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The murky world of war

By Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2006


Our law enforcement and security agencies and their political masters are warning Australians against travelling to Lebanon to join Hezbollah, and say that any Australian who provides financial support to the military wing of the Hezbollah movement is breaking the law. But there is no similar warning for the one hundred or so Australians who are currently serving in the Israeli armed forces, despite widespread global outrage at the tactics currently being employed by the Israeli military in Lebanon.

That is because Hezbollah is a prescribed terrorist organisation in Australia which means, under anti-terrorism laws passed in 2004, that anyone who provides it with support - be it of a physical or financial nature - can be charged with criminal offences and face a long stint in jail.

Last week Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said, "Funding proscribed organisations is a severe offence under the law and if anyone were to be funding the military wing of Hezbollah they would be committing a serious offence."

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And Prime Minister John Howard told the media on July 28 that he “would have a very negative attitude towards" Lebanese-Australian dual nationals who join Hezbollah. Like Mr Ruddock, he too warned of the grave consequences under anti-terror laws of such an action.

But just because the Israeli defence forces are not prescribed terrorist organisations in Australia, or anywhere else in the democratic world, should not exempt them from similar warnings by politicians and law enforcement agencies.

Why aren’t Mr Howard and Mr Ruddock as concerned to warn any Australian or dual Australian-Israeli national who is serving in, or somehow supporting, the Israeli defence forces that they too ought to be mindful of their legal and ethical obligations?

It is clear that despite the fact that Hezbollah has some very unsavoury attitudes and that its actions against the Israeli people have, over the years been so callous and brutal as to justify the tag “terrorist organisation”, some of the conduct of the Israeli defense forces in its current Lebanon foray have amounted to human rights abuse. The actions of many of its military personnel have gone well beyond self-defence. They have been aggressive and in clear breach of the rules of military engagement.

In short, in cases where the Israeli military has acted without regard for the conventions of war its actions should be condemned as vociferously as we condemn Hezbollah’s outrages against innocent people.

Last Sunday Kenneth Roth, head of the respected New York based Human Rights Watch chronicled Israeli military actions over the past three weeks which, on the face of it, are grossly inhumane.

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As Roth observed, “Human Rights Watch investigators in Lebanon have recorded an appalling number of incidents in which civilians and civilian objects were hit with no apparent military justification: 12 civilians, including nine children, killed in Dweir; at least 16 civilians, including nine children, killed while fleeing Marwahin; nine civilians, including four children, killed in Beflay; as many as 42 civilians, including many children, killed in Srifa; some 60 per cent of nine square blocks of southern Beirut, composed mostly of eight to 10-story apartment buildings, destroyed; and now the tragedy of civilians, many of them children, killed at Qana,” Roth wrote in the New York weekly Forward.

In addition, there has been the destruction by the Israeli military of billions of dollars worth of Lebanese infrastructure - electricity girds, water supplies, bridges and roads - all in the name of fighting Hezbollah. Destruction of such essential and life sustaining infrastructure on such a large scale cannot be justified in any reasonable way.

Israel is, prima facie, committing war crimes and serious breaches of international humanitarian conventions and laws in its seemingly futile quest to destroy Hezbollah. In this sense, it is as culpable as its enemy.

Any Australian citizen or dual national who participated in, or aided and abetted any activities that clearly stand outside the conventions that govern the theatre of war may be guilty of war crimes, or a breach of international humanitarian law. Their crime is as serious as those committed by an Australian who joins the military wing of Hezbollah.

If Australia wants to be consistent in the warnings it gives it citizens about getting involved in the murky world of war and terrorism then it ought to be as tough on those who join regular national military forces like that of Israel, as it is on those who give succour to organisations deemed “terrorist”.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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