by Jim Rice/Sojourners
What is the proper, appropriate response of a nation to violent attacks by terrorists or other 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. Pointedly, the British did not opt for a military response to these acts of terror.
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 an actual source of the terror – following the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001.
Unfortunately, it seems to be 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 responded by firing hundreds of rockets a day – more-modern, longer-range rockets than in the past – aimed intentionally at neighborhoods in Haifa and other Israeli cities. The result, not surprisingly, has been the death of many civilians on all sides.
The situation is clearly complicated by the role of Hezbollah as a part of the coalition government of Lebanon, which seems unable or unwilling (probably both) to disarm Hezbollah, which effectively controls the southern part of the country. The new warfare in the Middle East is also made worse by the sinister political manipulations of both Syria and Iran, who seek to increase their own power in the region no matter the human cost.
But Israel’s use of military attacks 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 ever morally and ethically justified? As Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, put it in statement July 14, “The Holy See condemns both the terrorist attacks on the one side and the military reprisals on the other,” stating that Israel’s right to self-defense “does not exempt it from respecting the norms of international law, especially as regards the protection of civilian populations.” The statement said further, “In particular, the Holy See deplores the attack on Lebanon, a free and sovereign nation.”
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 a militarized 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. And along with the material devastation, the attacks constitute a terrible, possibly even fatal, threat to Lebanon’s fragile and fledgling democracy.
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 further ensure that the next generation of Lebanese and Palestinians – across the theological and political spectrum – grow up with an undying hatred in their hearts?
The violence of Hezbollah and Hamas should be unequivocally condemned and opposed. It cannot be ignored or underestimated that the two terrorist organizations have as their goal the eradication of Israel. However, much U.S. media coverage of this new Middle East war paints a misleading picture of a tit-for-tat equivalency between the two sides: Hezbollah explodes a bomb in Israel, Israel responds in kind. While their intentions are indeed malevolent, 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 tenfold that in Israel – according to The New York Times, 310 people, most of them civilians, have died in Lebanon while Israel has suffered 27 casualties, 15 of them civilians, since Israel began its attacks. (Similarly, 4,064 Palestinians and 1,084 Israelis have been killed since Sept. 29, 2000, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the Israel Defense Forces, respectively.)
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 (supported by the world’s most powerful military force) illegally occupying Palestinian land 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 and secure peace. We can ignore neither the horror of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians (including direct attacks on school children) nor the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories (with all its “collateral damage” to Palestinian children). 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 equal.
We cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the political, strategic, and moral complexity of the situation to stand back and do nothing. A first step toward a more comprehensive resolution is an immediate operational cease-fire. But that must be followed by a new way of thinking because, as a U.N. official put it yesterday, “The Middle East is littered with the results of people believing there are military solutions to political problems in the region.”
Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine.
A few things that can be done:
Be consistent in denouncing the violence of both sides – especially when it is deliberately aimed at civilians (or targets where great civilian “collateral damage” will be the result).
Pray for the emergence of new political leadership on both sides – both of which seem bereft of creative, courageous, moral, or even pragmatic leadership.
Challenge any religious voices that seem utterly one-sided, completely neglecting the suffering and legitimate grievances of both sides.
Pray for new ways for Christians and our churches to join our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters in finding real and practical solutions for a just peace in the Middle East where two states can live with security and democracy.
And pray for better solutions than endless war to solve the real threats of terrorism in our world, because if we fail, all of our children will be at risk.