“There is always a cost to defeat an evil. It never comes free, unfortunately. But the cost of failure to defeat a great evil is far higher.”
Jamie Shea, NATO spokesman, BBC News, May 31, 1999
It was in these words that the official NATO representative chose to respond to criticism regarding the numerous civilian casualties incurred by the alliance’s frequent air attacks during the war in Kosovo between March and June of 1999. He insisted NATO planes bombed only “legitimate designated military targets” and if civilians had died it was because NATO had been forced into military action. Adamant that “we try to do our utmost to ensure that if there are civilians around we do not attack,” Shea emphasized that “NATO does not target civilians…let’s be perfectly clear about that.”
However, hundreds of civilians were killed by a NATO air campaign, code named “Operation Allied Force” – which hit residential neighborhoods, old-aged sanatoriums, hospitals, open markets, columns of fleeing refugees, civilian buses and trains on bridges, and even a foreign embassy.
Exact figures are difficult to come by, but the undisputed minimum is almost 500 civilians deaths (with some estimates putting the toll as high as 1500) – including women, children and the elderly, killed about in 90 documented attacks by an alliance that included the air forces of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Holland, Italy, Turkey, Spain, the UK, and the US. Up to 150 civilians deaths were reportedly caused by the use of cluster-bombs dropped on, or adjacent to, known civilian areas.
By contrast, the military losses inflicted by NATO on the Serbian forces during almost 80 days of aerial bombardment, unchallenged by any opposing air power, were remarkably low – with most estimates putting the figure at less than 170 killed.
Meanwhile, NATO forces suffered… no combat fatalities! This was mainly due to the decision to conduct high altitude aerial attacks which greatly reduced the danger to NATO military personnel in the air, but dramatically increased it for the Serbian (and Kosovar) civilians on the ground. Moreover, the civilian populations of the countries participating on Operation Allied Force were never attacked or – even threatened – in any way by Serbian forces.
The significance of all this for Israel, beset as it is by a maelstrom criticism and censure regarding its military campaign in Gaza, should be starkly apparent. It raises three trenchant issues which it would fail to address to its great detriment:
1. The irrelevance of proportionality in military engagements
2. The unlimited hypocrisy of international politics
3. The disastrous incompetence of Israeli international diplomacy
The issue of proportionality, or rather, the alleged lack thereof, has been the basis for the fierce condemnation of Israel’s conduct in its military operations in Gaza because the number of Palestinians casualties far outweighs that of Israeli ones. However, the conduct of military operations in Kosovo by many of Israel’s present detractors shows that this was never a consideration or constraint which they felt bound by.
Quite the contrary, the very modus operandi they adopted – i.e. high altitude bombing – demonstrates that they deliberately aspired to disproportionality. As noted, this ensured an almost zero casualty rate among their own combatants but inevitably resulted in less accurate targeting of alleged military objectives on the ground, exposing a virtually defenseless civilian population to far greater danger and far higher casualties.
‘Put a sock in it’
All of this serves to underscore vividly the crass hypocrisy of Israel’s critics. Indeed, in stark contrast to NATO’s willful disregard for enemy civilians, the IDF has often placed Israeli soldiers in mortal peril to prevent Palestinian civilians from being harmed. Furthermore, Israel’s use of military might has invariably been in response a tangible threat – or actual assault – on its citizens.
The blatant disregard for any semblance of proportionality by democratic belligerents and the shameless hypocrisy of their self-righteous and misplaced criticism of Israel highlight a crucial deficiency – often diagnosed and equally often neglected – in the overall structure of its international strategy: the incompetence – indeed impotence – of Israeli diplomacy. For the documented data on the conduct of the war in Kosovo by the world’s leading democracies should provide ample material with which to resolutely rebuff much of the pompous tirade of condemnation being hurled at Israel today.
Sadly however, this has not happened. Although up to now Israel’s media management during the Gaza operation has shown a marked improvement relative to the appalling performance during the 2006 Lebanon War, it still appears to be trapped in mindset of unbecoming apologetics and mired in a misplaced timidity which undermine its credibility and persuasiveness.
For Israel to prevail in the crucial battle for public opinion it must go on the offensive. It must convey confidence and conviction in the fundamental moral validity of the nation’s actions. It must not shy away from resolutely repelling unjustified slander and from reprimanding malicious slanderers.
It should not shrink from convening all the NATO country ambassadors in a public forum, open to the international media, and sternly point out how unacceptable “stone throwing” is for residents of “glass houses,” how inadvisable it is for “pots” to accuse “kettles” of being black, and to firmly demand – in appropriately discreet diplomatic terms – that they “put a sock in it.”
It should not refrain from confronting unprincipled correspondents who concoct malevolent fabrications against Israel, and unambiguously convey to them that gross lack of professional integrity and balance will not be tolerated, and that excessive abuse of journalistic privilege will result in its withdrawal. It should be made clear to those in the international media who reside in Israel but insist on portraying it in an unfair and unfounded light that they will have to cover events in the region while residing in some Arab country – where they presumably will find society less objectionable and less defective.
It should not hold back the resources required to assertively – even coercively – replace political correctness with political truth in the international discourse on the Middle East in general and on the Israel-Palestinian conflict in particular. It must bring these truths to the attention of political opinion-makers and of politically aware publics across the globe – if need be by circumventing hostile and obstructive editorial bias by means of prominent, paid infomercials in major media channels.
Only measures such as these will allow Israel to gain the upper hand in the battle for public opinion, to prevent it being the victim of unjust, unjustified and unjustifiable double standards, and to ensure that military operations in Gaza and Kosovo are not judged by wildly disparate criteria.