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Sunday, September 07, 2003

Writings from a microcosmic quagmire

I recently responded to a published article and got myself into a conversation with the author. Since I worked hard to be both clear and informative in my response, I am posting some of the exchange here in the hope that my efforts will not be for naught.

You enter this conversation midstream, with my antagonist discussing Ariel Sharon --
"I find his actions since his time in the military--massacres of pows, massacres of civilians in Lebanon, provocative visit to the Temple, and his current unrelenting attacks on civilians in Palestine--to be reprehensible. He is not protecting the Israelis, he is putting them in greater danger. Sharon is a man obsessed with the vision of a greater israel and will kill whoever gets in his way of that vsion. It's unfortunate that so many Americans fail to see the danger his policies (and US support for them) have put them in. There are other ways to insure israel's security. Killing all the Arabs is not one of them."
My response:
I appreciate your willingness to discuss these things in such a civil manner. Writers such as yourself, who have access to thousands of readers, bear much responsibility for the level and quality of public discourse about terrorism.

When you say, "massacres of pows," I don't know what you're referring to, but I assume that "massacres of civilians in Lebanon" is about the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982, yes? It's my understanding that Lebanese Christian Phalangists were the ones directly responsible for that, although Israel did allow them into the camps (as part of the Israeli plan at the time to transfer authority to the Lebanese).

To Israel's credit, there was a public investigation (such as would never occur in any Arab country) of this outrage, and Sharon was dismissed as Defense Minister, but only for being indirectly responsible: neither he nor any soldier under his command took part in the killings. In addition to Ariel Sharon, one Israeli individual, do you not also condemn the whole of the Lebanese Christians who actually perpetrated the massacre?

Further, I hope you realize that this massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps was meant by the Lebanese Christians to avenge the murders of their President -Bahir Gemayel- and 25 of his followers, who were killed in a PLO bomb attack earlier that week. I just want to point out that the context is more complex than just Sharon vs. any anonymous Palestinians.

I would hope, too, that you are equally aware of the attack on the Shatila and Burj-el Barajneh camps three years later, in 1985, which was perpetrated by Muslim milita. If you hold Sharon's actions to be reprehensible, then so should you condemn, equally if not even more so, the Lebanese Christians and the Muslims who actually murdered people. If you don't, then it would seem that you are singling out Sharon (alone, or as representative of the Jews and or their nation) for unique condemnation -- of actions that are not unique, but rather widespread.

As for Sharon's "provocative visit to the Temple," I wonder that you do not support the right of Jews to visit a holy site that dates back to King Solomon. Should not everyone, Muslim, Christian and Jew alike, be allowed equal access to all religious sites -- in all of Israel and the disputed territories? Sharon visted the Temple Mount during normal hours when the area was open to tourists, and did not attempt to enter any mosques. He was there for all of 34 minutes. Is it rational to consider this as provocative or inflammatory? Is it rational to hold that the presence of a Jewish state in "Arabia" is sufficient cause, in and of itself, for continuous intifada? I don't think so.

Besides, the intifada was in its beginnings quite aside from Sharon's visit. The day before, an Israeli soldier was killed at Netzarim Junction, and the next day, a Palestinian police officer, working with Israeli police on a joint patrol, opened fire and killed his Israeli partner. It seems biased to me to claim that Sharon visiting a holy site was causative in its provocation, yet not consider these two murders as part of your assessment.

In fact, the Palestinian Authority Communications Minister, Imad Faluji, later admitted that the intifada had been planned in July, far in advance of Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. Faluji was quoted in the Jerusalem Post (3/4/01) as saying, "It (the uprising) had been planned since Chairman Arafat's return from Camp David, when he turned the tables on the former U.S. president and rejected the American conditions."

Lastly (thank you for hanging in there if you're still with me - I'm almost done), with regard to your charge of Sharon's "unrelenting attacks on civilians in Palestine," I think you are making some skewed assumptions based on the numbers of dead as supplied by the media.

I hope you know, or are willing to learn, that the numbers of Palestinian dead usually quoted include Palestinian suicide bombers, bomb-makers who accidentally blew themselves in the course of their work, Palestinians killed by other Palestinians for being thought to be collaborating with Israel, and even those who died as a result of the Palestinian practice of shooting live ammunition into the air at funerals and rallies.

It's also relevant to any discussion of who has died and why, that the Palestinian Authority refuses to transfer their wounded to Israeli hospitals, despite the fact that those hospitals offer superior medical care and are completely nonpolitical in their treatment of patients.

Because the Israelis have had to develop a medical specialty of treating victims of terrorist attacks, hundreds of cases that would have been lethal, were not. Were it not for extraordinary medical care in Israel, many more Israelis who were wounded would have died, and were it not for the PA depriving Palestinians of that same care, many more Palestinians would have lived. I think viewing the war solely in terms of Sharon's "unrelenting attacks on civilians" is too simplistic to be helpful. There are many complicating factors.

And finally, finally, please consider how many terrorist attacks have been thwarted or prevented by the Israel Defense Force -- literally thousands of documented instances -- where, if not for these efforts, many more thousands of Israelis would have been killed. If all intended terrorist attacks had been "successful," the numbers of dead would be far different. If the numbers of Israeli dead had been allowed to soar above those of Palestinians, I wonder if would your position on this war, and your opinion of Ariel Sharon, would be any different. It's something to think about.

Even without consideration of possible distortions, 18% of Palestinians killed were innocent civilians, while 71% of Israelis killed were innocent civilians. To use Alan Dershowitz's analogy, to compare the accidental killing of civilians during legitimate self-defense against terrorism with the targeted murder of innocent civilians is like comparing medicine to poison: Both can result in death; but with the former, it is a tragic side effect, whereas with the latter it is the direct intended effect.

Enough. I'm sure you're at least as tired of reading this as I am of writing it.