The other day I received a photograph of my 20-year-old niece in her Israeli army uniform, smiling sweetly for the camera while clutching her assault rifle. Her khaki shirt, bunched up on her arms and puffy above her waist, is too big, suggesting a kid who has borrowed her father's clothes for a costume.
The picture made me think of a New York Times article I saw last month. The headline read "Palestinian Gunmen Kill 2 Israeli Soldiers," suggesting that the deaths had occurred in battle.
But it turned out the attackers had opened fire on four women sitting at the outdoor tables of a pastry shop in Beersheba. Three of them happened to be soldiers. One of them could have been my niece.
In a country where most people serve in the army at some point, the line between legitimate military targets and innocent civilians can be thin. If these young women -- one 18, the other 20 -- had been eating pastry in street clothes, would their deaths be more troubling?
The Palestinians, in any event, do not worry about such distinctions. From their perspective, to judge by the spontaneous jubilation that greets every terrorist outrage, soldiers and civilians, men and women, adults and babies, are all the same, whether they're in Hebron or in Tel Aviv -- as long as they're Jewish.
They don't even have to be Israeli. Seventeen years ago, PLO men killed an American Jew in a wheelchair on the Achille Lauro and dumped him overboard. Today, they're happy to kill American Jews who commit the offense of studying or vacationing in Israel.
In short, this is exactly the sort of implacable, unreasoning, ruthless hatred upon which President Bush declared war after Sept. 11. Now he is urging the Israelis to make peace with it.
Bush has promised to back countries fighting terrorism on their own soil, and he has said that those who harbor and aid terrorists should be treated like the terrorists themselves. It is hard to reconcile these positions with his administration's efforts to patch things up between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
"We continue to be very troubled by Israeli Defense Force actions," State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said recently. It is "imperative," he added, that the IDF "exercise the utmost restraint and discipline to avoid further harm to civilians or worsening the humanitarian situation."
Boucher was referring to IDF raids in Gaza and the West Bank aimed at arresting terrorists, seizing weapons and destroying bomb factories. Unarmed Palestinians have been killed during these operations, so it's not as if there is no reason for concern.
But how would the Bush administration have reacted if the Israeli Foreign Ministry had urged U.S. forces in Afghanistan to "exercise the utmost restraint and discipline to avoid further harm to civilians or worsening the humanitarian situation"? The admonition would have been equally applicable.
There is considerable dispute about the exact numbers, but American bombs have killed at least hundreds and perhaps thousands of noncombatants in Afghanistan. The U.S. government views this "collateral damage" as an unfortunate but acceptable cost of pursuing its campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
At least some of these deaths surely could have been avoided. Had American planes flown lower, their targeting would have been more precise. But then the pilots would have been exposed to more danger. The Pentagon chose to minimize U.S. casualties at the cost of putting innocent Afghanis at greater risk.
Likewise, Israeli soldiers' concern for their own lives has led to civilian deaths in the West Bank and Gaza. Witnesses reported, for example, that a deaf man was shot because he did not hear a soldier's command to stop and raise his hands.
Israeli peacenik Amos Oz opened a recent New York Times op-ed piece by citing the deaths of two babies, one murdered by Palestinian terrorists, the other killed unintentionally by an Israeli bomb. "Innocent civilians are dying," he wrote, "killed on both sides every day."
Contrary to the moral equivalence implied by Oz, accidentally killing innocent people while fighting terrorists is not the same as deliberately targeting civilians in restaurants, nightclubs and shopping malls. But neither is it the same as killing an aggressor in self-defense.
The ethics of such situations are murky and much disputed. One thing is clear, however: The Israelis are not the only ones who need to worry about them.