Saturday, January 10, 2009


Christine at iMinister has a much more thoughtful piece up about being a bystander to a conflict that goes against ones values. It's much more diplomatic than my post, and it avoids the word "annihilationist", so please read her post if you think that this one will be unsavory.

My thoughts on Gaza have been scattered in many places across the Internet this week. In an exercise of demonstrating exactly what twitter isn't for, a friend and I have had banter going back and forth all week in 140 character increments. Snappy, but not the space for thoughts to become thoughtful. It was an especially weird conversation because my friend was advocating on behalf of Israel, and I was advocating on behalf of Gazans. My role in that conversation was to distinguish the terrorists from the innocents, and his role was to find the innocents complicit. In the abstract, it was a fascinating thought experiment. In reality, it was among the most unpleasant experiences of political discourse I have engaged in. The stakes in conversation about this are high, and the ability of one to convince another of the rightness of their opinion is very low. Following my advice, I wouldn't have this conversation.

The problem with a conversation treated as a war is that it lingers. It's not a pleasant place to dwell, but like all optimistic Generals, it's easy to look at a fixed row of trenches, aim for a weak spot, and make a push to remove the stalemate. It doesn't work for two reasons. One: while it is incredibly hard for one side to 'win' a conversation like this, it is really easy for someone acting in opposition to restore it to stalemate status. Two: conversations aren't battles, discussion topics aren't wars, and while the metaphors are at times handy, treating this as a tooth-and-nail battle to fight isn't helping.

My discussion on twitter swung in interesting directions in the attempt to break through. My central conceit, which made discussion possible, was that while Israel was justified in the right of response. their response was both unjust and disproportionate. Disproportionate is an interesting word here. In a letter to the editor in Albuquerque's Weekly Alibi, political scientist Brandon Curtis argues that the term itself is meaningless and a cheap shot from people who don't understand the issue. I respectfully disagree, but I think it's easy to understand why the word seems inappropriate.

In October 2001, NATO went to war in Afghanistan in response to a terrorist attack by a group that country hosted. In 2003, the American public (and, more importantly, it's elected officials) felt it was appropriate to overthrow and destroy the government of Iraq based on the possibility that it might be fostering future terrorists, or giving them weapons, or was itself a terrorististic state. Recent memory serves that no degree of force is too little to adequately protect a nation from terrorism. We forget, then, other responses. In October 2000, in response to the bombing of the USS Cole by terrorists, Clinton sent out legal experts to track down and arrest the specific culprits. In October* 1983, the US marine barracks (which also housed French troops) was bombed in Beirut. The response was a small punitive bombing of alleged terrorists by France, followed by a quiet retreat of US forces in February. And, as popularized in the film Munich, it is assumed that Israel responded to the kidnapping and murder of it's Olympic Athletes by hunting down people assumed to be connected.

All these responses, at the time, have been justified as proportionate. Since that list includes everything from abandonment to assassination, and from legal action to pre-emptive war, the field of declaring proportionality is wide open. So, while I think that Israel has a right to respond to attacks against its citizens, I don't think that the method of response (bombing, followed by a ground invasion) is proportionate. Israel is responding to terrorism by treating it as a war, and that greatly complicates the issue.

If this is a war, one has to assume that Hamas itself, as the government of Gaza, is marshaling the terrorists as a formal army. While I'm more toward ambivalent about Hamas belligerance in this conflict, I am inclined to suspect that they have little choice besides acting in control or being seen as even more powerless than they are. In conversation with my friend, I argued disproportionality because, while the terrorists targeted civilians, the correct response of a government is to target terrorists. Yes, this is holding Israel to a higher standard. They are a western democracy, and that means we are allowed to expect better of them. But suppose that Hamas itself is directing the attacks, is responsible for them, feels no qualms over the death of it's own citizens, and that they are fighting this war in the same way that European nations fought WWI. In that case, it makes more sense that Israel is responding with a war of annihilation - it's unjust as all hell, but at the very least it makes sense.

Because if Israel isn't fighting a war of annihilation against another nation that would do the same, they are certainly acting like it. In my conversation over twitter, I argued with the friend that the majority of Gazans are in fact innocents, and not complicit in the attacks. He responded by claiming that if they were not in complicit in the attacks, why weren't they doing anything to stop them. I think they don't have the resources necessary to stop the attacks, and I'm inclined to think that all the former Gazans with resources have left. People with means tend not to remain in ghettoized nations. Hamas, whether or not it actively encouraged the terrorists who started this conflict, has very little choice but to support them now. They are, after all, the ones with the weapons, and despite the relatively calm two-year ceasefire, Hamas is well aware that no Israeli operation in the area would be complete without an attempt to remove Hamas from power. Hamas has had to very quickly move itself into the role of fighting against Israel, because the only thing worse than a government that fails to prevent war is a government that fails to effectively fight it.

