- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

If not all Hell then a lot of it is breaking loose in the Middle East. The tempo of terror and counterterror has been mounting for weeks, and is now headed for a crescendo.

First came Hamas’ attack and seizure of a hostage on an Israeli army outpost a couple of weeks ago, which had been preceded by a steady rain of rockets on the Israeli town of Sderot.

Result: Israeli forces are now in and out of Gaza again, and hunting down Hamas leaders. The word from Hamas headquarters in Damascus is that the hostage will be held till Israel agrees to hand over a couple of thousand terrorists now in Israeli jails in exchange for the lone 19-year-old trooper. Why not? The Israelis have agreed to such exchanges before. One can understand Hamas would think the same ploy would work again.

It’s as if Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza last year and remove thousands of Jewish settlers was for naught. The clearest result has been to make Israel itself a battleground. There are no longer Israeli settlements in Gaza to serve as targets; now there are Israeli towns across the border. Instead of the disengagement the Israeli withdrawal was supposed to accomplish, the Israelis find themselves more heavily engaged than ever. They’ve retreated into war.

And now Hezbollah, another officially certified terrorist outfit with its own history and state sponsors (Syria, Lebanon and Iran) opened a front of its own in this mounting war. Wednesday its raiders crossed into Israel, killing Israeli soldiers on patrol and seizing two more to hold as hostages for what it hopes will be another lopsided exchange of prisoners.

The moral of the story: Don’t exchange prisoners for hostages. It only encourages ‘em. It remains to be seen whether the Israelis have learned this lesson.

It’s as if Israel’s hasty decision to withdraw from Lebanon, too, has been for naught. After an 18-year occupation that began as an attempt to wipe out Yasser Arafat’s base of operations in that country, the Israelis agreed to leave in 2000, hoping to end a war that had proved a continual drain. They were assured peace would now reign and the government of Lebanon would keep Hezbollah in check. Or so the United Nations had promised long ago (Security Council Resolution 425) — but, of course, the promise was worthless.

The one clear result of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was to make Israel itself the focus of Hezbollah’s sporadic attacks. Not only did Lebanon’s government fail to control Hezbollah; Hezbollah became part of the Lebanese government.

All that may explain why, in his official statement on this latest attack, Israel’s still-new Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called it an act of war by a neighboring state: “This morning’s events were not a terrorist attack, but the action of a sovereign state that attacked Israel. … Lebanon is responsible, and Lebanon will bear the consequences of its actions.”

In sum, so long as Israeli towns like Sderot and Ashkelon face rocket attacks, Gaza’s cities will not be immune to attack. And so long as Lebanon cannot constrain Hezbollah, neither is Beirut. Or, soon enough, Hamas’ headquarters, a k a Damascus, Syria.

For now, much of the world continues to practice a kind of moral equivalence between aggressor and defender in the Middle East. No doubt we will soon see a spate of evenhanded statements denouncing both Hezbollah’s latest attack and Israel’s latest response to it, which was called, yes, “disproportionate” by the EU. As opposed to doing the proportionate thing — that is, sitting back and taking it or responding only ineffectually.

Instead the Israelis have chosen to strike back in force, hoping to deny the terrorists a launching pad for further attacks. That may take a while. A long, bloody, terrible while. Or they can empty their jails of terrorists, withdraw from Gaza again, and from Lebanon again and hope for the best.

But we all know how well that has worked out. The evidence is right in front of us and will stay there for a fiery while.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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