No, Israel Should Not Flatten Beirut

This week, the prominent Israeli newspaper Haaretz ran an opinion piece by Amitai Etzioni, titled “Should Israel Flatten Beirut to Destroy Hezbollah’s Missiles?”

The short answer is yes — but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Who, you may ask, is the fellow who has taken it upon himself to ponder this important matter? As it turns out, Etzioni is not some random internee at a psychiatric institution but rather a professor at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., having formerly taught at other prestigious U.S. universities including Columbia and Harvard. Also on his CV are stints of service in the Palmach militia, which fought for Israeli “independence” until 1948, and the Israeli military.

Etzioni begins his philosophy session with a claim from an anonymous “Israeli representative” in D.C. that Hezbollah’s alleged stockpile of “100,000 missiles [is] now Israel’s number two security threat,” second only to a nuclear-armed Iran.

He then jumps across the ocean to a previous conference in Herzliya, Israel, where he says the Israeli chief of staff “revealed that most of these missiles are placed in private homes,” raising another question on top of the to-flatten-or-not-to-flatten one: “If Hezbollah starts raining them down on Israel, how can these missiles be eliminated without causing massive civilian casualties?”

Never mind that Hezbollah has never started raining anything on Israel without serious provocation — or that civilian casualties generally haven’t been at the top of that country’s list of concerns.

According to Etzioni, some of the participants at the Herzliya conference were invited to an Israeli military base near Haifa, the amenities of which include a model Lebanese village. There the guests were “treated to a demonstration of the way Israel plans to clear these missiles — by Israeli soldiers dashing from building to building to find them.”

To Etzioni’s dismay, a “minor breeze” arrived mid-performance and blew away the grenade smoke intended to conceal the troops’ movements, leaving them exposed to hypothetical snipers.

Given the time-consuming and likely casualty-heavy nature of the house-to-house strategy, Etzioni reasons that there must be superior option. In debating “what else could be done,” he mentions a recollection by someone in the visiting group that, in the 2006 war on Lebanon, “Israel was charged with bombing Shia neighborhoods in Beirut in order to pressure Hezbollah to stop firing missiles.”

He goes on to caution, however, that “many studies have shown that such bombing … do not (sic) have the expected effect, nor did it in 2006 (assuming that such bombing actually occurred).” Indeed, when I myself visited Shia and other varieties of Lebanese neighborhood a month after this particular war, it still wasn’t clear from the ubiquitous rubble—and craters in the ground where buildings had once stood—whether “such bombing” had actually transpired.

More to the point, the fact that Israel has already flattened large sections of Lebanon, in Beirut and beyond, would seem to make the article’s title a bit redundant.

Upon returning to the U.S. from Israel, Etzioni says that he “asked two American military officers what other options Israel has” for missile eradication. And what do you know: “They both pointed to Fuel-Air Explosives [FAE].”

These bombs, Etzioni explains, “disperse an aerosol cloud of fuel which is ignited by a detonator, producing massive explosions.” And that’s not all: “The resulting rapidly expanding wave flattens all buildings within a considerable range.”

Lest we devote too much thought to the fact that this professor at a prestigious American institution of higher learning has literally just advocated for the total destruction of a “considerable” piece of territory, Etzioni stages a slight retreat: “Such weapons obviously would be used only after the population was given a chance to evacuate the area.” But this obviously fails to account for the Israeli military habit of ordering civilians to evacuate areas and then bombing them en route.

And it may be news to Etzioni, but the intentional targeting of civilian areas and civilian infrastructure happens to be a war crime.

Etzioni himself acknowledges that, “still, as we saw in Gaza, there are going to be civilian casualties.” Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of civilian casualties in Lebanon, where in 2006 the majority of the estimated 1,200 fatalities were not Hezbollah.

During my own recent visit to south Lebanon, I spoke with a young man from a village near the Israeli border who was 13 at the time of the war and who remained in his village for the duration of the 34-day assault. He described the pain in 2006 of encountering detached heads and other body parts belonging to former neighbors, blasted apart by bombs or crushed in collapsed homes.

But forget sympathy. The moral of the FAE story in Etzioni’s view is that, because there will inevitably be FAE-induced casualties, “the time to raise this issue is long before Israel may be forced to use” them — presumably so that the international community can warm up to the idea of a flattened Beirut. He writes:

“One way this can be achieved is by inviting foreign military experts and public intellectuals, who are not known to be hostile to Israel, to participate in war games in which they would be charged with fashioning a response to massive missile attacks on Israeli high rise buildings, schools, hospitals, and air bases.”

There are various problems with this reasoning. For one thing, Israel takes the cake when it comes to “massive” attacks. For another, the obsessive portrayal of the Israelis as forever engaged in legitimate and retaliatory self-defense severely obscures reality. If you invent a country on land that doesn’t belong to you and begin regularly slaughtering and otherwise harassing people, you’re pretty much permanently denied the whole “victim” alibi.

Regarding his proposed FAE public relations strategy, Etzioni concludes: “In this way, one hopes, that there be [sic] a greater understanding, if not outright acceptance, of the use of these powerful weapons, given that nothing else will do.”

A better hope might be that such warmongering ravings were not permitted to pass as civilized analysis.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.    


  1. David Green February 21, 2016 6:50 pm 

    Etzioni has always been a banal character, but it’s not surprising to find out that he’s also vicious. But perhaps the aging process is affecting him.

  2. avatar
    Michael February 20, 2016 9:33 pm 

    Excellent article.

    I was talking to an acquaintance this morning with whom I had shared a copy of Jean Said’s book, Beirut Fragments: A war memoir.” This is a very moving book of a woman, mother, educator, and civilian’s experience during 15 years of war in Lebanon. She stayed in Beirut (and if it needs to be said, is the sister of the late Edward Said). Her account of life in wartime is powerful and modest at the same time. It moves, not only to help understand that time and place (and today’s) but also to sense something of what it is like for people caught in wars. This has helped me to understand other places, too, like Viet Nam, Nicaragua, Syria, Iraq, and others. The book’s appearance is modest, too, but it does not leave one’s memory.

    To know of Etzioni’s remarks and the discussion of “flattening” a city is a horror. We need to read such accounts as Jean’s and know that this is such a universal experience.

    What I want to mention here, though, and what I am leading up to is my conversation this morning with my acquaintance, a good, gentle, decent, and humane man who in spite of his nearly 80 years knows little of the Middle East and was not even aware of how Nicaragua was nearly destroyed in the 80’s during the Reagan years.

    I said to him, I will say one phrase and you will have some sense of what I am talking about, and then I simply said “Iran-Contra.” This he remembered, as all of us will who are a bit older. Whether we really know or understand what this means is another thing, of course.

    We might say it is a question of ignorance, but we in the U.S. are often simply indifferent to what is happening. Our culture impels this. Much has been flattened all over the world, all over the Middle East, in Beirut already. Indifference is hell.

  3. Calum MacKenzie February 20, 2016 7:46 pm 

    We now know where the mentally ill, ejected from American asylums have gone, they are now decision makers in the Israeli military.

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