Reparations for Beirut airport?

Bring back the idea of reparations in the Mideast conflict.

Most commentary on the latest Near East crisis naturally focuses on the civilian casualties and the political dynamics. I find myself in sympathy with Jonathan Edelstein, The Head Heeb (!) who makes a good distinction between Gaza and Lebanon.

Reparations and compensation are secondary issues, but secondary doesn’t mean trivial. The IDF attacked civilian infrastructure – bridges and the power station in Gaza, and Beirut airport. I’m particularly annoyed by the bridges because as a EU taxpayer I probably helped pay for them, like the Gaza airport wrecked in the previous round; and I want my money back. However, Beirut airport is a simpler case. It’s possible, says Edelstein, that the Gaza attacks had some military necessity. The destruction of a civil airport, remote from Hezbollah’s fief in South Lebanon, was clearly intended to coerce the government into reining in Hezbollah by immiseration of the civilian population.

This strategy is wrong.

I think it’s also against the laws of war, for example Art. 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which prohibits

.. extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.

We are not talking here about collateral damage from legitimate attacks on military targets, like this, where there’s always an argument over proportionality. I’m worried about “wantonly” because strategic warfare against infrastructure is always calculated – the “heat of the moment, stuff happens” mitigation defence is not available.

This strategy rarely works. The German bombing of London and other cities in WW II failed to break British morale; the much larger British bombing campaign against German cities which killed half a million civilians (of whom at least a fifth were children) failed to break Hitler’s hold on the population or the will to resist of his armed forces; and it hasn’t ever worked for Israel against the Palestinians. The two countervailing cases are the atom bombs on Japan and the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo war. Any justification of these has to rely on the political psychology of the enemy leadership: in Japan, looking for an honourable way to concede defeat; in Serbia, a populist, Bonapartist autocracy ruling by propaganda rather than a police state. So contrariwise a nuclear attack on Dresden would have been as illegitimate as the conventional firebombing actually launched, since it would just have contributed to Hitler’s nihilistic funeral pyre. I reckon that the bombing of the Danube bridges in Serbia was also illegitimate, unlike that of the TV station which was a key instrument of Milosevic’s power.

Suppose I’m right. Is Israel bound to pay compensation for its illegal acts of war? Is Hezbollah, which fired rockets at civilians?

Reparations and compensation are a very old part of the law and practice of war, going back to Rome and Carthage; distinguished from mere loot by the idea of wrongdoing. When Britain violated its neutrality during the Civil War by allowing the Alabama and other warships to be built for the Confederacy, a postwar international tribunal awarded the USA $15.5m compensation. Article 3 of the fourth 1907 Hague Convention reads:

A belligerent party which violates the provisions of the said Regulations shall, if the case demands, be liable to pay compensation. It shall be responsible for all acts committed by persons forming part of its armed forces.

The failure of the German reparations after WW I did not take reparations out of international law. Germany paid compensation after WWII directly to Holocaust survivors and slave labourers. Japan paid reparations after WW II to Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and a job lot of other countries including Sweden, but nothing to the PRC or the USA.

After the First Gulf War, Iraq paid reparations under UNSC resolution 687 of April 1991:

16. Reaffirms that Iraq … is liable under international law for any direct loss, damage, including environmental damage and the depletion of natural resources, or injury to foreign Governments, nationals and corporations, as a result of Iraq’s unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

One moral objection to reparations is that they are “victor’s justice”. Any wrongdoing by the winning side gets forgotten. The Alabama precedent (involving a third party) shows that this is not necessarily so. Another difficulty is that compensation precedents don’t apply easily to non-state actors. So applying the principle of compensation for wrongful acts in an even-handed way to the Israel-Palestine conflict will require, as the Alabama claims did, a creative development of international law.

Would this effort be constructive? I think it would. Peaceniks generally brush the issue under the carpet. If you look at the Model accord produced by the non-governmental but highly qualified “Geneva Initiative”, compensation is only mentioned for Palestinian refugees – a conservative stance reflecting current international law. The model accord blithely assumes that third parties – the USA, the EU, Gulf states – will once again pick up the bill for the broken toys once the children have stopped brawling. This is not the way to encourage them to grow up.

The aim of the accord is rightly stated as nothing less than

… a historic reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israelis.

This would be true of any final settlement. Reconciliation requires both sides in a conflict to accept all the many wrongs they have done to each other over the years; as in South Africa and the Sudetenland. (In both cases the wrongs were highly asymmetric to most observers). A true accounting of property damage is surely a necessary part of this therapy. This is more important that actually paying it, which will probably be impossible.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

15 thoughts on “Reparations for Beirut airport?”

  1. The basis of this entire argument — Israel's motivation in bombing the airport — is unproven and arguable. If Israel believes this war is likely to go on for some time (weeks or months) then Hezbollah's ability to resupply itself with weapons is an obvious military concern. Moreover your comparison of Israel's current actions with either German or Allied "strategic" bombing aimed at wanton destruction of civilian targets is invidious. Neither Beirut, nor for that matter Gaza, are being carpet-bombed. On the contrary, there are reports that, following modern US practice in air campaigns, targets that would be particularly hard to rebuild are being targeted in a way that will facilitate that rebuilding after hostilities have ceased, e.g., the very expensive suspension bridge on the Beirut-Damascus highway had it's roadway punctured rather than large structural components being demolished.
    This is completely separate from the larger question you raise of the need to achieve a genuine reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, and, more generally, the Arab world, and what accountings may need to be reckoned and acknowledged in that process. I accept your point here, but I would add that a tendentious accounting is worse than no accounting.

