JERUSALEM—The disturbing images from Qana, Lebanon, of medics carrying the limp bodies of pajama-clad children from the site of Israel's deadliest air strike brought into sharp relief a fundamental question hanging over the three-week campaign:
Is Israel's overpowering military action against Hezbollah a reasonable response to the militant group's July 12 ambush, in which two Israeli soldiers were captured and three killed?
There's little disagreement that Israel had every right to retaliate. But in three weeks of Israeli strikes, hundreds of Lebanese civilians have died. Of the 835 killed as of Wednesday, most were civilians and more than a third were younger than 12, including 16 of 28 confirmed dead at Qana.
That has sparked criticism from world leaders, aid agencies and human rights groups who view Israel's overpowering response not only as unwarranted but also as counterproductive.
"Carelessly seeking immediate tactical advantage at the cost of major strategic risks and penalties is stupid and dangerous," Anthony Cordesman, a former U.S. Defense Department analyst who's now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote this week. "Creating more enemies than you kill is self-defeating."
For Israel, the calculus is simple: Hezbollah isn't just a troublesome militant group with a few thousand fighters, it's the vanguard of the nation's most formidable Middle East enemies, Iran and Syria.
Because Hezbollah is part of that larger threat, Israel says, it's justified under international law not just in its efforts to get its captured soldiers back but also in attempting to eliminate the militant group altogether. Their response shouldn't be measured only against the July 12 raid, Israelis argue, but against the total threat that it faces.
"What is proportional?" asked Meir Rosenne, a longtime Israeli diplomat and expert on international law. "When you kill 10 Jews? 100 Jews? 1,000 Jews?"
Israel, Rosenne argues, "is 100 percent entitled to act in self-defense to take the actions it has taken" to defeat Hezbollah.
Israel is hardly the first power to use air strikes to try to weaken its enemy. The U.S. and Britain reduced Nazi Germany's cities to rubble and ashes, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan and American warplanes pounded Vietnam. The U.S. also uses the tactic in Iraq and Afghanistan. NATO came under heavy criticism for its 79-day bombing campaign in 1999 to drive Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic from power.
Like Israel, NATO hit several controversial targets, including a television station, a convoy of refugees and the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
Now, as then, human rights groups condemned the air strikes as potential war crimes. The validity of that loaded charge rests on a number of factors.
Israel places the blame on Hezbollah, which fires its rockets from Lebanese towns and villages—a clear violation of international law, which bans using civilians as human shields.
But international law also requires the attacker to weigh whether the price to innocent civilians will outweigh a strike's military advantage.
In Qana, Israel contends, Hezbollah was firing rockets near the apartment building that collapsed on dozens of refugees sheltering in the basement. In defense of its action, Israel released video of Hezbollah rockets being fired from Qana two days before the air strike. But so far it's offered no evidence to support its claim that rockets were fired near the building at the time of the strike.
Even if Hezbollah had fired from the area, Israel still would have to weigh the costs to human life against the military gains, experts said.
The Israeli military is investigating the attack and, under international pressure, imposed a 48-hour pause on such air strikes, which expired Wednesday.
Israeli leaders said they didn't know that so many civilians were in the area. And they contend that they gave civilians plenty of time to escape by dropping thousands of fliers across southern Lebanon urging people to leave.
Even so, said Fred Abrahams, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, that doesn't relieve Israel of its responsibility to ensure that each air strike avoids civilian deaths as much as possible.
"You cannot say, we warned you to leave the area south of the Litani and then you can assume everyone who is left is a fighter," Abrahams said. "You are not lifted of the responsibility to distinguish between civilians and fighters."
Even if the civilian deaths are justified, they may not be smart policy, said Sarah Sewall, an expert on humanitarian law at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Such tactics may anger allies around the world and alienate Lebanese civilians caught in the middle.
"The more powerful argument that is masked with some of the legal appeals is one that Americans will understand," Sewall said. "If Israel's intention is to disable Hezbollah's military capability, their actions—which seem to be killing largely civilians who are not part of that threat—seem to be counterproductive."
Beyond the human rights arguments, critics such as Cordesman said Israel's campaign has failed to inflict serious damage to Hezbollah.
"There isn't much faith in the Israeli strategy," Cordesman said. "Essentially, what Israel has succeeded in doing is, having failed in the air and failed on the ground, it now has thrust the United States into trying to win it diplomatically. The truth is there isn't any clear option."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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