Melanie Phillips on the hard choices before us. (Thanks to Nicolei.)
The killing by Israel of the Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi has been widely condemned in Britain and Europe. The Palestinians are screaming for revenge. Only America has stopped short of condemnation, confining itself to vague concern about consequences.
The Rantissi killing happened days after President Bush publicly endorsed Israel’s policy of retaining some West Bank territory and refusing automatic right of settlement in Israel to the Palestinians. As a result, many in Britain may be inclined to the following conclusions: that Israel killed Rantissi because America has now given it carte blanche to do whatever it likes; that the killing will once again ratchet up the violence; and that instead of building upon America’s support by keeping its head down, Israel has displayed its usual arrogance and aggression which has now killed off the chances of a political settlement.
This widespread reaction rests upon some profoundly dangerous misunderstandings, not just about Israel and the Middle East but about the wider phenomenon of global terror and what encourages it.
The first major error is the idea that Israel is torpedoing a political settlement. There is in fact no political settlement on the horizon. For all Tony Blair’s insistence otherwise, the road map is dead in the water because the Palestinian Authority refuses even to attempt the map’s first and most basic requirement, that it dismantle the infrastructure of terror.
Not only has it refused on the grounds that to confront Hamas would mean civil war, but Yasser Arafat’s own militias — and even the PA’s own policemen– are repeatedly involved in the human bomb attacks which are being regularly attempted (and mainly thwarted). You can’t negotiate a settlement if there is no-one committed to peace with whom to negotiate.
Next, the idea of a connection between President Bush’s statement and the Rantissi killing is demonstrably absurd. Israel decided some time ago that the only way to prevent yet more of its citizens being murdered by Hamas was to kill its entire leadership. Indeed, it tried unsuccessfully to kill Rantissi, the operational commander of Hamas’s terrorism, last June, and killed its founder, Sheikh Yassin, a month ago.
Since its rules of military engagement forbid it from attacking if there is a risk of large scale civilian casualties, it could only strike when opportunities arose — and these have been rare.
In Britain, many see this as aggression. Undoubtedly, targeted killings are troubling. But since the alternative is to wait for more innocents to be blown apart by Hamas, how can that possibly be right? No legal authority in the world requires a state to sit on its hands while its citizens are systematically murdered.
When US forces killed Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay last year, there were plaudits from Tony Blair. Britain and the US are now hunting Osama bin Laden and his principal lieutenants in order to kill them. Earlier this month, at least 600 Iraqis were killed by the Americans in Fallujah with no outcry. Why, then, is Israel judged by a double standard?
The problem is that many in Britain simply don’t grasp the reality of what is happening in Israel — from where, incidentally, I have just returned after a ten-day stay. Endless TV images of Israelis in tanks demolishing Palestinian houses, with an often hostile commentary, have created an impression of unbridled aggression.
In reality, Israel is fighting a war for its own survival that has now gone on for more than fifty years. The Palestinians have repeatedly stated that their aim remains the eradication of Israel altogether. Why is Israel alone deemed not entitled to defend itself?
But, people say, killing terrorists surely makes violence more likely. Well, history tells us that the opposite is true. It is the west’s weakness and appeasement of terrorism over several decades which have encouraged the terror-masters to turn the screw ever tighter.
After all, Palestinian terror escalated during the years of the Oslo ‘peace process’, when a political settlement seemed more likely than at any time.
And here lies perhaps the biggest — and most bitterly ironic — error by Israel’s critics. For to its Arab enemies, far from representing strength Israel actually embodies a terrible weakness.
Sure, Israel is armed to the teeth. And since Israel well understands that, for the Arabs, weakness rather than strength is the trigger for violence, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza has given targeted killings another strategic purpose — to show that Israel is not departing with its tail between its legs.
But the Arabs know that Israel is weak in their own terms. This is obvious in the way Israel and the Arabs respectively respond to attack. In 1982, Syria put down a revolt in Hama by wiping out at least 20,000 inhabitants. The Palestinians have been massacred in, or kicked out of, virtually every Arab state in which they have settled.
Israel, by contrast, goes in for pin-point targeted killings, or house-to-house terrorist hunts with a relatively severe attrition rate among its own forces. The weakness is embodied in the Palestinian taunt to the Israelis that ‘we will win because you love life and we love death’.
And here, the warning for Britain and Europe too could not be starker. For like Israel, we are facing the same ‘asymmetric warfare’, in which conventional military might becomes worthless if countries are not prepared to use it against those who are willing to turn even children into human bombs.
The danger lies in not recognising that terrorism is encouraged by weakness, not strength. Al Qaeda attacked America because it perceived the west was decadent and so assumed it was not prepared to fight. It made a big mistake over America, but it got Europe (with the exception of Tony Blair over Afghanistan and Iraq) dead right.
The history of modern terrorism is a history of appeasement. From the first Palestinian plane hijacking in 1968, the response of the west was to assume there were legitimate grievances that had to be addressed. From that point, terrorists had every incentive to continue.
The Israelis themselves, in deep denial after half a century of annihilatory attacks, have also attempted appeasement — negotiating with the terrorists who have killed them, slapping them down for continuing to kill them and then making overtures again while still being killed by them. Now for the first time, they have said the charade has to stop.
But both they and we still face the same hideous dilemma. Terrorism can only be defeated by superior strength. This was shown in Falluja where (whatever other horrors Iraq still harbours) the huge American show of force produced a truce.
But in general, are we really prepared to use massive firepower? Are we in the west prepared to compromise our values by creating the carnage that may be necessary to defeat this new kind of terror warfare, which routinely uses human beings as both bombs and shields?
If it’s a choice between our values and our lives, which course will we take? For in a war between those for whom life is everything and those for whom life is nothing, there’s no contest.
Our values require us to distinguish between terrorism and self-defence. Moral courage means facing reality and making hard choices. Our survival depends on it.