Sunday, July 13, 2014

Bradley Burston's historical sketch of how rockets explain the rise & fall of the Israel peace camp

The rockets really are a serious problem. Ha'aretz columnist Bradley Burston (whom Andrew Sullivan, no less, once called "the conscience of the Jewish state") tried to explain this back in 2009, and it's worth revisiting his explanation now.

First, some background.

=> Over the past decade and a half Hamas and other jihadist groups have launched over 8,000 rockets from Gaza aimed at civilian areas in Israel—mostly at cities and towns near Gaza, like Sderot, but increasingly at major cities elsewhere in the country as well. The frequency of these missile attacks did not diminish, but increased, after Israel's pullout from Gaza in 2005.

After the Israeli army pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000, Hizbullah found various pretests to continue its conflict with Israel. And in 2006 it dragged Israel and Lebanon into a large-scale war during which a massive barrage of Hizbullah's Iranian-supplied missiles turned all the cities of northern Israel into ghost towns whose populations were hiding in air-raid shelters.

Since that 2006 war, the Israeli-Lebanese border has been fairly quiet. But the rockets from Gaza have kept coming. At times Hamas has explicitly claimed credit for them, at other times it has used other groups as proxies by letting them fire missiles. At the beginning, Hamas's arsenal was largely restricted to short-range, fairly inaccurate Qassam missiles produced in Gaza. But Hamas has made persistent efforts to obtain more powerful and sophisticated missiles with longer ranges, greater accuracy, and bigger payloads. Trying to prevent that from happening has been one of the key justifications for the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza—and, frankly, that particular justification strikes me as quite legitimate.

The only two periods when the volume of missile attacks from Gaza went down significantly (without ceasing completely) was in the wake of two major Israeli military operations, the three-week "Operation Cast Lead" from December 2008 to January 2009 and "Pillar of Defense" in November 2012. (Those temporary truces, by the way, demonstrate that Hamas is capable of cutting off missile attacks from Gaza when it really wants to.)

Now we're seeing another round. About a week ago Hamas initiated a large-scale missile barrage, so far involving over 700 missiles, that has put the great majority of Israelis under attack. It's clear they now have missiles that can reach as far as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and even Haifa. And there's no pretense that these missiles are aimed specifically at military targets. On Tuesday Hamas declared explicitly that "all Israelis" are targets. Israel has responded with an aerial bombardment of Gaza that may escalate into a ground incursion. Presumably, this latest Hamas-Israel war will end in another cease-fire ... and the whole miserable process will be repeated sometime in the not-very-distant future.

=> It's important to be clear about one crucial point. Missile attacks that deliberately and indiscriminately target civilians constitute an unambiguous violation of the laws of war (as both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have pointed out this week). The Israeli military may or may not have committed its own violations of the laws of war during its current bombardment of Gaza. But every single one of those missile launches against Israeli civilian targets by Hamas, Hizbullah, and other jihadist groups has been an unambiguous war crime.

It is true that, so far, they have not actually managed to kill many Israeli civilians with these rockets over the past decade and a half. And some people seem to believe that the low numbers of dead Israelis makes these missile attacks unimportant or even excusable, so that any Israeli military response is automatically "disproportionate" and illegitimate. But no matter how many times those standard clichés get repeated, that doesn't change the fact that they're misguided and fallacious. If the missile attacks have so far failed to kill a lot of Israeli civilians, it's not for want of trying. The reason they've been largely unsuccessful is that Israel has a massive civil-defense operation to protect its civilian population, including the Iron Dome missile defense system, ubiquitous air-raid shelters, a nation-wide warning system, and so on. And the idea that attempted murder is OK, even trivial, as long as it's mostly unsuccessful happens to be legally incorrect and morally absurd.

Furthermore, even if we disregard those moral and legal issues, this continual rain of missiles (sometimes a drizzle, sometimes a downpour) has practical consequences, whether or not they succeed in actually killing Israelis. The intention and effect is to terrorize Israel's civilian population. And one significant side-effect, in the long term, has been to severely undermine the peace camp in Israel. From the perspective of Hamas and other rejectionist groups, that's a benefit, not a drawback. On the other hand, if one favors an Israeli-Palestinian/Arab-Israeli peace settlement, that result is a tragic one for both Israelis and Palestinians.

