Does Israel resort to war crimes, and then lie about it, to gain its ends? It has in the past. Which is why I have a hard time believing Israel’s claims now that it isn’t targeting schools and hospitals, which are UN-observed civilian refugee sites. That would be a clear and horrific war crime under international law and the Geneva conventions. I also have a hard time believing what they also in the same breath say (see previous link), that they actually are targeting those sites because they are storing rockets for Hamas. (Yes, those two claims directly contradict each other; yes, it’s absurd to think sites observed by UN personnel are storing rockets–in fact, they clear any rockets found at sites set up as refugee centers).
Hamas, of course, is evil and insane, if ever those words had meaning. They lie and kill all the time, in vile ways and without any rational sense. They also try to manipulate the public with false claims. But this isn’t a claim coming from Hamas.
There is a difference between responding justly with necessary force to legitimate terror and danger, and using that legitimacy as cover for trying to get away with evils even greater than those achieved by the enemy you are answering. Because of the Christian Armageddon Lobby, Israel does get away with quite a lot, and getting a free pass is a form of power, and power corrupts. If Israel is beyond all criticism, then it can slip in any evil and play the same get-out-of-jail-free card. If they are allowed to get away with anything, then they will in the end do anything. (So do we. Consider Tuskegee.)
Why am I doubtful that Israel is telling the truth this time? Because neutral observers confirm it. And Israel has done this before. In the most appalling way. And I want to share with you the example I mean. You can’t understand the world without it.
As a historian, I wonder at all the things people don’t know about our own history, and yet history repeats itself when we don’t. So let me recount something you probably have never heard about. It will sicken you. Especially the most patriotic, ra-ra, pro-military folk among you. Yes, especially you.
The United States declassifies a lot of stuff after a moratorium of twenty-five to fifty years. Accordingly, in 2007, forty years after the Six Day War of 1967, materials were released confirming that Israel deliberately attempted to sink an unarmed American ship (the USS Liberty) specifically to kill all two hundred aboard and destroy all their electronic surveillance data, evidently to cover up the fact that Israel had launched the first strike causing the war. In doing so Israeli forces committed explicit war crimes, evidently on orders from Israeli command. Thirty four American servicemen were killed. Over 170 more were wounded, crippled or maimed. And the United States government knew about it. And covered it up. Because they didn’t want to embarrass Israel.
Of course, as we have long known, Israel originally claimed that it had been attacked by its neighbors in 1967, as justification for invading and attacking those neighboring nations. But eventually (very shortly after the war had ended) their claim unraveled and they were forced to admit that, yes, they struck first. They then started appealing to a “preemptive war” doctrine as their justification instead. (Remember when Bush did that barely ten years ago? History repeats itself.)
The victims of the Liberty attack (some two hundred survivors as well as the families and friends of those murdered) had been claiming this was a deliberate attack and a war crime since it happened. But the U.S. government fouled the investigation and declared it an accident. Duly buried, there it stood, Israel insisting those accusing it were just angry and upset conspiracy theorists. And gave them money to shut up. Until 2007. Then the classified evidence came out. And it vindicated the accusers. (If you had not heard any of this until now, think about what that tells you about how little you can trust your own media to inform you.)
Now the evidence accumulated is fairly conclusive: Israel intentionally attempted to sink an unarmed US surveillance ship outside the war zone, itself a war crime, and committed additional war crimes in the effort. The only reason we know this, is that Israeli forces botched the job…but not for lack of serious trying. The ship’s own surveillance data, and witnesses aboard, the very things Israel was trying to destroy, survived. (Key data tapes have since “mysteriously” disappeared…but their existence, and disappearance, and eye-witness accounts of their contents, are multiply-confirmed facts.)
In short, this is what happened (everything I report above and below was documented by the Chicago Tribune in 2007, “New Revelations in Attack on American Spy Ship,” by John Crewdson; you can also check out the site set up by veterans of the Liberty attack and their families; as one might expect, the Wikipedia entry combines true facts with fabrications of both the Israeli and American governments, to create something akin to a fundamentalist’s harmony of the Gospels):
An American surveillance ship, the USS Liberty (armed only with a few fifty-calibre machineguns for repelling borders), crewed by some two hundred men, was in the nearby Mediterranean when the Six Day War began, recording all signals data (including all radio comms on all sides, which made it possible for them to know the actual sequence of events in the war, later forcing Israel to concede they actually started it). It was in neutral waters and flying the United States flag prominently.
Israeli fighter jets were dispatched to investigate. They reported back that it was an American ship. They were ordered to sink it. They replied back that it was American, it was flying the American flag. They were ordered to disregard that fact and sink it. Consequently they strafed the ship, with guns and rockets, until they ran out of ammo. It didn’t sink. So fighter-bombers were sent to napalm it. The ship, now engulfed in flames, didn’t sink. (Napalm essentially cannot be extinguished, FYI; its use on personnel is horrific.)
Completely out of all munitions, and bewildered by the fact that the ship was still afloat, albeit still engulfed in flames from the napalm stuck to the whole superstructure, the Israeli combat aircraft had no choice but to return. Israeli command sent three torpedo boats to finish the job. The boats launched all six of their torpedoes. All of them missed. Except one, which struck the Liberty amidships, blowing a near forty foot hole in the side and killing a couple dozen people. The Liberty still didn’t sink.
Out of torpedoes, the torpedo boat crews started machinegunning the men on the deck…as they were queuing to get into and launch their lifeboats. The Israeli boat crews also specifically machinegunned the lifeboats themselves, to prevent any of the crew from abandoning ship. That is, incidentally, a war crime (Geneva conventions; and most famously, and in a sad irony, at the Neuremburg trials).
The torpedo boats ran out of ammunition and returned.
The Liberty still didn’t sink.
With no lifeboats, no rescue operation underway (an Israeli helicopter supposedly sent to effect a rescue, just circled and returned to base), and over 170 men disabled (many with horrific wounds) and over 30 dead, the few able-bodied survivors had no choice but to wait for the napalm to burn out, put out the remaining fires, and get the ship fit to continue afloat, and limp to a friendly port at Malta.
The ensuing investigation was suppressed by the President. The “official” U.S. position is the one Israel lobbied for: that the attack was an accident. All the evidence overwhelmingly refutes that claim.
I’m a naval man, having served at sea in a combat role during peacetime for the United States Coast Guard. So this story is particularly appalling to me. Because I know a lot of what it would have been like to be on the Liberty during these events. As the crew of a ship, these were our nightmares. And the betrayal, intolerable. But as an event in history, it’s also paradigmatic.
This is a rare opportunity: a covered-up war crime for which enough evidence survives to be quite certain what actually happened. Israel initiated a war, without itself having been attacked. It planned to blame its enemies of striking first and starting the war. It discovered an American signals intelligence ship had been listening to everything. And thus had the truth on tape. So they did every damn thing they could to sink that ship and murder everyone on board to prevent the truth coming out. They deliberately attacked their own ally. They deliberately and horrifically attacked an unarmed ship. A ship in international waters. They even committed additional war crimes, destroying the Liberty’s lifeboats and attempting to kill all survivors.
And then they paid everyone they could, including the United States government, to cover it up. And the American government went along with it and endorsed the false story Israel wanted disseminated.
Think about this.
And when you hear the same thing happening…again and again…know what has happened before.
Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Never condemning Israel for anything it ever does grants it an absolute power. We’ve seen how they used such a power in the case of the USS Liberty. Will we let them use it again?