July 27, 2002

Costs of Targeting Civilians


The Israeli government's decision to launch an assassination raid on the Gaza City residence of Sheikh Salah Shehada, leader of the military arm of the Palestinian group Hamas, brought immediate and widespread condemnation not only from Muslims but from Western leaders (including the Bush administration) and even elements of the Israeli government. The reason was not Mr. Shehada's death — he was a senior participant in suicide attacks against Israel — but the fact that the Israeli military and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon understood that the attack in a densely populated neighborhood, at night, would result in many civilian deaths. The raid was nonetheless ordered — and the world received its clearest demonstration yet that the Israeli government is prepared to knowingly inflict substantial civilian casualties in its response to Palestinian suicide attacks.

But the Israeli strike in Gaza has proved terribly self-defeating. The Sharon government is more diplomatically isolated than ever, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two Palestinian groups widely reported to have been considering a trial cessation of attacks against civilians, now say they will step up their assaults. Should more suicide attacks take place, however, they will in turn further undermine the Palestinian cause.

Over the last decade, the emergence of murder without warning as the primary method of Palestinian paramilitary action has weakened the Palestinian movement, so much so that even the conservative Saudi government has felt the need to offer some sort of new framework for peace in the region. But the continuing suicide bombings against Israeli civilians and Israel's military response, which has killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians since March, have pushed both sides into stalemate.

The desire to kill enemy civilians when one's own civilians are killed is as old as human conflict. But military history shows that killing civilians, while it can bring short-term advantage, in the long run does not break an opponent's will to resist; it usually steels it. The terrible killing potential of modern mechanized warfare has driven this point home. In World War II, German bombardment of British civilian areas only intensified Britain's resistance. When the German operation was over and the British had the chance to retaliate, London (aided by the United States) seized the opportunity. But the subsequent Allied bombing campaign against German cities only intensified the enemy's will to resist, increasing the rate of German industrial production and widening the age range of boys and older men willing to fight. The job of beating the Germans was prolonged, not shortened, by targeting German civilians.

The American use of atomic bombs against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was only the immediate cause of Japan's surrender: a submarine campaign had already mortally weakened the empire. Even so, had we not defused the anger of the defeated Japanese with a generous reconstruction program after the war, the widespread and deliberate killing of civilians would have ensured continuing enmity between America and Japan.

The history of warfare offers thousands of examples of the strategic harm caused by the killing of civilians, from the punitive campaigns of ancient Rome to America's pummeling of North Vietnamese towns and villages. In World War I, the German empire was not seen as evil by neutral nations like the United States until it started murdering civilians in Belgium and sinking commercial ocean liners like the Lusitania. This same self-defeating effect will continue to dominate the Middle East until either the Palestinians or the Israelis categorically declare that they will stop killing noncombatants during belligerent operations, regardless of whether the other side makes a similar pledge. This goes beyond any question of morality (though it is certainly that); it is a simple matter of military reality.

Killing civilians rarely if ever offers success in war or enhanced security, and in an age when global public opinion is of dramatically increased importance, it only undermines a nation's force in both the field and the international arena.

Caleb Carr, a military historian and novelist, is the author of "The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians.''

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company