Breakfast of Scorpions

by Jonathan Wallace

In the Jenin refugee camp, Israeli soldiers acknowledged using Palestinians as human shields as they move house to house, seeking terrorists:

"Yes, because of the snipers," a soldier said. "If the sniper sees his friend there, he won't shoot."

He added that the Palestinians were instructed to open the doors. "We had a soldier who opened a door and was killed by a booby-trap that went off in his face. We let them open the door. If he knows its booby-trapped, he won't open it." (New York Times, April 15, page A11)

The subtext of this statement is both horrifying and fascinating. According to this Israeli soldier, there are no individual Palestinians but, in effect, one Palestinian group-mind. Every Palestinian sniper regards every "human shield" as a friend but, more significantly, every human shield also knows where every booby trap is placed.

Thus, the purpose of using human shields is not to have the hapless Palestinian catch a bullet or a blast; it is to deter the bullets and the blasts entirely.

There are simple, clear statements of international law, known as the Geneva conventions, that express rules about the treatment of noncombatants. Using civilians as human shields is, to put it mildly, a gross violation of international law. What is it in the mind of this particular soldier, his commanding officer's, and that of Ariel Sharon, who governs them all, that makes them blind, not only to international law, but even to appearances? How has the current situation become so bad that a soldier can blithely admit using a civilian as a shield, without seeing anything repugnant in the behavior or the admission?

The doctrine of necessity

You can map shifting periods of human history by the quality (in particular the honesty) of the discourse. When I first started thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the 1960's, it was impossible to talk to anyone I knew about it without hitting a concrete wall of emotional denials and canned rhetoric: "they want to drive all the Jews into the sea!" In recent years, as the Oslo peace process increasingly looked likely to succeed, the dialog of the people I knew on the pro-Israeli side became more nuanced. With Rabin and then Barak in power it became possible for the first time to acknowledge the mistakes of prior Israeli governments--the destructive quest for violence of aging figures like Ariel Sharon, the suicidal policy of building and defending the settlements at any cost. Now we are right back to "driving us into the sea!" and "they are sending suicide bombers to murder women and children!" Yes, they are, but the people crying out these words these days are saying--but won't admit they are saying-- that the ends (Israeli survival) justify any means.

In the 1960's, my assumptions about Israel were first undermined by reports that Israel was bull-dozing the homes of terrorists, regardless of whether the parents, siblings or cousins rendered homeless supported, or even had any inkling of, the suspect's activities. I realized that such an action here in the United States would be radically unconstitutional, both as a bill of attainder (guilt through genetic relationship) and as a gross due process violation. Why were otherwise liberal people, finely attuned to constitutional issues here, giving Israel a free pass to engage in such behavior?

Try asking a pro-Israeli friend that question, as the biggest bulldozers ever are flattening entire blocks of civilian houses in Jenin, and you will hear an echo of the Israeli soldier's theory of the group mind. "They're shooting from the houses! They are booby-trapping the houses!" Yes, it is a difficult, murky situation. But the Israelis, with vastly superior military force, appear to be smashing houses and flattening cars without regard to whether they have been used in support of violence. Last week, the Times ran an op ed piece by a Palestinian television producer reporting that Israeli troops had invaded the studio and smashed all the broadcasting equipment. His station's biggest accomplishment: broadcasting the Arabic version of Sesame Street. The military has cut off water and electricity, won't let the Red Cross or Red Crescent in, doesn't permit food, medicine or even ambulances carrying wounded to move.

What your friend is really saying is that one Palestinian represents all Palestinians, and that all are one. What Israel has always done, when it can't find the "faceless" Palestinian terrorist responsible for an outrage--or when that individual has already died--is to punish random Palestinians. That is the real message in the rumbling of the bulldozers, the killing of entire groves of olive trees, the massacre of all the dogs in a village or, last week, the destruction of the Palestinian public television station. Very possibly, your friend will dance around this. "You don't understand the situation. You haven't been there. People are being blown to little pieces every day. There are shreds of flesh and puddles of blood on the sidewalk."

In response, you might try a thought experiment. "If bulldozing the houses of the innocent is a deterrent"--something far from clear, the opposite seems to be true--"wouldn't shooting hostages be even more effective? You could set a ratio of Palestinians to Israelis; shoot twenty for every Israeli death, for example." You see where I am going with this. Try it; your friend, if he is like mine, will get angry, become incoherent, or change the subject; but he will not be able to explain to you why bulldozing houses or shutting off the electricity is acceptable in any moral scheme where shooting hostages is not. Because they all lie on the same moral spectrum, on the slippery slope.

Zeev Schiff writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha'Aretz described the house demolitions as "an act of undistinguished ruthlessness, a military act devoid of humanitarian and diplomatic logic." An editorial in the paper said, "no Israeli can agree to such blind cruelty." But these statements get lost in the fog of nonresponsibility generated by those seeking to give Ariel Sharon cover for his violent agenda.

