September/October 2000

The Only Honorable Choice

By Evelyn Gordon

(October 17) - The world has had no trouble determining who the villain of the past two weeks is: Israel has been almost universally condemned for its use of "excessive force." And at first glance, the truth of this assertion seems self-evident. The vast majority of the casualties have been Palestinian, the argument goes, so the IDF must have been overreacting.

Yet a closer look reveals a puzzling inconsistency in Israel's behavior: Sometimes it has used force; at other times it has exercised an almost unnatural restraint. And it is only through analyzing the pattern of Israel's choices that the question of whether its use of force was in fact "excessive" can be answered.

To start, let us consider a few examples of restraint: On October 1, an Israeli border policeman bled to death at Joseph's Tomb because the Palestinian Authority refused to let him be evacuated to a hospital. In responseÉ Israel did nothing.

On the night of October 4-5, a ceasefire agreement was negotiated in Paris. At the last minute, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat refused to sign, signaling that the violence would continue. In responseÉ Israel nevertheless withdrew its forces from the areas specified in the agreement, just as if it had been signed.

On October 6, in an effort to defuse tensions, Israel agreed to withdraw all its forces from the Temple Mount and let the PA handle security for Friday prayers at the mosques there. The PA responded to this gesture by allowing Moslem "worshipers" first to stone the Jews praying at the Western Wall below, forcing Israel to evacuate all Jews from the site, and then to storm the Israeli police station on the Mount and to firebomb and torch a second police post by the Old City walls. Israel had to retake control of the holy site by force, leaving two dead. In retaliationÉ Israel did nothing.

On October 7, still trying to reduce the friction, Israel agreed to withdraw its forces from Joseph's Tomb - a site over which Israel was granted control in the Oslo accords - in exchange for the PA's promise to protect it. It took the PA all of a few hours to violate its promise and let a mob completely destroy the ancient site. In responseÉ Israel did nothing.

Also on October 7, Hizbullah kidnapped three soldiers. In re-sponseÉ Israel did nothing.

On October 12, two reservists took a wrong turn and wound up in Ramallah, where a mob led by Palestinian policemen brutally murdered them and mutilated the bodies. Israeli security experts warned that the country could not afford to do nothing again if it wanted to have any deterrent capability left. Prime Minister Ehud Barak therefore agreed to let the IDF bomb five Palestinian targets - after it first warned everyone in the area to leave and gave them several hours to do so. Total number of Palestinians killed in the attacks, according to Palestinian sources? Zero.

In fact, there has been one thing, and one thing only, to which Barak has permitted the IDF to respond with lethal force: a direct threat to the lives of Israeli civilians or soldiers. In the case of such a threat, the IDF has been permitted to use whatever force it deems necessary to protect Israeli lives. And it has carried out this mandate successfully - hence the uneven body count.

But does it truly constitute "excessive force" for an army to protect its own citizens, even at the expense of the deaths of some of the attackers? Would it be more moral for Barak to let his own people, whom he is sworn to protect, be killed instead, so that the world would like Israel better?

This, in fact, is exactly the choice that Yasser Arafat has made. By permitting and even urging teens and children to join attacking mobs alongside men with automatic rifles, he has virtually guaranteed that some will be killed in the crossfire - but the Palestinians will thereby score points in the public relations arena. Barak has chosen instead to order the army to defend civilians, even at the price of losing points in the PR battle. One leader has sacrificed his people's lives for PR gains; the other has sacrificed public opinion to protect his people's lives.

By any normal standard of human morality, Barak's is the only honorable choice. It is also the choice that every one of the Western leaders now so critical of him would have made in his stead, and indeed, the choice their people would have demanded.

All of which leaves us with only one unanswerable question: Why is the world insisting on playing Arafat's game?

© Jerusalem Post 2000

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