Limits of Collective Punishment
April 3, 2002
War in the Middle East is not just imminent. It is underway.
Suicide bombings against innocent civilians continue in Israel.
There are reports that Israeli soldiers are executing Palestinian
males without trial, without finding out whether they are
actual terrorists or not.
I will not take the time here to lay out exactly what I think
about the causes of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I have
strong personal opinions about this issue, but so do a lot
of other people. I do want to weigh in on a specific point
that applies to both parties in this conflict.
Apparently, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have yet
to discover something that most teachers, historians, and
drill sergeants already know: collective punishment seldom
works. It might make you feel better, but it seldom solves
underlying sources of conflict. All it does is bind people
The Germans were unable to terrorize the British into capitulation
during the Blitz. Allied strategic bombing actually bound
the German population more closely to the Nazi regime in 1943
and 1944. By blowing up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,
Osama bin Laden did not demoralize America, he unified it.
But neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have learned
this simple lesson.
For decades, many Palestinians have used terror against Israel
civilians to make their political points. Depending on the
group conducting the attack, the goals are to punish Israeli
society, to use violence to force concessions at the bargaining
table, or to simply kill out of vengeance. Of course, this
terrorism has not resulted in an actual Palestinian state.
All it has done is unify Israeli society against the Palestinians.
If the Palestinians had adopted a Gandhi-esque non-violent
approach (putting flowers in the gun barrels of the IDF),
they would have had their state ten years ago. International
pressure would probably have forced the Israelis into capitulation
to a non-violent rebellion. Either that or Israel would have
become the new South Africa, and in the long run apartheid
For their part, the Israelis continue to use policies of
collective punishment and humiliation of the Palestinian civilian
population. The terrorists were never a majority of the Palestinians.
But by continuing to seize land, build settlements, steal
water, torture prisoners, and bulldoze houses, the Israeli
occupation unified Palestinian society against Israel and
made it more likely to support terrorists.
The moderates in Palestinian society have nothing to show
for their moderation; the years of relative peace during the
late 1990s brought no benefits for the average Palestinian.
The continued humiliation of the Palestinians merely strengthened
the hand of the terrorists.
So we have two societies locked in mortal struggle. Both
sides wish to destroy the many for the sins of the few. It
won't work, of course. Neither side can win. Israel has nuclear
weapons, and they've made it quite clear that they would use
them if they were ever losing a war. The Jews can't be thrown
into the sea without the whole region being rendered a wasteland.
On the other hand, it is also clear that the Palestinians
won't accept their status as fourth-class citizens without
legal or political rights. To expel them, as some Israelis
wish, would result in a regional (if not world) war, would
make Israel a pariah state, and would likely ruin Israel as
The maximalist demands of both sides are unachievable without
both societies being destroyed, or rendered radically different
than they currently are. The problem is that the maximalists
are running the show, and that the actions of both sides have
pushed the respective population of the other closer to the
maximalist position. And therein lies the seed of a brutal,
bloody conflict, with potentially horrendous consequences
for the entire world.
FDRLincoln is a sportswriter for a major internet publication.