Saturday, July 26, 2014

And then, there is the occasional glimmer of hope, even in Jerusalem

This is one of them that I came across in my obsessive search for good news, a report on a meeting of bereaved parents, one Arab, the other Jewish, these days in Jerusalem. (See HERE)

Enough already! Now it's time to make peace

Here's what I "get."

Hamas broke its truce with Israel, in place since 2012, and started firing hundreds of rockets at random Israeli civilian targets, proving it can now reach deep into Israeli territory. Hamas (mostly on the initiative of its military wing but certainly condoned by its civilian leaders many of whom are  residing abroad, at a safe distance) did this in response to weeks of aggressive IDF searches for suspected Hamas operatives all over the West Bank, blamed by Israel for the abduction of three Jewish teenagers who long presumed to be alive. As the shooting of rockets continued, the Israeli cabinet, internally divided over the extent and objectives of a military response, conducted aerial assaults on targets in Gaza that were aimed at degrading the weapons capacity of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The number of meaningful targets was beginning to dwindle when Hamas fighters emerged from one of the tunnels, disguised as IDF. In response, Israel ordered a ground assault aimed at locating and eliminating these "tunnels of terror." Since then, hundreds of Palestinians and scores of Israelis have been killed and many more have been wounded. The stated aim of the Israeli campaign is to find and destroy the tunnels that have been used to circumvent Israeli and Egyptian control of border crossings to bring in weapons and other goods illegally, store munitions, and to conduct operations such as killing or abducting IDF soldiers.

I also "get" the following.

The situation in Gaza is untenable. Right now it is unbearable. Civilians are being killed, wounded, and traumatized, possibly by both sides and sometimes by mistake, by a surfeit of fire power, by sheer callousness, or for other reasons. The situation in Gaza is unbearable also because a large and impoverished population is kept in limbo by a combination of factors that have prevented their situation from being resolved. Among these factors was the division between Hamas and Fatah, a situation recently rectified by the formation of a Palestinian unity government. Another factor is the hostility between Hamas (an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) and the current Egyptian military regime on the one side, and the enmity between Hamas and Israel. Hamas was weakened financially and politically when it began its most recent campaign against Israel. The only thing they possessed in abundance was rockets and fighters that have turned out to be well trained. When the fighting stops, will the situation in Gaza be less untenable? Will Israelis be safer? Will Gazans blame Israel or Hamas for the deterioration and deaths?

So this current round of Hamas rocket fire and Israeli aerial and ground assault was triggered by what exactly? Israel's incursion into Gaza is aimed at degrading the military capabilities of Hamas, but that's not the same as saying that it is necessitated by Hamas's military capability. Hamas rockets do relatively little actual damage. They are not a mortal threat. Their impact is nevertheless significant. Air-raid sirens disrupt Israeli lives and keep children in bomb shelters. Israel's vital tourism sector has taken a severe beating, not only by the temporary halt to international air traffic. The Iron Dome defense system may be largely effective, but it is extremely costly. Each rocket fired by the Iron Dome system to intercept a rocket launched from Gaza costs about 100,000.- USD! To be sure these costs appear trivial compared to the human cost to the people of Gaza and the damage to Israel's reputation as a civilized nation. Israel's operation "Protective Edge" does not just affect Hamas but destroys schools, mosques, hospitals, and houses, kills innocent civilians, including women and children, degrades infrastructure installations and grounds the much reduced lives of Gaza's 1.8 million inhabitants (living at a density comparable to that of Boston, Massachusetts) to a halt.

What are the supposed or desired outcomes? Can Israel, can Hamas be indifferent to the human costs? Israel's reputation is severely damaged, no matter how much one might defend the ethical standards of the IDF as compared to those of other armies. It is inevitably enmeshed with the heinous act of revenge killing, the burning alive of sixteen-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Hamas will emerge strengthened in that it once again held its own against an overwhelming force, even though ordinary Palestinians are paying the price. Israel's army, in turn, will seem weakened, its myth of invincibility damaged by the lack of a clear victory on the battlefield. Civilians die, Hamas persists,  and another Goldstone report, commissioned by the UN, will shame Israel for its human rights abuses. Will Israeli hard-liners argue that an opportunity was missed for a final solution to the Gaza problem? Will Israeli society be even more divided between left and right and continue to suffer from a political leadership unwilling to take risks for the sake of peace?

So here is what I don't get. I may be naive but it is my impression that the Israelis had, and perhaps still have, a plausible enough partner for peace in President Mahmoud Abbas and his ilk. There are many Palestinians who, if encouraged and supported, would be willing to settle the conflict with Israel once and for all and accept the partition of Palestine, if not as final then at least for the time being. And even if Palestinians and Israelis may not always love one another, they may articulate their grievances civilly and without violence, as they often do. What I don't get is why the Israeli government is not willing to enter into an agreement with Palestinian moderates. Instead, they provoke a war with Hamas by aggressively blaming Hamas for an abduction and murder they did not commit and by aggressively disrupting Palestinian lives in the West Bank, ostensibly in search of the teenagers. Then they push the IDF into an irresponsible ground operation that will not really eliminate the root causes of the conflict. What is the point of all of this? Is it in the strategic interest of the Israeli government to do precisely what is unfolding before our eyes: does what we are witnessing aim to prevent a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict? If so, this Israeli government would be to blame not because Israel is defending itself against Hamas terrorism, a defense that was widely condoned even by many moderate Arabs who see Hamas as dangerous and its politics as misguided, but because the legitimate defense against Hamas terrorism is merely part of a calculation that aims to keep Hamas alive politically while keeping the Palestinians divided and thus weakened.

