pattern of excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by the Israel Defence Forces against Lebanese civilians and civilian objects, failing to distinguish civilians from combatants and civilian objects from military targets,"
You would think the Israeli Commission would have shown sensitivity to the suffering of the innocent; or that it would have raised questions about the disproportionality of the Israeli response, or the obvious futility of the indiscriminate use of force to impose its hegemonic terms on the region. Instead, the whole episode is reduced to issues of decision-making, coordination, inter-agency communication and preparedness. Issues of legality and morality of the war and its conduct are brushed aside.
The Winograd Commission dismissed these concerns and reports as being used for propaganda against Israel.
It is not surprising therefore that one of the lessons being learned by the Israeli establishment is the need for more effective Israeli propaganda.
The chairman of the State Control Committee slammed the government “for failing to improve its public information efforts despite having performed badly on the PR front during the Second Lebanon War.” (Haaretz. Feb 4)
Prof. Adel Safty is author of From Camp David to the Gulf, Montreal, New York. His latest book, Leadership and Democracy is published by IPSL Press, New York. 2004.