Leading Article: Such carnage for so little

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HOW does one justify deliberately bombing civilians, killing women and children, and driving 300,000 people from their homes? The Israeli government claims that its aims in bombing southern Lebanon last week were to stop Hizbollah guerrillas firing rockets at northern Israel and, in the longer term, to discourage Syria, Lebanon and Iran from supporting these guerrillas.

These are understandable aims, even if Hizbollah is in part a product of Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. Governments are, after all, entitled to protect their people from guerrillas and rockets. But was savage, indiscriminate bombing the only, or the best way, to achieve that end? Does such a modest aim come close to justifying such massively murderous means? Even if one puts aside moral absolutes and accepts that foul means can sometimes be justified in the pursuit of higher ends, Israel still has a great deal of explaining to do.

It cannot even show that it has achieved its most local aim. There is vague talk that an understanding has been reached to the effect that rocket attacks on northern Israel will stop, though not attacks on Israelis in occupied Lebanon, which started this particular round of trouble. But if this limited understanding has been reached, it will last only as long as it suits the combatants. Hizbollah will have gained new recruits from the attacks and will be eager for revenge. And although Syria controls the flow of arms to the organisation, while Iran supplies most of the funds, neither can dictate every move. Nor is there any reason to believe that they will try to disband the guerrillas, who may still be useful in the future.

The best that can be hoped for, without much conviction, is temporary restraint until a full peace settlement has been reached. Syria's President Assad is genuinely interested in peace, but he has domestic critics who are not. He cannot therefore afford to appear weak in the face of Israeli intransigence. If he encouraged the Hizbollah attacks, he may now think twice about doing so again, but not for ever.

The only way Yitzhak Rabin could begin to justify himself would be to show that a demonstration of force was a necessary prelude to making the concessions necessary for a peace settlement. There is no sign of that yet. The peace talks are at a standstill, and Mr Rabin's government has been less flexible than expected, especially on West Bank autonomy and East Jerusalem. It has been under increasing pressure from hardliners opposed to the peace process, and under less pressure from Washington since Bill Clinton became President. This has fostered the impression that the new American administration is too sympathetic to Israeli views.

Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, will have a chance to correct that impression when he arrives in the area this week. He needs to make clear his disapproval of what Israel has done and to press for new thinking. Nothing that Mr Rabin can do or say will justify the slaughter of so many innocents, but he could start on the road to redemption, and exploit the popularity he has so perversely earned, by making conspicuous moves towards the PLO and the West Bank Palestinians.