Palestinian tactics are often attacked or defended on dubious grounds. Whether these tactics are terrorist is irrelevant; some terrorism is defensible, some not. The same applies to whether the acts are murders. Whether others are bigger terrorists or murderers is also irrelevant; two wrongs don’t make a right. Whether Israelis have committed crimes is not directly relevant either; that they have committed crimes is not sufficient to justify killing people, civilians, who have not committed them.
The problem, as anyone will tell you, is that Palestinians deliberately kill civilians. You would think, then, that we would never do such a thing. Maybe not. Those who conducted strategic bombing raids against Nazi Germany, or for that matter those who set speed limits on our highways, did not. These actions, it seems, were fine. Bombs would definitely stray into civilian areas; lower speed limits would definitely mean fewer children killed and maimed in accidents. We knew this with certainty, but we didn’t *intend* these consequences. Apparently this makes us far better than the Palestinians. The scholastically fine distinction between deliberately killing civilians and knowingly killing civilians has become, it seems, a moral chasm.
Sometimes, though, we treat the deliberate killing of civilians with reverence, or at least feel a special moral pride in our refusal to condemn it. The best examples are from American history. We have not forgotten that American Indians deliberately killed civilians, including children, and sometimes as a policy. But no one demands an apology from contemporary American Indian leaders; quite the reverse. Nor is this simply a matter of the silly business of apologies or other manifestations of political correctness. (If political correctness is involved, it comes from focusing on the warfare of 1850-1890, when the whites were the worst killers, not on the earlier periods when things were more even.) Why then, do we keep silent about these presumably awful crimes? Why don’t we rub them in the faces of our children, so that they will never forget that such presumed evils presumably tainted our land?
It is necessary to put the question more sharply to exclude weasely answers. The Indians sometimes murdered innocent civilians, including children. These acts were right, wrong, or morally indifferent. Which were they?
I can’t see that they were morally indifferent, can you? Were they wrong? If so, they must have been awfully wrong, because they involved murdering children. Is that what we want to say?
I suggest not. I suggest the acts were terrible, cruel, and ultimately justified. My reasons are familiar to everyone. The Indians’ very existence as a people was threatened. More than threatened; their society was doomed without resistance. They had no alternative. Moreover, every single white person, down to the children, was an enemy, a being which, allowed to live, would contribute to the destruction of the Indians’ collective existence.
The Indians had no chance of defeating the whites by conventional military means. So their only resort was to hit soft targets and do the maximum damage. That wasn’t just the right thing to do from their point of view. It was the right thing to do, period, because the whites had no business whatever coming thousands of miles to destroy the Indian people.
The comparisons with the situation of the Palestinians are beyond obvious. To start, what I have written sneaks in some misconceptions. There were no people called “the Indians”. They were diverse, as cultures and as individuals, some peaceful, some warlike, some responsible for the massacres, some not. It was, of course, the whites who lumped them together and demonized them (just as this sentence does to the whites). The Israelis kind of do that when they destroy the houses of old women and blockade cities to the point of starvation and medical catastrophe. And when anyone supports the Israelis, they are responsible for this sort of collective ‘punishment’, even if they don’t – as they often do – indulge in the same coarse generalizations.
As for the other points of resemblance, not only Israeli, but much non-Israeli Jewish propaganda does its best to conceal them. But concealment is impossible. Guess what? The Palestinians didn’t travel thousands of miles to dispossess the Jews. It was the other way around. Often the Jews had very pressing reasons to leave Europe. So did the whites who settled in North America. And both groups of settlers couldn’t quite take in what they saw: that gee, there were other people already there, and the land was theirs. When possible, both engaged in sleazy land deals to get their foothold; when not, force was used. But always there was no question: the whole land would be theirs, and the state to be constructed would be their state.
Both groups of settlers somehow contrived, despite these goals, to believe that they wanted nothing but to live in peace with their ‘neighbors’- neighbors, of course, because they had already taken some of their land. And sure, they did want peace, just as Hitler wanted peace: on his terms. The most casual survey of Israeli politics indicates that mainstream, official, respectable Jewish opinion asserts an absolute right to Israel’s present boundaries, and at the very least would never abandon the continually expanding settlements. What is considered extreme Jewish opinion, which asserts rights over the entire area occupied by Palestine, is not the Israeli extreme. The far right in Israel claims a territory that stretches as far as Kuwait and southern Turkey. This matters, because, given Israel’s fragmented politics, the extreme right wields a power out of proportion to its numbers. The conclusion must be that Israel, as a collective entity, wants peace with all the sincerity of, say, General Custer.
Like the Indians, the Palestinians have nowhere to go. All the Arab states either hate them, or hate having them there. And, like Indians, Arabs and Palestinians are not all alike: do we scratch our heads and wonder why, when the Cherokee were kicked off their land, they didn’t just join the Apache or Navaho? Like the Indians, the Palestinians have not the slightest chance of injuring, let alone defeating Israel through conventional military tactics. Like the whites, every single Israeli Jew, down to and including the children, are instruments wielded against the Palestinian people.
Of course the two situations aren’t quite analogous. Things are clearer in the case of Israel, where virtually every able-bodied adult civilian is at least an army reservist, and every Jewish child will grow up to be one. And the American settlers never spent years proclaiming how happy they would be with the land they had before embarking on a campaign to take the rest of it.
One might add that the current situation of the Palestinians is more like that of the Indians in 1880-1890 than earlier, because the Palestinians have lost much more than half of their original land.
The Palestinians don’t set out to massacre children, that is, they don’t target daycare centers. (Nor do they scalp children, but according to the BBC, that’s what Israel’s clients did in Sabra and Shatila.) They merely hit soft targets, and this sometimes involves the death of children. But, like anyone, they will kill children to prevent the destruction of their society. If peoples have any right of self-preservation, this is justified. Just as Americans love to do, the Palestinians are “sending a message”: you really don’t want to keep screwing with us. We will do anything to stop you. And if the only effective way of stopping their mortal enemies involved targeting daycare centers, that would be justified too. No people would do anything less to see they did not vanish from the face of the earth.
Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada.