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> Columns > Boston Globe > Unequal wrongs in Mideast

Unequal wrongs in Mideast

By Cathy Young | August 5, 2002

LAST WEEK, the terror in Israel struck at an institution of higher learning that, to many, has been a symbol of pluralism and tolerance in a difficult time: Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where the students included both Jewish and Arab Israelis as well as foreigners from many countries. This tragedy, which has a special resonance in the United States since five of the seven dead were Americans, has once again brought the spotlight on the victims of Palestinian terror against Israel.

Only a few days earlier, the focus had shifted mainly to Palestinian casualties of the conflict. On July 24, an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City directed at Sheik Salah Shehada, the leader of the military wing of the radical Islamic group Hamas, killed 14 civilians, including nine children, and injured more than 140. The images from the raid were undeniably horrifying. What human being can fail to be distressed by the sight of a 2-year-old killed in a bombing that also left her mother and three siblings dead? Who can watch the grief of the survivors and not be moved?

Even some people who are generally pro-Israel were taken aback by the civilian toll in this attack (in contrast to Israel's earlier targeted assassinations of terrorists) and by the Israeli government's rather dismissive initial response. My friend Andrew Kaufman, a New York writer and poet who once sympathized with Palestinian claims, has strongly backed Israel's right to self-defense ever since the Palestinians rejected the Israeli peace offer and launched a campaign of suicide bombings. Nonetheless, he was appalled by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's praise for this operation as ''one of our great successes'' and skeptical of the Israeli authorities' subsequent assertion that they did not know the bombing in a densely populated neighborhood would have such devastating consequences. On the other hand, he also found himself sickened by the obscene spectacle of Hamas spokesmen condemning violence against civilians.

Besides deploring the suffering of innocents, most supporters of Israel would like to see it maintain the greatest possible moral distance between itself and the terrorists it is fighting. While no war can be waged without causing noncombatant deaths, it is a basic principle of modern civilization that every possible effort must be made to avoid or minimize such casualties. The Israeli military has, in my view, made such efforts in the past. If it did not live up to this standard in the strike against Shehada, that is deplorable. But there is still no moral equivalency here.

The day after the attack at Hebrew University, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a political leader of Hamas - which took responsibility for this bloody act - called the bombing a success and predicted more such attacks, though he did express regret over the deaths of Americans. He was talking about the deliberate murder of noncombatants, not as ''collateral damage'' (however distasteful that term may be) but as the primary targets of violence.

Shehada was reportedly responsible for dozens of attacks on Israeli civilians. According to the Israeli military, he was preparing many more. By contrast, Hebrew University had no military significance for Israel and posed no threat to Palestinians. Of course, neither did the pizza and ice cream parlors, restaurants, supermarkets, and shopping malls where Hamas has struck before. Its preferred strategy is to set off bombs in crowded areas where the damage to innocent bystanders is likely to be maximized.

In recent months, many Israelis have been radicalized by the relentless campaign of terror unleashed against them. Some, almost exclusively settlers in the occupied territories, are advocating and occasionally carrying out violent reprisals against Palestinian civilians. (It should be noted that those guilty of such violence have been arrested and jailed by the Israeli authorities.) While their anger is understandable, it does not justify terrorism any more than the Palestinians' real grievances can justify suicide bombings.

Even so, the day after the airstrike in Gaza City, we did not see crowds of Israelis cheering for the deaths of Palestinian children. The day after the bombing at Hebrew University, thousands of Palestinians streamed out to celebrate the terrorists' latest ''victory'' in a downright festive atmosphere.

Thanks to the power of the modern media, the harrowing images of human suffering in the Middle East are now in our living rooms. Without a doubt, there is suffering on both sides - just as there has been in any other military conflict, including World War II. But that doesn't mean the wrongs on both sides are equal, too.

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