The Jerusalem Post - Nov. 16, 2004


by Evelyn Gordon

Why are Israeli soldiers forbidden to defend themselves the way French soldiers do?

For Israelis, last week felt rather like being in a funhouse: Familiar objects, viewed in international mirrors, were distorted beyond recognition.

The most glaring example was the worldwide amnesia over Yasser Arafat's 30-year career as a leading international terrorist. But the violence in the Ivory Coast also seemed like the funhouse reflection of an all-too-familiar scene.

On November 4, Ivory Coast's government ended an 18-month truce by launching air strikes at rebel forces. Two days later, government forces attacked the rebel stronghold of Bouake, killing nine French peacekeepers and wounding 22.

The government said the peacekeepers were unintended casualties of the attack on rebel forces, but France, rejecting this (plausible) contention, claimed that its soldiers were deliberately targeted. It therefore retaliated by destroying most of Ivory Coast's tiny air force - two planes and five helicopters - and seizing the country's major airports.

Thousands of furious Ivorians, wielding machetes, iron bars and clubs, promptly marched on Houphouet-Boigny Airport to try to retake it. Similar mobs besieged foreigners in several cities.

The French reacted to both developments with tear gas, concussion grenades, rockets and gunfire, both from ground troops ensconced in armored vehicles and from helicopter gunships.

The clashes continued all last week, with Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo doing little to restrain the rioters. By the end of the week, between 27 and 62 people had been killed (depending on whose figures you believe) and over 1,000 were wounded. Almost all the casualties were Ivorian.

Up to this point, the events bear an uncanny resemblance to those of September 2000 - when Palestinians broke a seven-year-old peace treaty by launching multiple attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians throughout the territories.

The sole difference was that here Israelis were unquestionably the intended victims: One soldier was killed by a bomb; another was shot to death by armed Palestinians attacking Joseph's Tomb (which the Oslo Accords had assigned to Israeli control); a border policeman was shot and killed by his Palestinian comrades during a joint patrol; a civilian was shot to death while shopping in the West Bank.

At the same time, mobs consisting of thousands of rock-throwers, intermingled with occasional gunmen, marched on Israeli army positions throughout the territories. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat made no attempt to restrain the violence.

And Israel responded exactly as France did. First, it bombed empty PA buildings, causing property damage but no casualties - the equivalent (though admittedly far stupider) of France's bombing of the Ivorian air force. Second, it employed live fire against armed mobs after riot control measures such as tear gas proved ineffective.

And, just as the Ivorians suffered far more casualties than the smaller but better-armed French forces, Palestinians suffered far more casualties than the smaller but better-armed Israeli forces.

THERE, HOWEVER, the similarity ends.

In response to last week's events, the UN Security Council, the European Union, the African Union and various national leaders all condemned the Ivorian government both for launching the violence and for failing to stop it.

The Security Council began discussing an arms embargo on Ivory Coast. No one (except Ivory Coast) accused France of using excessive force; the African Union even praised the French response as having "contributed to the restoration of peace and security."

The response to the "intifada" was the exact opposite.

Rather than condemning the PA for starting the violence, the international community - with the EU, and France in particular, in the forefront - termed the violence a legitimate response to then opposition leader Ariel Sharon's peaceful visit to Judaism's holiest site, the Temple Mount, and blamed Israel for shooting back.

The Security Council (with American acquiescence) passed a resolution "deploring" the "provocation" of Sharon's visit and condemning Israel's "excessive use of force against Palestinians;" the Palestinian violence was not even mentioned.

World leaders also convened two international summits in as many weeks to pressure Israel to offer concessions to the PA to stop the violence. And several European countries slapped a partial arms embargo on Israel while simultaneously increasing financial aid to the PA - undeterred by the PA's use of such funds to buy sophisticated weaponry such as the $15-million worth of materiel later discovered aboard the arms ship Karine A in January 2002.

The response to the Ivory Coast clashes was, of course, correct. The Ivorian government was clearly the aggressor and deserved to be treated as such.

Nor was the French reaction excessive: The only way a small force can defend itself against a much larger one, however poorly armed, is by using its superior weaponry to ensure that the mob never gets near it. Had the French withheld fire they would have been slaughtered by the Ivorians: At close quarters, clubs and iron bars are quite sufficient for that purpose.

Yet this was equally true of Israeli soldiers confronting numerically superior Palestinian mobs: Had they not used their weapons to keep the mobs at a distance, they would have been slaughtered. At close quarters (even discounting the mobs' rifle-bearing members), rocks are also quite sufficient for this purpose - as the families of several Israeli victims of rock-wielding Palestinians could testify.

And the Palestinians, like the Ivorians, were clearly the aggressors.

It is hard to find any rational explanation for the world's double standard in these two cases.

Why should unprovoked but unintentional violence against French soldiers be censured while unprovoked and clearly intentional violence against Israelis is justified? Why are Israeli soldiers forbidden to defend themselves the way French soldiers do?

The international community indignantly rejects suggestions that its attitude toward Israel is tainted by anti-Semitism. But in the face of the radically different treatment meted out to France and Israel under such similar circumstances, such denials sound less than convincing.

The writer is a veteran journalist and commentator.

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