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Barbarism Runs Rampant in the Holy Land

Atrocities are now a tactic accepted by both sides.

July 24, 2002|HUSSEIN IBISH | Hussein Ibish is communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The latest atrocity in the Middle East, in which an Israeli F-16 jet fired a missile into a civilian neighborhood in Gaza in a successful attempt to kill a noted Palestinian, is emblematic of the degree of barbarism that has come to characterize this hideous conflict. Inevitably and predictably, the attack took the lives of many innocents, including at least nine children, two of them infants.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wasted no time in crowing that this horror, which would certainly meet any reasonable definition of the term "terrorism," should be counted as "one of the great successes." No matter that the murder of Salah Shehada, one of the top leaders of the military wing of Hamas, left in its wake so many dead children, as well as more than 100 others wounded and at least five houses destroyed.

While apologists for Israel's brutalities were quick to boast about the Israeli army's efforts to avoid civilian casualties, this assassination by air raid indicated with stark undeniability the utter lack of concern for those who might have gotten in the way. Some pundits were even reduced to chiding Shehada for "making sure he was surrounded by his wife and children and other civilians," as if a family deserves to be killed for living in the same house.

This wanton brutality and cynical apologies for it are, of course, perfectly mirrored on the Palestinian side by Shehada's colleagues in Hamas and their apologists, who have come to regard the murder of Israeli civilians in buses, discos, cinemas and pizzerias as not only acceptable but somehow heroic.

The extent to which Palestinian extremists see themselves as fighting all of Israeli society, men, women and children in everyday activities anywhere in the country, has been well recognized in the United States because of the appalling suicide bombings. What is less well recognized, but no less significant and immoral, is the degree to which the Israeli government too has adopted an attitude in which the entire population of Palestinians is the target.

This is demonstrated by the killings of militants' families, which look increasingly less "accidental" as the conflict drags on.

This attitude is also demonstrated when Israel destroys the homes of those suspected not just in suicide bombing attacks but other activities directed against the occupation. How else can one explain the plan--later rejected by Israel--to expel relatives of suspected militants?

And finally, what other mind-set could have resulted in the killing of more than 1,000 Palestinian civilians in less than two years, hundreds of them children?

Both sides grope for rationalizations and evidence of their own "moral superiority." Many Palestinians claim that the occupation justifies resistance by any means necessary. Many Israelis claim that they in fact never target civilians, and those 1,000 deaths were all the result, in effect, of tragic accidents.

Others, including Americans, openly embrace the idea that targeting civilians is a good idea. Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz has advocated the destruction of an entire Palestinian village in revenge for each suicide bombing attack, and Washington lawyer Nathan Lewin has demanded the murder of the entire families of suspected suicide bombers.

And while the Bush administration has called for restraint on both sides, it registers moral outrage only when Israelis are killed. Many, if not most, of the suicide bombings have been specifically condemned by the president or his spokespeople, which is entirely proper. Despite the fact that Israel's use of an American-made and -supplied F-16 in an assassination outside of its borders is a clear violation of the Arms Export Control Act, this latest outrage is unlikely to break the dismal pattern of moral one-sidedness.

One has to ask what it was that the Israeli government hoped to achieve by killing such a prominent Palestinian in such a spectacularly ruthless matter. This question is particularly pertinent given that it came just hours after Hamas' spiritual leader said the organization would consider ending suicide bombing attacks if the Israeli troops withdrew from the recently reinvaded Palestinian cities, as President Bush and the U.N. Security Council have demanded.

Sharon knows perfectly well that the inevitable result of this assassination, particularly given the extraordinary brutality with which it was carried out, can only lead to grim vengeance from Hamas. This in turn will provide him with further excuses to reinvade and reoccupy Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza.

Pervasive moral blindness is mirrored by strategic blindness. Sharon and Hamas kill in the name of a military victory that will never come.

These nominal enemies are in reality partners in the cause of violence over negotiations and war over peace. Anyone who applauds or excuses their massacres and terrorism, on either side, is an accomplice.

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