Monday, July 03, 2006

Dense Disagreement 

My recent post about a press conference called by those who are holding Gilad Shalit, Israel's missing soldier, drew comments from someone who strongly disagreed with the idea that Gilad is anything but a prisoner of war:

Please. Your country is at war with the Palestinians over the land that you are still illegally occupying. The captured soldier is a prisoner of war, regardless of how he was captured. If you think the captured Israeli soldier has been "kidnapped", then Israel has kidnapped tens of thousands of Palestinians, including women and children under the age of 18.
Well, that certainly is a dense collection of anti-Israel talking points. Let's take them one at a time.

Your country is at war with the Palestinians...

War is a two way street, not merely a convenient aspersion to be cast on only one party to a conflict. If there is indeed a war -- and that is itself an oft-disputed proposition when its consequences are fully considered -- it would be sporting to at least acknowledge that my country is forced to react to Palestinian warfare as well. A second asymmetry in this sentence is the contrast between the allegedly warring parties: on the one side is my great big country doing all the warring, and on the other side, a bunch of individual Palestinian victims who were just minding their own business. Given this start to the comment, one would not expect much sympathy for individual Israelis harmed by Palestinian violence, nor much scrutiny of collective Palestinian policy or behavior as a factor driving this conflict.

...over the land that you are still illegally occupying.

I will defer a discussion of the difference between occupied and disputed territory to others who make the case better than I can.

What worries me here is the lack of a qualifier for precisely what land Israel is presumed to be "occupying" and since when. The issue is about which war's results we are asked to roll back: 1967 or 1948. Palestinian spokespeople commonly use the unqualified occupation formulation to call for the end of the State of Israel -- leaving open the common claim well known to Palestinian audiences that all of Israel is occupied land and has been since 1948 -- and this technique allows them to do so without having to take responsibility for holding that position, since so few people ever actually call anyone on it.

There are a lot of people who automatically think of the 1967 war when they see these unqualifed references to "occupied" lands. To many of them, such a statement is only a call to reverse the results of the 1967 war so that the attacking Arab states no longer have suffered any conseqence for having chosen that war. Since that would at least temporarily still leave a State of Israel in existence, there is no obligation to worry any further about the morality of the position -- the fact that Arab States would then be free to attack again, and again, and again -- needing only to win a war of annihilation one single time for Israel to be finished -- is of no consequence.

The captured soldier is a prisoner of war, regardless of how he was captured.

For Gilad to be a prisoner of war, there first must be an acknowledgement that we are indeed at war, and that the warring parties are thus bound by war's legal conventions, among them the Geneva Conventions. I'm sure most of us wish this weren't so, that we weren't at war -- who actually wants to be at war? But it's hard to look at the ongoing situation, year after bloody year, and not recognize a war when one sees it. And if there is a war, there are responsibilities.

For instance, two parties at war are required to fight only with identifiably uniformed forces -- a rule aimed at protecting civilians. If we are at war, the Palestinians are in gross violation of this extremely important norm of warfare, and are putting their own civilians at risk. That Palestinians would put their own civilians at risk is no surprise to those who follow the situation closely, but for people who believe that only wanton Israeli brutality endangers Palestinian civilians, perhaps a brief study of the Geneva Conventions might be helpful:

The Geneva Conventions and supplementary protocols make a distinction between combatants and civilians.

The two groups must be treated differently by the warring sides and, therefore, combatants must be clearly distinguishable from civilians.

Although this obligation benefits civilians by making it easier for the warring sides to avoid targeting non-combatants, soldiers also benefit because they become immune from prosecution for acts of war.

For example, a civilian who shoots a sholdier (sic) may be liable for murder [abbagav: remember this point] while a soldier who shoots an enemy soldier and is captured may not be punished.

In order for the distinction between combatants and civilians to be clear, combatants must wear uniforms and carry their weapons openly during military operations [abbagav: suicide vests probably don't count] and during preparation for them. [...]

Combatants who deliberately violate the rules about maintaining a clear separation between combatant and noncombatant groups -- and thus endanger the civilian population -- are no longer protected by the Geneva Convention.
Since Gilad is supposedly a prisoner of war, then there are standards of treatment to which the Palestinians must adhere. Threatening to kill him is not generally considered one of them. And let us not forget that the same groups who would have us believe they are holding Gilad as a prisoner of war, are also the groups who kidnapped (yes, without doubt "kidnapped") an eighteen year old civilian and threatened to kill him too if their demands were not met -- knowing full well they had already shot this teenager in the head. That is not war; they are not warriors and do not deserve the protections granted warriors.

If you think the captured Israeli soldier has been "kidnapped", then Israel has kidnapped tens of thousands of Palestinians

Even by the most pro-Palestinian estimates, there are perhaps ten thousand Palestinians in Israeli jails, including car thieves as well as would-be bombers, so there is clearly a willingness to exaggerate a little at work here. Nevertheless, the real issue here is that if there is a war, then conforming combatants who are captured are prisoners of war, and non-conforming combatants who are captured are called arrested criminals. There is no possible moral equivalence between the capture of a soldier for ransom, and the arrest of non-uniformed combatants who aim to perpetrate attacks outside the protection of the Geneva Convention, or even to commit homicidal crimes that intentionally target civilians.

...including women and children under the age of 18.

Actually, as I wrote in a recent post, among the jailed "women and children" Hamas refers to are many teens who all but volunteered for Israeli jail time and don't want to leave. More sickeningly, their humanitarian-ish demands include freedom for the Palestinian "woman" inhumanely jailed on the political charge of trying to blow herself up in the Israeli hospital where she was being treated for burns from a cooking accident -- with the aim of killing and maiming as many of her fellow patients and the doctors who cared for her as possible.

Elder of Ziyon has a lot more about these jailed Palestinian women and incarcerated children.

Of course I cannot personally vouch for the fact that not a single Palestinian woman or teenager is in an Israeli jail unjustly. But I'll give a challenge here. I'll come out in favor of releasing Palestinian women and children who are improperly jailed in Israel -- not involved with terror or violent attacks -- in exchange for a statement that the rest who are in jail -- for being caught strapped with explosives, physical attacks, transporting and aiding bombers, etc. -- are in jail because they belong there, not just because Israel enjoys putting innocent women and children in jail for no reason.

Ok, I'll try to stop writing tedious and argumentative posts now. I'm overdue for a game show. So please, if you disagree with me in comments, please excuse me if I ignore you for the next week or so. I've got to start photoshopping and researching Monte Hall.

UPDATE: For a point of reference, even Al Jazeera refers to Gilad Shalit as an abducted soldier rather than as a prisoner of war -- perhaps because they realize the Palestinians themselves would rather not be held to war's legal standards.

If you really, really liked this -- or even really, really hated it -- there's lots more: