Taking the low road

July 24, 2002

THROUGHOUT the 22 months of Mideast fighting, Israeli officials have maintained that there was a key difference between their actions and those of Palestinian terrorists: Israel targets militants; Arabs go after civilians.

But how hollow does that distinction seem now, after an Israeli F-16 pounded a Gaza neighborhood -- killing 14 civilians -- in the name of pursuing a Hamas leader? How incongruent do Israel's claims to a moral high ground appear in light of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's description of the attack as one of his biggest successes?

If you believed before now that there were clear rights and wrongs in this conflict, that one interest's cause was pure and the other's pernicious, the attack Tuesday proved that the disregard for innocent life runs deep on both sides.

There was nothing surgical or targeted about Israel's actions. The attack was unleashed on an apartment building where Salah Shehadeh, a Hamas founder who had been in hiding, was visiting his family. That building was obliterated, and several others were heavily damaged. Israeli authorities called it an "assassination" intended to help defend against terrorist attacks, but that's a dubious description, given the scale of the weapons used and the amount of destruction that took place.

Sadly, there wasn't much new about this strike, either. Israel has employed a policy of assassinating militant leaders for years -- and it has done so before with this kind of recklessness. Helicopter gunships have fired missiles into the sides of buildings in which only a few people were purposeful targets. They have blown up trucks and cars that were carrying militants -- only to send shards and shrapnel ripping through bystanders whose deaths were not "intended."

Israeli officials this week compared their actions to U.S. operations in Afghanistan -- military operations that sometimes go awry and kill innocents.

The more apt moral comparison is to the suicide bombings that have ravaged Israeli cities. And indeed, suicide bombings are an abomination, as we have said on this page.

But those bombings are routinely condemned by most world governments and by the Palestinian Authority itself, while Israel's attacks are commissioned and sanctioned by a democratic government that enjoys broad world support. They're a contradiction of the principles that nation (and this one) purports to be defending.

The Israeli policy helps explain the numbers behind the 22-month conflict: More than 1,700 Palestinians are dead; about half that many Israelis have been killed.

But don't take that as an indication of Arab moral superiority, either. Already, militant Arab groups are vowing revenge for the Israeli attack. They'll hit a shopping mall or a bus stop or a market. They'll continue the cycle of violence, rather than breaking it in favor of a true push for peace.

The English poet Robert Browning once wrote that he who does well in war only earns the right to begin doing well in peace. In the Mideast these days, there's too much of the former on both sides -- and none of the latter to be found.

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