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'Restraint' strikes fear into Palestinians' hearts

In a strongly worded attack, Middle East editor Brian Whitaker condemns Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip Special report: Israel and the Middle East

Brian Whitaker Guardian Unlimited

Tuesday November 21, 2000

If there's one word that ought to strike fear into the hearts of Palestinians every time they hear it, it's "restraint".

Whenever the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, announces that he has thought carefully about the situation and has decided to continue his policy of restraint - as he did yesterday - we can be sure that some new and horrifying offensive will follow within hours.

Last night's "restraint" was an unprecedented two-hour bombardment of the Gaza Strip - in which more than 30 missiles were fired and electricity was cut off - plus the bulldozing of Palestinian farms, in response to a terrorist attack which killed two adults aboard a bus carrying Israeli settlers' children.

As if to confirm that such onslaughts really are restraint, other Israelis always step forward after the event to condemn Mr Barak for not being tough enough. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book, but the Israelis are masters at it.

The secret is never to be caught defending the indefensible. Instead of trying to justify your disproportionate response to riots and relatively minor acts of terrorism, you shift the debate into even more preposterous territory. The effect of this is to make outrageous actions appear reasonable by comparison.

We saw the same technique at work last week, when US President Bill Clinton asked Congress to provide $450m "emergency" aid for Israel. This consists of $200m to pay for Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon last May, and $250m to protect Israel from a new type of Iranian missile - a privilege not accorded to any of the other countries within firing range.

There is no sensible justification for these payments, but Mr Barak had made it known beforehand that Israel really needed $800m - and he has been complaining ever since.

Hey presto! Instead of Congress asking, "Why on earth should we pay this money?" they will ask: "Is it enough?"

Over the last few weeks I have had several emails from Israel apologists about the Palestinian children killed in the conflict. The general drift of these is to blame their parents for not keeping them out of the way of Israeli bullets.

The same point could equally be made of yesterday's bus bombing. What sort of parents put their children in the front line of battle and send them to school in an armoured bus with a military escort?

The answer is Israeli settlers. "Settlers" - the word has connotations of romance and adventure, but also of seeking a better life, tilling the soil. For Americans it probably conjures up images of quiet homesteads on the prairie.

But in the case of Israeli settlers, "thieves and brigands" would be a better description. They live on stolen land and have been known to shoot Palestinian neighbours for quietly going about their own business picking olives.

All the world, apart from Israel itself, regards the settlements as illegal, but Israel treats any attack on them as an unjustified outrage.

Without the settlers, peace would have come long ago. For the sake of 200,000 bigots in the West Bank and Gaza, the conflict continues, threatening now to destabilise the entire Middle East.

One day, the international community may wake up and impose some real restraint.

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