One of the most depressing characteristics of the dysfunctional Palestinian-Israeli relationship is the self-destructive tit-for-tat mentality that often seems designed to keep the conflict alive rather than to end it.
Anyone who follows the news is familiar with how this cycle works. It might begin with a Palestinian child dying while stopped at an Israeli army checkpoint on his way to the hospital. In response, an enraged Palestinian shoots into a crowd of Israeli soldiers at a bus stop. To show that it will not tolerate such behavior, an Israeli army helicopter then fires a missile into an apartment building in Gaza, targeting militants but killing civilians as well, after which outraged Palestinians fire a rocket into Israel, which in turn leads the Israelis to tighten whatever embargo or travel restrictions or security rules are in place at the moment. That increases Palestinian rage still further.
Needless to say, the cycle doesn't end there but continues until, after a while, it becomes completely impossible to say with any authority who began the hostilities or to distinguish actions from reactions.
We're currently witnessing the cycle in real time. On Saturday, five members of an Israeli family living in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, near the Palestinian city of Nablus, were killed, including an 11-year-old boy, a 4-year-old boy and an infant girl, presumably by Palestinian militants. In response to this brutal tragedy, the Israeli government announced that it would build 500 more houses in existing settlements in the West Bank. Interior Minister Eli Yishai said Sunday that 500 was not enough and that Israel should build 1,000 new homes for every Israeli who is killed there.
Which is worse — stabbing children to death or building new houses in West Bank settlements? The answer is obvious. But that's not the point. The point is that no matter how abhorrent the murders are, it serves no purpose to aggravate the provocation that led to them in the first place. How will building more houses for Israelis in the midst of the West Bank, in settlements that are almost universally acknowledged to violate international law, do anything other than keep the crisis going? Answer: It won't.
Terrorist violence is unacceptable, period. Palestinian leaders should say so, clearly and publicly. The murder of children is especially disheartening and reprehensible, and the Itamar killers, whoever they are, should be hunted down and punished.
But at the same time, the Israeli government should be in the business of calming tensions, not stoking them, and of removing obstacles to peace rather than constructing them. Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be using last week's killings to appease the powerful, pro-settlement forces in his government.
If the conflict is to be resolved, the cycle must end. But for that to happen, both sides must put peace ahead of politics.