Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza - "War Without End?" (Gershon Shafir)

Gaza is in the world's headlines again. What should happen next?

Even trying to think about that question is depressing, because over time the situation has become so impossible that all the realistically (or even plausibly) avaliable alternatives are so unpromising. But the question has be confronted, and my friend Gershon Shafir has attempted to do so.

His piece below was posted yesterday on the Informed Comment: Global Affairs group blog run by Juan Cole, and Gershon has agreed to guest-post it here as well.

Gershon Shafir is an Israeli historical and political sociologist who has been both a distinguished and influential scholar and a long-time active peacenik (of what is sometimes called the "tough dove" variety). His argument here is characteristically thoughtful, intelligent, and worth paying attention to.

--Jeff Weintraub
War Without End?
Guest-posted by Gershon Shafir
[Also posted HERE]

The Israeli air assault on Gaza enters its fourth day, and the possibility of an accompanying ground assault is increasing. The suffering of the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza is becoming ever more appalling and unbearable. (A long history of errors and miscalculations by all sides has led up to this situation, but that is not my immediate concern here.) This is a moment for sober thinking by Israel's leaders.

The narrower goals of the Israeli operation--with the telling name "Cast Lead"--are the humiliation of Hamas, the degrading of its military capacity, the restoration of the cease-fire in Gaza, and the rehabilitation of Israeli deterrence that was left in tatters after the summer 2006 Lebanon War. But broader goals have also been mentioned, though in vaguer terms. Among them is the hope of producing a long-term change in Hamas’ behavior or even of eliminating it. To attain such goals, Israeli leaders repeatedly assert, this operation will last a long time. That would be a grave mistake for the following three reasons.

First, Israel is about to exhaust obvious and legitimate military targets, especially those available for aerial bombardment, even under their broadest interpretation. Admittedly Hamas never seriously tried to separate its political and military wings--unlike, say, the Basque nationalist ETA (who have had both the clandestine ETA and various incarnations of the Hari Batasuna Party) or the Irish Republicans (who had the IRA and the Sinn Fein Party), partly because it does not really have a political strategy distinct from its military one. Even so, bombing Hamas police stations and Hamas's organizational structure is different from striking the Hamas broadcasting center, let alone the Islamic University in Gaza City. Attacking distinctly civilian targets and the infrastructure of civil life is a potential war crime. It is also counterproductive. The number of civilian casualties will rise, and the international community will be mobilized to chip away at the immunity Israel now seems to possess in targeting Hamas.

Second, the degree of tacit support Israel has so far enjoyed for this operation is fragile. It is remarkable that Mahmoud Abbas, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia (through its semi-official Asharq Alawsat) blame Hamas for the Israeli operation even though none of them justifies it. All three were involved in either arranging the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel or promoting Fatah-Hamas talks and, consequently, hold Hamas responsible for ending the cease-fire with a bang and, by so doing, inviting Israel to undertake this operation. Indeed, it is becoming ever clearer just how grave Hamas’s miscalculation was in taking control of the Gaza Strip through a local coup d’êtat in June 2007. As a result of the coup Hamas has isolated itself in the Arab world and is viewed as a surrogate of Iran. Its Arab “allies” are keen to see it weakened, even if through Israeli pounding. But it is doubtful how long Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be able to withstand the pressure of the demonstrations throughout the Arab world that call for closing the Arab ranks behind the Palestinian cause. Hamas's ability to draw support from reluctant Arab governments will increase the longer the Israeli operation goes on.

Third, and most crucial, Israel has already attained many of its narrower military aims and is not likely to accomplish its larger political goals. Contrary to much wishful thinking that presents itself as realism, a genuinely realistic analysis has to begin by recognizing that violence against Israel is Hamas’s raison d’être. Its non-military goals, such as they are, call for Israeli concessions without tying its own hands in the future. Furthermore, by casting its “truce” proposals not in international diplomatic terms that can be monitored and enforced by the UN but in Islamic terms (hudna) that may be interpreted only within Islamic jurisdiction, it removes the possibility of an agreement with a non-Islamic adversary. All this might, hypothetically, change in the future, but Hamas is not going to suddenly transform its core identity under military pressure.

