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Introduction

If you want to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict rather than just fulminate and blame then you have to view it from both sides. Some people argue that this means excusing the killing of innocents, but let me assure you that I am the last person to do this. To understand is not to condone, but is rather the only way to do justice to the dead; for if their deaths do nothing but feed the engines of irrationality and hatred that lie at the centre of all this, then they have died in vain. I say a thousand times: understand, understand, understand. There are so many people already who are there to apportion anger and to hate. I do not deny your right to be one of them, but do it with your eyes open.

Confusion arises when we attempt to view foreign conflicts and mindsets through our own prism and impose our own understanding on events. Seeing every suicide bomber as an impersonal manifestation of Palestinian vengeance, willing to take his own life because of the immense wounds suffered by his people, is as ridiculous as seeing him as a pliant tool of a vast global terror network headed by Ozzie bin Laden, who passes his time sitting around hating us because we are so gosh darn wonderful. What gets lost are the individual stories that make up these events and are ultimately, when put together, what constituent it. A genocide begins with the killing of one man. Not with a metaphysical concept like the global march of liberal democracy or the absolute evil of the Great Satan. With one man. He might have a metaphysical concept inside his head, but he is still one man.

Suicide bombings obscure this reality because they are so impersonal - the perpetrator is instantly vaporized and so are many of his victims, and all that is left is a pool of their mingled blood. A perfect metaphor for the group-based understandings we tend to apply to these events, able to be filed away in our brain as merely part of a larger phenomenon that we think we understand. And then every so often there comes along an event like the Beslan massacre or the Mercaz Harav shooting which makes the world have the decency to pay attention again, if only to feel sorrow for the victims. A rare thing in a world where increasingly the demand for our sorrow far outstrips our ability to furnish it.

I present this attempt at explanation as a memorium to the dead - a pitiful one - so that perhaps someone can be touched and some good can come from this massacre. This story has a previous installment and many echoes.

The Palestinians

On the 6th of March 2008, a Palestinian named Ala Abu Dhein, who lived in East Jerusalem, picked up his automatic rifle and got in the car he used in his capacity as a driver for the Mercaz Harav yeshiva. A yeshiva is a school for the study of Jewish religious law, and hence they are centres of Israel's Orthodox community. Mercaz Harav is the "holy of holies", the jewel in the crown of the religious Zionist movement. Many of the champions of the settler movement have come from this yeshiva, and many of the students are the sons of settlers.

And it was to this yeshiva that Abu Dhein drove with his automatic rifle, to the place which had taught so many of the people who he considered thieves of his ancestral land. And when he got there he walked in and he started firing until he had killed eight students, aged 15 to 26, and injured at least ten others. He was then, in his turn, shot and killed by an Israeli Defence Force officer who studied at the yeshiva part-time. Abu Dhein was only 25.

This attack was clearly premeditated and required intelligence-gathering to be carried out successfully. Abu Dhein knew he would die in its execution, and his family wasted no time in hoisting the Hamas flag at their East Jerusalem home after his death. The background to the event is the military action that Israel has been carrying out over the past week in the Gaza Strip, aimed at stemming the incessant tide of rocket fire which has rained on the Israeli south. The rockets are another impersonal method of spreading fear and death that the outside world is free to ignore. But in the yeshiva we saw, crystallized, all that Hamas has left to offer the Palestinian people: dead Jews. And after Abu Dhein's crime they organized celebrations and rushed to condone it.

When Yasser Arafat was the main representative of the Palestinian people, it was possible to debate his exact role in terrorism; but now the entirety of Gaza is in the control of an organization that holds celebratory rallies when unarmed, teenaged Israelis are gunned down in cold blood.

Hamas and groups like it who reject Israel's right to exist are finally forced to appear on the historical stage in their true character, shorn of any other pretensions - as the people who won an election to serve the Palestinian people and delivered to those people nothing but misery and dead Jews. The worse it gets, the better it is for them. The international community cut Hamas off and made the situation in Gaza worse by stopping funds - but it was preposterous to ever imagine that the Israelis or anyone else would support Hamas and make them stronger, just so that they could expend this strength in killing Israelis. We see clearly in this massacre - and shorn of any confusion caused by explosions and metaphors about revenge - that Hamas as it is currently constituted has no future but as a manufacturer of corpses; it will never build any lasting monument to the Palestinian national aspiration.

