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Is `moral equivalency' really so wrong?

June 18, 2006|Henry Siegman | HENRY SIEGMAN is a senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations and a visiting professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

THE DEATH OF an entire Palestinian family -- a father and his six children -- on a Gaza beach earlier this month, followed just a few days later by an Israeli missile strike that killed nine more Palestinian civilians, has reopened the controversy about whether there is really much difference between Palestinian terrorism and Israel's military retaliations.

Writing in Israel's Maariv, columnist Dan Margalit argues that "even if an Israeli shell killed them, there was no intention to kill peaceful civilians on a beach in Gaza. On the other hand, the Kassam [rockets] fired at Sderot is an ongoing, systematic and conscious effort at the premeditated killing of [Israeli] civilians." He concludes that "only a world lacking integrity and full of conspiracies ignores the decisive difference in intentions between the two sides."

The last time this controversy flared was following the release of Steven Spielberg's movie "Munich." The movie was criticized for its "moral equivalence," allegedly equating Palestinian terrorism and Israeli retaliations. Much in the spirit of Margalit's angry comment, Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic argued at the time that the equation is false because "the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective."

The distinction might have had greater merit if Israeli strikes held out any prospect of ending, or even reducing, Palestinian terrorism. In fact, they have the opposite effect. Ofer Shelah writes in Yedioth Ahronoth that even those in the Israeli Defense Forces responsible for this policy now admit that in the early days of the Palestinian intifada, retaliatory strikes contributed to the continuation of the conflict and the great outbreak of terrorism starting in mid-2001. The IDF's notion that "what doesn't work by force will work with more force" has proved its bankruptcy.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 16, 2006 Home Edition Current Part M Page 6 Editorial Pages Desk 2 inches; 85 words Type of Material: Correction
Israel: A June 18 article on the Mideast conflict stated that a father and his six children were killed in a June 9 Israeli artillery strike on a Gaza beach. A man, his wife and five children in their family died. The article also said that Palestinian civilians have been killed "virtually every day" since Israel's disengagement from Gaza. Statistics from B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, show that Palestinian civilians have been killed on fewer than half the days since the disengagement last year.

The vast disproportion between Palestinian civilian casualties from Israeli "mistakes" and Israeli casualties from Palestinian terrorist assaults also brings into question the distinction between the two. It suggests that the killing of Palestinian civilians is, at the very least, more a matter of Israeli indifference than a mistake. Not a single Israeli has been killed by a Kassam rocket since Israel's disengagement from Gaza last year, although during this period Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli artillery and airstrikes virtually on a daily basis. (According to B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, Israeli forces have killed about 3,400 Palestinians since the intifada started, and Palestinians have killed about 1,000 Israelis).

More important, judgments about the morality of Israeli military strikes that kill innocents cannot be made without reference to the political context within which the violence occurs. Even when Israeli attacks are carried out with care to avoid harm to civilians, "collateral damage," in which innocent Palestinians are killed or maimed, only can be justified if Israel also is engaged in a serious and realistic attempt to reach a negotiated solution.

But since the Labor Party was voted out of office in 2000, Israel's policy has been to refuse to consider concessions that would have to be made in negotiations with the Palestinians. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateralism, embraced by his successor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was never intended as a bridge to a renewal of the peace process but as a strategy for its avoidance. It is a policy that the Labor Party, despite occasional campaign rhetoric, has largely supported.

In the opinion of most Israeli security experts, terrorism cannot be defeated unless Israel offers Palestinians a credible political prospect for achieving viable statehood. Without such a political prospect -- which for all practical purposes has been eliminated by the conditions imposed by Olmert for a renewal of peace talks and by continuing Israeli settlement expansion deep into the West Bank -- Israeli retaliations degenerate into vengeance and have no claim to greater moral justification than Palestinian terrorism.

Palestinians insist that, like the Israelis, their objective is not to kill innocent civilians but to end a crushing occupation that is now in its 40th year. Killing civilians is seen by some of them -- immorally and stupidly -- as a means to that end.

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