On Monday NATO announced that two errant rockets fired by U.S. forces the day before had killed 12 Afghan civilians, including six children, in a house in the Taliban stronghold of Marjeh. Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed “sadness” and ordered an investigation. NATO is worried about the impact in terms of winning local support.
But there has been no outcry or condemnations, certainly not from democratic governments or even from the UN. The lack of an international response seems to reflect awareness that the killings were accidental and that it is intrinsic to the nature of war that such incidents occur.
But it was different back on November 8, 2006, when three misfired Israeli artillery shells hit a residential area in the town of Beit Hanoun in Gaza, killing 19 civilians. The shells were fired in a bid to prevent an imminent rocket attack on the Israeli city of Ashkelon, of which there had already been several. Israeli forces had been engaged in skirmishes in Gaza in a direct attempt to protect Israeli communities from the rockets — and it was all happening a year and some months after Israel had evacuated Gaza completely and put an end to what was called its “occupation.”
Nevertheless, in this case there was an international response. The then-external relations chief of the European Union, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said, “The killing this morning of so many civilians in Gaza, including many children, is a profoundly shocking event. Israel has a right to defend itself, but not at the price of the lives of the innocent.” The then-Italian foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema, had harsher words: “This morning 18 people, women and children, were massacred … [in] an escalation of violence I think is unacceptable.” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry came out with: “The Israeli attack is a blow to regional peace efforts and will create a cycle of violence.”
The then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the incident “shocking” and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — touted to this day as Israel’s peace partner — called it an “ugly massacre committed by the occupation against our children, our women, and elderly.” On November 15 the UN Human Rights Council met in Geneva and resolved to send a “fact-finding commission” to Beit Hanoun consisting of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and British academic — and later member of the Goldstone “fact-finding commission” — Christine Chinkin.
Some years ago Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician and author, formulated the “3-D test” for distinguishing between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism: demonization, delegitimization, and double standards. Whatever their subjective motivations, the reactions to the accidental killings in Beit Hanoun objectively fit all three criteria. They demonized and delegitimized Israel as a country engaging in wanton violence if not intentional slaughter. And they applied a standard to it that has not been applied to other democracies combating terror in the Middle East — from the 2004 Battle of Fallujah, Iraq, where U.S. and British forces had to fight in built-up areas and inflicted numerous civilian casualties, to the most recent incident in Marjeh.
Two years after the Beit Hanoun incident, as it became clear that small-scale operations, ceasefires, and all other attempts had failed to stop the ongoing rain of rockets from Gaza, Israel launched its larger-scale Operation Cast Lead. Given the already prevailing anti-Israeli climate, it is no surprise that this time the Human Rights Council answered back with the 574-page Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes, a document that has been denounced as “a shoddy piece of work, unworthy of serious consideration by people of good will,” and as “an abominable travesty of justice.”
Israel’s terrorist foes are well aware of Israel’s vulnerability in world opinion and continue to use it as a fundamental strategic weapon. Since the war Hamas has been further fortifying its positions inside the towns of Gaza, aiming either to deter future Israeli incursions or to ensure that they exact civilian casualties and put Israel back in the international hot seat. And across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, Hezbollah has been making itself at home in about 160 Shiite villages with the same aims.
It can be cautiously assessed that since the Beit Hanoun incident, knee-jerk anti-Israeli reactions among the democracies have given way to greater sympathy. Conservative leaders have taken or returned to office in France, Germany, and Italy, and in the Human Rights Council and General Assembly votes on the Goldstone Report, some democracies — led by the U.S. — supported Israel and others abstained (cowardly but an improvement on the past).
NATO countries, particularly the U.S. and Britain, know full well by now what it means to fight terror in the Middle East. Whether the democracies continue to play 3-D games or, instead, give Israel the support it needs will help determine whether enemies of civilization like Hamas and Hezbollah, or an outpost of civilization that has no choice but to fight them, will prevail.