I have never liked the expression “cycle of violence” when applied to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It implies both irrationality and value neutrality — that violence is caused only by previous violence on both sides, and that neither side has any more valid justification for its actions. One could as well apply the term to 9/11 and its aftermath — al Qaeda attacks the United States, the United States hits back in Afghanistan; al Qaeda bombs a nightclub in Bali, the U.S. fires a Hellfire missile at terrorists in Yemen; where does the madness end?
I will avoid discussing the patrimony of the conflict, which can become an exercise in infinite regression — one colleague of mine has a penchant for bringing up the 1946 King David Hotel bombing which has always struck me as, at best, the exception proving the rule, and maybe not even that. Instead, I am more impressed by examining the nature of the recent violence, and the asymmetry between the Israeli and Palestinian use of force. This was clearly in evidence in the last few days, as the radical Palestinian factions made it known that they had no interest in the roadmap for peace or the al-Aqaba declaration. About a year ago, the radicals adopted a similar posture in response to the Sharm al-Sheikh declaration following the Beirut Arab summit, the concrete expression of which was the Netanya massacre. So this time the Israelis were proactive, mounting a strike against Hamas leader Abd-al-Aziz al Rantisi on June 10, which wounded but did not kill him. “By God, we will not keep a single Jew in Palestine,” he later said from his hospital bed, among other similarly angry sentiments, which were understandable under the circumstances I suppose. He added helpfully, “This is what I say now, I have not recovered from anesthesia.” In response to al Rantsi’s attempted removal, Hamas mounted a suicide attack on a busload of Israeli noncombatants in West Jerusalem, killing at least 16 and wounding nearly 100 more. Within an hour, Israel mounted a second strike at a Hamas leadership node, otherwise known as military commander Massoud al Titi, who was martyred along with several of his henchmen.
In both Israeli attacks some bystanders were also killed and wounded. This led Hamas Founder Sheikh Ahmad Yasin to maintain that “every person in Israel is now a target, because Israel does not show consideration for any military or civilian.” Now a target — when was then? Hamas has not been particularly scrupulous in its targeting choices, measuring success primarily by way of body count. The Israelis on the other hand have for some time been utilizing a strategy co-pioneered by the United States, namely taking the war to those who are directing it and attempting to spare innocent lives to the extent possible. Yasin’s claim that Israel does not distinguish between military (or terrorist) and civilian is belied by the pinpoint nature of the attacks. Yes, they may result in the unintentional deaths of noncombatants, but that can be said of practically any military operation, including those conducted by the United States. The terrorists on the other hand need not worry about causing unintentional deaths because every person they kill is within their target group.
The distinction between combatant and noncombatant is one of the fundaments of Just War theory and a sound basis for one to begin to make judgments about the relative moral standing of the contending sides. The Israeli attacks (or as the New York Times refers to them, “reflexive military responses to terror” — c.f. my first paragraph and imagine if you will a bus bombing of similar scale in New York City) were neither irrational nor the moral equivalent of the bombing in Jerusalem. All of these acts, and whatever violence may follow, were not blind expressions of rage, but calculated moves that were the natural course of the roadmap to peace.
The government of the Palestinian Authority is caught in the middle, particularly PA prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, who called the attempted Israeli hit on al Rantisi a “terrorist operation” and complained that the attacks would “foil attempts at dialogue” between the Palestinian factions. Radicals are threatening Abbas with civil war, which was brewing as well a year ago when Yasser Arafat tried to limit the scope of bombing operations and even temporarily arrested 14 members of Hamas. Al Rantsi now writes off Arafat as powerless, and says of Abbas, “We are dealing with a government that has given up the national and legitimate constants and rights of the Palestinian people,” particularly the right of resistance. This is a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Abbas government, which has thus far taken no concrete steps to control the radicals, and in fact may have no certain means of doing so. They are stronger than he is in most parts of Gaza, and certainly more ruthless. Abbas cannot publicly accept Israeli assistance, though in fact the people Sharon is targeting are probably as threatening to Abbas as they are to Israeli commuters.
This has left Arafat with an opportunity to seize the rhetorical high ground, which he did by denouncing the bus bombing as a “terrorist operation,” the first time he has even used that word to describe a Palestinian attack. He came out strongly in favor of the roadmap, stating that “this cycle of hell must be halted.” He called on all sides to come together to save the peace process, which he referred to as “the peace of the brave.” Seems as though the downfall of his friend and benefactor Saddam Hussein has made Yasser Arafat a changed man. A member of al Qaeda once said that the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad, but I do not think this was what he had in mind.