The cloud of nonresponsibility

History is full of examples of brutal men unswervingly following a violent agenda, while dishonest men assist them by creating almost perfectly dense clouds of confusion. Thus, dictator A or president B decides to eliminate some inconvenient people who get in the way, while sycophants C to Z run around like plovers, piping that 1. the killing never occurred; 2. the victims killed themselves or were killed by their own side; and 3. the victims had it coming.

In my opinion (and I know these kinds of generalizations are dangerous) Israeli politicians lack subtlety, but Ariel Sharon is blunt and obvious even by Israeli standards. Sharon had a clear agenda from day one--he has done little personally to deny it--of ending the Oslo peace process. One cannot imagine, in fiction or in history, a tactic more devastatingly effective than his September 28, 2000 "photo op" on the Temple Mount, in proximity to the Islamic world's most sacred site, the Al Aqsa Mosque. At the time, Flore de Preneuf wrote in Salon:

Who will have sovereignty over the esplanade known by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount is one of the most sensitive issues being discussed in the current peace negotiations. In this context, Sharon's theatrical appearance on the esplanade used for Muslim prayers, accompanied by television crews and hundreds of Israeli riot police, was meant to reaffirm Israeli claims to the Temple Mount and Jerusalem as a whole. Not surprisingly, Sharon's cowboy approach to diplomacy was seen as an outrageous act of provocation by Palestinians and Muslims at large.

Sharon's attempted visit predictably met resistance and Israeli police opened fire on Palestinians, killing some. Within days hundreds more were killed in the rioting that ensued. Sharon's remarkable gesture seems by any rational scale to be a calculated move that cost Israeli and Palestinian lives, brought down Ehud Barak's government and led directly to the current bloody mess. But a Google search on "Ariel Sharon September 28 Al Aqsa Mosque" produces an amazing collection of documents produced by the fog machine:

In fact, Sharon never visited the Al Aqsa Mosque; he toured the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, but the mosques were not part of his visit. Furthermore, it is now common knowledge that Arafat planned his new war prior to Sharon's visit, as Al-Ayyam, the Palestinian Authority daily newspaper reported....

Did Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount provoke the Al Aqsa Intifada?

No. Both the U.S.-sponsored Mitchell Commission and Palestinian Authority Ministers have confirmed that the violence across the entire West Bank and Gaza had been planned earlier....

These kinds of statements are remarkable for the way they shift the focus. Ariel Sharon is not responsible for deliberately sparking the Al Aqsa intifada, because it was going to happen anyway. These statements completely fail to accord with the theory of responsibility we apply in all other walks of life. We wouldn't accept these kinds of declarations of nonresponsibility from a teenager who broke a vase ("it would have broken one of these days anyway").

The U.S. in the cloud

Israel represents a terrible problem for the United States. Israel kills Palestinians with U.S.-made Apache helicopters and F-16's. The Arab street holds us responsible for providing the Israelis with superior weapons of war which are now, remarkably, being used for crowd control, a task they were not designed for.

There has been little debate here either about the offensiveness of Israeli actions or about the U.S. responsibility. Given the philosophical origins of the current administration, in deep Second Amendment country, it is not too surprising if we see no reason why the seller of guns should be blamed for what is done with them. After all, guns don't kill Palestinians; Israelis kill Palestinians. Nevertheless, the rest of the world does not see things this way.

Despite being spun as resolute and quick to action, President Bush frequently seems to be passive and rather inept. The long-held view, only recently dropped, that the Middle East crisis was not U.S. business, was particularly strange given our arms sales. That passivity has allowed the fires there to rage to unbearable levels. However, the most notable mistake--right up there with his use of the word "crusade" right after September 11--was the President's description of Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace". Even the people around Sharon must have laughed at this one. If the President had surrounded himself with every conceivable adviser for a week, with the agenda of finding the remark most calculated to offend the entire Arab world, they might have come up with this. Did someone really script those words for him or was it another example of President Bush breaking away from his handlers and improvising? Ariel Sharon has never pretended to be anything else than a man of war, and in fact, is a man associated with war crimes at every turn of his career, beginning with the assault he led on the village of Quibya in 1953, which resulted in the death of 69 Palestinian civilians, two thirds of them women and children. (Sharon claimed he did not know they were in the houses he blew up--an excuse the Israelis used again recently in Jenin.) The President's words make him out either to be deeply unrooted in reality or just dishonest.

