Palestinian Civilians and Aesop’s Donkey

November 3, 2006

This morning brought the news that Israeli soldiers shot at the crowd of women, killing two. The ladies’ fault? Nothing more than shielding Palestinian gunmen holed in a mosque and helping them escape from Israeli soldiers. Naturally, this caused fresh accusations that Israelis shoot at civilians.

But who is a civilian?

The prefect definition is given in Aesop’s fable of the farmer and his donkey. A farmer leading his heavily loaded donkey down the lane suddenly spies a band of armed people approaching, and panics. “Let’s run fast before they see us and take you away” he tells the donkey. “And what will happen to me if they do?” asks the donkey, “will I have to work, or not?” “O, you will work as hard as you work now” replies the farmer. “So why should I run?” asks the donkey. “You or they – it is all same to me.”

Which describes a civilian to the dot. A civilian is the one who is neutral because he sees nothing for him in the conflict’s potential outcome, one way or the other, that would justify the suffering it inflicts. Those who care enough for the cause to run into the line of fire when they can stay back are not civilians, whether they are armed or not, whether they serve as swords or as shields.

Were there any declared civilians? There were some. At the height of English civil war, with both the royalists and the parliamentarians requisitioning crops and horses and stationing soldiers in people’s houses, gangs of “clubmen” sprang up whose business it was to keep either side away. But other than this example from three and a half centuries ago, no such explicitly civilian behavior comes to mind – though, to think of it, the Irish who rioted in New York against the Civil war draft may have been declared civilians too.

And while the borderline between the combatants and the civilians may not be as clear-cut (though we do instinctively feel that civilians are those “innocent”), stone-throwing children and human-shield women are certainly not civilians, but are rather combatants shielded by the best armor our culture provides – either the armor of under-age impunity, or of the notion that women are mothers and it is unthinkable to harm them.

This armor serves them well: stone-throwing teenagers get off easy because we are hard-wired to sympathize with those “under eighteen,” and our gentlemanly instincts make us invariably indignant when we hear of a hurt done to “innocent women.”

But how about the “not innocent” women and children? How about those women rushing to succor armed gunmen, as they did this morning in Beit Hanun? How about those “women and children” placed atop firing positions to prevent the return fire, as is the common tactic of both the Palestinians and the Hizbullah? How about those children throwing stones at Israeli soldiers?

Don’t sympathize with them when they are hurt. Because they are not “civilians.”

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