A mere fraction of our capability
By Meron Benvenisti
The curtain of words which descended on the violence and killing was
meant to cover up dread, to endow chance death with meaning. It
was meant to attack the enemy, fire up patriotic feelings, give the
leaders a route out of tragic mistakes. It was meant to wrap atavistic
acts of revenge in rationality, to blur the moral burden of taking human
life, to provide positive images for propaganda.It is possible to cite
many examples of the tightly-knit fabric that makes up the curtain of
words, but it seems the thread by which the entire curtain hangs
together is the definition of the violence. This is actually two words -
"war" and "terrorism."
There is almost no Israeli spokesman who does not define the
situation in which the Israeli people find themselves as "war." There
are differences of opinion as to whether this is a "limited war," "a war
for survival," "the continuation of the War of Independence," or "a
struggle which was forced on us."
There is, however, no difference of opinion about defining Palestinian
violence - it's "terrorism." The distinction between Israeli and
Palestinian violence has no analytical significance, it's only a value
War, especially a defensive war, is legitimate violence. Terrorism is
criminal violence that aims to achieve non-legitimate goals. In defining
the violence initiated by them as "war" Israel is trying to retain a
monopoly on legitimate violence. Israelis think only their national goals
are just and valid and they have an absolute obligation to practice self
Palestinian violence is criminal terrorism, because it serves criminal
aims such as the destruction of the Zionist achievement, or just murder
for its own sake.
Palestinians cannot, of course, accept an Israeli definition of the
legitimacy or illegitimacy of violence - indeed they have an opposite
They are the ones in a war against a brutal occupation that tries to
maintain a cruel and repressive regime. The fact that the violence
against them is coming from the army of a sovereign state makes the
State of Israel a terrorist state.
This mutual delegitimization is obliterating the historic achievement of
the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser
Arafat. In signing the declaration of principles in 1993, they believed
that they were defining each other as legitimate enemies - a crucial
stage in the process of moving to mutual recognition and eventual
The renewed use of "war" versus "terror" rhetoric indicates the
destruction of the Oslo process even more than the outbreak of
violence itself. Whoever uses these definitions is damaging the chance
of achieving peace since peace can only be made with a legitimate
enemy, not with a terrorist.
The monopoly the Israelis claim for themselves on defining "war" is
arbitrary for another reason. When you declare you are in a state of
war, you take it upon yourself to behave according to the "rules of
These are formulated in international law, accepted by all enlightened
nations, and today are subject to the judgment of an international
tribunal. These rules forbid harming civilians, damaging private
property, collective punishment, populations transfers, starvation, and
indiscriminate killing. Israel's "war" activity does not conform to these
The initiators of "preventive steps," "proper responses" and
"maintaining deterrence" know they are violating the rules of war - but
they interpret the rules as it suits them. The definition of war must have
been made only for their needs, or else the fighters on the other side
would have the status of prisoners of war rather than of mere
That is the real reason Israel objects to international observers - even
to a monitoring committee set up by the United States. The last thing
Israel wants is an external body that will examine its "acts of war"
according to accepted standards.
"There has to be a significant decrease in the violence so that it will be
possible to start investigating the events," says acting Foreign Minister
Shlomo Ben-Ami. In other words, Israel wants a free hand, until it
succeeds in subduing the Palestinians by force.
Experts in his ministry have no hesitation in depending on Russia to
oppose observers being sent, because it is "a precedent that will lead
to the dispatch of an international force to Chechnya" that will expose
Russian war crimes.
When Communications Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer proclaims
"What the IDF has done until now is not even a fraction of its
capability," the dispatch of an international observer force becomes
even more urgent