In no way do I condone the attack on Egged bus 392. Neither do I think it sane that it be considered a justification for bombing Gaza. The argument always runs “Israel has the right to defend itself”, but it does not follow from this principle that Israel has the right to use force against a group which is not proven to be connected with the attacks, and even if they were they would have other means to bring the attackers to justice.
But I’m not here to discuss the war, its logic or its rhetoric, I just want to talk about the bus – Egged bus number 392. Israeli and North American news sources have called the victims on this bus “civilians”. But in reality, the situation is more complicated – a civilian is a non-combattent, but according to the drive of the bus, it “mainly ferries soldiers between their homes in Eilat and their bases” (Hareetz, ” Israeli bus driver recounts long minutes of terror attack”, 19.08.11). Many on the bus who were injured and killed were not civilians, but members of the Army, either currently in service or in the reserves. Members of armed forces are not civillians, but combatants.
Neither can we say “the militants would have attacked any bus, this one was just at the wrong place at the wrong time”. That’s not a serious point – according to IDF reports, the militants were disguised in Egyptian fatigues and posed as if repairing a fence, there is no way of knowing exactly how long they were posed in this pretext, but certainly they could have been waiting for a specific target to come along. There is no way of knowing what their intelligence was, or what their intentions were when they targeted Egged bus 392. They certainly would have known that Palestinians rarely ride on Egged buses – is illegal for Palestinians with Green IDs to ride the buses, and even with a Blue ID or an Israeli passport the bus driver often will not allow Palestinians to board if they are afraid or if they “do not like your face”, according to an anonymous source. But they could have known specifically that this bus route was primarily used by members of the military – we just don’t know whether they knew this or not, and until we do, we shouldn’t call it a terrorist attack on civilians based on ungrounded assumptions.
Israel regularly carries out targeted assassinations in Gaza which have civilian casualties, and are at best extra-legal killings of potential combatants. This activity is fully supported by USA and Canada. And, as far as I know, it’s the same policy as US pursues in Iraq, and Canada has pursued in Afghanistan. I think these killings are illegal and immoral. However, if we are honest, we should consider the possibility that the attack on 392 was the same type of targeted assassination – the militants might have had intelligence that there would be combatants on the bus, and these are combatants which could be engaged in operations against Palestinians in the present or future. I think this would be immoral and illegal, but it might not be something Israel or the US has the moral right to condemn on moral grounds, since it seems pretty much the same kind of attack that they carry out regularly. You could argue that Israel only targets high value “Palestinian terrorists” for its drone attacks, but that is a tactical difference. Moreover, I’ve heard unconfirmed reports that one of the Israeli soldiers killed was a legendary sniper, if that is true, and if the militants knew this, then it would fit cleanly into the idea of “targeted assasination”.
However, just because the bus was ferrying combatants, even perhaps very important and high value combatants, and even if the bus itself should be thought as part of the IDF (i.e. if it is the case that the bus route mainly exists to ferry soldiers, who do not pay to take the bus, then the bus route is really part of the army), this does not justify the attack. The fact that many groups are at war with Israel does not even give them the moral or legal right to break truces and attack targets that are clearly military, unless it is in response to provocation such as when IDF soldiers cross the border into Gaza and are engaged, and sometimes successfully repelled, by Palestinian militants. However, the fact that calling them non-civilians is not a justification for the attack does not serve as an argument that they be labelled civilians. In a conflict, we should use clear and honest language to describe the status of different participants, and we should clearly distinguish between demanding honesty in labelling from the moral arguments about justification.