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The Limits of Collective Punishment
April 3, 2002
By FDRLincoln

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 closer together.

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 fell.

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 a democracy.

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.

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