It’s amazing what you can justify if you just try hard enough.
These (via Jesus’ General) are the names and ages of the 24 Iraqi civilians shot allegedly by U.S. Marines in Haditha:
Abdul-Hamid Hassan Ali, aged 76, wheelchair-bound (killed).
His wife, Khamisa, 66 (killed).
His sons: Jahid (43), Walid (37) and Rashid (28), all killed.
Walid's wife, Asma, 32 (killed).
Walid and Asma's children: Abdullah (4), killed. Iman (8) and Abdul-Rahman (6), wounded.
Younis Ahmed Rsayef, 43 (killed).
His wife, Aida, 40, bed-ridden (killed). Their children: Nour (14), Seba (10), Muhammad (8), Zeinab (5), Aisha (3) - all killed; and Safa (15), who survived.
Hoda Yassin, a visiting relative (killed).
Marwan Ayed Ahmed and his brothers Qahtan, Jamal and Chaseb, (all killed).
Khaled Ayad al-Zawi and his brother Wajdi; Mohammed Battal Mahmoud, Akram Hamid Flayeh and Ahmad Fanni Mosleh, passengers in a car stopped near the scene (All killed).
On Friday, as I was channel surfing, I happened to come across an interview on MSNBC with the brother of Lance Cpl. Miguel Terraza, the Marine killed in Haditha on 19 November 2005, in response to whose death the Marines are alleged to have gone on their rampage. The interviewer pursued an interesting line of questioning: the one thing he wanted to talk about before anything else was some comments Miguel Terraza had apparently made in a letter home to his brother, about how hard it was to spot the enemy in an insurgency because he didn’t wear a uniform but dressed like the rest of the population. The interviewer didn't come out and say that those 24 dead Iraqis were legitimate military targets, but that was certainly implicit in his line of questioning. It was a preemptive strike against any unfavourable outcome that might emerge from the inquiry into the behaviour of the Marines at Haditha. It laid the groundwork for excusing the murder of children by telling us, implicitly, that it’s not really murder should U.S. Marines shoot Iraqi children; all those hadji’s look alike you see, which makes all of them suspect. So really, killing them is self-defence. Even when we’re talking about three and four year olds.
How low can we get? Is it really so hard for to say that if a bunch of U.S. Marines deliberately shot dead Iraqi toddlers that is just murder, and there’s no excuse for it?
Apparently it is, because now (again via Jesus’ General) there is already a second excuse circulating to implicitly justify the killing of Iraqi children. It’s not so bad that Marines would shoot Iraqi children, because look, here are pictures of Palestinian children parading with guns!
So, in addition to MSNBC's "the insurgents-dress-like-civilians-so-it's OK-to-kill-civilians" defence, we now have "some Arab children have been photographed parading with guns, so all Arab children can be regarded as combatants"...
Let’s take apart the reasoning behind that justification and give it the swift death it deserves. Firstly, what on earth has the fact that some Palestinian children have been photographed with guns during the current intifada got to do with the murders of Iraqi children in Haditha? Posting these photos of Palestinians is a useful insight into the fact that the person who posts them is a racist idiot who thinks that Arabs are interchangeable and collectively deserve whatever we do to them, but they give no insight at all into what happened at Haditha. There is only one photo that would justify the Marines shooting dead three-year-old Aisha Younis Rsayef and her five-year-old sister, Zeinab, and that would be a photo of those girls shooting at the Marines. And as nobody is suggesting that anything remotely like that happened at Haditha, let’s not even start implying those Iraqi children were terrorists who somehow deserved what they got.
But let’s go one step further and make clear that not only do pictures of Palestinian children parading with guns fail to justify the deliberate killing of Iraqi children by Americans, they do not justify either the deliberate killing of Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers. The killings at Haditha would not somehow be OK if only the victims were Palestinian. The fact that some Palestinian children have been photographed with guns in non-combat situations is not some kind of blanket permission to kill Palestinian children. A Palestinian child parading with a gun does not make Palestinian children combatants any more than an Israeli child pictured with a gun makes Israeli children combatants…
Combatants are not people who have their pictures taken with guns. Combatants are people who take those guns and shoot at you and, regardless of what people who justify Israel's killing of more than 700 children in the last five years would have you think, the hard truth is that those children were not shooting at anybody when they were killed by Israeli soldiers (and the occasional settler). Those 724 Palestinian children were shot dead by members of the IDF while they threw stones at tanks and armoured vehicles...
