Hanson: A Glossary of Current Terms


Diamond Member
Nov 22, 2003
The Vocabulary of Untruth
Words take on new meanings as Israel struggles to survive.

By Victor Davis Hanson

A “ceasefire” would occur should Hezbollah give back kidnapped Israelis and stop launching missiles; it would never follow a unilateral cessation of Israeli bombing. In fact, we will hear international calls for one only when Hezbollah’s rockets are about exhausted.

“Civilians” in Lebanon have munitions in their basements and deliberately wish to draw fire; in Israel they are in bunkers to avoid it. Israel uses precision weapons to avoid hitting them; Hezbollah sends random missiles into Israel to ensure they are struck.

“Collateral damage”
refers mostly to casualties among Hezbollah’s human shields; it can never be used to describe civilian deaths inside Israel, because everything there is by intent a target.

“Cycle of Violence”
is used to denigrate those who are attacked, but are not supposed to win.

reflects the accuracy of Israeli bombs hitting their targets; it never refers to Hezbollah rockets that are meant to destroy anything they can.

is usually evoked against Israel by those who themselves have slaughtered noncombatants or allowed them to perish — such as the Russians means thin Grozny, the Syrians in Hama, or the U.N. in Rwanda and Dafur.

at the Hezbollah aggressors whose primitive rockets can’t kill very many Israeli civilians are losing, while the Israelis’ sophisticated response is deadly against the combatants themselves. See “excessive.”

Anytime you hear the adjective “excessive,” Hezbollah is losing. Anytime you don’t, it isn’t.

usually aren’t, and their testimony is cited only against Israel.

“Grave concern” is used by Europeans and Arabs who privately concede there is no future for Lebanon unless Hezbollah is destroyed — and it should preferably be done by the “Zionists” who can then be easily blamed for doing it.

often refers to Lebanese who aid the stockpiling of rockets or live next to those who do. It rarely refers to Israelis under attack.

The “militants” of Hezbollah don’t wear uniforms, and their prime targets are not those Israelis who do.

“Multinational,” as in “multinational force,” usually means “third-world mercenaries who sympathize with Hezbollah.” See “peacekeepers.”

“Peacekeepers” keep no peace, but always side with the less Western of the belligerents.

“Quarter-ton” is used to describe what in other, non-Israeli militaries are known as “500-pound” bombs.

is used, first, by diplomats who really are not; and, second, only evoked against the response of Israel, never the attack of Hezbollah.

“United Nations Action”
refers to an action that Russia or China would not veto. The organization’s operatives usually watch terrorists arm before their eyes. They are almost always guilty of what they accuse others of.

What explains this distortion of language? A lot.

First there is the need for Middle Eastern oil. Take that away, and the war would receive the same scant attention as bloodletting in central Africa.

Then there is the fear of Islamic terrorism. If the Middle East were Buddhist, the world would care about Lebanon as little as it does about occupied Tibet.

And don’t forget the old anti-Semitism. If Russia or France were shelled by neighbors, Putin and Chirac would be threatening nuclear retaliation.

Israel is the symbol of the hated West. Were it a client of China, no one would dare say a word.

Population and size count for a lot: When India threatened Pakistan with nukes for its support of terrorism a few years ago, no one uttered any serious rebuke.

Finally, there is the worry that Israel might upset things in Iraq. If we were not in Afghanistan and Iraq trying to win hearts and minds, we wouldn’t be pressuring Israel behind the scenes.

But most of all, the world deplores the Jewish state because it is strong, and can strike back rather than suffer. In fact, global onlookers would prefer either one of two scenarios for the long-suffering Jews to learn their lesson. The first is absolute symmetry and moral equivalence: when Israel is attacked, it kills only as many as it loses. For each rocket that lands, it drops only one bomb in retaliation — as if any aggressor in the history of warfare has ever ceased its attacks on such insane logic.

The other desideratum is the destruction of Israel itself. Iran promised to wipe Israel off the map, and then gave Hezbollah thousands of missiles to fulfill that pledge. In response, the world snored. If tomorrow more powerful rockets hit Tel Aviv armed with Syrian chemicals or biological agents, or Iranian nukes, the “international” community would urge “restraint” — and keep urging it until Israel disappeared altogether. And the day after its disappearance, the Europeans and Arabs would sigh relief, mumble a few pieties, and then smile, “Life goes on.”

And for them, it would very well.
Interesting to see that The New Republic has a related article. Links at site:

Out of Proportion
by Joshua Brook
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 07.28.06

The war between Israel and Hezbollah has sparked widespread debate on the subject of proportionality. One might have hoped that the human rights community would take this opportunity to educate political leaders and the public on the international law of proportionality and how it applies to the current fighting. Indeed, some groups have done just that. But others have chosen to brazenly distort international law in their zeal to condemn Israel.

Most of the public discussion of proportionality focuses on two questions: first, whether the amount of force employed by Israel is proportionate to the amount of force used by Hezbollah; and, second, whether the number of Lebanese civilians killed by Israel is proportionate to the number of Israeli civilians killed by Hezbollah. These questions may or may not be legitimate ones, but they have nothing to do with the concept of proportionality as that term is used in international law. Under humanitarian law--that is, the body of international law that governs the conduct of armed conflict--proportionality has a specific meaning, the application of which is critical to determining whether a party to an armed conflict has committed war crimes.

Broadly speaking, the law of war is divided into jus ad bellum, which governs when a party may engage in armed conflict, and jus in bello (also known as humanitarian law), which governs the conduct of parties engaged in armed conflict. While there is little disagreement that Israel's use of armed force in Lebanon satisfies the requirements of jus ad bellum (Michael Walzer laid out the case last week in TNR), there has been a vigorous debate over whether the means chosen by Israel violate humanitarian law.