=> In that connection, this is not a bad time to revisit an intriguing and illuminating analysis that the Israeli columnist Bradley Burston offered back in March 2009. Burston is a passionate and deeply committed peacenik, but he wrote this piece in a mood of exasperation, which helps explain why he ironically titled it "The Racist Israeli Fascist in Me". I've reproduced the heart of his argument below. It obviously doesn't capture the whole story, and it isn't really intended to, despite Burston's deliberately overstated formulations. But I think it does capture one important piece of the story.

It has long been true that most Israelis, when asked by pollsters, say they favor a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet in election after election, Israeli majorities have been voting for parties that undermine and sabotage the possibilities for peace.
[....] What, then, explains the incomprehensible behavior of these people, my friends? What common denominator, other than evil intention, can explain the continued occupation of the West Bank, the risk of demographic disaster, the ill-understood rage of a people ostensibly the perpetrator and not the victim of wrongdoing.

You won't like the answer. But in all the blindingly complex bazaar of the Middle East equation, it really comes down to one word: rockets.

It was Saddam Hussein's rockets in 1991 that got us into this peace process, and it is Palestinian rockets right now, day after day after day, that sent that peace to its grave and which cover it with a little more silt and rubble every few hours.

It was fundamentally rockets and not racism that put Avigdor Lieberman where he is today. And it is rockets, more than any other single factor, that explains what happened to the Israeli left, to Meretz, and, in particular, to the Labor Party.

When Saddam Hussein fired 39 ballistic missiles into Tel Aviv, Haifa and Dimona, he radically changed the way Israelis viewed the importance of holding on to the territories. Overnight the threat was coming from 1,500 kilometers away, so what good was it to hang onto and permanently settle the hills of Samaria in the West Bank, or the sand dunes of northern Gaza?

It was this, as much as any other factor, that paved the way for the opening of what we've come to know as the peace process, beginning at the Madrid conference in 1991.

In 2005, less than a day after Israeli forces removed every last Jew from Gaza, Palestinians set up rocket launchers on the ruins of settlements that had been just been evacuated. They took aim not only at Sderot, but at some of the very kibbutzim who had most strongly championed the cause of an independent Palestine alongside Israel.

This act, and the thousands of rockets that followed, utterly changed Israelis again. It put a sudden end to the idea of land for peace, because no one, even some of the most ardent advocates of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, was about to agree to leave Ben-Gurion airport, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within range of the rockets. Suddenly there was a consensus again. And the peace process, the peace movement, and with it Labor and Meretz, were kicked to the curb.

Ten years ago, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah in Lebanon, electrified radical Islam and particularly the Palestinians, when he said that Israel was as fearsome and as fragile as a spider's web.

Push Israel with suicide terrorists, he indicated, and the whole web will tear and collapse. It didn't work. Suicide terror, in fact, acted to strengthen and unify Israel. In the eyes of the post-9/11 world, suicide terror changed Israelis from villains to victims, and Palestinians from an image of the valiant David to a creepy, loathsome version of Goliath.

Now, however, Hamas is beginning to see something else. At this point, the best way to destroy Israel, is to leave it exactly as it is.

Titrate, adjust the flow of rockets fired at Israeli civilians to a level which is thoroughly acceptable to the rest of the world, but which is also entirely unbearable to Israelis.

Then, sit back and watch demographics and despair work their magic. No wonder Hamas officials who are seen as moderates urge a 50-year truce. By that time, Israeli Arabs will be able to simply vote the Jewish state off the map.

A clear majority of Israeli Jews know this as well. But I have yet to meet one Israeli, Meretz voters included, who is willing to hand over the West Bank while Ashkelon is even now in the gunners' sights, and rockets fly unabated.

