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Response and responsibility

July 17, 2006

MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT: Responsibility for the escalating carnage in Lebanon and northern Israel lies with one side, and one side only. And that is Hezbollah, the Islamist militant party, along with its Syrian and Iranian backers. Reasonable minds can differ on the strategic wisdom of the Israeli response, but

there can be no doubt about the blame for the mounting death toll on both sides of the border.

The international community has not been sufficiently forthright about this. A statement issued Sunday by the Group of 8 leaders meeting in Russia acknowledged that the crisis was triggered by cross-border raids on Israel by Hamas in Gaza and by Hezbollah in Lebanon. But reflecting Russian and French concerns, the statement shied away from pointing the finger at Damascus and Tehran. Instead, it merely condemned "the extremist elements and those that support them."

This is cynical diplomatese for "You know who you are." And it comes from a group stacked with ostensible U.S. allies (plus Russia); diplomatic efforts from other quarters are likely to be even more unsatisfying.

As the magnitude of the fighting becomes more horrifying -- with Hezbollah and the Israeli military trading missiles and bombs, killing scores of civilians in the crossfire -- it is important not only to bear in mind what triggered this crisis but the conflict's larger context. Ever since Israel unilaterally withdrew troops from southern Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza last year, radical Islamists have stepped up their war on the Israeli state. The Israeli pullout from Lebanon was supposed to be followed by the Lebanese army's occupation of the border region and the disarmament of Hezbollah. Instead, the Islamist group, a minority faction in Beirut's government, operates in southern Lebanon as a separate state-within-a-state.

In the Palestinian territories, meanwhile, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was followed by the triumph at the polls of Hamas. Both Hamas and Hezbollah, which have a pact to collaborate in attacking Israel, are backed by the Iranian government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who himself has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

The danger now is that democratic political moderation across the Arab world will be another victim of this warfare. Moderate secular voices in Gaza and Lebanon are increasingly sidelined as fighting intensifies. And try selling the Israeli public now on the wisdom of a broad pullout from the West Bank.

So this latest conflagration in the Middle East presents a challenge for nations such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have long paid lip service to the desirability of moderation in the region. It's fine for them to raise questions, as this page has done, about the proportionality of Israel's response. But these nations, and the international community, should be prepared to place blame for this crisis where it belongs: on Hezbollah, Hamas and their state sponsors. Only then can work begin, not only to secure a cease-fire but to weaken the radical fundamentalist groups that are intent on preventing Israelis and their Arab neighbors from living in peace.

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