Jus in bello has two prongs: First, weapons and methods of warfare that cause unnecessary injury are prohibited. (The most famous example is poison gas.) Second, parties to armed conflict are required to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and, therefore, are prohibited from attacking purely civilian targets--that is, targets with no military function. However, the law recognizes that targets with military objectives may be situated among civilians or have both civilian and military uses. In such cases, the law prohibits indiscriminate attacks and requires the attacking party to employ methods of warfare that minimize the harm to civilians.

The proportionality principle requires parties to an armed conflict to balance the expected military advantage of an attack with the expected harm to civilians. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits attacks against military objectives where the damage to civilians would be "excessive" in relation to the concrete military advantage anticipated by the attack. Of course, predicting the military advantage and civilian damage that will result from a particular attack is inherently uncertain. Furthermore, the term "excessive" is not defined. Thus, the application of the principle of proportionality--i.e. determining whether a particular attack is disproportionate--is imprecise and involves a large degree of subjectivity. (If missiles are falling on your house or your friend's house, you are less likely to believe a counterstrike is disproportionate than if missiles are falling on a stranger's house or your enemy's house.)

Given the ambiguous state of the law, there is certainly plenty of room for legitimate debate as to whether, in the current conflict, Israel has abided by its legal obligations. But what is beyond debate is that, during the last few weeks, some human rights advocates have misinterpreted the principle of proportionality--twisting the law in order to make unfounded accusations against Israel.

To understand just how shoddy some of these human rights advocates have been in their legal reasoning, it helps to start with those human rights groups that are actually treating international law seriously. Take Human Rights Watch (HRW) first. On July 17, the organization published a comprehensive document titled "Questions and Answers on Hostilities Between Israel and Hezbollah." The Q&A accurately explains humanitarian law and fairly applies it to the current conflict. With regard to Hezbollah, HRW states that the taking of hostages is "strictly forbidden" and is a "war crime." It further states that the use of imprecise Katyusha rockets in civilian areas "violates the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks and would be a war crime." With regard to targets attacked by Israel, HRW states that civilian targets with military uses (airports, roads, bridges) may, in certain circumstances, be legally attacked, but that Israel is constrained by the principle of proportionality. With regard to whether the destruction of power stations is disproportionate, HRW reserves judgment but notes that "Israel faces a very high burden to justify these attacks." HRW has also urged Israel to cease the use of cluster munitions in populated areas, as such use "may violate the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks contained in international humanitarian law."

Similarly, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has a mandate from states party to the Geneva Conventions to carry out certain humanitarian activities in connection with those treaties, has issued statements urging all parties to uphold their obligations under international law. The ICRC has not accused Israel (or Hezbollah, for that matter) of committing war crimes, and has implicitly endorsed the potential legitimacy of the Israeli blockade of Lebanon, while reminding Israel of its obligation "to respect the principle of proportionality when establishing a blockade."

By contrast, Amnesty International has jettisoned international law entirely; instead, the group seems to be defining a war crime as any military action of which Amnesty International disapproves.
Its website blithely condemns the Israeli targeting of bridges, roads, power stations, and the Beirut airport as "blatant violations of international law, which include war crimes." This accusation makes no reference to the principle of proportionality or, indeed, to any international legal instrument whatsoever.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, hasn't been much better. In a press release dated July 14, she accurately stated the law of proportionality:

[W]hile Israel has legitimate security concerns, international humanitarian law requires that parties to a conflict refrain from attacks directed against civilian objects. In particular, they have an obligation to exercise precaution and to respect the proportionality principle in all military operations so as to prevent unnecessary suffering among the civilian population.​

Yet five days later she argued that "the bombardment of sites with alleged military significance, but resulting invariably in the killing of innocent civilians, is unjustifiable"--and then went on to suggest that Israel may be guilty of war crimes. This statement badly twists humanitarian law by completely ignoring the principle of proportionality.

On Wednesday, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland became the latest human rights advocate to butcher the concept of proportionality. "Proportionality is there in the law," he said. "The law has been made through generations of experience on the battlefield. If you kill more civilians than military personnel, one should not attack." In fact, this one-to-one principle has no basis in the law. There are plenty of scenarios under which the proportionality principle would permit such a strike--say, an attack that killed two Hezbollah operatives about to launch a missile, while also killing three civilians who were being used as human shields.

One may certainly empathize with the reluctance of organizations that are ideologically committed to protecting the dignity of human life to acknowledge the legal reality that it is sometimes permissible to kill innocent people. But ideological convictions do not relieve these groups of the obligation to tell the truth or to fairly apply international law. As Human Rights Watch has shown, commitment to human rights and intellectual integrity need not be mutually exclusive.

By proscribing certain actions while permitting others, humanitarian law seeks to tame warfare of its cruelest practices. The proportionality principle seeks the maximum protection for civilians while acknowledging the ugly reality that, in warfare, 100 percent protection is impossible. By obliterating the distinction between war and war crimes, groups like Amnesty International and the United Nations undermine the protection that humanitarian law does afford to civilians caught up in armed conflict. International law is not strengthened by distorting or ignoring its provisions while solemnly invoking its principles. Sadly, this seems to have been lost on some of the organizations and institutions charged with protecting human rights.
Joshua Brook is an attorney in New York. He was research assistant to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for his book, Secrecy: The American Experience (Yale University Press, 1998).

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