Tuesday, July 18, 2006


The Israel-Lebanon War

What is the proper, appropriate response of a nation to violent attacks by "radical extremists"? We have seen one model illustrated in the response of the British government to last year's attacks on London's public transportation system, in which 52 people were killed and 700 injured. The British rightly understood the attacks as terrorist acts, but responded in a measured manner, dealing both with the investigation of the terrible crime and the need for enhanced security in its wake. But, pointedly, the British military attacked no sovereign nation in reprisal.

Similarly, when seven blasts rocked suburban trains in Mumbai this summer, India refrained from a knee-jerk confrontation with Pakistan over the violence (as opposed to the war that nearly erupted when India sent troops to the Pakistani border following the 2001 attack on India's parliament building). This time, again pointedly, India refused to allow the acts of terror to provoke it into a war footing.

We have also, of course, seen an altogether different model of response, perhaps most clearly exemplified by the U.S. invasion of two countries -- one of which was arguably an actual source of the terror -- following the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001.

It has obviously been in the latter spirit that Israel responded to terror attacks in the past fortnight. Provoked by the Hamas kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, Israel not only invaded the northern Gaza Strip but also destroyed a significant portion of Gaza's infrastructure, including airstrikes against Gaza's power grid. Likewise, days later, when the Syrian-backed terror group Hezbollah seized the opportunity to raid northern Israel and capture two Israeli soldiers, Israel responded with a massive attack on Lebanon's civilian structures, from the Beirut airport to a dairy factory, civilian buses, bridges, power stations, and medical facilities, according to reports. Hezbollah, for its part, responded with rocket fire into northern Israel. And the result, not surprisingly, has been the death of many civilians.

Israel's rush to war in response to acts of terror raises many questions. The most important, perhaps, revolves around the issue of legitimate self defense vs. collective punishment. Israel is indeed surrounded by sworn enemies, including many who are demonstrably willing to violently destroy Israel. But does the real need for security justify the massively disproportionate response to an act of terror? Is the collective punishment of an entire population morally and ethically justified?

Even apart from the ethical questions raised by Israel's massive retaliation, there are significant issues of efficacy: Does it work? Is Israel made more secure by its militaristic approach? Israel has destroyed 42 bridges in Lebanon this week, along with 38 roads, communications equipment, factories, runways and fuel depots at the Beirut airport, and the main ports of Beirut and Tripoli. Does the destruction of much of Lebanon's civilian infrastructure, so painstakingly rebuilt after years of civil war and occupation by both Israeli and Syrian forces, bode well for future peace between the neighboring states? In sum, will the Israeli attacks bring long-term security for Israel, or will they ensure that the next generation of Lebanese (and the next generation of Palestinians) grow up with a undying hatred in their hearts?

U.S. media coverage of this new Middle East war paints a picture of a tit-for-tat equivalency between the two sides: Hezbollah explodes a bomb in Israel, Israel responds in kind. That coverage is misleading at best. The violence of Hezbollah (and Hamas) is to be unequivocally condemned and opposed, but the two terrorist groups have nowhere near the military capability of Israel, which wields one of the most powerful military forces in the world (with the aid, of course, of more than $3 billion per year from the United States). The death toll in Lebanon in the first six days of the war has been almost tenfold that in Israel (according to the Guardian, 210 people, most of them civilians, have died in Lebanon and 29 in Israel since Israel began its attacks).

One of the most difficult aspects of trying to be a peacemaker in the Middle East context is the "separation wall" of understanding between the two peoples. The very definition of what is happening is understood in vastly different ways by the two sides. Supporters of Israel see the country attacked by its sworn enemies, and see in its response a necessary and justified act of national self-defense. Others see the region's most powerful military force illegally occupying their homeland and engaging in massive, disproportionate attacks on innocent civilians.

As Christians committed to the cause of peace, our role is not to "take sides" in the struggle, in the traditional sense, but rather to constantly stand for the "side" of a just peace. We can ignore neither the horror of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians nor the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. We must have the vision and courage to stand against the acts of violence by terrorist organizations, as well as the massive state violence by the region's military superpower, while avoiding the trap of positing a false "equivalency" between actions that are not at all equivalent.

And we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the political, strategic, and moral complexity of the situation to stand back and do nothing. The well-being of millions of people in the region -- and, frankly, peace throughout the world -- requires that people of faith and conscience be actively and conscientiously engaged, for "all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."

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