August 1, 2002
Before our dead have even been buried, recriminations are in the air. What if we
had not killed Hamas megaterrorist Salah Shehadeh? Why did we bring upon
ourselves a new wave of terrorism?
The more pertinent questions are quite different: Why do the terrorists, and the
Palestinian leadership that does nothing to stop them, not ask itself similar
questions before attacking Israelis? Why are patently justified and preventive
Israeli actions considered provocative, while Palestinian “retaliation” is
The idea that Hamas has some right to “retaliate” after Israel kills its terrorist
mastermind is a form of the schoolyard logic, “it all started when he hit me
back.” Such a defense is absurd to the point of being comical, yet it is routinely
applied to the current conflict, and even, perhaps unconsciously, internalized by
many Israelis. Yesterday UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reflected this
mentality when he reflexively added to his condemnation of terrorism a call to
“all concerned to end the cycle of violence, revenge, and retaliation.”
The problem is that there is no “cycle of violence” and certainly no “cycle of
terror,” as a Palestinian Authority statement creatively put it. If anything, this
latest gruesome bombing of a cafeteria in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University
accentuates how little reciprocity there is in this conflict.
Hamas, which has taken responsibility for the bombing, has been trying for
almost two years to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible. Terrorism is by
definition and design indiscriminate. In this case, the victims were as diverse as
Hebrew University’s community of students, which includes Jews, Arabs, and
visitors from many countries.
In response, Israel would not for a moment dream of retaliating in kind. But
Israel not only considers the targeting of civilians an anathema, but severely
limits its actions against legitimate terrorist targets in order to minimize civilian
casualties. After the relatively high civilian toll that accompanied the killing of
Shehadeh, Israel revealed that the strike had been called off many times before
because the terrorist was surrounded by civilians, such as his own family.
Given the nature of the war we are fighting, it is not clear that we should be so
proud of this record. According to Part 3, Article 1, Section 28 of the Fourth
Geneva Convention, “The presence of a protected person may not be used to
render certain points or areas immune from military operations.” Translated, this
means that, under international law, combatants must not be allowed to protect
themselves by hiding among civilians.
Indeed, the Geneva Convention goes further: “The party to the conflict in
whose hands protected persons may be is responsible for the treatment
accorded to them by its agents.” In other words, if a terrorist hides among
civilians, it is the terrorist who is responsible for their deaths in any military action.
That the Palestinians violate these provisions wholesale goes without saying.
But Israel must also answer to its citizens for over-complying with international
law. The question must be asked: How many Israeli civilians died because Israel
refrained from killing Shehadeh and other terrorists because they were hiding
The nations that condemned Israel for being “heavy-handed” (in the words of
the United States) acted contrary to the letter and spirit of the Geneva
Convention by blaming Israel rather than Shehadeh for Palestinian civilian
deaths. The international community may well continue in this vein, no matter
what Israel says or does. It has come to the point, however, when Israel should
consider following, not going beyond, this basic principle of international law.
Israel must continue to attempt to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties, but
not to the point that terrorist chieftains have effective immunity. The military
pressure on Hamas and Islamic Jihad needs to be relentless. None of their
leaders, including their “spiritual” leaders, should feel safe anywhere.
The irony is that, by going beyond the letter of the law, let alone how any other
country would behave under such attack, Israel actually invites the world to
apply a double standard. If Israel itself waives its rights and lets terrorists use
their own families and neighbors as protection, why should the world not hold
Israel to that standard? Excessive restraint fails in its own terms because no
one gives us credit. It is also a false form of morality because, by prolonging
this war, it increases the number of Israeli and Palestinian civilian casualties alike.