Has this been a “war”?

I don’t think words matter much compared to lives, but they matter if they obstruct understanding and solutions. It is clearly not a war like others Israel has fought. The Palestinians have no artillery, tanks or air force. They have police and — largely Islamic — paramilitaries.

The latter were built up by Israel in the 1980s to offset secular forces; the former were allowed under the Oslo accords, largely to control the latter. I say this not to be academic but to point out that debates over history here are endlessly complex and irresoluble. Who’s to blame and who started it will never be settled.

This war with just one army is being fought almost entirely against cities and refugee camps. The Observer describes “the devastation” that Israeli tanks have made in Ramallah. “Roads have been dynamited or torn up. Buildings are burnt and shattered. Everywhere there is rubble.”

Water and electricity are cut off; people put on curfew with snipers stationed to stop them from going out to shop, get medicine, use outhouses or collect the dead. Soldiers break into homes, then smash through walls to the next. Hundreds of men are rounded up by age groups. The press is banned or shot.

There is no doubt that suicide bombings in Israeli cities are terror. But why is this “war” not terror, too? Everyone’s definition of terror amounts to: use of violence against civilians for political ends.

The Bush doctrine says states can support terror, and use it against their own or other populations. Israel’s right-wing parties, whose successors now hold power, were proudly terrorist; two of their leaders were prime ministers. Terror isn’t even necessarily indefensible. The use of atom bombs against Japanese cities fits the definition but has always been defended.

Backers of Israel deny any “moral equivalence” regarding terror because suicide bombers deliberately target civilians while Israel targets terrorists. Civilian casualties are, they say, collateral damage. But they are just as inevitable since, as an Israeli spokesman said, the only way to find terrorists is to go house to house. An Israeli officer told his commanders to study the lessons, “however shocking it may sound,” of the German attack on the Warsaw Ghetto.

Enough said?

The choice of word matters because it helps clarify why this “war of terror” will fail. (As I said, laying blame is irrelevant; only stopping the carnage counts). I’m not even arguing terror can’t ever work — at times, it might — but here it is counterproductive on both sides.

For any terrorists Israeli soldiers find as they break into homes, then smash through to next door, they leave children looking on at destruction, humiliation and worse, and create new terrorist generations to replace those caught. Not only in Palestine but throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, which now have their own networks to watch and are not dependent on CNN as they were in the gulf war.

“We want to blow up embassies if Arafat becomes a martyr. We want to hijack planes if Arafat becomes a martyr,” chanted hundreds in a Lebanese refugee camp. This campaign is sowing, not uprooting, terror. Any official who says the opposite is stupid or lying.

Let me contextualize Yasser Arafat’s role. I have no idea what games he has played and if he encouraged the bombers. But the notion that he exerts total control over young people willing to die is ludicrous. This is not just some kids bumrushing the mall on a dull day. No leader, and certainly not a neutered one, can create so desperate a commitment. If you want to destroy it, you must destroy the conditions that engender it.

It seems to me many people who wish Israel well get stymied at this point. They see that terror begets terror but feel Israel has no choice since Palestinians are not open to peace, as shown by their rejection of the “very generous” Israeli offer at Camp David II.

Without going into detail, let me say I think this is a misreading. Israel’s offer involved no control over borders, a disruptive set of military roads and illegal settlements. It would not have created what Tony Blair calls a viable state. The Palestinians say they did not reject further talks and made subsequent progress at Taba. I say this not to make debate points but to suggest there is more hope for a deal than some now see.

What would make such a shift possible? Something quite simple: to de-demonize and rehumanize the other side. Israeli military refusenik Assaf Oron, in an “open letter to American Jews,” says: “I believe that the Palestinians are human beings like us. What a concept, eh?”

This means assuming that most people on both sides want peace, will compromise and will respond to a decent offer, because they would rather live than die. That would not solve everything, but it would leave the haters and killers on each side increasingly isolated.

Do you have a better idea?


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.