For decades, American support of Israel has bought votes at home without causing allies like Saudi Arabia to break relations. Now we are edging closer to an unprecedented crisis; the Saudis in particular are giving us strong signals that they may have to swing towards their own radical fringe to stay in power. The President wants to invade Iraq next year with as many as 250,000 troops, to do the job his father left unfinished. It is completely unclear that he has the insight, the diplomacy and subtlety necessary to accomplish this goal without alienating the rest of our Arab allies and giving the remains of Al Quaeda the power base it was unable to build on its own.

Both for justice and for self-interest, the U.S. should take a much stronger stand with Israel. Stop selling them weapons, for one thing. The Israelis are capable of manufacturing their own and can continue to obtain them from other sources, so we will not be abandoning them to catastrophe, but it would be an excellent wake-up call. In the relationship between a super-power and what is essentially a client state, the superpower should be calling the shots. In our current relationship with Israel, Ariel Sharon does what he wants and we express weak irritation, then go along with it. Let's join Europe in trying to restore some balance in the Middle East and hold Israel responsible for its actions.

Arafat's own cloud

In fairness to the Israelis, though, they are likely correct that Yasir Arafat is not a partner for peace. Arafat has created his own cloud of nonresponsibility; he sits in Ramallah, claiming to have no control over events while affiliates of his own Al Fatah organization mount suicide missions within Israel. You would think that Arafat had much to hope for in Secretary Powell's visit; but the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, an Al Fatah entity, conducted a suicide mission just as Powell was arriving.

The fact that this could happen indicates either that Arafat is dishonest and violent or that he has no control over his own people. For most of his career, Arafat (like Sharon) was obviously both dishonest and violent, and there is no reason to think he has changed now. In either event, the Israelis would be largely correct in saying it is not possible to negotiate with him. Someone on the Israeli side once said of Arafat that, in the peace negotiations, he "never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity." The same could be said of the Israelis, particularly their choice of Sharon to lead them, with his overt agenda of ending Oslo, in lieu of taking the last few steps to achieve peace. All these missed opportunities have created a cloud of their own, which obscures the question, probably unanswerable, of whether Arafat ever intended to live in peace with Israel, or was angling for a state from which further operations could be conducted later, to gain more land and more concessions.

Quite separate from the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, there are the two other organizations, Hamas and Islamic Holy War, which send suicide missions and over which Arafat clearly has little or no control. In order for peace to exist in the region, someone would have had to put them out of business. For a true post-crisis balance, it would have had to be the Palestinians who did so. Arafat would have had to persuade his own people that these groups were a threat to the new Palestinian state, and his own security forces would have had to root them out. Instead, the Palestinian authority has paid for posters idolizing the suicide "martyrs" and children (despite the extreme hype originating from the Israeli side about this) are apparently being educated to want to kill Israelis. Arafat has a version of the same problem all the Arab states are facing, including Saudi Arabia: after decades of fostering the fanaticism of the general population, how do you rein them back in? A separate peace would never have been possible between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas and Islamic Holy War free to continue their attacks from the new Palestinian state.

Israel has however handed Arafat a substantial excuse for his inaction. Israel pressures Arafat to arrest Palestinian militants--then, on a number of occasions, has bombed the jails where he is holding them. Arafat then frees them again--something I might also do if an enemy power was trying to impose an extra-judicial death sentence on people in my justice system. Israel, frustrated in finding enough Hamas and Holy War targets, has also routinely bombed and strafed Palestinian Authority police and security posts in response to acts of terrorism. This, like the bulldozing, is the old Israeli tactic of holding all Palestinians responsible for the actions of any. Arafat is right in complaining that the Israelis have destroyed his security apparatus while demanding that it function better. The question of whether Arafat would have ever ordered it to act effectively against Hamas and Islamic Holy War then gets lost, with everything else, in the cloud of nonresponsibility.

Two wrongs

If Arafat is an unregenerate terrorist and can never be trusted, why blame the Israelis? The short answer is this: the laws of war restrain the actions we can take in support of even the most just of causes. The Israeli state was born off-balance morally; the widely-held view in 1948 that the Palestinians did not even exist--"a land without people for a people without land"--leads directly to the killing and dying today. No provocation, no matter how extreme, will justify the wilful killing of civilians and the bulldozing of their homes. The Palestinian areas, cut off by Israeli troops, embargoed, with no ambulances or goods moving in and out, with the electricity and water cut off, with the economic and governmental infrastructure completely destroyed (Israeli troops have targeted the computers and files in numerous Palestinian companies and government agencies during their sweeps supposedly against terrorism) are starting to remind me of the Warsaw ghetto. Yes, with all that entails.

Fifty more years of blood

I do not think there will be peace in the Middle East for another fifty years now. The basis for it-- two rational sides which see a higher reward in cooperation than in killing-- no longer exists. There is every reason to think that we will see continuing paroxysms of killing and retaliation until another generation comes along willing to think differently. But nothing is being done to permit that generation to come into being.