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Friday, August 17, 2001 | return to: opinions


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Why must all Palestinians pay for Islamic Jihad’s terror?

by Rabbi Michael Lerner

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There is no excuse or justification for the terrorist act that took the lives of 15 Jews at a pizza parlor in Jerusalem.

Acts of terror are morally wrong. No matter how legitimate the struggle for liberation, no matter that 90 percent of the Israeli public supports assassinations of Palestinians "suspected" of terrorism (without trial), no matter that Israel has killed five times as many Palestinians as Palestinians have killed Israelis in the past 11 months. No act of terror is legitimate. Innocent people who have nothing to do with the struggle, and may even be opposed to Sharon's policies, get murdered. This is a crime against humanity.

So, too, terrorism is politically self-destructive and crazy. The Palestinian people can never expect to gain anything from acts of terror except a deeper solidarity of Israelis around policies of repression and massive retaliation. Those on the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side who oppose any settlement and wish to see the struggle go on for many more generations have everything to gain from acts of terror and the reprisals they generate.

Yet, who did the bombing in Jerusalem? The entire Palestinian people? The people who have been under curfew in Hebron for the past two weeks? The people who have been refused entry to work? The people who get turned away at roadblocks from visiting their hospital or health clinic? No.

The bombing was done by a tiny group called Islamic Jihad. Yet the punishment will be given to Palestinians who equally had nothing to do with the terror. Israel will not call its responses "terror," but that's what they are when directed against people who have not been proven to be implicated in the acts for which Israel is supposedly retaliating. Because they are perpetrated by a state with huge resources to pour into "public relations," Israel's acts of terror can be sold as something the state was "forced into reluctantly."

In fact, acts of massive retaliation by Israel that are the predictable consequence of terrorist bombings make the terrorist acts "worthwhile" from the standpoint of the extremists: They sour Palestinians on policies of restraint advocated by Yasser Arafat -- who immediately condemned the violence in English and Arabic -- and instead incline Palestinians to the leadership of Islamic fundamentalists.

When Ariel Sharon announces there will be no resumption of serious peace negotiations (beyond the symbolic bones he throws Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to keep him in the coalition) until Palestinians stop all violence, not only does he give terrorists a veto over negotiations they oppose, he also gives them a massive incentive to continue acts of violence. The disgusting act by Islamic Jihad is rightly condemned -- but so, too, should the right-wingers in Israel be condemned for creating the circumstances in which such acts seem like the only alternative to so many people.

"So what should we do?" Israelis justifiably ask. "Sit here and be killed and not inflict any punishment?"

The same question is asked by Palestinians who have had their homes demolished, their children slaughtered, their bones broken, and thousands of their community wounded, with permanent disabilities: "What do you expect us to do?" they ask. "Turn the other cheek while Israel continues to expand its control over the West Bank and escalates its assassinations of our leaders? And if we show Sharon that we will accept his violence with no counter-violence, won't that just give him more incentive to kill off our leadership with assassinations day after day? Or did you forget that earlier this month two children and six others were slaughtered by Israeli gunfire aimed at Hamas leaders?"

Both sides have their points, and both sides are wrong. There is nothing to be gained by the current war of attrition.

In order to end this, one side or the other must be willing to take a massive change in approach. The Palestinian people could gain everything they seek within five years were they to publicly and unequivocally (not only in English but in Arabic) embrace nonviolence and the path of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. No matter how powerful the occupation, a consistent nonviolence, coupled with acts of punishment against any Palestinians who engaged in violence, would change the political dynamics and would move the world in ways that violent struggle never will.

Or Israel could change everything by taking the following unilateral steps: End the occupation. Bring the settlers back to within the borders of 1967 Israel (with slight emendations to allow for Gush Etziyon and for the Jewish and Armenian quarters of Jerusalem, French Hill and Har Hatzofim). Take the lead in creating a massive international fund to provide reparations for Palestinian refugees. And allow a yearly quota of 25,000 refugees a year to return, a number large enough to be significant, small enough to not endanger the Jewish character of the state. If Israel were to act in a genuinely open-hearted way, it would go a long distance toward isolating the most angry Palestinians and in regenerating hope among many who feel they have nothing to lose with acts of suicide.

So there is something that each side could do --and the fatalism and sense of powerlessness are based on stubbornness and ego-illusions, not on a careful analysis of what it would take to break through to change the dynamics on the other side of the struggle. Unfortunately, neither Sharon nor Arafat have the vision to be able to transcend the current discourse and open their hearts to the pain of the other side.

Lets not kid ourselves that lesser measures are going to have any impact. American or international "observers" will be as powerless in Palestine as they were in Bosnia. If both leaders are incapable of acts of open-heartedness, only a massive international military intervention that forcibly separated the two sides and imposed nonviolence on the Palestinians and an end to the settlements and the occupation on Israel would make any headway toward jump-starting a peace process that could last.

Until that happens, the rest of us can only pray for peace -- and a qualitative leap in the consciousness of one side or the other. And grieve with the many victims on both sides.

The writer is the spiritual leader at San Francisco Renewal congregation Beyt Tikkun and the editor of Tikkun, a bimonthly Jewish journal on politics, culture and society published in Oakland.


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