As merciful as Katrina: Israeli warnings do little to protect civilian lives

Israel once again dropped leaflets today warning residents of south Beirut to evacuate before air-strikes resumed. The assumption is that anyone who does not leave is a member or ally of Hezbollah. As the botched Hurricane Katrina evacuation demonstrated, not everyone who wants to can leave.

The US is the richest country in the world, has an advanced transportation network of trains, airports, sea ports, highways, and advanced communication systems to aid any evacuation attempts. With all these advantages, tens of thousands of people were unable to leave New Orleans, and hundreds died because of it.

Lebanon is a poor country with an equally poor transportation system. Few Lebanese, especially those in the impoverished southern part of the country, have access to cars, and public transportation is practically non-existent. Under perfect conditions, many would be unable to leave their homes for safe areas. Couple this with Israel’s bombing of nearly all bridges and transportation routes out of southern Lebanon, and it is surprising that the civilian death toll is not higher. Now take into account that any large vehicles such as trucks and buses are targeted by Israeli air strikes because of their ability to carry rocket launchers in addition to fleeing civilians, and it becomes clear that Israel is at the very least not living up to its commitment to protect the lives of civilians. Israel is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, which mandates certain protects for civilians including

No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed,” and “collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.

Even after warning civilians to leave, Israel is unable to verify whether they have left.

IDF sources said the warning pamphlets the IAF disseminated to residents, calling on them to leave the area, were dropped several days before the strike, and not over the weekend.

The IAF does not have a way to verify whether villages have been vacated, or whether civilians remain hidden in bomb-shelters in locations otherwise believed to have been vacated, the sources said.

Paratroopers who fought in Bint Jbail last week said they noticed civilians hiding in the rubble while the fierce battle with Hezbollah militants was taking place.

It is possible for Israel to conduct a campaign of self defense against Hezbollah in accordance with International Law. In fact, doing so will result in a safer Israel and fewer civilians deaths on both sides. Despite weeks of air-strikes, Hezbollah has maintained its ability to attack Israel. Judging by the number of rockets and how far they have been fired into Israel, if anything, Hezbollah has gotten stronger. It is difficult for a conventional army to defeat a guerrilla army from the ground, but it is impossible from air. Israel has yet to report any Hezbollah deaths that are a result air-strikes, but has reported some modest successes from their ground campaign.

If Israel wants to achieve its stated goal of protecting its northern border and creating a buffer zone, it should have never engaged in its misguided air campaign. A focused ground campaign will disrupt Hezbollah’s attacks on northern Israel, and will go a long way to halt international criticism. Most importantly, civilians on both sides will be protected.

Hezbollah is committing war crimes, but Israel is committing war crimes in response. Protecting civilians is a just end, but the end does not justify the means.

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