I have long believed that in terms of their destructive effects on peace prospects, the settlements are the Qassams of the Jews. What I failed to recognize at first, was that the effect of Qassams is to enshrine West Bank settlements, and, more than any other single factor, protect them from eviction.

In the main, the world has no idea -- nor does it particularly care -- that when a rocket up to nine feet long flies up to 25 miles traveling at half a mile per second and lands with up to 44 pounds of explosives packed into its warhead -- the human consequence could easily be carnage.

As far as the world knows, that rocket will fall without a sound. A house may be destroyed, children's nerves shot to shreds, perhaps for life. Entire communities, whole cities, suffer from post-traumatic stress. But unless 10 Israelis are killed, or 20, that rocket never existed. 10,000 rockets, fired at civilian areas, unprotected by anything -- I am truly ashamed to acknowledge -- other than miracles.

It is these miracles, these barely averted catastrophes, literally thousands of them, which have become the central fact of Israeli life.

That, and an anger which no one outside Israel can know or fully comprehend, an aching, soul-deep frustration, an always humming fear, a sickness and fever over the nearness of true disaster, as well as a sense of abandonment by those abroad who cannot be expected to know what these people, my friends, are going through or why.

It is not the world's fault if it believes that Israelis do not have a right to their anger. The world is really not at all to blame if it prefers to view Israelis as ferocious without provocation, hateful without just cause.

The world only knows what we in the media choose to reveal. For a decade, we have dismissed the rockets as little more than toylike, backroom-cobbled nuisances, convenient pretexts for military onslaughts by Israeli politicians keen to evade graft raps.

The fact, however, remains. Day in and day out, Palestinian rockets target and, at times, demolish, homes, day care centers, health clinics, synagogues, kibbutz dining halls, town squares, factories, elementary schools, high schools, apartment houses. For years now, by some miracle, an enormous number of Israeli lives have been spared. These are people trying to live their everyday lives under fire, and who have no other defense, no protection whatsoever, except the intercession of some form or another of poorly understood providence.

On the weekend that Ms. Roiphe's article appeared, I wonder how many of her fellow New Yorkers heard at all that a Katyusha rocket had crashed into a empty schoolroom in Ashkelon, close to where worshippers were gathered in a synagogue, and, soon thereafter, another landed 600 feet from that city's Barzilai Hospital and its thousands of patients and staff. No one killed = Nothing happened.

The world long ago grew tired of its Israelis and their whining. The world could not care a whit less about the miracles that save them. The world has even had time to grow tired of its Palestinians as well.

But the world should know this: No matter how progressive the government in Israel, no matter how grave the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, without an end to the rockets, there will be no peace process and certainly no peace. While the rockets are flying, nothing else moves.

Nothing that Israel has tried, neither diplomacy nor brutality, has been able to stop the rockets. Only Hamas can do that. The world and Washington could have made the rockets a priority years ago, and perhaps brought this to resolution. But the world has other things to think about, and Washington as well.

Back in New York, Anne Roiphe seems to have given up on her brethren in Israel. "Under the present conditions, it is vitally important that American Jews, liberal, decent, democratic, continue to play a major role. We may have to be the ones to carry the Jewish nation forward, in all its intelligent moral purposes."

I wish a had as much faith as she in her fellow American Jews, my direct people of origin.

As it is, I have next to nothing in common with my direct neighbors, Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel, other than the fact that, in a sense, I am one of them. I guess destiny will out. Had my family stayed in Russia before the war and not emigrated to Los Angeles, had they survived the Holocaust and Stalin, had I been one of the million former Soviet Jews who moved to Israel 20 years ago, I might well have found myself a proud voter for Avigdor Lieberman, angry with my fellow Israelis who disdain me as non-Israeli, angrier with the Arabs that toss rockets, furious with Israeli Arabs who support the tossing of rockets, and finally, contemptuous of -- even as I uselessly blare my loyalty to -- a place which is contemptuous of me.

Ours are dreadful times. Ours are ugly choices.  [....]
Still true in 2014.

Hoping for the best (but not optimistically),
Jeff Weintraub