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Ethical dilemma in war of ‘self-defense’

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The recent unjustified killings of Palestinian civilians — several children among them — have not only raised the anger of the Palestinian population but also some of Israeli civilians. More importantly, those brutal killings endanger the withdrawal negotiations and threaten to condemn them to nullity at a moment when they are more needed than ever before. Unless the Israeli government assumes responsibility and punishes those guilty of the crimes and the Palestinians change their destructive policies, peace in the Middle East will never be achieved.

The killings of Palestinian civilians by the Israel Defense Forces have sparked a debate about Israel’s policies and the effect of the occupation not only on Palestinians but also on Israel’s civilian society itself.

According to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, 36 bystanders, many of them children, have died since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising. According to Mousa Abu Hashash, a researcher for B’tselem, “When things are quiet Sharon tries to provoke Hamas and others to react, because none of them wants negotiations to succeed.”

This new round of killings of civilians comes just at a moment when Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, the Palestinian interior minister, declared in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth: “Stop the suicide bombings, stop the murders for no reason. Suicide attacks are contrary to the Palestinian tradition, are against international law and harm the Palestinian people. It is not necessary to respond or take revenge for every act. Both sides must act with restraint.”

Yehiyeh’s remarks, the strongest self-criticism yet from a high-level Palestinian official, found echo in an Aug. 27 interview in the Guardian with Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who was quoted as saying, “There are things that happen on a daily basis [in Israel] which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew.” He added, “There is no question that this kind of prolonged conflict, together with the absence of hope, generates hatreds and insensitivities that in the long run are corrupting to a culture. . . . I regard the current situation as nothing less than tragic. It is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long run with our deepest ideals.”

Sacks’ pronouncements are particularly valid. Not only is he the leader of Britain’s Orthodox Jews, but he has been a consistent defender of Israel and the pursuit of peace. His words, predictably, provoked both strong opposition and equally strong support within and outside Israel. The statements gave his verdict on the effect that decades of a wearing conflict are having on the Jewish people.

In Jerusalem, Rabbi Sholom Gold told the BBC that Sacks’ comments went so far beyond the pale that he had become “irrelevant” in the world Jewish community. And the Jerusalem Post stated, “Rather than ‘corrupting’ us, this war of self-defense has brought out some of our finer qualities, such as patriotism, national pride and a willingness to make personal sacrifices on behalf of the common good.”

But Sacks received strong support from an Israeli government minister, Michael Melchior, who is himself a former rabbi of Norway. He criticized those, particularly from the Israeli right, who have ignored the moral dilemmas posed to Israel by the conflict and warned of a “deep Jewish ethical crisis” as a result of Israel’s actions. And rabbi Michael Marmur, dean of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem stated, “Occupation and terror are brutalizing us.”

Daniel Reisel, a soldier in the Israeli Army, declared on Sept. 3 in the Guardian: “As a reserve sergeant in the Israeli army, I have experienced the prolonged tragedy of the Palestinians at first hand. … We have witnessed the house demolitions, the uprooting of vineyards, the daily alienation of hope itself. We have seen a whole people pushed to the brink, penned in a corner, humiliated and denied basic human rights. . . . We perform actions we would be ashamed of had we been in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.”

How much further do things have to deteriorate before both sides will work seriously at peace as seriously as they have been working at war?