Military analysts question bombing of civilians

DUBAI — Thousands of Israeli bombs have fallen on Lebanon’s homes, roads, bridges, ports, broadcasting towers and even a lighthouse.

Nearly 300 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in Lebanon, the prime minister said Wednesday.

Analysts say Israel’s targeting of civilian and government infrastructure overshadows its strikes on the offices and rocket launchers of the Hizbollah fighters whose capture of two Israeli soldiers triggered the attacks.

“This is a classic strategic bombing campaign,” said Stephen Biddle, a former head of military studies at the US Army War College, now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What the Israelis are trying to do is pressure others into solving their problem for them. Hence the targeting of civilian infrastructure.” Israeli Cabinet ministers have said the bombing aims to punish Lebanon and make the government understand the entire country will suffer if Hizbollah isn’t reined in.

But Israeli military spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal said Wednesday that Israel’s bombing targets have direct military significance, since Hizbollah uses roads to transport its rockets and stores them in houses.

“A lot of the rockets are stored in people’s homes in urban areas, fired from within villages and brought in from the Damascus-Beirut highway,” Dallal said. “We are in day eight and the present condition of Hizbollah is unlike it was on day one. There’s no comparison, their infrastructure, their weaponry have all been degraded considerably.” Classic strategic bombardment campaigns aim to flatten key economic resources and are usually designed to bend the targeted government to the will of its attacker or turn the populace against the government.

The United States has been one of its chief proponents, launching strategic bombing campaigns in Vietnam, Iraq and Serbia. In World War II it targeted factories, railroads, bridges, ports and, in some cases, residential neighbourhoods.

But the growing list of civilian casualties — despite Israel’s use of US-designed precision-guided bombs — could turn Arabs and others against the Jewish state and its key American allies and still not force Hizbollah Israel and its patron in Washington without fatally wounding Hizbollah, said military analysts, including Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

James Dobbins, a former Bush administration envoy to Afghanistan who now heads military analysis for the Rand Corp., said choice of targets was the key and may be misdirected in the current Israeli campaign.

“The military rationale seems rather thin, since many of the targets have no conceivable relationship to Hizbollah,” he said.

Hizbollah has little visible presence and few links to Lebanon’s military. It is skilled at cloaking its actions from Israeli sensors, while its primitive rockets — which have also killed innocents in Israel — are fired from easy-to-hide mobile launchers. Their lack of a guidance system leaves them without a traceable electronic signature, said Mustafa Alani, a military analyst with Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.

“The Israelis face their classic problem: They cannot punish Hizbollah, which has no physical structure to destroy,” Alani said.

Instead, Israel is bombing Hizbollah’s Shiite Muslim power base, levelling villages and office and apartment blocks in Shiite neighbourhoods in the eastern Bekaa Valley, southern Lebanon and south Beirut.

Dallal said the Israeli military bombs civilian buildings or homes if intelligence points to a Hizbollah office or munitions on the site.

“If there is a rocket stored in an apartment building and we attack the apartment in the building in which it is stored,” he said. “We have the right to attack because of the missile.” The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon said the Israeli campaign most closely resembles the US-led NATO bombardment of Serbia in 1999, in which a victory was achieved without a land invasion.

But the 78-day NATO bombardment of Serbia had clear international legitimacy and was more gradual. Air crews targeted Serbian military and communications sites first, and when that didn’t persuade the Serb military to pull out of Kosovo, planes hit civilian and government targets.

Targeting was far more discriminatory. Despite tens of thousands of sorties, NATO is thought to have killed 500 civilians in the 2-1/2 month campaign. By contrast, Israel has killed more than 250 Lebanese in eight days.

And the Serbian actions that triggered NATO’s air strikes were far larger than anything launched from Lebanon, Dobbins said.

“The Serbian government was responsible for the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo that drove a million people from their homes,” Dobbins said. “While the Lebanese government is not responsible for the rocket attacks upon Israel.” The government, however, has been unable to fulfill a UN directive that Hizbollah be disarmed and that government forces take control of southern Lebanon from Hizbollah.

Israel has also chosen to hit targets that the United States would probably reject, because of the danger of killing civilians, said Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon strategist now with CSIS.

US war planners realise their campaigns lose international and domestic support when innocents are killed, Flournoy said.

“Our own population is very discriminating in the use of force. People here have bought into the idea of proportionality and the just war,” Flournoy said.

For Israel, “it’s a balancing act,” Flournoy said.

“They want to use enough force to get through to the terrorists, while at the same time staying within international norms, so as not to become a pariah.” Israel’s history, however, has produced a defence posture that views its enemies as fundamental and existential threats to the country’s very survival.

“The airports and bridges don’t belong to Hizbollah,” Alani said. “People may understand their [Israeli] reactions for the first few days. But world leaders will soon say ‘we don’t see any links between your attacks and the threat you face.”’

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