  2. One theory I heard is that the aim of hitting the bridges and airport was not to keep supplies out of the country, but to keep the captured soldiers in. It makes sense given that Israel is concerned about the soldiers being sent to Iran, and that while they have bombed these elements of the infrastructure, some reports indicate that the intent was to cripple, but not destroy them (ie. leaving bigger bridges in a condition suitable for repairs)

  3. "Reparations and compensation are a very old part of the law and practice of war, going back to Rome and Carthage; distinguished from mere loot by the idea of wrongdoing."
    I take it that you aren't as big a fan of the equally old part of the law and practice of war "Uti possidetis"?

  4. Armchair generals are not qualified to judge the necessity of the airport bombing. And if we mention reparation, the Brits still owe Israel a hefty sum for damages during their occupation of Israel.
    As can be easily seen, reparation arguments are double edged and are used actually to condemn and demonstrate superiority. That is actually the main objection I have to your post. Somehow, I never felt the need to feel superior, why do you?

  5. I have a hard time understanding how an airport is not a military target. I realize that the Lebanese Army is simply unable to control Hezbollah, but from a legal standpoint I would say they are responsible for the mischief on the north side of the border.

  6. If the Beirut airport bombings were indeed carried out on military grounds – and I'm not convinced, Hezbollah is a low-tech outfit surely supplied from Syria – there are still issues of gross disproportionality; and therefore my compensation point stands.
    Larry: how can compensation for ongoing damage be separated from the "larger accounting" you agree to be necessary for reconciliation? The accounting for each individual act, of which Beirut airport is only one, is indeed very controversial. Each side would be staggered by the other's list. I did raise the question of Hezbollah's liability.
    Sebastian: No, I'm not a fan of "uti possidetis" as applied to the West Bank, any more than I welcome the precedent of Scipio Africanus' crucifixion after Zama of the Roman soldiers who had deserted to the Carthaginian army. International law is supposed to develop, just as domestic law does. Reparations are still living law. And armies can still be very hard on deserters.
    shmuel: "the Brits still owe Israel a hefty sum for damages during their occupation of Israel." Wow! What Israel? I'm not claiming Britain did a particularly good job in running Palestine under the Mandate, but it was a mandate from the League of Nations. Any hypothetical claim by the government of Israel is now surely out of time. You can keep a claim going for decades, like the illegitimacy of the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states or the "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees, but it has to be kept alive by repetition.
    I wish someone would react on the Alabama claims.
    I also wish the British government would get the compensation issue on the table by demanding redress, if necessary in The Hague, for the inconvenience suffered by British tourists trapped in Lebanon. Small beer compared to the damage sufered by Lebanese civilians, but there's a lot to be seid for breaking down problems into components and starting with the easy ones.

  7. The theory was to prevent Hizb'allah from fleeing or resupplying, which is why numerous bridges and the hwy to Damascus were repeatedly bombed, and the ports blockaded. The plans have been in the drawer a long time. What would you expect? The neocons rejected by Israel run the place here, playing war games with live bullets and dead bodies.

  8. LTM: "One theory I heard is that the aim of hitting the bridges and airport was not to keep supplies out of the country, but to keep the captured soldiers in. It makes sense given that Israel is concerned about the soldiers being sent to Iran, and that while they have bombed these elements of the infrastructure, some reports indicate that the intent was to cripple, but not destroy them (ie. leaving bigger bridges in a condition suitable for repairs)"
    And it's an extremely bad one – moving a few prisoners out wouldn't be stopped by destroying an ariport or some bridges. That type of action interfers with large-scale ton-miles, or the movement of heavy equipment.

  9. shmuel: "Armchair generals are not qualified to judge the necessity of the airport bombing. And if we mention reparation, the Brits still owe Israel a hefty sum for damages during their occupation of Israel."
    That's rich, that's very rich. Really amusing.

  10. James,
    I generally admire this blog; and I've appreciated many of your articles. However to suggest, in a kind of querulous tone, that the UK should seek compensation in the Hague for the inconvenience (your word) suffered by British tourists as a result of the Israeli attacks is, given everything that is going on, really weird. And you're not completely unaware of how weird it is, either, which is why you append that half-apology about its being "small beer."
    So, to be blunter than I was in my original comment, it is reckless of you to raise a charge of "war crimes" on the basis of the fact that you, personally, aren't sure that the Beirut airport is a legitimate military target. Especially in the context of a struggle in which grandmothers are killed drinking coffee on the balcony of their apartments with their grandchildren as part of no conceivable military target at all, not even mistakenly. In saying this, I do not in any way mean to minimize the pain and loss of civilian casualties on both sides. But I believe your post lacks perspective.

  11. "I'm particularly annoyed by the bridges because as a EU taxpayer I probably helped pay for them, like the Gaza airport wrecked in the previous round; and I want my money back."
    Well, as an EU taxpayer you also helped pay for the bonbs and weapons Fatah used to kill Israeli civilians, so why don't we just call you even, okay Sport.

  12. And as an EU taxpayer you also helped pay for the system of agricultural subsidies that have killed and impoverished untold numbers of Africans. You might want to look into that too while you're at it.

Comments are closed.