No justice, no peace?

March 29, 1995|By Anthony Lewis

Jerusalem -- JOEL GREENBERG is an Israeli journalist who works as a reporter in the Jerusalem bureau of the New York Times. The other day he was at Israel's military headquarters in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank. He encountered something that stayed in his mind. In his words:

"Eight Palestinian detainees were being held in a temporary holding room just inside the gate of the military compound. The room was about 4 yards by 4, and it had a large window with iron bars. We talked to the prisoners through the bars, and we could smell a powerful stench coming out of the room.

"They said they had been arrested the previous day, some because they lived in the area where terrorists shot at a bus and killed two passengers, some for trying to enter Israel with faked permits. One was a Palestinian TV cameraman arrested at the scene of the bus attack. [While I was there, he was released when his bureau chief complained.]

"They told us they had been there overnight, without food or permission to go to the bathroom, and they had to relieve themselves in a corner of the cell. A soldier guarding the room confirmed that they had not been allowed out. As we spoke, cottage cheese, bread and oranges were brought to the prisoners.

"All the while, life went on as usual at the compound. Officers went by without taking any interest in the conditions under their noses. It was just one of those familiar banalities of occupation, too ordinary to make a story, but it was so degrading. . . ."

In a conflict so brutal that one side treats the other as animals -- indeed worse than it would treat animals -- which suffers the worst damage? The physical suffering is worse for the victims. But the psychological damage, the hardening of the soul, may be worse for those who inflict suffering and cease to care.

Of course there are reasons for Israelis to fear Palestinians. Terrorists shot at civilians on a bus, and blew up soldiers at a bus stop.

But the eight men in that stinking cell were not convicted terrorists; they had not been charged with anything. And treating them that way served the cause of terrorism. It attracts more recruits to the cause of violence.

That scene makes powerfully clear how essential it is for Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and let the Palestinians have a life of their own: essential to Israel's interest.

Every day of occupation, every such incident, eats away at the country's sense of justice and humanity.

But how can the plan for peace under the Oslo agreement go forward when the threat of terrorism is a reality? The answer is that peace is the most effective enemy of terrorism.

If and when Palestinians have a place of their own in the West Bank, when they have elections and a genuine political process, their own interest will militate against terrorism.

The opponents of peace in Israel include settler spokesmen who say openly that they want to make life intolerable for Palestinians in the West Bank. The only way to rescue Israel from that world of hatred is to press on boldly with the peace plan, not letting it become hostage to extremists on either side.

Peace with Syria, the symbol of rejectionism, would do much to delegitimize terror and end the cycle of brutalization. But is it possible? Israeli experts increasingly doubt that Syria's president Hafez el Assad is really interested. And in polls most Israelis say they would not want to pay the inescapable price, return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

But if Hafez el Assad were ready for a deal -- genuine peace and security in return for the Golan -- the reality might change minds. So Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin believes. "It's like asking if you would marry a gentile," he said. "To the theoretical question you say no. Then you meet this girl, you fall in love. . . . If Assad and [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin meet on the White House lawn, people will be happy. It's the end of war!"

But the Palestinians are the intimate neighbors. Israelis must live with them peacefully or live in a garrison state. Tsali Reshef of Peace Now said: "Some day we will come to the necessary agreement. The only question is how many rounds of bloodshed we'll go through first."

Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.

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