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Is 'moral equivalency' really so wrong?

Author: Henry Siegman, Former Senior Fellow and Former Director for the U.S./Middle East Project
June 18, 2006
Los Angeles Times

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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.

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.

But they are not alone in this. Some in the Jewish community in Palestine also resorted to this means when they were engaged in their own struggle for national independence and statehood. The Irgun, a Jewish terrorist organization that morphed into the Likud, first targeted Arab civilians in October 1937. In his history of Israel's War of Independence, “Righteous Victims,” Benny Morris writes that the Irgun “introduced a new dimension to the conflict” when “for the first time, massive bombs were placed in crowded Arab centers, and dozens of people were indiscriminately murdered and maimed.” Morris writes that in 1937, “this ‘innovation’ soon found Arab imitators.”

Of course, the killing of innocents was utterly immoral when Jews resorted to it during their struggle for independence, and it is just as utterly immoral when Palestinians resort to it now. When accounting for the different stages in which the Jewish and Palestinian national struggles find themselves, their moral (or immoral) equivalence could not be more precise.

No serious person can believe that Israel—with one of the world's most powerful military establishments—is at risk of being undone and eliminated by Hamas or by any other terrorist group. With or without Hamas’ recognition, Israel’s existence is not in doubt. In a recent interview in Haaretz, Efraim Halevy, who served as head of the Mossad from 1998 to 2002 and as national security advisor to Sharon, ridiculed the notion that a terrorist group could endanger Israel's existence.

Furthermore, if Israel were to enter into a negotiation with Palestinians that actually recognized Palestinian national rights and the pre-1967 borders, I believe—based on extensive conversations with the players in the region—that Hamas would agree to minor and reciprocal border adjustments. Skeptics must be reminded that of all the various strategies resorted to by Israel over the years to end its conflict with the Palestinians, none of which has come even close to achieving that goal, the one it has never tried is returning to pre-1967 borders as the starting point for reciprocal adjustments.

The overarching moral issue for Israel is whether the additional territory it seeks to hold is worth the inevitable cost in Palestinian and Israeli lives. The question for Israelis is whether the shattering of an entire people, in the West Bank and “liberated” Gaza, and the Palestinian and Israeli lives yet to be extinguished as a new intifada is triggered by the IDF’s determination to convince Palestinians that they are a defeated people, is a price they are prepared to continue to pay for their government’s unilateralist fixation.

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