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Defending a people

World's reaction to Israel's use of force was predictable and what the terrorists wanted. So should Israel sit back and let terrorists go about their job, asks Alan M Dershowitz.

india Updated: Aug 04, 2006 01:03 IST

The Hezbollah and Hamas’ provocations against Israel once again demonstrate how terrorists exploit human rights and the media in their attacks on democracies. By hiding behind their own civilians, the Islamic radicals issue a challenge to democracies: either violate your own morality by coming after us and inevitably killing some innocent civilians, or maintain your morality and leave us with a free hand to target your innocent civilians. This challenge presents democracies such as Israel with a lose-lose option, and the terrorists with a win-win option.

There is one variable that could change this dynamic and present democracies with a viable option that could make terrorism less attractive as a tactic: the international community, the anti-Israel segment of the media and the so-called ‘human rights’ organisations could stop falling for this terrorist gambit and acknowledge that they are being used to promote the terrorist agenda. Whenever a democracy is presented with the lose-lose option and chooses to defend its citizens by going after terrorists who are hiding among civilians, this trio of predictable condemners can be counted on by the terrorists to accuse the democracy of ‘over-reaction’, ‘disproportionality’ and ‘violations of human rights’. In doing so they play right into the terrorists’ hands, causing more terrorism and more civilian casualties on both sides. If this trio could instead, for once, be counted on to blame the terrorists for the civilian deaths on both sides, this tactic would no longer be a win-win situation for the terrorists.

It should be obvious by now that Hezbollah and Hamas actually want the Israeli military to kill as many Lebanese and Palestinian civilians as possible. That is why they store their rockets underneath innocent civilians’ beds. That is why they launch their missiles from crowded civilian neighbourhoods and hide among civilians. They are seeking to induce Israel to defend its own civilians by going after them among their civilian ‘shields’. They know that every civilian they induce Israel to kill hurts Israel in eyes of the media and the international and human rights communities.

They regard these human shields as shahids — martyrs — even if they did not volunteer for this lethal job. Under the law, criminals who use human shields are responsible for the deaths of the shields, even if the bullet that kills them came from the gun of a policeman.

Israel has every self-interest in minimising civilian casualties, whereas the terrorists have every self-interest in maximising the same — on both sides. Israel should not be condemned for doing what every democracy would and should do: taking every reasonable military step to stop the terrorists from killing their innocent civilians.

Now that some of those who are launching rockets at Israeli cities have announced they have new surprises in store for Israel that may include chemical and biological weapons, the stakes have gotten even higher. What would Israeli critics regard as ‘proportioned’ to a chemical or biological attack? What would they say if Israel tried to preempt such an attack and, in the process, killed some civilians? Must a democracy absorb a first strike from a WMD before it fights back? Would any other democracy be expected to do that?

The way in which terrorists first use women and children as suicide bombers against other women and children and then shed crocodile tears over the deaths of civilians they deliberately put in harm’s way, gives a new meaning to the word ‘hypocrisy’. We all know that hypocrisy is a tactic of the terrorist, but it is shocking that others fall for it and become complicit with them.

Let the blame fall where it belongs: on the terrorists who deliberately seek to kill enemy civilians and give their democratic enemies little choice but to kill some civilians behind whom they are hiding.

Those who condemn Israel for killing civilians — who are used as human shields and swords for terrorists — actually cause more civilian deaths and make it harder for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.

How the world reacts to Israel’s current military efforts to protect its citizens will have a considerable impact on future Israeli steps toward peace. Prior to the recent kidnappings and rocket attacks, the Israeli government had announced its intention to engage in further withdrawals from large portions of the West Bank. But how can Israel be expected to move forward with any withdrawal plan if all it can expect in return is more terrorism and more condemnation from the international community when it seeks to protect its civilians?

The writer is a Professor of Law at Harvard and the author of Preemption: A Knife that Cuts Both Ways

The Jerusalem Post