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By Nabil Shaath

Nabil Shaath, the de facto foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, is the minister of industry and planning and a longtime leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

GAZA CITY -- Unequivocally, we have condemned attacks against civilians such as the ones that have just taken place in Jerusalem and Haifa. Such acts are immoral, illegal and politically damaging. They only lead to a greater cycle of violence as Israel strikes back with fierce assaults on Palestinian Authority police and institutions and through other military force that inevitably harms yet more innocent civilians.

And now, by invading and raising its flag over Orient House, the Israeli regime has signaled the beginning of reoccupation outlawed by all agreements between us, enraging the Palestinian population and stirring our deepest emotions.
All this will lead nowhere but to yet another escalation in the cycle of violence.

How do we reverse the cycle? We accept our responsibility to condemn and try to stop violence to the best of our capacity, but we cannot accept the hypocrisy of selective indignation that ignites the cycle in the first place.

A little more than two months ago, for example, the president of Israel issued an Israeli claim to moral superiority over Palestinians, contending that a Palestinian infant killed in Gaza was a regrettable accident, while an Israeli infant killed in Hebron was the result of cold-blooded cruelty. (Most Palestinians say the same in reverse.) This is not only a factual lie, but a self-deceiving approach which leads nowhere. In spite of all the asymmetry of military might -- between Israel's regular and over-equipped army and the isolated and semi-organized Palestinian armed groups -- we must recognize that war is a cruel exercise, that armies and fighters do not always respect the rules, and that snipers are not always accurate.

But the effort to enforce those rules and mark the limit between legitimate resistance and war crimes must never relent. As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami has said: ''In this conflict, each side has committed acts there is not reason to be proud of." This is the beginning of a common narrative that can open the gate to peace and even reconciliation.

Israel wants us to reject Hamas, to outlaw those who do not believe in compromise. But Israeli leaders daily salute and flatter settlers who make no secret of their racist hatred toward us and of their genocidal intents. Israel expects us to ostracize the Islamic Jihad, while its government lets the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein be the object of a cult.

Remember the image on Israeli television of the settler child in Hebron who walks under IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) protection, abandons his father's hand, walks to a Palestinian child his own age on the side of the street, slaps him in the face and goes back to his consenting father. Is that the sort of society Israelis want? What image does this innocent little criminal project to us about Israeli society?

The terrible secret is that, deep down, Israelis and Palestinians are alike. I am afraid that through the brutal episode of recent months, we are becoming more and more alike, sharing humanity but also inhumanity, our common kindness but also our common bestiality. The sooner we recognize this mutually unpalatable fact, the faster we will start acting rationally with one another on the basis of genuine reciprocity and respect. This is only possible if I recognize that my enemy-partner has the same needs I have, not only in bread but in dignity. And that in every circumstance he will most probably do what I would do in his place.

Unless Israelis and Palestinians alike can absorb this mirror relationship, it will be impossible to end the conflict and turn a new page. Our culture knows the sulha, the reconciliation, which includes forgiveness and a measure of forgetfulness.

Halfway between total impunity and impossible, absolute justice is ''the peace of the brave" -- a military expression favored by De Gaulle when negotiating peace with an independent Algeria after a century of occupation and settlement colonization, and after eight years of bloody struggle in which ''each side committed acts there is no reason to be proud of."

We all aspire to end the conflict. But to do so the equation of peace and security must be put back on its feet. Solving the outstanding issues from Jerusalem to return of refugees through negotiations will generate that peace and security, not the other way around.

For years Palestinians have negotiated ''under fire." Any attempt to reverse this order of factors and put ''calm" as a prerequisite for negotiations is either idiocy or an alibi to avoid talking and go on shooting -- something which makes sense for a government whose prime minister declares he doesn't even believe in peace.

But it does not make sense for all those who sincerely want to put an end to this century-old chapter of blood and pain. There is no alternative but to return to the table of negotiations, now, without preconditions.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 8/13/01)