The Middle East Conflict Comes to France

Qassam Rockets Sderot.jpg

Marek Peters/

Casings of Qassam rockets found in Sderot, Israel

The terrorist shootings in Toulouse and Montauban in France last week were, among other things, another episode in the war that for nearly a half century has been going on between Zionism and the Palestinians, in which Western Europe and the United States have suffered much collateral damage. The night before he was killed in a police raid, Mohammed Merah—the radicalized French-Algerian who shot and killed three French soldiers and grievously wounded a fourth, and then killed three children and a teacher at a Jewish school—told police that his murder of the children and the father of two of them (a rabbi who taught religion at the school) was a spontaneous decision; he was actually setting out to kill more soldiers. But Merah said he felt shooting them was justified as revenge for the killing of Palestinians by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza—which were in revenge for previous rocket attacks on southern Israel from Gaza, which themselves were claimed as retaliation for previous Israeli attacks on Gaza in reprisal for previous rocketing of Israel. To borrow a phrase, so it goes.

Mohammed Merah’s previous murders, of the French soldiers, were planned, although the occasion for them was presented by accident. On March 15, he killed two French soldiers and gravely wounded a third, all members of a parachute regiment. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and they were drawing money from an ATM just outside their base to buy pain au chocolat buns from an adjoining bakery and newsstand, which was out of change. This followed his murder four days earlier of another paratrooper with whom he had arranged an isolated meeting to buy the latter’s motorcycle.

These killings, he told the police negotiator, were to avenge the participation of French Muslims in the NATO war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Only one of those parachutists he killed had actually served a tour in Afghanistan, and only two were Muslims of North African family origin, one of them was of African descent, and the fourth was a Catholic from a Moroccan Berber family settled in France since the last century. Merah himself had tried to join the Foreign Legion (which French citizens join under transparent subterfuges) in 2010 and was rejected; he also tried to enlist in the Regular Army, and was again refused, shortly before murdering his prospective companions in arms.

According to the clinical psychologist who interviewed the “psychologically fragile” Merah during a short prison term he served for petty theft, a precipitating motive for these murders could have been the army’s second rejection of his enlistment. Merah had been effectively fatherless since the age of 2, when his father returned to Algeria. His mother is long since dépassée, according to social workers. He was in touch only with a sister and older brother, the latter a committed Islamic fundamentalist (currently being held by the police on suspicion of facilitating the murders).

While sensational headlines about al-Qaeda and the “global jihad” striking France followed Merah’s death, this hypothesis has behind it only Mereh’s own claim to have visited Afghanistan and Pakistan twice, where he told police he had some military training. The French security services say he had no known contact with known extremist groups, but he did have his brother, with whom he once traveled to Egypt. He did not go much to the Mosque, although during his imprisonment he devoted himself to reading the Koran.

There are a great many drifting and “fragile” young men in the world who have murdered people so as to feel better about themselves. In the United States it more often than not is their classmates, against whom they have some private grievance. For America’s Timothy McVeigh in 1995, and for Anders Breivik in Norway last year, it was in response to what the killer regarded as a vast domestic plot with international ramifications that threatened society. In the U.S. the fortunately incompetent Times Square bomber and the army psychologist who killed at Fort Hood in 2009 are among the few would-be mass killers to date that are known to have had jihad connections—via the Web. However the United States is generally acknowledged by Americans themselves the politically paranoid nation par excellence, as we have the present Republican primary campaign to demonstrate.

The nature of the motivating grievance varies with the times and the prevailing politics of a given period, and usually is otherwise of no serious importance since the fundamental motivations are individual, and usually incoherently articulated and held. But Merah’s cold-blooded killing of Jewish schoolchildren—quite apart from his fury against the French military—fit a distinct pattern. Jews historically have been a focus of collective hatred, and in the present international situation invite international terrorist attention so long as the Palestinian rights issue is unresolved and remains a grievance throughout the Muslim world and elsewhere. Territorial expansion and settlement building on occupied territory (legally Palestinian) in defiance of international law and UN resolutions are the current focus of the grievance, as demonstrated by the present UN Human Rights Council resolution to investigate the settlement issue’s effects on Palestinians—which unsurprisingly has caused an indignant reaction from Israel (and in which the United States, equally predictably, cast the only negative vote).


The stigmatization of Israel could be much mitigated, if not ended, by an Israeli government (unlikely to be this one) or by the United States government (again unlikely because of the intimidation of both Democratic and Republican administrations and of most of the Congress). Otherwise the war between the Muslims and the Zionists, and their witting or unwitting fellow travelers, will continue—and possibly disastrously deepen should the current effort to promote war with Iran succeed, or the Netanyahu government’s expansionism produce still another Intifada, or be replaced by one yet more extreme.

On the day of the murders at the school in Toulouse, Catherine Aston, head of foreign policy for the European Union, was speaking in Brussels to a meeting of young people, gathered under the auspices of the UN Palestinian Relief Agency. She spoke to them about the young people everywhere who suffer the consequences of events over which they have no control. She mentioned those killed in the 2010 rampage in Norway, those being killed today in Syria, the victims of a recent crash in a Swiss tunnel of a bus taking school children home from a ski holiday, and Merah’s murders of the schoolchildren in Toulouse, adding “[and what] we see happening in Gaza and Sderot” (the town in Israel, target of rocket fire from Gaza). Within hours President Netanyahu declared his revulsion that innocent Jewish child victims should share mention with the Palestinian children killed by the “surgical, defensive activities of the Israel Defense Forces that are meant to hit terrorists who use children for human shields.”

Peter Beinart has with a recent book (which began as an article in 2010 in The New York Review), caused a controversy among Israeli intellectuals and politicians with his argument that young and liberal American Jews are being alienated from Israel by the alleged hypocrisy, moral indifference, or paralysis of their elders in the American Jewish establishment (and in Israel itself, for reasons illustrated by the discourse and policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman). Thus Beinart’s remark to Haaretz that “Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral.” He is not the only Jewish intellectual who says that, since the settlement movement began, right-wing, expansionist Zionism has transformed Israel itself. In 1948 the Jewish State enjoyed overwhelming sympathy in the Western world; today it is widely condemned for its aggressive defiance of international law and steady expansionism, with political intimidation of those in the United States and Europe who might prefer to be Israel’s friends.

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