I understand that many Israelis today are inclined to think that the conflict should be managed, since it cannot be resolved. But like its predecessor "Cast Lead" (2008-09) and worse than operation "Pillar of Defense" (2012), this war has ratcheted up the meaning of conflict management. Many believe that the self-interest of the Jewish state demands for Israel to do what it takes to keep Palestinians divided and ineffectually militarized rather than allowing them to unite, consolidate, and emerge as a unified player on the regional and global stage, which are political rather than military goals. The hard-liners have different war aims, seeking conflict resolution by means of war, rather than using military operations so as to avoid diplomacy. They are hard-liners precisely because they don't believe in diplomacy. Instead, they want to retake Gaza, drive out Hamas once and for all, and turn those who choose to remain into a colony of docile subjects. At least these hard-liners are not playing political games. They are honest and open about their goals. What is missing here is a viable alternative, or rather it is not missing at all. It is merely being drowned out momentarily by those who believe that war is a legitimate means to ends other than self-defense.

In the absence of an honorable casus belli it is time for a cease fire. More importantly, it is time for both parties to recognize the humanity and human dignity of their enemy. We see what happens if one drags out conflict. It is time to set aside the past and settle this affair now, once and for all. We need to compromise and learn, once again, to co-exist. Lessons in co-existence are now required for both, Israelis and Arabs. For this to happen will require international mediation and resolve. The international community has no excuse. It was the UN that that divided Palestine in 1947. The warring parties must be reconciled by strong and effective international mediation. There is no perfect outcome for either side. But perhaps there are outcomes that both sides can live with, outcomes that are better in the long run than occupation, and certainly better than dying in waves for the sake of doubtful causes. Anything is better than following the orders of so-called statesmen and leaders that are comfortably ensconced in their arm-chairs and  tell us that we must "hit them hard."

Monday, July 21, 2014

A few thoughts on discourse related to the current flare-up of hostilities

People who blog about current events almost inevitably make themselves part of horizontal or lateral propaganda (a useful term I learned from Jacques Ellul). Because of this, I've remained largely silent. I don't trust my judgment and I don't want to be a propagandist for any cause. As a Jew, I know that I should raise my voice in support of Israel's right to defend itself from random rocket attacks on civilian populations. But I find myself silenced by the growing toll of civilian deaths in Gaza. I understand that the Israeli aerial assault, naval operations, and ground invasion aims at degrading the capability of terrorists emerging from tunnels to wreak as much havoc as possible and I cherish recent grudging IDF expressions of respect for the Hamas fighters they've encountered. But I am also troubled by the mounting evidence of blind contempt, hatred and racism among Jews and Israelis that is evident in blogs and reflected in a widely posted program of ethnic cleansing penned by a member of the Israeli Knesset. At the same time I am dismayed by anti-Jewish violence and anti-Semitic slogans heard across Europe. I sympathize with my friends in Israel whose lives are disrupted by air-raid sirens and my heart breaks when I think of the acute degradation and devastation suffered by the people of Gaza. It is hard to find anything useful to say other than, stop!

Any yet, it is difficult not to notice that this of all conflicts takes up disproportionate amounts of our attention; disproportionate because it pales in comparison of what Syrians are doing to Syrians, Islamists to Muslims (and Christians), the increasing threat to the Kurdish regions of Iraq, the intransigence of the Maliki government, the deterioration of Libya, the return to military rule in Egypt, the flailing about for a proper response to what's going on between Russia and the Ukraine, the complete silence on Pakistan's military operations in Waziristan. Not to speak of the ever new assaults on our natural environment, the earth and the resources we all share and depend on.

Jerusalem, I have been told, has largely remained sheltered from rockets fired from Gaza, though there have been protests and clashes since the heinous and hideous acts of killing and revenge that are now almost eclipsed by the new Gaza war that was triggered by these criminal acts. What lessons are Palestinians to learn from all this, what lessons Israelis? How are we to talk about any of this without taking sides and turning ourselves into propagandists, appeasers or war-mongers?

I found a few useful articles that discuss the role of social media in the ongoing propaganda wars. Jodi Rudoren writes about this in today's NYTimes, for example. There was also an interesting discussion of responses to the current situation in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine. But the, to me, best and most pertinent article appeared in The Forward, where Jay Michaelson offers advice on "how to turn down the social media flame."

As to my own reading, I picked up Sari Nusseibeh's very haunting little book, What is a Palestinian State Worth? It is a book on Palestinian statehood by a philosopher, member of an old Jerusalemite family, who wants us to think out of the box. Because thinking within the box merely means more of the same: more hatred and frustration, more killing and revenge, more mutual threats of complete destruction, more war and death. We definitely need to go beyond the slogans. We may even need to think beyond statehood, borders, and flags. Thinking within the box merely reinstates the zero-sum-game of "justice for Palestine" v. "security for Israel." What is at stake here is whether we can rediscover and care for humanity, our own as well as that of the other. This is not just a matter of basic morality or religious faith but of politics, though surely of a new politics, one founded on the principle of coexistence rather than the desire of domination and annihilation.