To understand Salah Shehada--the Hamas leader Israel killed last week in Gaza City alongside 14 civilians-- it helps to know something about the man who inspired him and perhaps prefigured his fate. That man was Sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam. Born in Syria and ultimately killed by British troops, al-Qassam had founded the menacingly (and suitably) named Black Hand, which specialized in terror against random Jewish farmers and, for that matter, random Arab Christians in Mandate Palestine. Those latter-day jihadists congealed into a force that called itself, after its leader, Ikhwan al-Qassam, or the Al-Qassam Brotherhood, which spearheaded bloody anti-Jewish riots from 1936 to 1939. Fifty years later Shehada revived al-Qassam's memory and launched, within the broader fanatic Muslim religious movement Hamas, something he called the Al-Qassam Brigade. To Shehada one can attribute literally dozens of successful mass atrocities and hundreds of innocent dead. Shehada had been atop Israel's most-wanted list for two years, and Israeli interlocutors had pleaded again and again with Yasir Arafat's men that this master terrorist be arrested--which, of course, he was not. At least eight times the Israelis had aborted operations meant to assassinate him, each time in order not to endanger Palestinian noncombatants. The last aborted attempt occurred the day before Shehada died.
Israelis are now engaged in a process of examination and self-recrimination: How could they not have known that a big bomb, however "smart," would cause collateral casualties? And why was Israeli intelligence so wrong in thinking that this operation could be carried out with pinpoint accuracy? I do not know the answers. But I am proud that Israelis pose such painful and perplexing questions to themselves, professionally and communally, and that they insist their government protect them while also protecting--as their military rules command them--adversary civilians, "their lives, bodies, dignity, and property." Many outside Israel, of course, are eagerly asking the same questions about the attack. But too few acknowledge the basic fact that Shehada did not have an idle mind nor idle hands and that every additional hour he lived he was preparing another enormity against innocent life. This is the difference between the Israeli and the Palestinian ways of war. In fact, the Palestinian polity's distinct contribution to world politics--from Arafat almost four decades ago until today, from Munich to the bombing in the old Tel Aviv bus station last week--is the utter routinization of the savage killing of innocents, "the banality of evil" in another era. And Shehada was the ultimate routinizer. He was an exemplar of the Palestinian political tradition, not an exception to it. Which is why he enjoyed so much popular support. The rage in the funeral streets of Gaza would have been just as great had he been the only casualty of the bomb.
"No human being with a peace of mind, consciousness, or emotions could imagine what has happened." These are the words of Arafat. The good news is that slowly the Arabs of Palestine are beginning to grasp what many other Arabs--certainly Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's Hashemites--have known for decades: He is a fraud. This dawning is the joint achievement of Ariel Sharon's siege of Arafat in Ramallah and George W. Bush's June 24 Middle East speech, the essence of which was that the United States could not broker a negotiation in which Arafat was a partner. Since the United States is the only conceivable interlocutor in whatever will become of the expired peace process, the president's estimation of Arafat's reliability has serious implications. Of course, the utterly irrelevant Europeans, having proved unable over the years to procure a single enduring concession from the Palestinians, cling to their old position: Arafat, Arafat, Arafat. And in the last few days these European governments, along with the predictable Kofi Annan, have once again lockstepped into nearly hysterical criticism of Israel for the Gaza bombing.
In fact, just about everyone whose diplomatic vocation is the tormenting of Israel has been heard from. The deputy foreign minister of Russia, Alex Sultanov, cooling his heels before meeting Bashar Assad in Damascus, announced that the Kremlin "condemns the assassination of innocent people," which Israel's Gaza operation, even at the very worst, was not. Javier Solana, the Spanish holder of the European Union's Foreign Affairs portfolio, announced that he "strongly condemn[s] ... the extra-judicial killing operation" against Shehada, as if Israel--in the midst of a war for its survival--should have read him his Miranda rights and then indicted him. The Swedes called it a "crime against international law." And the United Nations secretary-general, who has shilled for Arafat continuously, sternly reminded Israel of its "legal and moral responsibility to take all measures to avoid the loss of innocent life (which) it clearly failed to do." I'm still waiting for him to admit there was not a massacre in Jenin.
Reading The New York Times, you would have thought President Bush "denounced" the Gaza City air strike as well. In truth, George W. said nothing--a distancing of the presidential persona from the administration's distancing from Israel. The administration's position was delivered by Ari Fleischer, and the words he used in criticizing Israel were--and not only in comparison with the sharp verbiage of the above-cited diplomatic players--hardly criticisms at all. All Fleischer said was that "this heavy-handed action does not contribute to peace." If only the Times headline and lead paragraph had been so restrained.
It is true that Fleischer tried to draw a distinction between civilian casualties in the American-led war in Afghanistan and Israel's bombing in Gaza. But, alas, this comparison does not redound in favor of the United States. A report in the July 21 Times states that the "American air campaign in Afghanistan, based on a high-tech, out-of-harm's-way strategy, has produced a pattern of mistakes that have killed hundreds of Afghan civilians." One such mistake was the November U.S. bombing of a mosque, in which 65 noncombatants were killed. The Times goes on, "[T]he evidence suggests that many civilians have been killed by air strikes hitting precisely the target they were aimed at ... or because ... Americans did not carefully differentiate between civilians and military targets." If true, this is more than carelessness. But let me pose a question: If we knew Mullah Omar and his men were riding in a convoy with women and children, would we refrain from bombing, even though noncombatants might be killed? I doubt it. And Mullah Omar does not really endanger the lives of American civilians. The same, sadly, could not have been said of the recently deceased Salah Shehada and the lives of Israeli civilians.Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief and chairman of TNR.
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