Even before its official release, Munich, Steven Spielberg’s newest movie, was attacked by columnists, and in letters to the editor in leading newspapers and magazines, for allegedly creating the impression that there is no moral difference between Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli reprisals.

Both conservatives and liberals, including David Brooks of The New York Times and Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, have criticized the movie and its director, as well as Tony Kushner, coauthor of the screenplay, for failing to distinguish between terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad that deliberately target innocents, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), whose retaliatory strikes—even when they cause “collateral damage” and kill civilians—target only terrorists. In his essay in The New Republic (parts of which were printed in The New York Times), Wieseltier observed that the movie’s treatment of Palestinian terrorists and Israeli retaliations “looks ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective.”

I saw nothing in the movie to justify the claim that it seeks to establish the moral equivalence of terrorist killings of civilians and Israeli retaliations. While the movie includes an emotional exchange between a Palestinian terrorist and the leader of the Israeli counterterrorism team about the moral claims of their respective national struggles, the focus of Munich is on members of the Israeli assassination team and their mounting doubts about their assignment and what it may be doing to their values and personal lives. These doubts are frequently the subject of their conversations, and finally cause the leader of the team so much anguish that he refuses to return to Israel. The Israelis therefore inevitably emerge as more real, personally appealing, and morally attractive than the Palestinian terrorists, whom the viewer never gets to know much about.

The issue of moral equivalence is raised by the critics, not by the movie. But their assertion of the “absolute evil” of targeting innocent civilians, an assertion I fully agree with, does not necessarily justify their conclusion about the moral difference between Palestinian and Israeli behavior. Israeli retaliations are all too often conducted on a disproportionate scale and predictably kill large numbers of Palestinian civilians, an outcome that cannot simply be dismissed as “an Israeli mistake.” Wieseltier himself notes that “over the years more civilians were killed in Israeli air strikes than in the Palestinian atrocities that provoked the air strikes.”

General Dan Halutz, currently Israel’s chief of staff, was asked in 2002, when he was head of Israel’s air force, what he felt when he learned that a one-ton bomb his plane had dropped on a Hamas leader also killed nine Palestinian children—an outcome that should have been anticipated since the bomb was dropped on an apartment building whose residents were civilians. He famously replied that he felt “a slight bump” in his plane when the bomb was released. He added that he slept very well that night, thank you.

That the sensibility revealed by Halutz’s statement did not stand in the way of his advancement to his present position suggests that the collateral damage caused by Israeli retaliations is not so much the consequence of Israeli mistakes as of Israeli indifference.

Judgments about the morality of Israeli collateral damage that kills innocents cannot be made without reference to the political context within which the violence occurs. Even when Israeli attacks are carried out with the greatest care to avoid harm to civilians, collateral damage in which innocent Palestinians are killed or maimed can be justified if Israel has exhausted nonviolent possibilities of ending the conflict. But since he came to office in 2000, the main direction of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies has been to avoid a political process, because he refuses to consider concessions that would have to be made in negotiations with the Palestinians in order to achieve a peace agreement.1

In the opinion of most Israeli security experts, terrorism cannot be defeated unless Israel offers Palestinians a credible political prospect for achieving workable statehood. Without such a political prospect, Israeli retaliations degenerate into vengeance that has no claim to greater moral justification than Palestinian terrorism. On November 14, 2003, four previous heads of the Shin Bet, the intelligence agency responsible for Israel’s war on Palestinian terror, warned the Israeli public that since no such political prospect had been offered to Palestinians by Sharon and his government, the government’s insistence on fighting a war on terror in a political vacuum could not succeed. At about that same time, the IDF’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, in a remarkable departure from the norms of military restraint with respect to the political leadership, declared publicly that the policies of Sharon, far from defeating terror, “increase hatred for Israel and strengthen the terror organizations.”


These political considerations aside, the argument for the lack of moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli retaliations is flawed on its own terms. For the relevant comparison is between how Israelis acted during their struggle for independence and statehood—not how they act long after they achieved these goals—and how Palestinians who are still very much in the midst of a war for their independence are acting now. Few seem to be aware of, and even fewer are willing to acknowledge, that important difference.

In his book Righteous Victims (1999), Benny Morris, the Israeli journalist and historian to whom The New Republic has turned for reviews of books on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, writes that “the upsurge of Arab terrorism in October 1937 triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds and buses, introducing a new dimension to the conflict.” While, in the past, Arabs “had sniped at cars and pedestrians and occasionally lobbed a grenade, often killing or injuring a few bystanders or passengers,” now, “for the first time, massive bombs were placed [by the Irgun] in crowded Arab centers, and dozens of people were indiscriminately murdered and maimed.” Morris notes that “this ‘innovation’ soon found Arab imitators.”

During Israel’s War of Independence, the Yishuv’s defense forces acted not much differently from the way the Irgun or Palestinian terrorist groups behaved. As Morris explained in an interview in Haaretz, documentation recently declassified by the IDF’s archives shows that “in the months of April–May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.”2

“What the new material shows,” Morris stated in the interview, is that during the course of this ethnic cleansing, especially in Operation Hiram, “there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought,” including “unusually high concentration[s] of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion.” These executions were ordered and overseen by the IDF. When asked about the number of occasions on which they were carried out, Morris replied,

Twenty-four. In some cases four or five people were executed, in others, the numbers were 70, 80, 100…. The worst cases were Saliha (70–80 killed), Deir Yassin (100–110), Lod (250), Dawayima (hundreds), and perhaps Abu Shusha (70). There is no unequivocal proof of a large-scale massacre at Tantura, but war crimes were perpetrated there. At Jaffa there was a massacre about which nothing had been known until now. The same at Arab al Muwassi, in the north. About half of the acts of massacre were part of Operation Hiram [in the north, in October 1948]; at Safsaf, Saliha, Jish, Eilaboun, Arab al Muwassi, Deir al Asad, Majdal Krum, Sasa.

Morris reports that orders for these executions and expulsions were issued in writing by senior Haganah commanders following meetings with David Ben-Gurion. And in The Guardian, Morris wrote that while a master plan for the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs did not exist before April 1948, “pre-1948 transfer thinking” by key Zionist leaders, including Ben-Gurion, “had readied hearts and minds in the Jewish community [in Israel] for the denouement of 1948.”3

In justification of the massacres committed by the Haganah, Morris stated in the Haaretz interview that “without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.” He added that the only fault he found with Ben-Gurion’s actions is that the Haganah’s ethnic cleansing was not carried out on a scale large enough to have prevented the “demographic problem” Israel faces today.

In other words, Morris seems to be arguing that when the establishment of a Jewish state hangs in the balance, there is no such category as innocent Palestinian civilians; their very existence constitutes a mortal threat to the state, and therefore to the Jewish people. That threat transforms innocent civilians into legitimate military targets.

Of course, Israel’s resort to ethnic cleansing and the massacre of civilians in its War of Independence does not confer any legitimacy on the morally indefensible atrocities committed by terrorists in the Palestinians’ ongoing struggle for their independence—atrocities that discredit and diminish the Palestinian national cause. But it exposes the double standard of commentators who have had little to say on the subject of Israeli atrocities, yet pounce on any hint of moral equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Because Munich avoids such tendentiousness, the movie may help people to see the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in a more balanced perspective. The same cannot be said for criticism that assumes a moral superiority on the part of the Israelis that so far has been largely unearned. It must also be said that a particularly unfortunate aspect of the accusation of moral equivalence made by some of the movie’s critics is that it has distracted attention from what is surely the most important moral issue by far, namely the decades-long occupation that has turned the lives of millions of Palestinians into a daily hell. Those in Israel who have come to view the shattering of an entire people as an acceptable condition of their own national normalcy will certainly not agonize over the “collateral damage” caused by Israel’s retaliations.


This Issue

February 9, 2006