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Escalation?
by George de Poor Handlery
24 March 2004

Targeting Sheik Yassin is said to lead to a regrettable and avoidable escalation of violence for which Israel is responsible.


In case you have a ladder handy, please lean it against a wall. Now, “escalate” yourself up the ladder. How high did you get? Presumably your movement upward stopped at the end of the stepladder. It is, as some of us know, fairly difficult to get higher than the scale.  Thus escalation in our test is limited by the ladder’s length and by the height of the wall. Sounds simple? Not to all when the escalation involves the Middle East. That is one of the places where heights, actions and their consequences are measured by “unequal ladders.” It is also a place where there is little agreement regarding the location, shape and height of walls because of barriers already erected in the skull of the observers.

You might have started to wonder what issue -- besides the problems of constructing and climbing over hindrances -- this writer wishes to explore. Well, the chosen topic to be embellished by adding his two bits’ worth is given by Sheik Yassin’s ascent or descent (depending on your point of view) to the location of his after-life. More precisely, this is about dealing with the popular question of the aftermath of Israel’s decision to eliminate Hamas’ spiritual father and strategic director.

By now, most minds are made up regarding the “rights” and “wrongs” of Israel’s action. In fact, in most cases, they were made up before anything could happen. Some were for “it” because the Israelis are reputed to be Jews. Others were against “it” because there are too many Jews in Israel -- and there is too much of Israel in the Middle East. There is a further position -- out of several that can be left unmentioned here. It assumes that before any specific action is to be taken, that responding to the terrorism aimed at others must always be in conformity with encoded international law. The nice thing about the law of nations in its current form is that it allows you to be, as a proudly upright person of firm principles, against globally organized and omnipresent terrorism in principle. Meanwhile, the practical interpretation of the law allows one not to be committed to action against what is being condemned in theory. After all, acting in any manner that can be deemed as effective would involve a “no-no!” -- namely violence against terrorists because they are terrorists. This is akin to telling firemen not to get burning objects wet as they fight fires.

So, now the large caliber moral guns of outrage are directed on Israel. Somehow one gets the impression from here that their number and their thunder is louder than in those cases in which the victims are Jews and Gentiles and whoever else happened to be in Hamas’ harmful way. Besides wanting an excuse not to have to act on professed principles, furthermore, beside the hope that discreet compliance might get a reprieve from terror, there is a further reason for the apparent inconsistency. The critics know that Israel -- or the USA, or most other current and future victims of terrorism -- are, as open societies, “pressurable.” One scores in their midst by invoking principles the Yassins do not care about. Of course, this demonstrates that in the back of their heads the critics know that the parties to the quarrel are not only not equal, they are not even similar. Chiding them equally, so as to create the outward impression of impartiality, means ignoring this fact by those who know the facts quite well.

One term that is frequently heard in the commentaries about the Yassin matter is “escalation.” Targeting the Sheik is said to lead to a regrettable and avoidable escalation of violence for which Israel is responsible. Dealing with this assertion is where the opener about the ladder comes in handy. Short of using a nuclear device, no further escalation of violence is possible. Regional violence has already climbed to the highest scale of the ladder: there is no way up. The only escalation we are going to witness is that a number of planned attacks will be telescoped together; that is, they will take place earlier than planned.

If the victims of terrorism are not supposed to hit back in ways that might anger terrorists, then we are essentially telling them that they should not defend themselves efficiently. Violence in the real world will only cease when it becomes perfectly clear that while terrorism might hurt its victim, it cannot bring about his collapse. Advocating restraint to those who are apt to listen because their democratic political culture makes them prefer settlements based on compromise, only encourages the prophets of violence. This is why: if retaliation against someone who ordered a bus blown up is condemned as a crime, while blasting the bus is downgraded as a regrettable, frustrated act of hot-headed boys, then the effect of the bomb is augmented by the political damage to those who endeavor to prevent a second massacre. This political signal makes trying it again with a bus, a bar or a commuter train or perhaps a high-rise, well worth the effort.

George Handlery is a historian. He has lived and taught in Europe since 1976.

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