"At 10 minutes after 12, my mobile phone rang. It disturbed the tranquillity of a Sabbath afternoon. On the other end of the line was Ednan Za'in, my friend from Beit Hanun. He sounded agitated and terrified. Ednan held the phone up to his window, so I could hear the planes screaming through the sky above and the sound of the nearby explosions. The conversation was tense and short; he had to save his phone's battery - there is no electricity in Beit Hanun. Ednan had to get back to his children, who were crying. He wanted to calm them down."
This is the opening of a short article by Tel Aviv University Professor Dan Jacobson, a member of Meretz's leadership, as well as the leadership of the Peace Now movement. The article appeared in the e-newspaper "On-the-Left-Side" only a few hours after the Israel Air Force began bombing Gaza. "The drums of war have again set off for the 'March of Folly,' which will only end in blood, suffering and tears.
"Is there any importance," Jacobson asks, "to the question of 'Who fired the first shot?' Those who deliberately fire on civilian populations - whether the shots are coming from Hamas and Islamic Jihad or whether they are coming from the Israel Defense Forces - are guilty of war crimes."
At the same time these statements appeared on the Web site, MK and Meretz leader Haim Oron, a close friend of Jacobson's, received a warm hug from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In his words of thanks to the opposition for its support of the bombing of civilian populations - war crimes, according to Jacobson's article - Olmert placed Oron in the same category as two rightist politicians, opposition leader and Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu leader MK Avigdor Lieberman. Once again, as was the case during the Second Lebanon War, Meretz, a small leftist party, was faced with a moral dilemma: The obligation to protect Israel's citizens versus the obligation to avoid civilian casualties on the other side.
After emerging by the skin of his teeth from the experience of seeing, during Meretz's party primaries, new members parachuting seemingly from nowhere into his party's Knesset elections list, Oron was now being buffeted from both sides. His party colleagues MK Zahava Gal-On and former MK Mussi Raz were warning him not to repeat his fumbled reactions during the first days of the Second Lebanon War. Outgoing MK Ran Cohen, Meretz' representative on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, even voted against the government's request to receive authorization to deploy reservists. On the other side of the fence, neighbors of Oron (a member of Kibbutz Lahav in the Negev), who are also active in the party's southern branch, were demanding that he openly come out in favor of Operation Cast Lead. The star of the Meretz primaries, Ilan Gilon, who is a resident of Ashdod and a former deputy mayor of that city, criticized those who were condemning Oron's position and proposed that the party adopt a "Shoot first and cry later" policy.
Once again, it became crystal clear that the Israeli public, even its leftist component, was having a hard time absorbing such complex messages as proportionality. Last Monday evening, when Meretz leaders decided that it was high time to stop shooting and begin shouting, Channel 10 reported that a new survey showed that Operation Cast Lead was doing wonders for the party of Defense Minister and Labor leader Ehud Barak (with 16 predicted seats) but was not doing the same thing for Meretz (whose seats the poll put at 7).
Several months ago, this shift toward Israel's political center led Dr. Menachem Klein, of Bar-Ilan University's Department of Political Studies, to give back his Meretz membership card. Klein, one of the signatories to the Geneva Accord, is arguing that the central stream of Israel's left is suffering from a surplus of patriotism and a gung-ho attitude, and that Israel is perhaps the only world's country where the left is actually proud of the former generals in its ranks and where leftists brag about their combat service as reservists in the IDF. One of then-foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami's most trusted advisers in the late 1990s, Klein is now saying that it is hard for the traditional left to criticize Israel's defense establishment. Instead, it is making do with comments on isolated incidences that constitute unacceptable deviations from accepted battlefield morality. In Klein's opinion, the central stream of Israel's left wants peace and security and is not saying in a clear, loud voice that peace can never be achieved with Israel's present security perspective.
Avishai Margalit, the George F. Kennan Professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, which is a private, independent academic institution located in Princeton, New Jersey, has been closely monitoring this moral and political dilemma for years from two vantage-points - the first, as one of the world's leading political philosophers, who has studied what is and what is not acceptable in wartime, and the second, as a leading member of the Peace Now movement, who has engaged in considerable soul-searching on how one can transmit the peace message to the masses without appearing to be a defeatist. Margalit proposes that the rational left should feel the pulse of society and should avoid knee-jerk responses. "Once upon a time, people would ask 'Where were you in 1948 [during Israel's War of Independence]?'" says Margalit, "but today people are more interested in knowing the answer to the question, 'Where were you when the first anti-war protest demonstration was held?'"
He also warns against the excessive use of the term "war crimes" and recommends that every incident should be studied independently. That examination should address such issues as whether the particular war is justified or not and whether the conduct of that war is just.
Concerning justification, Margalit maintains that war must be a last resort; in his view, the Israeli government did not exhaust all other options before it embarked on the military operation in Gaza. The government convinced the public that "Israel has withdrawn from the Gaza Strip" despite the fact that 1.5 million people have been living in a giant prison for years. Israel's experience in Lebanon should have taught it the futility of the concept of "burning a message into the consciousness" of the civilian population through collective punishments intended to incite them to rebel against forces hostile to Israel. Margalit believes that the prospects for reaching an understanding with Hamas, which is responsible for the welfare of its constituency, are far greater than the prospects that the idea of "burning a message into the consciousness" in Gaza can be implemented. He anticipates that Israel's left will loudly protest this dangerous approach.
Regarding the just or unjust conduct of the ongoing military campaign, Margalit apparently feels that no war can be waged without committing war crimes. In his eyes, Israel's bombing of the cities along the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition was a war crime, as was Britain's bombing of German cities during the Second World War, which claimed the lives of 700,000 innocent civilians. Nevertheless, Margalit proposes that the term "war crimes" should not be used indiscriminately. That task becomes especially complicated when a state is locked in an armed confrontation with an enemy that is not a regular army and whose combatants do not wear uniforms; in such circumstances, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between combatants and civilians.
Margalit does not like the term proportionality, which became a favorite catchword of former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak. In a verdict passed two years ago by the Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice on "targeted eliminations" (assassinations of Palestinian military commanders by Israeli security forces), Barak writes that shooting a sniper who is firing upon soldiers or civilians from an apartment balcony is proportional even if, as a result, a civilian living next door is killed or wounded. In contrast, Barak notes in that verdict, the bombing of that same apartment building, resulting in the death or wounding of dozens of its occupants, is not proportional. Margalit wonders whether one can speak of proportionality when a missile is fired indiscriminately at a crowded residential neighborhood in Gaza, in response to the indiscriminate firing of Qassam rockets at the Israeli city of Sderot. The principle of "an eye for an eye", says Margalit, cannot be applied in societies such as ours, which believe in "an eye for a tooth."