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Descending into madness: the Arab-Israeli conflict

Once again the Arab-Israeli conflict has descended into a poisonous cauldron of murder and retribution of Biblical and Koranic proportions. Through the miracle of television, on-site news coverage brings partisans around the world the images they want. Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite news station, bombards the Islamic world with images of Arab bodies and body parts, and a phalanx of news broadcasters provide the United States with pictures of the horrors visited upon the Jews. Just about anyone who wants can have the version he/she wants at will. Technology, someone will argue, is democratic.

There is a facet to this that is unsettling. When Sergei Khrushchev ? Nikita Khrushchev's son ? toured the U.S. last year, he made an observation which seems, in retrospect, quite obvious. I was never much of a fan of his father, but Sergei made sense to me. In the Middle East, he said, you have a conflict that is driven by the radicals on both sides. Whenever it appears there may be peace, one side or the other invariably moves to heighten the tensions, raise the level of violence and destroy all hopes for peace. Under this logic, the real martyrs in this conflict have been Rabin and Sadat.

The current moment is illustrative of how this works. About a year and a half ago it almost looked like there would be some settlement moving toward peace. Then Ariel Sharon visited the Dome of the Rock, which even Israelis thought was a provocation, albeit not exactly an earth-shaking provocation. Then the Intifada started, kids threw rocks, Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets, people were injured, then killed, and things kept spiraling until we had suicide bombers blowing up pizza parlors and the Israeli army directing bulldozers to crush homes in a miserable refugee camp. A review of most of the European press or even the Canadian national press will reveal an astonishing parallax view of this war in terms of the reported brutality perpetrated by the Israelis and the agonized debate within Israel about what the violence is doing to the soul of the country.

The radicals on both sides are rewarded whenever they can destroy the potential for peace and the world is invited to help reward these militants. Some of the people who join this dance are completely obvious in their motives. Saddam Hussein offers money to the families of the people who strap explosives to themselves and kill Israelis to keep the cycle going because as long as the pot is boiling in Israel, the Bush administration will be too distracted to put together enough hardware and Arab allies to attack Iraq and kill Saddam. The same Saudi millionaires who support the schools that teach young boys their version of Islamic Puritanism and hatred of the United States, and who have done nothing to support economic recovery or the reconstruction of the Arab society in Palestine, can probably be counted on for funding when the rocks or bullets or strap-on bombs are doing their work.

There is a similar but far better funded dynamic at work on the other side. The United States' most expensive overseas project is Israel. It has enabled this small country to become a modern military power. Anyone who thinks the Arabs can drive the Israelis into the sea with a few bombs is wholly uninformed of how lopsided the struggle is in military terms. Israel has the big bomb, according to everyone but Israel. It sports tanks and modern military aircraft. It is, in that part of the world, invincible. And its defense fundraising is unparalleled.

Since the Intifada began, 319 Israelis as of April 19, according to the New York Times, have been killed ? a small number compared to the other Middle East civil war in Sudan which counts two million dead and more than 4.5 million refugees over 18 years. The numbers are of little solace to the people on both sides whose relatives have died, but numbers do lend perspective. Ten times as many Americans were killed September 11.

Nevertheless the war in Israel is crucial to world peace because of its reach. Anyone who believes attacking Palestinian refugee camps will destroy Arab determination for revenge is, as they say in these parts, dumb as a bag of hammers. Images cross millions of television screens every night aggravating a sense of injustice and cementing a new identity among young Muslims who see the creation of Israel, rightly or wrongly, as a colony of first Europe and now the United States ? which perpetuates a humiliating injustice against a billion people. This is exactly what Osama wanted. If this goes on, Americans and American interests will be under increasing and devastating attacks across the whole Islamic world for generations to come.

Both sides seem to advocate endless use of military force and sneak attacks though it's not working for either side. Rather than send a never-ending stream of weapons and money to Israeli militarists, countered by a similar stream from the Muslim world to Palestinian Arab militants, we could calculate how much it costs to kill or capture even one of the enemy and compare that to the cost of reparations to those who have legitimate claims against Israel for properties taken and lives disrupted in the pursuit of a Jewish state.

Reparations is one strategy that hasn't been tried. Pay people what they should be paid to give up their claims against Israel, and create the Palestinian state they have a right to. Set up multinational courts to prosecute those who have committed murders and assaults on both sides, even if they can't actually arrest the perpetrators, and stop pretending that one side or the other are saints or devils, nationalists or terrorists. In short, isolate those who would perpetuate violence no matter who they are, and compensate those who would agree to peace through justice.

This is the hardest path to take in this conflict because hatreds make clear thinking difficult, but it's the only one that makes sense. Unless things go in that direction, sooner or later a Saddam type will provide a weapon of mass destruction to an Osama type and some fool will deliver and detonate the thing on the streets of Tel Aviv.

It is not the terrorists or the anti-terrorists who are likely to win this kind of war. Madness will win if people don't adopt strategies that actually address the problem, and the problem is that violence is rewarded and peace is punished on all sides.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University at Buffalo, N.Y.