Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Legality Isn't the Issue

As tempted as I am to comment on the Dershowitz ambush of J Street's Hadar Suskind at the AIPAC conference yesterday, I'd like to be backhanded about it and instead direct readers to an IDF report about the legality of Operation Cast Lead. The report is very clear about the procedures by which allegations of war crimes or violation of the rules of engagement are investigated by the IDF. The roughy 50-page report also details the status of ongoing investigations.

The article is both sincere and comprehensive, and it leaves little doubt that the IDF is very much committed to the principle of abiding by the laws of armed conflict. If anything, the issue is with getting this information to the press within a few days of the beginning of operations, not a year later. However, the report makes very clear that Israel is not the anti-Palestinian behemoth some on the far left might claim.

Professor Dershowitz's articles and the IDF report both discuss legality as a justification for Israel's actions. No doubt, the legal issue is a critical component of strategic decision-making. But it is just that, one component of many. Consider the example of a state or city's police force entering a mosque with an arrest warrant for a suspected terrorist.

Legally speaking, the police have every authority to enter the mosque. However, doing so will alienate the moderate Muslim members of the mosque from the police. This will harm the police's relationship with the mosque members and degrade their intelligence. It will also lead the members of the mosque to view the police as antagonistic rather than partners in fighting extremism. Both sides lose.

The example illustrates that the legal issue is only one consideration in a strategic decision. The complexities only increase in a combat situation, and tenfold over that with counter-insurgency. Even if using white phosphorous to create a smoke cover in a civilian area is technically legal, that doesn't mean it's necessarily the correct strategic decision considering the circumstances. And that's precisely the issue upon which debate on Israeli military operations should center.


But I guess Israeli members of the Knesset have more important things to do, like calling the British "dogs" for expelling an Israeli diplomat. Passport faking ain't what it used to be...

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