...while they hung laundry out to dry...
(Asma Mughayer  and her brother, Ahmed , both shot through the forehead by an Israeli sniper as they hung out washing and fed pigeons on the roof of their home in Rafah, 18 May 2004)
...while they ate breakfast in their own home...
(Rahma Shamas , shot dead while sitting at the kitchen table in her home in Dayr al-Balah refugee camp, by a bullet fired from an IDF watchtower in the nearby settlement of Kfar Darom, 26 Jan 2005)
... or while they walked to the grocery store to buy a bag of chips, or sat at their desk in school, or hung a flag on a fence, or sat in a parked car at a checkpoint (source), but not while they were shooting at Israelis. Anyone who posts the pictures with guns to imply that these hundreds of children were legitimate military targets killed in combat is simply blowing smoke because they are embarassed by the uncomfortable fact that Israeli soldiers serving in the Occupied Territories kill an indefensible number of Palestinian children.
The attempt to blame Palestinian children for the fact that Israeli soldiers are killing them goes back to the very earliest days of the second intifada. And it arose out of Israel’s need to justify the incredibly one-sided casualty figures recorded in the earliest months of the uprising. After more than five years of shooting and suicide bombings, we tend to forget that this intifada did not begin as an armed uprising at all. It began with an outbreak of shoe- and stone-throwing when Ariel Sharon and his 1,000 armed guards “visited” Temple Mount, and only degenerated into a wider conflict because – in the judgement of the Mitchell Commission (the international investigation led by U.S. Senator George Mitchell into the causes of the intifada) – the government of Israeli resorted to live (and lethal) fire against the demonstrators, and the leadership on both sides subsequently failed to show restraint.
During the first four months of the intifada (Sept-Dec 2000), Palestinians carried out no suicide bombings at all. There were widespread demonstrations and protests, but even by the IDF’s own reckoning about three-quarters of these incidents were – at least on the Palestinian side – unarmed. Citing again the Mitchell Report:
"[A]ccording to I.D.F. figures, 73% of the incidents [from September 29 to December 2, 2000] did not include Palestinian gunfire. Despite this, it was in these incidents that most of the Palestinians [were] killed and wounded ..."In fact, by the time the first suicide bomber of the al-Aqsa intifada struck, on 1 January 2001, the IDF had already killed 341 Palestinians. And by the time the first Israeli child was killed in this conflict (and this was sixteen year-old Ophir Rahum, of Ashkelon, who was shot dead on 17 January 2001), Israeli soldiers had already killed 84 Palestinian children, 38 of whom had been shot through the head.
Explaining away horrific figures like that is a very hard sell, and the way Israel sold it was to blame the dead children themselves. To you and I it might look as if Muhammad al-Dura was an innocent 12-year-old, shot to death live on TV as he walked past Nitzanim settlement with his Dad on their way home from a local car auction:
But as soon as it became apparent that his death had been filmed and was creating a public relations disaster for Israel, a succession of Israeli spokesmen assured us that we hadn’t really seen what we thought we had. It was really the child’s fault, they insinuated. After all, we heard over and over, What was a so-called innocent 12-year-old boy doing there? (And I think the best answer to that question came from Jeremy Hardy in the UK’s Guardian newspaper: What was he doing there? He was cowering in terror, trying not to get shot dead by the Israeli Army. He failed.)
Muhammad al-Dura was an exceptional case in that his killing, and the proof that he did nothing to provoke it, was caught on film. The vast majority of Palestinian children are killed out of our sight and, due to the systematic underreporting of Palestinian deaths in U.S. news media, anonymously. And that makes it much easier to blame them for their own deaths. All you need are some Palestinian-kids-with-guns photos and, without explicitly saying so, you can imply that Palestinian children are generically child soldiers, and therefore legitimate targets whose deaths are the fault not of the Army that kills them, but of the militants (and the wider Palestinian society – why don’t they love their children?) who recruit and deploy them.
This argument that Israeli soldiers kill children only because children are combatants was a common one from the earliest days of the intifada, but research by Amnesty International found that the claim simply didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Amnesty investigated the circumstances in which so many Palestinian children had been killed between September and December 2000, and reported:
There is no evidence that children have fired weapons at soldiers or that they in any way presented a threat to the lives of soldiers. None of the cases of children killed mentioned by Amnesty International involved a child carrying a gun, nor is any such case known to Amnesty International.In fact, members of an Amnesty International fact-finding mission in the Gaza Strip saw for themselves the real reason why Israeli crowd control was producing so many dead Palestinian children. While visiting Rafah on 10 October 2000, the Amnesty delegation witnessed a demonstration involving about 400 primary (i.e. elementary) school children who threw stones in the direction of an IDF outpost. This not an “attack” on the soldiers manning the outpost: they were in a fortified position, separated from the children by a distance of 200 metres and two barbed wire fences. But, as the Amnesty delegates watched, soldiers in the outpost opened fire with live ammunition into the crowd, wounding seven children. This is one of them:
Other correspondents have said that Palestinians firing guns may be hidden by Palestinian children throwing stones. Again, none of Amnesty International's cases of children killed relates to any such incident; nor has Amnesty International received details of any such incident…
Children throwing stones are not lawful targets for lethal attack by the IDF. Israeli security forces are serving a law enforcement -- not combat -- function and their own rules of engagement acknowledge this. Soldiers are obligated only to use necessary force that is proportionate to the threat. In other words, Palestinian children are dying because Israeli security forces are shooting them -- in a pattern which is in contravention of international standards and the Israeli army's own regulations -- not because they are child combatants in an armed conflict (and therefore legitimate targets of Israeli fire).
-- Amnesty International Secretariat, Israel's Responsibility for Killing Children; 15 Dec 2000.
His name was Sami abu Jazar. He was shot through head by an Israeli soldier to whom he posed no conceivable threat, while international observers looked on. He died without regaining consciousness on 11 October 2000, one day short of his twelfth birthday.
When Amnesty published its detailed report into the killing of children in the al-Aqsa intifada, it came to this conclusion about Palestinian casualties:
In the first months of the intifada, the majority of child victims were killed as a result of the unlawful and excessive use of lethal force in response to demonstrations and stone-throwing incidents, when the lives of IDF soldiers were not at risk. In 2002 the majority were those children killed when the IDF randomly opened fire, or shelled or bombarded residential neighbourhoods in Palestinian towns and villages. Most of these children were killed when there was no exchange of fire and in circumstances in which the lives of the soldiers were not at risk.So the dynamic at work was just the reverse from what the people brandishing photos of kids with guns would like you to believe. It was not that Palestinian children were combatants, and that’s why they were killed. It was that heavily-armed, supposedly highly-trained soldiers were putting dozens of unarmed children in their gunsights and shooting them dead, and the photos were the best excuse that Israel’s defenders could come up with ex post facto to excuse behavior that simply has no excuse.
-- KILLING THE FUTURE: Children in the line of fire; 30 Sept 2002.
I don't need to wave inflammatory photographs and blame the victims to explain why occupying armies shoot children dead. I don't think it's difficult at all to explain why some Israeli soldiers (and apparently some American soldiers in Iraq) deliberately shoot children. I think Israel and the U.S. have established conditions in Palestine and Iraq which absolutely guarantee that some soldiers will murder children, and the only difficult thing to explain is the difference between the minority that takes the opportunity to do so, and the majority that continues to respect the taboo against murdering children, regardless of the circumstances in which they operate. To create the conditions in which some of your soldiers will kill children, you need to do three things:
Firstly, feed your soldiers (and your folks back home) on a diet of propaganda that tells them they are inherently superior and uniquely moral, their mission is fundamentally noble, and their actions are always invariably just. Then put your soldiers in an occupying army in a country they do not understand, against an enemy they cannot identify, amidst a population they regard as racially inferior.
Secondly, give them rules of engagement that essentially let them open fire on the locals without regard for the usual legal norms. After all, you've already established in step 1 that they are not people like us, so killing them isn't really killing “people” at all. We saw the devaluing of Palestinian life in the open-fire rules established by the IDF at the beginning of this intifada...
Sniper: “They forbid us to shoot at children”.... and we see the same phenomenon at work among the Marines in Iraq:
Journalist: “How do they say this?”
Sniper: “You don’t shoot a child who is 12 or younger”.
Journalist: “That is, a child of 12 or older is allowed?”
Sniper: “Twelve and up is allowed. He’s not a child anymore, he’s already after his bar mitzvah. Something like that”.
Journalist: “Thirteen is bar mitzvah age”.
Sniper: “Twelve and up, you’re allowed to shoot. That’s what they tell us”.
Journalist: “Under international law, a child is defined as someone up to the age of 18.”
Sniper: “Up until 18 is a child?”
Journalist: “So, according to the IDF, it is 12?”
Sniper: “According to what the IDF says to its soldiers. I don’t know if this is what the IDF says to the media.”
-- Don’t shoot till you can see they’re over the age of 12; Ha'aretz, 20 November 2000.
"In Ramadi, the capital of central Anbar province, where 17 suicide-bombs struck American forces during the month-long Muslim fast of Ramadan in the autumn, the marines are jumpy. Sometimes, they say, they fire on vehicles encroaching with 30 metres, sometimes they fire at 20 metres: 'If anyone gets too close to us we fucking waste them,' says a bullish lieutenant. 'It's kind of a shame, because it means we've killed a lot of innocent people.'"
Kind of a shame, killing the people you're trying to democratize, but after awhile, says the same lieutenant, "It gets to the point where you can't wait to see guys with guns, so you start shooting everybody..."
- Kind Of A Shame; The Economist, January 1st-7th 2005; via James Wolcott.
Thirdly - and this is the step that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Israeli civil rights group B'Tselem identified as vital to explaining the disproportionate ratio of combatants to non-combatants among Palestinian casualties in the Occupied Territories - ensure that there is no effective mechanism within the military hierarchy to hold troops accountable for their actions against the civilian population.
During the first intifada, it was Israeli policy to hold an inquiry into the death of every Palestinian civilian killed by the IDF. But at the beginning of the second intifada, at a time when Israeli soldiers were shooting Palestinians at a rate of more than three dead and almost 100 wounded every day, the Israeli High Command announced that inquiries into civilian deaths would no longer be held automatically, but only if the commanding officer of the army unit involved in the death deemed it necessary.
This week, the list of Palestinian passersby, including children, who passed over to the next world during "incidents" in the territories, grew longer. According to Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, the I.D.F. takes cases of innocent civilians being hurt very seriously. According to Judge Advocat General Maj. Gen. Menachem Finkelstein, the I.D.F. thoroughly investigates any suspicions of death by negligence, let alone deliberate attacks on civilians.Bearing in mind that the commanding officer is at least indirectly responsible for the conduct of his men in the field, it was always very unlikely that Israeli officers were going to order many investigations into whether their own men had committed war crimes. In fact, in a petition submitted to the Israeli High Court in October 2003, the Israeli civil rights groups B'Tselem and ACRI, observed that 2,200 Palestinians had been killed by the end of October 2003, but only 55 of those deaths had been investigated. (That’s about 3%).
But if the military law enforcement agencies were to open a file after every "unfortunate incident of death," instead of looking for "wanted men," the commanders in the field would be busy looking for lawyers. The I.D.F.'s authorities have therefore ruled that it's up to field commanders to decide which cases of death justify a Military Police investigation, and which deaths of civilians are called an "unfortunate incident."(Source)
The effect of removing the threat of legal accountability from occupation soldiers was illustrated by one Israeli reservist who returned from service in Hebron in September 2001. He described how difficult it is at first to shoot children, but how much easier it becomes to do once you have done it and got away with it:
When I first got to Hebron I wouldn't open fire on little children. And I was sure that if I ever killed or hurt anyone, I'd go so crazy that I'd leave the army. But finally I did shoot someone, and nothing happened to me. In Hebron I shot the legs off of two kids, and I was sure I wouldn't be able to sleep anymore at night, but nothing happened. Two weeks ago I hurt a Palestinian policeman, and that didn't affect me either. You become so apathetic you don't care at all.In March 2002, in a detailed report on the killing of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers during the first 18 months of the intifada, B'Tselem summed up the impact of removing legal accountability for civilian deaths as follows:
Shooting is the IDF soldier's way of meditating. It's like shooting is your way of letting go of all your anger when you're in the army. In Hebron there's this order they call "punitive shooting": just open fire on whatever you like. I opened fire not on any sources of fire but on windows where there was just wash hanging to dry. I knew that there were people who would be hit. But at that moment it was just shoot, shoot, shoot.
-- Extract from an interview with Israeli soldiers (who are identified by pseudonyms) conducted by Israeli journalist Uri Blau and printed in Kol Ha'Ir, a Jerusalem weekly, in September 2001. Translated from Hebrew by Tal Haran, and published in English translation in the April 2002 edition of Harpers Magazine.
The I.D.F. effectively grants immunity to soldiers who open fire illegally. Since the beginning of the intifada, the I.D.F. has ceased to automatically open an investigation into every case in which a Palestinian is killed by I.D.F. fire… [T]he investigations that are opened are generally protracted and based primarily on soldiers' testimonies, while completely ignoring the Palestinian eyewitnesses. This policy has unavoidably resulted in a situation in which shooting at innocent Palestinians has practically become a routine.
We see a similar institutional failure by the U.S. military to hold its troops accountable for their behaviour in the treatment of the Haditha case. On 20 November 2005, the U.S. military explained the deaths in Haditha like this: "A US marine and 15 civilians were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb in Haditha. Immediately following the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another."
According to the NY Times, the Marine Corps knew within two days of the killings that the official version of events was not true, but decided not to pursue an investigation. In the meantime, the story was kept alive by the efforts of a local Iraqi journalist and an Iraqi human rights group, who documented the scene and made their findings available to Time magazine. It was only on 9 March - after Time magazine had presented US military authorities in Baghdad with video evidence from Haditha, which it was about to publicize in its 19 March edition - that the U.S. military opened an investigation.
This sequence mirrors a course of events that is common in the Occupied Territories, where time and again the IDF has routinely declared that there is no need to investigate the killing of a civilian and has only subsequently reversed itself and held an investigation because a journalist, NGO or private individual has confronted it with proof - as for example in the cases of Shaden Abu Hijleh, Ahmed Abdul Rahman al-Karini, Mansur Taha Ahmed, Ahmad and Jamil Abu Aziz, Asma and Ahmed Mughayer - that the military version of events is a lie. In Iraq, as in the Occupied Territories, without the intervention of outside agencies, military authorities fail to hold their troops accountable for civilian deaths.
I don't think the deliberate killing of children is a particularly American or Israeli thing. I think that any army that follows those three steps will find itself dealing with child killers in its ranks. If you insist on fighting an unconventional war against an alien, occupied people, sooner or later that is where you end up. It just so happens that we and the Israelis are up to our necks in that kind of war right now, so we are the ones trying to explain away why some members of our "most moral armies in the world"™ are targetting children. If we don't like hearing the young people in our armed forces branded as "baby killers", the answer is not to wave photos of kids parading with guns, to propagate lies about child combatants. The answer is simply to stop arming our young people to the teeth with hi-tech weaponry; stop pumping them up on propaganda about islamofascists and terrorists; and stop sending them to police unsustainable occupations in lands that aren't our business and over people who don't want us there.