December 8, 2001
It is too easy to see the violence in the Middle East as a never-ending cycle of
outrage and revenge; tit for tat, and then rat-tat-tat for rat-tat-tat. When 25
civilians are blown to pieces in Israel, we know, with a horrible certainty, that
Israel will fire her rockets into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and kill
innocent civilians; and she has.
On the front pages of British tabloid newspapers, Ariel Sharon and Yasser
Arafat are portrayed as co-gerents in a war of ethnic hatred, and it is
convenient to assume that they are equally and symmetrically culpable.
That view is false. It cannot be stressed too often that there is a political
difference between Israel and her Arab aggressors: she is the only democracy
in the region, and has survived half a century of attempted extermination. And
there is a key moral difference between the actions of the Israeli defence forces
and the Hamas terrorists.
When a suicide bomber boards a bus laden with women and children, he
intends to inflict the maximum pain and suffering upon the innocent.
When Israeli helicopters fire on Palestinian targets in Ramallah, the intention is
not to kill civilians, but to flush out those who are engaged in or who are
It may be useful for the US State Department to pretend that there is no
analogy between the 11 September massacres in New York and Washington,
and the massacres in Jerusalem and Haifa. America wants to keep the ‘war on
terror’ distinct from the general Arab-Israeli conflict.
The truth, though, is that Mr Sharon is right in at least this sense: there
is no real difference between those who choose to die by blowing up the World
Trade Center and those who choose to die by blowing up young people on a
Sunday night in Jerusalem. Both sets of terrorists are actuated by a nihilism
with which it is impossible to negotiate. They would both, if they could, destroy
America and Israel together.
It follows that their organisations deserve the same kind of treatment. There is
no reason, in principle, why the same sort of measures should not be used to
prevent a repetition of such wickedness. Many people, on both Right and Left,
agree that it makes sense to launch physical violence against the al-Qaeda
network, and against the Taleban who have been protecting Osama bin Laden.
The war has so far been more successful than many had predicted.
It would be perverse to say that Israel did not have the right to launch
her own aerial missions against Palestinian territory; always provided that the
Israelis can show their targets to be legitimate.
Mr Sharon is also right to say that there is an analogy between Yasser Arafat
and Mullah Omar of Afghanistan. Until the Pentagon’s bombing ousted Mullah
Omar, both men were in nominal control of territories where terrorists were
protected, and where terrorist doctrines were inculcated into sad young men, to
the point where reason was lost and they were prepared to kill themselves.
It may be that Chairman Arafat officially condemns the Jerusalem
bombings; but he does nothing whatever to impede the recruitment and
deployment of suicide bombers in his territory. Indeed, he marked the 11
September massacres with a pronouncement that the terrorist struggle should
It is the region’s single greatest tragedy that the Palestinians should have
no one stronger or wiser to lead them.
Some 800 Palestinians have died in the latest intifada, now 14 months old. The
Israeli economy, on which the Palestinians depend, has been badly damaged,
with 250,000 out of work. Many Palestinians live in conditions of abject squalor
– which of course suits the Palestinian leadership – and are fed a steady drip of
demented lies about Israelis.
Some of them are finally driven to blow themselves up to avenge an
injustice – a real, chronic injustice, but one which would have been far better
addressed had the Palestinians been better served by their leaders.
Israelis recognise that they will eventually trade land for peace, and that there
will eventually be a Palestinian state. But it is not fair to blame Israel for the
current impasse. It was Ehud Barak who went as far as he possibly could to
offer a deal on the West Bank and Jerusalem.
It was Yasser Arafat who turned that deal down, capitulating to the
nihilists behind him. The debate now must be whether it makes sense to do to
Arafat as the West did to Mullah Omar – to topple him and impose a different
government in the Palestinian territories.
The desperate reality is that any alternative is likely to be worse.
Arafat’s Palestinian Authority may be brutal and corrupt, and he may himself be
either complicit in terror or powerless to prevent it breeding beneath his nose.
But Israel has no other interlocutor. All we can hope is that he has the wisdom
and courage to begin locking up the militants and the would-be suicide
bombers; because otherwise Sharon will have no choice but to bomb.
The final tragedy is that this, of course, may be exactly what Arafat