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.