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Jewish World Review May 30, 2002 / 20 Sivan, 5762

Martin Peretz

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Good fight


http://www.jewishworldreview.com | It may surprise some readers to learn that I strongly support a U.N. investigation into the violence in Jenin. Just not an investigation into what the Israeli Defense Forces did in Jenin. Rather, what the United Nations needs is an internal investigation:

What role did the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)--which for years has presided over Palestinian refugee camps in Jenin and elsewhere--play in allowing those camps to turn into terrorist havens complete with militias and weapons factories?

When relief agencies allowed the refugee camps in eastern Congo to be taken over by the Hutu militias that had carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, human rights types were outraged. But in Jenin the U.N.'s complicity with terrorism seems not to bother anyone at all. And that complicity is of more than theoretical interest. After all, surely the Palestinians didn't think they could go on making and exploding bombs indefinitely. If the United Nations had policed its own turf, Ariel Sharon might not have had to.

In the May 12 edition of The New York Times Magazine, the respected war correspondent Scott Anderson (see David Rieff's review of his The Man Who Tried to Save the World , The New Republic, September 13 & 20, 1999) offers a gorgeously written account of his week with the Palsar Tzanhanim--an elite unit of Israeli paratrooper reconnaissance commandos, mostly reservists. In search of Palestinian terrorists, the unit was stationed in the West Bank village of Atil.

The platoon commandeered a house with a view of the surrounding terrain. "Within minutes of their arrival, they roll up the family's better carpets, moving them, along with various breakable objects, to one corner of the upstairs sitting room. There are chickens in the small backyard, and one soldier is given the task of making sure they are regularly fed and watered. By longstanding policy, nothing of the family's is to be used--not the onions sitting on the kitchen sill or the soap in the bathroom--and on the day [they] leave, a cleanup crew will give the house a quick scrubbing, perhaps even leave behind a bit of money to the compensate the family for the inconvenience. Such are the tactics and considerations of this peculiar war." At least, these are the tactics of the Israelis in this peculiar war.

Anderson relates two especially eerie episodes. In one, the commandos take over a Palestinian house in which they suspect a certain terrorist is hiding. They rouse the father and instruct him to bring everyone outside, and he returns with eight or nine individuals, mostly children. The terrorist is not among them. "`You understand that if we find anyone else inside we're going to shoot them,' [Yaron] Ishai, the deputy commander, explains. The man nods, `Everyone is out.'" But it turns out that not everyone is out. Searching the house, "Ishai suddenly spots a figure moving in the dark ... but then hesitates for a fraction of a second. It is long enough for him to realize that the figure is not a gunman, but a young child," an eight- or nine-year-old boy.

In the second anecdote, a thirty-something Palestinian openly approaches the house the unit has adopted as its base. He is easily spotted but does not obey orders shouted at him in Arabic. Is he a suicide bomber? Bait for an ambush? Waiting yields no evidence of anything. Finally a soldier, his movements followed by trained rifles inside, "walks toward the man ... and quickly lifts him off the ground and body-slams him to the street." Anderson concludes, "Most any other army in the world, faced with the very real threat of suicide bombers, would probably have simply shot the man in the street--just as most any other army would have shot the boy in the house the night before--but even in the heat of the moment the Palsars hesitated."

Just about 20 years ago I wrote, to some ridicule, about the Israeli-- actually, early Zionist--military doctrine called tohar haneshek, rendered literally in English as "purity of arms" ("Lebanon Eyewitness," TNR, August 2, 1982). It is a doctrine of self-constraint: Everything reasonable must be done to avoid harming civilians, even if that entails additional risks to Israeli soldiers. The doctrine still holds.

A few weeks ago I spoke at a conference on war crimes and just wars sponsored by The New School. The panel was asked about Jenin, and Richard Holbrooke, who knows about these things, observed that the Israeli military is probably more fastidious about moral constraints than is our own. So it is one of the more Orwellian features of today's world that it is precisely this army (and practically no other) that provokes the ire of Kofi Annan, the Vatican, and the great plenipotentiaries of Europe. And now that fundamentalist Muslim terror is afflicting Europeans as well (witness the bus bombing that killed eleven French citizens on May 8 in Pakistan and the 42 Russians murdered by a terrorist bomb in Kaspisk, Dagestan, one day later), the world will see how scrupulously European armies react to terror against their citizens. Suffice it to say that if Anderson had spent a week with a Russian unit in Chechnya, I suspect he'd have written a very different story.

It was bound to happen: campaigns at a few American universities to divest from companies (like General Electric, IBM, Intel, and Merck) that do business with Israel. It started at Princeton and has now spread to Harvard and MIT. It's not exactly a mass movement: I caught a clip of the joint Harvard-MIT "teach-in" on fox news, and it showed no more than a hundred students. And the signatories (most of whom oppose capitalism itself and are therefore presumably in favor of divestment almost anywhere) tell you just about everything you need to know about this laughable venture.

At Princeton the most well known are the manicured, exquisitely tailored Luxembourgeois neo-Marxist historian Arno Mayer, whose published preference for Lenin over Wilson and Stalin over Churchill may explain his current affection for Yasir Arafat; the philosopher Peter Singer, who usually cares more for animals than for people (his solicitude for the Palestinians is in that sense a great moral improvement); and the international lawyer Richard Falk, once an enthusiast for the Ayatollah Khomeini and a defender of the Khmer Rouge.

At MIT there is, predictably, Noam Chomsky (another old Khmer Rouge fan), plus 14 linguists, and 38 others not known for thinking much about politics at all. The Harvard list is equally uninteresting, sporting one distinguished classicist, one unusually undistinguished political scientist, a physicist who works for oil companies, several Arabists, a few theologians, and the French art historian Henri Zerner--who, I am afraid, can't tell the difference between the Left Bank and the West Bank.

But there is one striking exception: Where is Cornel West? Did the famously anti-Israel philosopher of self-promotion decide that Israel wasn't the moral equivalent of apartheid South Africa after all? I doubt it. More likely he couldn't decide whether to sign the Harvard list or the Princeton one.



JWR contributor Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief and chairman of The New Republic. Comment by clicking here.

Up

04/26/02: Of Poets and Murderers
04/12/02: Before there were 'Palestinians,' there was Arafat: The making of a 'statesman'
02/08/02: Foresight
10/23/01: When America-haters become Americans

© 2002, Martin Peretz