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It is not a cycle of violence
Saturday, March 16, 2002

The Lost City of David

  • Photo Essay

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  • We all know about the "cycle of violence": Israeli troops kill a carful of Palestinian militants; a Palestinian suicide bomber blows up a group of diners in a Jerusalem restaurant. The Israelis kill more militants; the terrorists send more suicide bombers.

    On and on it goes, a series of tit-for-tat attacks that builds relentlessly on itself. Both sides are equally to blame and the only solution is for both to forswear violence and get back to talking peace.

    That, in any case, is how most of the outside world sees what is happening in the Middle East. The "cycle of violence" is a neat way of understanding a confusing situation. No wonder that it has been embraced by governments and media nearly everywhere.

    Only one problem: It is dead wrong. The idea that both sides are equally to blame for the current violence is absurd. The violence has one cause and one cause only: Palestinian terrorism.

    Israel today is suffering the most intense and sustained terrorist assault that any modern nation has endured. When its military hits back, its purpose is to stop that terrorism, and it would stop attacking tomorrow if the terrorism stopped. The same is not true of the terrorists, who would keep sending their suicide bombers even if there were no Israeli response.

    The leaders of the Palestinians would have the world believe it is they who are reacting to Israeli violence. When a suicide bomber detonated his device in a Jerusalem café near Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's residence last weekend and killed 11 people, a Palestinian spokesman said it was only a spontaneous "human reaction" to Israeli violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

    But it isn't a reaction at all. The terrorist war is a deliberate campaign designed to demoralize Israelis and create a crisis that would bring international intervention that would favour the Palestinian cause. There is nothing spontaneous about it.

    Distinctions like that may seem like hair-splitting when bullets are flying and blood flowing. But they matter. To frame the Mideast conflict as a simple "cycle of violence" is to put the response to terrorism on the same plane as terrorism itself. Seen this way, the Israeli general who sends his tanks after gunmen in a refugee camp is every bit as debased as the terrorist leader who sends his suicide bombers to blow up a café.

    That is clearly not so. Every nation has the right to defend itself against terrorism. That includes the right to retaliate with military force if necessary. Even when that retaliation ends in the loss of innocent life, as it too often has in the Palestinian areas, it does not put the retaliator in the same moral league as the terrorist.

    There is a world of difference between the Israeli soldier who accidentally shoots an innocent child in the heat of battle and the terrorist who deliberately blows up a bus full of Israeli children. The deaths are equally tragic, but the killers are not equally culpable.

    When the United States retaliated for Sept. 11 by attacking the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, all but the most fervent anti-Americans recognized that its use of violence in self-defence was different from the terrorist violence inflicted on it. Yet when it comes to Israel, that distinction is blurred.

    Even Washington buys the "cycle of violence" theory. When Israel moved forces into the West Bank town of Ramallah this week to root out terrorists, George W. Bush called it an "unhelpful" move that would only provoke more killing.

    It may well do that, just as the U.S.-led campaign to root out terrorists in Afghanistan may bring more attacks on Americans. But the way to stop terrorism is not to stop retaliating. It's to stop the terrorists.

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