'Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake," runs Napoleon's famous dictum, and were either the Israeli government or the groups that are leading the Palestinian people (Hamas and Fatah and international organizations such as Hezbollah) capable of assimilating this basic piece of military sense, we should have already seen a sudden outbreak of peace, or, at least, cautious inactivity, in the border areas of Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and Lebanon.
Both sides have made fundamentally foolish moves in recent weeks, yet each side has consistently been rescued from its mistakes by the errors of the other. And, following this pattern, they have worked themselves and the world to the edge of a crisis that is ominous even by Middle Eastern standards.
Who initiated this sequence of errors? As with all crises in the region, this question is almost impossible to answer. The specific trigger is often said to be the June incursion into Israel by Palestinians from Gaza, which resulted in the seizure of Cpl. Gilad Shalit of the Israel Defense Forces and the death of two other IDF soldiers. But the Palestinians have explained that their commandos were carrying out a reprisal raid after the IDF seized two Palestinian brothers, Osama and Mustafa Muamar, who, they claimed, are innocent of anything save being sons of a known Hamas activist, Ali Muamar.
Viewed in this light, the Palestinian action seems uncharacteristically legitimate, proportionate and even daring. For, unlike the Israeli seizure of the Muamars, the whole of the Palestinian operation was aimed at strictly military targets. Yet the Israelis answered with a sadly predictable full-scale military incursion into Gaza. The Palestinians, meanwhile, abandoned proportionality once again by stating that the release not simply of the Muamars but of hundreds of their people imprisoned in Israel would be the condition of Shalit's release.
More important, perhaps, the Israeli incursion into Gaza gave Hezbollah (or so it felt) the green light to launch its rocket attacks from southern Lebanon. President Bush and Israeli leaders might try to represent the two events -- the action in Gaza and that in south Lebanon -- as unconnected, but it is an assertion that has failed to gain traction in most of the Muslim world, as well as in many other countries.
Israel's reaction in Gaza had been especially foolish. Although the original Palestinian attack on the IDF post was carried out against a purely military target, the quick demand for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israel showed the Palestinians' true lack of diplomatic deftness. Had the Israelis limited themselves to the threat of an incursion, while carrying out the kind of special-forces search-and-rescue operations of which they are capable, the Palestinians would have lost their advantage.
Not to fear, however: The Palestinian mistake was indeed interrupted, and grotesquely, by the sight of massively armed IDF conventional forces crossing into one of the poorest and smallest regions on the planet, all to rescue what Israel claimed was a "kidnapped" soldier -- an assertion that was absurd because a uniformed, front-line noncommissioned officer can no more be "kidnapped" by the enemy than an innocent, unarmed child can "die in battle." Already, the language of the conflict was taking on the dimensions of events occurring on the other side of Alice's looking glass, and things would only get worse.
The Palestinians' allies, in their turn, soon rescued Israel from this terrible error in judgment. After a border skirmish -- the true origins of which may never be known -- Hezbollah initiated a rocket offensive against Israeli towns and cities in the north of the country, causing a certain number of civilian casualties but far more widespread civilian panic. So great was the panic that Israel felt the need to once again take its turn at rescuing its enemies from error. It bombarded and finally invaded southern Lebanon in a barrage that would turn out to be, by orders of magnitude, the most savage step in the spiral of horror, miscalculation and interruption of miscalculation.
And now? Now, scarcely anyone on either side of the conflict knows or cares who was the first to break the "rules of war." Civilians on both sides only want relief from the constant anxiety of indiscriminate attacks and revenge for those noncombatants who -- whether because they happened to live where a Katyusha rocket landed inside Israel, or because they lived too close to where Hezbollah had parked a launcher of such rockets inside southern Lebanon, or because they simply have nowhere to go to escape the narrow confines of the Gaza corridor or West Bank refugee camps -- have met hideous deaths or suffered equally hideous wounds.