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Israel’s Disproportionate Responses

Prime Minister Olmert warned Hamas a few days ago (February 1) that a renewal of the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israeli territory would evoke a “harsh and disproportionate” response from Israel. This pointed choice of words was sobering and even shocking, given the repeated appearance of the same word, “disproportionate,” in the world-wide condemnation of Israel in recent weeks, for the scale of the destruction it had just wrought in Gaza.

I can think of two examples of “harsh and disproportionate” response on the part of a nation finding itself under attack.

The first occurred at the beginning of this year, when 1300 Palestinians, confined by blockade to the crowded and desperately under-provisioned territory of Gaza, were killed in the course of massive Israeli attacks over a period of 22 days. That swift savaging of Gaza, which brought with it also the total or partial destruction of 22,000 homes and civic buildings, was in response to 8 years of nasty rocket attacks on Israel, launched intermittently and erratically from Gaza. Those rocket attacks, an inchoate protest against Israel’s decades-long Occupation and subsequent sealing up of Palestinian territory, cost 28 Israeli lives and brought apprehension and uncertainty to the lives of tens of thousands of Israeli citizens.

1300 lives in 22 days was the price paid for 28 other lives taken over a period of 8 years. Disproportionate indeed.

The other example of a “harsh and disproportionate” response that comes to mind occurred on June 10, 1942. In retaliation for the assassination by Czech resistance fighters of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi “Protector” of Czechoslovakia , “All the residents of Lidice, a village ten miles outside of Prague, were taken from their homes [and] shot in batches of ten at a time behind a barn. By late afternoon, 192 men and boys and 71 women had been murdered…. The SS then razed the town and tried to eradicate it from memory.”

This account of the destruction of Lidice is from a text that is kept, fittingly, in the United States Holocaust Museum, a repository of memory. It appears also, and again fittingly, in an article published by Yad Vashem, the “Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority” of Israel, another repository of memory.

From 1942 in Lidice to 2009 in Gaza, from “harsh disproportion” to “harsh disproportion,” and from the conversion of a victim-people into yet another state inflicting collective punishment on a civilian population, the history of Israel has turned upon itself strangely, in the figure of a serpent mindlessly swallowing its own tail.

Fact or imputation, this contortion of history is something that any Prime Minister of Israel should not be too busy with other affairs of state to reflect on.

Prophetically, in 1918, thirty years before the State of Israel was established, the great Jewish philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Buber, said he rejected the concept of a “Jewish state with cannons, flags, and military decorations.”

Now, ninety years after Buber wrote those words, one can wonder if he sensed that, so outfitted, some Israel of the future would develop the brawn and unseeing stare of a new Goliath, as readily and surely as any other nation has done in recorded history.

JULES RABIN is a writer, political critic, and longtime resident of Marshfield, Vermont.

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