And this, here, is the tragedy. Before the conflict broke out, Hamas wanted a new ceasefire. Hamas is an organization whose main appeal is their unequivocal call for the eradication of Israel, and yet by advocating for a new ceasefire they had shown that they were willing to accept the two state solution, at least temporarily. Skeptics can throw this off as an attempt to keep things calm before the war itself broke out, but they are missing the potential inherent in that ceasefire. Hamas wanted, at least temporarily, a ceasefire. This is a militant party that came to power democratically, and whose future as a party of rule depends upon public opinion. Most war-mongering parties in history go to war as soon as they are elected, else the public change its mind and elect others. Hamas didn't want this, and I cannot fathom why the opportunity to forge a slightly less imperfect peace was not seized upon, especially if it is Israel's goal to prevent Palestinian terrorism, rather than to wipe Gaza out.

There are two broad categories of eliminating terrorism, and they are the same broad categories categories people use to deal with crime. One: kill/capture/disable all those who would commit terrorism. Two: make sure other options exist for people who would otherwise turn to terrorism. The first response is the one that militaries can do, to some extent. It was fortunate for the US in the early stages of its operations in Afghanistan that many al Qaeda fighters were willing to straightforwardly fight against the US - that makes the work much, much easier. In Iraq, of course, the terrorists didn't emerge until after the war, and being terrorists, they weren't interested in fighting set-piece battles. Instead, they formed militias (for defensive purposes) and acted anonymously amidst the population when attacking US troops. Iraq is large - with ~ 170,000 square miles and a population of 29 million, it is easy for people to hide and it is hard to kill them all. Gaza, on the other hand, is tiny - 139 square miles, and 1.5 million people in that little area. For a more relevant size comparison, the city of Albuquerque is 181 square miles, and about a third the population of Gaza. Gaza is a place where approach one, kill everyone who might be terrorists, could work.

To even have that on the table is ridiculous. And yet, Israel seeks punitive attacks with overwhelming force against terrorists operating within the area. Not that some attacks wouldn't work, and not that some retaliation doesn't make sense, but the scale and the manner of the tactics, if they aren't annihilationist, are beyond excessive, and if they are annihilationist, then they are patently immoral.

Option two for fighting terrorism is the one that I think has the most promise for Gaza, and had it been adopted as part of a renewed ceasefire, I think it would have eventually had the effect that Israel's attack aims to achieve. When Gazans (and Palestinians more generally) know that they are safe in Palestine, that their rights are respected, and that Israeli invasion is a distant (if not non-existent) possibility, they will be able to concentrate on issues other than injustices visited upon them by Israel.

But I don't think that's what the response to this attack will be, and the time for wishful thinking about ceasefires has passed and is not yet at hand again. Instead, I predict that the same will always happen in Gaza as has tended to happen - punitive strikes by Israel, followed by calm, followed by stagnation and oppression in Gaza, followed by terrorist attacks originating in Gaza, followed by punitive attacks on behalf of Israel, rinse, repeat.

There are two ways out of this mess, out of this most vicious and petty of cycles. The first, the annihilationist war, is patently immoral, and I don't imagine that Israel will actually do it. The second, the long slow development of Gaza into a safe and stable place, with terms negotiated over years that slowly grant better and better conditions for Palestine, is the option I'm holding out for. It's also an option that will take a willingness on behalf of Israel to keep working, even in the face of terrorist attacks. And it will take an effort reciprocated by Gazans, to go from an attitude that, though not complicit, is indifferent to terrorism, towards an attitude that condemns terrorism as much as it condemns injustice visited upon Palestinians. When the people have other options, they will use them. Bombing people into non-existence doesn't do that, and in fact is a very active way of removing options from people.

Our 43rd president intended to make his legacy one of fighting terrorism and of nation building. That's an entirely compatible goal set, but it's impossible to do in a flashy way - people remember wars. People don't remember long, gradual movements towards peace and stability. They just wake up one day and realize how happy they are that they haven't experienced a war in decades. That's the goal, and that's the possibility that existed in Hamas offer of extending the ceasefire. It's a possibility that remains, and its one well worth keeping in mind for the next time.

*Seriously, what is with October showing up so much. Did al qaeda watch Red October, and misinterpret that Americans were scared of October when they were really scared of Reds?

Editor's Note:
The easy way to avoid this conversation is to say something like "these issues go back to biblical times, why discuss them?". My other big Internet conversation about this before my post was on facebook, and after someone replied with the 'biblical times' comment, I responded with this:
I think we're terribly mistaken to pass this off as going back to biblical times - the modern conflict isn't Jews versus Palestinians, it started Israelis versus Arabs; the Arabs in question have, post 1968, become Palestinian by virtue of abandonment of by the rest of the Arab world. Israel still sees Palestinian action as an attempt by Arab states to remove Israel from existence, while Palestine is largely on it's own, despite moves by Iran-affiliated Hezbollah in Lebanon and posturing on behalf of other Arab leaders. And now we're even past issues of Israel's right to exist - Hamas at least temporarily accepts a two-state solution. The trick is figuring out modern terms, and how Palestine will negotiate itself into a position less asymmetrical than the one it currently enjoys. The conflict has involved into a very modern form, and while historical legacy plays a role, it's much more recent history than millennial or even centuries old.
So, yeah, no this isn't an old issue. A much better way to avoid the conversation would be to say "lets ride bikes".

No comments: