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Jewish Journal

by Eric Silver Jerusalem Correspondent

March 27, 2003 | 7:00 pm

If there is one thing Israelis have learned -- from the two and a half years of the present intifada and from all the battles that preceded it over 54 years -- it is that there are no surgical wars.

You can't wage war without killing and maiming people, soldiers and civilians, whether by accident or design. Some die from friendly fire. Some are taken prisoner. And in the Middle East, the enemy fights dirty.

As United States and British forces suffered their first televised setbacks this week, Israeli military commentators pointed the lessons. Not with glee but with a discernible whiff of "We could have told you." And they did not flinch from saying the unsayable.

The American people, Avraham Tirosh wrote in Ma'ariv, learned about the horrible face of war.

"It got several awful examples of what awaits it," Tirosh explained. "Not a deluxe war, which it was perhaps mistakenly led to expect, not an easy drive to Baghdad, with the main adversary being the dust and the sand. But dead, wounded, missing, helpless captives and victims of murder."

The mob, trampling the banks of the Tigris River on Sunday in search of American pilots, shooting into the reeds and setting them alight, Tirosh added, had never heard of the Geneva Convention.

"Nor did those who fired at the heads of captive American soldiers," he wrote.  "And even if they had heard, the Geneva Convention would have interested them as much as last year's desert storm. Woe is he who falls into their hands."

Writing in the same daily paper, Amir Rappaport warned: "From now on, the captives will serve as Saddam Hussein's human shield. It is easy to imagine a situation toward the end of the war with the Americans closing in, when Saddam will make it clear that the moment he is attacked, the captives will die with him. It is very difficult to imagine what George Bush and his generals will decide if they face this terrible dilemma."

Precisely because of situations like that, Rappaport explained, Israel decided years ago to do everything to prevent the kidnapping of its soldiers. That was the reason, he said, why in 1994, an elite commando unit tried to rescue Nahshon Wachsman (the son of U.S. immigrants) from captivity, even though the chances of success were known to be low. That was also why Israel declared dead three soldiers captured by Hezbollah two and a half years ago, even though the Lebanese militia was still holding their bodies.

From bitter experience of what happens to POWs in Arab hands, Israel also questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's rush to denounce the Iraqis as war criminals for parading prisoners before the TV cameras. Their exposure to the media, argued Yoav Ben-David, who was held and tortured by Syria for a year after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, constituted a kind of insurance policy, however limited.

"The Americans," he suggested, "still don't realize that the Iraqis will be careful not to hurt soldiers taken prisoner, photographed and seen by the whole world. Precisely because of that, it is important that they do not hide themselves and look away, but rather be seen as much as possible by the camera lens and even to smile and try to look good."

Taking a longer view, Amir Oren argued in the liberal Ha'aretz that TV shots of GIs, dead, wounded and taken prisoner, the image of bloodthirsty Iraqis, would only intensify Bush's determination to "Shock and Awe" them -- and intensify the popular support for the war.

"This will be a turning point in the campaign for both domestic and international legitimacy for the war," Oren predicted. "It will not drive Bush out of Iraq the way Syria's capture of navigator John Goodman drove Ronald Reagan out of Lebanon or the downed Black Hawk helicopter drove Bill Clinton out of Mogadishu."

Similarly, Alex Fishman contended in Yediot Aharonot, Israel's biggest-selling Hebrew daily, that Uncle Sam would have to take off the gloves.

 "The Americans want to show humanitarian warfare that is careful about human life," he wrote. "But they have no intention of losing the war either. To win it, from now on, they are going to need to destroy en masse the members of the Republican Guard and anyone near them."

As Israelis know all too well, there are no benign wars.  

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