Israel cedes high ground

July 28, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MIAMI - Last week, my colleague, Miami Herald political cartoonist Jim Morin, published a picture of the World Trade Center towers with Star of David flags on top. Numberless planes are shown taking aim at the skyscrapers, one of them trailing a banner that says "Suicide Bombers." Jim's caption reads, "Understanding Israel."

It's a warning to those who reflexively second-guess the methods that nation uses to defend itself against terrorism. A reminder that, for Israel, nearly every day is Sept. 11.

Because of that, Israel's behavior is held to a different standard than it otherwise would be. I feel obliged to keep that in mind in discussing Israel's air strike on an apartment building in Gaza City. Salah Shehadeh, founder of the paramilitary wing of Hamas and a man believed responsible for numerous suicide bombings, was killed. So were 15 other people, most of them children.

My problem, though, is that even if I agree - and I do - that a war against near-daily suicide bombings requires extraordinary measures and a certain leeway from armchair quarterbacks, what Israel did here still strikes me as indefensibly outrageous.

I can accept the fact that war is an ugly and imprecise business. I can accept the fact that in war, innocents inadvertently die. But I cannot accept this.

You do not drop a bomb on a building full of sleeping civilians in order to kill one terrorist. And the government's contention that it didn't know children might be around - after midnight in an apartment building in a densely populated area - strains credulity. The fact that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon initially trumpeted the success of the assassination, the fact that Israel only belatedly backpedaled after facing a drumbeat of international condemnation ... these things suggest a moral disconnect that is truly frightening.

Maybe this, too, is a part of "understanding Israel" in the era of the suicide bomb. The ideal of modern war - not always the reality, but the ideal as sought by nations that like to consider themselves civilized - is as clear as the black-and-white text of the Geneva Convention. Wars are fought between nations. You strike only those targets that hold strategic, economic or military value. You do not willfully attack noncombatants.

It is one of the most sobering and perplexing realities of our time that increasingly, wars are now fought between nations and men. Governments wrestle landless groups that attack from the shadows in ways that render the very concept of a rulebook archaic and quaint. These people don't seek to avoid noncombatants as they pursue legitimate targets. For them, noncombatants ARE the targets.

The challenge for Israel - and for us - is to figure out how to contend in this new reality. Because while that reality may make it necessary to accept extraordinary new measures to ensure our own security, it cannot and must not induce us to adopt the tactics, the thinking, the cold, amoral calculations, of those we fight against. We are supposed to be struggling for more than land and security here. We are also supposed to be struggling to defend a way of life, a set of values.

Dropping a bomb on a residential neighborhood is beneath the dignity of a civilized 21st century state. It suggests a mindset in which the only moral question worth asking is whether the objective is achieved.

And that's a mindset Israel cannot afford if it is to continue to belong to the community of enlightened nations. To embrace that thinking is to render it morally indistinguishable from Hamas. And if that is where Israel is headed, then I'm confused. I no longer understand what it is the nation is fighting to defend.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. Readers may write to him via e-mail at or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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