Mideast violence: Is it war yet?

Israel's use of warplanes against a Palestinian target Friday marks the biggest escalation since the Six Day War of 1967.

Hawla Ghafar, the awestruck expression on her face accentuated by a tightly wrapped head scarf, stood across the street from the Police Special Forces headquarters here to take in what the Israeli F-16s had done.

A semicircular swath 50 yards wide had turned to dust and rubble, as if a giant had stamped his heel on the building. "What are the Israelis going to do next, now that they have used jet fighters?" wondered Ms. Hawla, a schoolteacher who lives in a refugee camp. Nearly eight months of Israeli-Palestinian strife, she added, were beginning to feel "like a war." "Weekend of war," echoed Maariv, an Israeli daily, in its coverage of the events of Friday and Saturday. The logo appeared on nearly every page of the tabloid's Sunday news section.

Reuven Rivlin, Israel's communications minister, describes Israel's escalating attacks against the Palestinians as a "war against terrorism." Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat says "the decisive battle for Palestine" has come.

But it seems that no one is willing to declare outright that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a war. Armed groups are fighting each other, but they lack the motives and perhaps the level of organization that war demands. For now, anyway.

"War" means two sides clashing with some objective in mind; the Israelis and the Palestinians don't have any grand strategies. "War" also suggests a balance of power more even than the staggering imbalance that exists between the Israelis and Palestinians.

In most of their rhetoric, the partisans of the two sides cling to the articulation of their rights rather than uttering words of war. The Palestinians defend their "right to resist" Israel's occupation of their lands - by any means necessary. The Israelis resist any infringement on their "right to defend" themselves from Palestinian attacks, and that often means attacking the Palestinians first and with overwhelming force.

Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit has a different take: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a blood feud, two sides bent on revenge, fighting to the end. "A feud is not about future prospects," he says, something that war often is. "It's settling scores from the past."

The possibility exists that Arab states will involve themselves in this conflict, and that would indeed mean war, as it has repeatedly over the past half-century. After Israel's use of US-made F-16 fighter jets to attack Palestinian targets on Friday, that possibility is arguably one step closer.

It was the first time such sophisticated weaponry had been used over the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967 - the war in which Israel seized those territories from Jordan and Egypt. On Saturday, Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo called upon the organization's 22 members to cut all political ties with Israel.

That move fell short of Egypt and Jordan severing their diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, but it may have killed an Egyptian-Jordanian peace initiative. It has also brought relations in the region to a low point not seen in decades.

The Arab League meeting capped some of the bloodiest days of the intifada. On Friday, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed himself and five Israelis in a grisly explosion in the seaside Israeli town of Netanya. Palestinian Attackers later shot to death an Israeli officer in the West Bank.

Israeli reprisals occurred in the late afternoon: F-16 jets and Apache helicopter strikes killed 12 Palestinians. A bomb discovered in a Jerusalem bar was detonated by Israeli police at 3 a.m. Saturday.

Saturday also brought more Israeli raids and a massive public funeral in Nablus, the main Palestinian town in the northern part of the West Bank, for policemen killed at the Police Special Forces headquarters. As thousands of mourners filled the central square of the old part of this ancient town, Palestinian gunmen emptied clip after clip into the air.

The gunfire served to illustrate both Palestinians' rage and the futility of their position, since they have little more than small arms to defend themselves against the most powerful military in the Middle East. Israeli security forces killed three Palestinians in clashes Saturday. So far 553 people have died in this conflict, including 469 on the Palestinian side and 84 on the Israeli side.

While all this violence adds up to something, it is not quite war. The formulation used by the Israel Defense Forces is "an armed conflict short of war," but international humanitarian law has only two categories: war and non-war.

Calling a conflict "war" gives military forces leeway and liberties to use violence that a state of non-war does not allow, says Kim Gordon-Bates, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jerusalem. That might be a boon for the IDF, which has drawn global condemnation for using excessive force in dealing with the Palestinian unrest, but it would amount to a declaration of war. Although Israelis generally support their hard-line prime minister, Ariel Sharon, the majority of the population does not want to give up on the longheld dream of peaceful coexistence with Israel's Arab neighbors.

The problem for the IDF is that international humanitarian law specifies much higher standards of protection for civilians when a military is operating in a state of non-war. So Israel is trying to define a third, in-between path, in part to absolve itself of having to account for the hundreds of civilians its forces have killed since the intifada began last year.

The Palestinians, too, dream of peace, but their unwillingness to adopt the language of war is also a matter of practical reality: Israel would crush them. It's hard to destroy F-16s with automatic rifles.

It is true that some of the circumstances of this conflict are present in situations of war. Hostilities are, of course, taking place. Organizations capable of conducting war are involved. (One subtlety: While Israel's forces are under a unified organizational command, it is by no means clear that the militants on the Palestinian side are.)

The main complexity is motive. Israel would have no reason to battle and conquer the Palestinians; the whole point of years of negotiations has been to try to extricate Israel from its occupation of Palestinian territories. Palestinians might want to capture parts or all of Israel, but they simply do not have the means. Nor, incidentally, do the Arab states, as a series of Arab-Israeli wars has shown.

Mr. Margalit, a Hebrew University professor who laid out his feud analysis in a recent edition of The New York Review of Books, says the only way out is the intervention of a third party - in this case, the United States. "The two sides can't get out of it themselves."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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