Gazans are of course angry by the constant threat of Israeli military attack that they live under and by their poor economic and political condition. They are angry. Yet they ought to think where their anger is justly directed. Their government has no policy but to indiscriminately kill Israelis and hence provoke a military response, hence leading to the death of Palestinians. You can view this as heroic resistance if you wish, but in concrete terms all it has delivered is more dead bodies on both sides of the Green Line and a retardation of the hope of a Palestinian state, which is easily within reach to a responsible Palestinian leadership. And Hamas has not even made progress towards their real goal of a Palestinian homeland across the entire territory of Israel, which is anyway repulsive when you consider what it would involve in concrete terms: the yeshiva massacre repeated and repeated and repeated.

The Israelis

Then there is the other side to the story. Israeli society is deeply split and the split extends to the governing coalition of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose party rules alongside Shas, the choice of the Orthodox. The coalition is fraught with tension because of the growing divide between Israel's secular majority and its highly religious - and highly influential - minority, who are increasingly losing their image as brave pioneers and guardians of Jewish tradition and looking more like a group whose interests run counter to the rest of Israeli society.

The Orthodox and religious Zionist movements feel under attack in Israel. They have always had an uneasy relationship with the state (Israel is one of the few places in the developed world where you hear an influential group criticize "the state" as such, rather than "the government") and this was exacerbated by Ariel Sharon's heroic decision in 2005 to pull settlers out of the Gaza Strip. This disengagement plan was supposed to deliver security by removing what many regarded as a provocation to Palestinian terror; but it came at the cost of seeing Israeli soldiers tearing settlers from their homes, an image that provoked ambivalence at the very least among many Israelis. And it provoked outright anger among the religious communities, especially when the promised security did not arrive.

Security has decidedly not improved. Shortly after disengagement, the Israeli military was back in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, provoked by enemies who were presumed to have grown bolder following the withdrawal from the latter. Hamas, who see themselves as locked in an epic struggle for the entire of the Holy Land, will not settle for such tactical concessions; and the religious communities in Israel are most aware of this, and have the least to lose from admitting it. And as the rockets continue to rain on southern Israel from Gaza, the state's promise of security looks increasingly unlikely to be delivered. And so in the Israeli military go to Gaza to kill and dismantle Palestinian military infrastructure; and by doing so they provoke a further response.

But from the Israeli side, and especially for the right-wing religious groups, it is hard to know what to do next. While the yeshiva massacre no doubt horrified all Israelis, it was felt as a particular blow to the religious communities; one of the institutions at the very centre of their way of life was attacked. Feeling themselves proved right that disengagement did not deliver security and now seeing that they have been specifically targetted, their way of life appears under threat and the state an even weaker protector of their interests than ever. The chants of "Death to Arabs!" that grew up outside the yeshiva after the massacre are one ominous sign of this, as is the memory that an Orthodox Jew managed to do to Itzhak Rabin in 1995 what the Palestinians never have - kill an Israeli prime minister.

With security slipping for both the Israelis and the Palestinians recently, the peace process is moribund. The Israelis cannot offer a two-state solution because Hamas don't want one; so all they can do is sit and absorb bombs while trying to persuade Hamas to change their mind - and why would they, when they seem to be so successful? The only alternative, an option made all the more likely by right-wing pressure from Shas and all similar groups, is to strike out hard.

Events are not moving in Israel's favour, and the right-wingers know it; soon, I suspect, it will be their time again to strike. The prime objective of every Israeli government is always security, and by attacking Israel in its most fundamental weak spot Hamas may eventually unleash the chain of violence that they crave. For the Israelis, they appear to have no choice but to sit and absorb deaths or to strike back on a large enough scale to hope to alter the fundamental reality of the situation. Make no mistake, these are now two peoples very, very much at war. It is the continuation of the peace process by other means. And it's coming soon.

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