Jerusalem bombing: A war increasing in cruelty, fuelled by lust for revenge

It is a new kind of war which the Israelis have still not understood. "Retaliation", "revenge", "an eye for an eye" used to be an Israeli prerogative. If a Palestinian threw a stone at an Israeli soldier, he might be shot dead. If a Palestinian killed an Israeli soldier, his house would be destroyed. If a Palestinian objected to the Israeli seizure of his land, he would be arrested. But that was 20 years ago, before the first "intifada", before Lebanon. It was the Lebanese Hizbollah who first changed the rules. If the Israelis killed Lebanese civilians, they said, their guerrillas would fire Katyusha missiles over the border into Israel.

It is a new kind of war which the Israelis have still not understood. "Retaliation", "revenge", "an eye for an eye" used to be an Israeli prerogative. If a Palestinian threw a stone at an Israeli soldier, he might be shot dead. If a Palestinian killed an Israeli soldier, his house would be destroyed. If a Palestinian objected to the Israeli seizure of his land, he would be arrested. But that was 20 years ago, before the first "intifada", before Lebanon. It was the Lebanese Hizbollah who first changed the rules. If the Israelis killed Lebanese civilians, they said, their guerrillas would fire Katyusha missiles over the border into Israel.

Now the Palestinians have learned the lesson. If Israel believes in force, so do they. If the Israelis kill Palestinians, Israelis will die. If the lessons are cruel, the victims totally innocent, the principle remains; kill us and we will kill you. The Israelis now find themselves – the Palestinians, too – in a vicious circle. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, is the principle political victim. Claiming that the Palestinians – whose territory is occupied by Israel – are besieging Israel, he demands the right to "strike back at terror".

But when Hamas or Islamic Jihad "strike back" at "Israeli terror", the whole Israeli policy falls apart. Last week, after eight Palestinians were killed in Israel's assassination campaign – the dead included two Hamas political leaders, a journalist and two children – Hamas promised revenge. Yesterday, the revenge came. Indeed, Islamic Jihad said, it was "only just beginning". Now Israel is promising "retaliation" for the massacre of 18 Israelis which was "retaliation" for the slaughter of eight Palestinians which was "retaliation" for Palestinian "terror." Etc, etc.

No wonder President Bush could do no more last night than use the State Department's weariest cliché and call for an end to the "cycle of violence". The Israelis have rejected this phrase – at least when journalists use it – on the grounds that there is no "cycle", that Israel merely "responds" to aggression. But since Israel does not regard the seizure of Arab land as aggression, since it does not see Jewish settlement building on occupied land against international law as aggression, since it does not believe that the demolition of Palestinian homes or torture in the Russian compound interrogation centre – only a few hundred yards from the scene of yesterday's atrocity – is aggression, it's not difficult to see why many Israelis fail to comprehend what this terrible war is about.

For war is the right word to describe the terrible conflict which is steadily increasing in cruelty. If anything, it resembles the start of the French war in Algeria in 1954. This conflict began with road and railway sabotage by the Algerians against the French who had colonised their country, stone-throwing against French settlers and massive, disproportionate killings by the French. The war then escalated to air strikes, the bombing of innocents, torture, land expropriation, the liquidation of collaborators and state-sponsored murder. Which is pretty much the stage which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is now approaching. It is a new kind of war.

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