Posted on April 29, 1996 in Washington Watch

For every action there is a reaction: this is a fundamental law of physics, as well as of politics and human behavior. It is also a lesson that Israel has never learned.

More accurately, it is a lesson that Israel has been shielded from learning. In part due to its overwhelming military strength, coupled with the political backing it receives from the U.S., Israel operates in the Middle East as if its actions have no consequences and will produce no reactions. As a result, Israel treats any response to its own actions as unjustified.

So it is that forty thousand bombs after it started, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres agreed to a cease fire in Lebanon and Israel’s supporters now want to move on and act as if nothing had happened.

But for the families of the more than 200 Lebanese killed, the 450,000 refugees and the tens of thousands whose homes and villages were destroyed in the Israeli assault, moving on and forgetting will not be easy.

The peace process was distorted from the beginning by the asymmetry of power that exists between Israel and its weaker negotiating partners. This was matched by an asymmetry of pressure and compassion. Pressure was placed only on the weaker Arabs, and compassion was shown only to the suffering of the Israelis.

As the peace process moved forward since the 1993 signing of the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles, these asymmetries of power have served only to deform the shape of peace itself. It was in the Israeli mind, a peace for Israel. Israel set the terms and Palestinians were left not to negotiate but to whittle away at Israel’s conditions. Israel and its supporters in the U.S. Congress defined Palestinian compliance with the agreements – and the Palestinians were forced to comply, while the Israelis continue to build settlements, expropriate land, block Palestinian commerce, and fail to implement even the most basic terms of the agreements.

The results: Gaza is poorer today than on the day when the peace accords were signed. The West Bank and Gaza are, today, subject to economic strangulation at the hands of an Israel that is only technically no longer an occupier.

Only last week, the Palestinians met one of the Israeli and U.S. Congress imposed conditions when the Palestine National Council fulfilled its commitment to revoke those articles in the PLO Charter that are not in compliance with their agreement with the Israelis. This was a brave and correct move, by any measure. But, given what the Palestinians are currently enduring, it is a move that will undoubtedly enrage opponents of this strange and distorted peace.

Peres celebrated the PNC vote and declared victory. Having behaved more like a hawk than a dove in recent months, Peres may now win the election at the end of May – but what will that bring? A Labor victory, a wounded and enraged Palestinian and Lebanese people and an Israeli public still operating under the old rules that there are no consequences to their behavior – that they can get the Arabs to do whatever they want without concern for any reaction.

U.S. government spokespeople will herald the accomplishments of the past week, the PLO Charter changes, the cease fire in Lebanon. Israelis will celebrate. And the press will mimic the words given to them. To hear that story as they play it out, it is as if Israel was threatened by Lebanon and there was a symmetrical balance of terror.

In simple mathematics, 500 Katyusha rockets do not equal 40,000 bombs; nor do 200 dead and 1,000 wounded equal 50 wounded; just as 450,000 refugees do not equal 10,000 – unless one uses the Israeli calculus in which they are the only ones who suffer and they are the only ones who live in fear.

The cease fire agreement itself is an outrage. It is essentially a restatement on paper of the unofficial 1993 understanding that governed conflict in the south of Lebanon until Israel decided two weeks ago to attempt to impose new rules. In that sense it is an agreement that could have been reached two weeks ago; it is in essence the very agreement that Israel broke on March 30 when an IDF tank killed two civilians, and unleashed the spiral of events that resulted in the brutal assault begun on April 11.

And so there is the tragedy that 40,000 bombs and many lives later Israel and Lebanon are back to square one (which – for the record – includes Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory). Is this a cause for celebration?

What the Israelis and their supporters never calculate is the effect of their actions. Arabs are not senseless stones to be pushed around or crushed at will – they, too bleed and feel outrage. They also act.

Thirty years ago, after a series of urban riots that shook most major American cities, the U.S. government convened a commission to study the root causes of this violence. At the end of their study the commission concluded that the massive urban unrest was the result of systemic racism, poverty and injustice.

The Middle East is no different in this respect. How long can Gazans remain quiet with no access or egress, with 70% unemployment and a shortage of food? How long West Bank residents remain calm with no access to land, with widespread unemployment and severely limited freedom? How will Lebanon return to normalcy with so many lost, with so much destruction to remind them of the past two weeks and even further back?

It shouldn’t require an extensive study to or a Ph.D. to realize that out of the destruction of Lebanon were born some new “extremists” and some more “terrorists,” or that the moderate Palestinian leadership that made peace will now come under increasing threat by those spurred by resentment and despair.

The growth of “extremism” in the Middle East in recent years is, in part, a function of this pent-up anger. And, in part, the way to confront extremism is to react with justice toward those who are vulnerable.

Never wanting to assume responsibility for the consequences of its actions, however, Israel insists that its behavior in no way contributes to “extremism.” The Israelis instead prefer to point a finger at others. In fact, other countries with an ideological bent do contribute to “extremism,” but they would find little fertile ground if not for the suffering, resentment and injustice that defines daily life in areas affected by Israeli behavior.

All of this imposes fateful choices on the Israeli government at this juncture. Those Arabs who continue to hang by a thread to the peace process, who continue to believe that there is no way to end the conflict except through a negotiated settlement, who were so exhilarated by the September ‘93 signing of the Declaration of Principles and who therefore were so enraged by the closure and new settlement construction and the devastation of Lebanon – they have a simple message to offer the Israeli government:

Peace is not yours alone. When you overreach and overreact, your behavior has consequences. When you fail to consider the humanity of the Arabs and the suffering you impose on Arabs, you make it increasingly difficult for peace to emerge.

The wounds created in the past two months in the West Bank and Gaza, and in the past two weeks in Lebanon, will take a long time to heal – because these are old wounds reopened, and not for the first time. When a scab is pulled off an old wound it not only bleeds anew but it leaves a scar. And these are scars people will live with forever.

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