Selective Prosecution of War Crimes

In Saddam Hussein’s war crimes trial for the 1988 Iraqi “Anfal” campaign that gassed Kurdish villages, his defense lawyers have argued that Iraqi forces were really attempting to strike Iranian forces and the Iraqi Kurdish pesh merga militias that were in and supported by the hamlets. In other words, the lawyers are asserting that the innocent Kurds who were killed were collateral damage in an effort by the Iraqi government to rid its territory of Iranian fighters and their Kurdish allies during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Curiously, this defense sounds similar to Israel’s defense of killing more than one thousand Lebanese and perpetrating widespread destruction of Shi’ite neighborhoods, apartment houses, water services, electrical power stations, ports, factories, roads, and bridges in Lebanon in its efforts to punish Hezbollah. Yet Saddam Hussein is on trial for war crimes and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is still in office.

Of course, rabid supporters of Israel would be horrified at a comparison between a democratically elected leader and an autocratic tyrant. But we are not talking about the selection method for leaders here; we are comparing their specific actions during wartime. Supporters of Israel would also note that the Israelis did not use poison gas in Lebanon. But although chemical weapons provide a grisly death, they kill far fewer people than explosive bombs. Because they have been wrongly included in the ominous sounding category of “weapons of mass destruction” (nuclear weapons are probably the only true, practical weapons of mass destruction), their use implies a war crime from the get-go. That is not to defend Saddam’s use of these area weapons against villages, it is merely to say that the Israelis are no less guilty of committing war crimes by leveling entire villages in southern Lebanon simply because they used conventional bombs to do it.

Amnesty International, a human rights group, has accused Israel of military strikes that included “directly attacking civilian objects and carrying out indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.” Amnesty concluded that “the evidence strongly suggests that the extensive destruction of public works, power systems, civilian homes and industry was a deliberate and integral part of the military strategy rather than collateral damage.” The group also accused Israel of deliberately targeting food stores and gasoline stations.

Furthermore, the U.S. State Department, because of complaints from human rights groups, has launched an investigation into whether Israel violated U.S. rules banning the use of U.S.–”made cluster bombs–”bombs releasing bomblets that explode over a wide area to target people–”in residential areas. The U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center has confirmed 289 instances of cluster bomb usage by Israel, many of them in civilian areas. Although the investigation is not yet complete, the circumstantial evidence looks damning, and the Israeli track record on this score is not good. According to the Washington Post, as a result of a congressional investigation that discovered the Israelis had violated agreements on the use of U.S.–”made cluster weapons during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Reagan administration suspended sales of them to Israel for six years.

In fact, the main difference between Saddam’s war crimes and Israel’s is that while Saddam denies them, Israeli officials indirectly admit them. Amnesty cites a comment by Israel’s top uniformed military official that implied that Israel was trying to punish the Lebanese population and government to get them to oppose Hezbollah. The group noted that Israeli military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz called Hezbollah a “cancer” that Lebanon must expunge “because if they don’t, their country will pay a very high price.”

Adding to this intentional targeting of civilians for political reasons (when Hezbollah and other non-governmental groups do it, it is called “terrorism”) in Lebanon, Israel is currently still conducting a military and economic siege of Gaza. To punish the people of Gaza for electing the wrong party in democratic elections last January, and for Hamas’s capture of an Israeli soldier, Israel slapped a blockade on the area that prohibits almost all goods from being exported and restricts imports, except for limited food supplies. Israel bombed an electricity plant in Gaza, making supplies of power and water intermittent, since water supplies depend on electric pumps. Thus, most factories in Gaza are shut down. Also, the Israeli military routinely bulldozes the homes of relatives of people it believes to be Hamas fighters. Trying to kill a population slowly–”by strangling the flow of critical goods and cutting off electricity and water to hospitals, orphanages, schools, and factories producing vitally needed goods–”is little better than attempting to exterminate it quickly with explosive bombs.

To justify its ill-advised invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration regularly gripes about Saddam Hussein’s war crimes, while cheering on Israel as it does the same thing in Lebanon and Gaza, just using different weapons.