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Middle East Roundtable / Edition 25

An Israeli View:
Israel's Gaza dilemma

by Yossi Alpher

Early on the morning of Sunday, June 25, several Palestinian organizations led by Hamas carried out a bloody attack on an Israeli military emplacement at Kerem Shalom abutting the southern Gaza Strip. In a rare exception to their terrorist rule, the Palestinians attacked Israeli soldiers (abducting one) rather than civilians, and operated fully inside sovereign Israeli territory. The attack, and the anticipation of Israel's response, temporarily overshadow the day-to-day reality of recent months.

But not for long. In Gaza, Palestinians are still fighting Palestinians; even the Hamas leadership is conflicted. From Gaza, Palestinians are attacking Israeli civilians with rockets, even though (or because?) we have left the Strip and withdrawn to the 1949 armistice line. The town of Sderot has been traumatized by the attacks. Israel's armed response against Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, increasingly based on air power, has in recent weeks inadvertently killed a disproportionate number of Palestinian civilians, sparking protests in Israel and beyond and Palestinian calls for revenge.

While these peaks of violence may increase or decline from time to time, and bearing in mind that Israel's response to Sunday's attack may be dramatic, there is every likelihood that this pattern of violent events will continue, along with the protests, condemnations and traumas that accompany it. It poses a by-now familiar dilemma for Israeli society that can be summarized in two questions. What is the nature of Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian civilian deaths? And how should Israel respond to ongoing Palestinian attacks that target its civilians?

Most Israelis, this writer included, believe that there is no moral equivalency between Israeli civilians deliberately targeted by Palestinian terrorists and Palestinian civilians inadvertently killed in the course of attacking the terrorists as a response to terrorism. We would much rather fight our Palestinian wars at the military-to-military level like at Kerem Shalom, despite Israel's losses in that attack and despite the undoubted moral advantage we believe we have in the war against terrorism.

The Palestinian leadership, both Fateh and Hamas, argue a reverse lack of moral equivalency: Israel deliberately targets Palestinian civilians in acts of state terrorism, whereas Palestinian attacks on Israelis are a justified response to aggression. Variations on this Palestinian line include the claim that all Israelis are in some sense soldiers, hence fair targets, and that the Israeli aggression being responded to did not necessarily happen yesterday, but goes back to 1967, or 1948. Polls consistently show that a majority of Palestinians continues to support suicide bombings to this day.

In between is the argument, voiced by part of the left in Israel, a few Palestinian moderates and various international actors, that Israel's response is disproportionate and that the Israel Defense Forces knowingly and deliberately fire at targets surrounded by civilians and are prepared to justify heavy Palestinian civilian casualties in the course of eliminating terrorists.

Apropos, since 2003 the Israel Air Force has improved its ordnance and attack tactics: for the past two years only one-twelfth as many civilians were killed in the course of targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders and operatives. The recent higher level of Palestinian casualties is apparently an indication that terrorists in Gaza increasingly confine their activities to heavily populated areas, precisely in order to thwart the Israeli tactics.

The Kerem Shalom attack affords the opportunity for a rare moment of clarity in both Israeli and Palestinian thinking about the conflict in and around Gaza. Either Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Ismail Haniyeh exercise extraordinary leadership, return the abducted soldier and enforce a genuine ceasefire, or Israel is likely to radically escalate its military response. One objective could be to eliminate Gaza-based Hamas entirely. Another certainly would be for PM Ehud Olmert to demonstrate that disengagement doesn't tie Israel's hands in defending its civilians and its territory, and that security fences are necessary even when Palestinian militants go over and under them.

I believe that the Israeli moral equivalency argument is a powerful one: terrorists deliberately target civilians; we don't, and when we hit civilians in the course of protecting ourselves, we agonize over it. There is an element of the "clash of civilizations" in this equation that we may have to call on in explaining to the world why the IDF has launched a massive retaliation against Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza.- Published 26/6/2006 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

A Palestinian View:
A logical consequence of failed politics
The dramatic Palestinian attack on an Israeli military post on the border with the Gaza Strip did not come as much of a surprise to anybody. On the contrary, it represented the gradual and consistent escalation of violence... is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at and, respectively. 29-06-2006

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