Hamas's alleged pragmatism has evaporated since its coup and we are left with the reality of an exclusively military world view. The consequences have been disastrous for Palestinians, not just for Israelis. But deploring this reality is less important than facing up to it. How else can one explain the fact that instead of hunkering down after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005 and letting Kadima implement its planned withdrawals from the West Bank, Hamas chose to allow the rocketing of nearby Israeli towns thus effectively destroying the Kadima plan. How else can one account for the fact that Hamas defends the firing of rockets that are singularly ineffective and cause more psychological than actual damage in Israel? At a strategic level, Hamas is not interested in political alternatives to armed confrontation. But whether one wants to call the Hamas strategy resistance or terrorism, the lack of a serious political plan to accompany military strategies is always counterproductive, as it is has been for Hamas and for the people of Gaza.

It will be equally counterproductive for Israel. It appears that Israeli political leaders and military planners labor under the illusion that there is a military “solution” to Hamas. The extended military operation in Gaza is expected to serve as a pedagogical tool for moderating or eliminating Hamas. But this will not work, and the idea that a ground invasion of Gaza could actually eliminate Hamas as a force in Palestinian politics is delusional. The Israeli approach is every bit as driven by militarism as Hamas’ strategy is. Beyond a certain point, it can serve no realistic political goals. In fact, I would offer a concise definition for militarism as not knowing when to stop. Israel is in danger of recapitulating in Gaza the last few weeks of the war against Hezbollah, which increasingly turned into a war against Lebanon.

Continuing the reciprocal militarisms of Hamas and Israel can do no more than prepare the ground for another and probably more lethal round. Hamas is not about to change, but Israel now has the opportunity to act in a way that is realistic and might limit the suffering inflicted on the civilian Palestinian population. Olmert and Livni have both stated that they are fighting Hamas, not the Palestinians of Gaza. To show this, rather than just state it, Israel should now stop its military operation for a stated period while indicating that they are doing so to give Hamas a chance to return to a de facto cease-fire. At the very least, that would demonstrate the alleged good will of an Israel seeking to defend its citizens, rather than harm the citizens of Gaza. If Hamas ignores or rejects that opening, the gap between Hamas and the real interests of the Palestinian civilian population would become even more visible. But an Israeli initiative of this sort would also put Hamas under tremendous pressure to reciprocate by restoring is side of the cease-fire. And once the rocket attacks on Israeli towns have actually been stopped, after having provoked this massive Israeli retaliation, it would not be easy or costless for Hamas to allow their resumption.

The strongest argument in favor of such an approach is that all the available alternatives--including the currently stated Israeli policy of seeking ‘to educate’ or eliminate Hamas--lead nowhere and can only yield disastrous and counterproductive results, along with unnecessary human suffering. Israel has made its point. Now it should know when to stop.

[JW: A proposal similar to this one has also been made by David Grossman.]

Wartime in Gaza

Here we go again? As everyone knows, large-scale violence has returned to Gaza with an Israeli air campaign the began on Saturday and is now entering its fourth day.

Many years of errors, miscalculations, idiocies, and crimes on all sides have led up to this moment, but the immediate background to Israel's attack was the breakdown of a shaky 5-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which has exercised full control over Gaza since it expelled Fatah in an armed take-over in June 2007. Over the past several years, going back well before that showdown with Fatah, thousands of rockets and mortar attacks have been launched from Gaza at Israeli civilian communities in southern Israel. The stream of rockets dried up during the recent cease-fire, but recently that arrangement had started to unravel, and starting in November Hamas resumed the steady bombardment of towns and cities in southern Israel.

Israel has made it clear for a while that this open-ended strategy of indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians (which happen to be unambiguous war crimes) was intolerable, so Hamas's resumption of these attacks looks like a deliberate attempt to provoke a confrontation--though the scale and timing of Israel's response may well have surprised them.

An Israeli military response was certainly justified, but whether it will turn out to be wise, disastrous, or something in between is another question. I don't pretend to know the answer to that right now--though it is hard to feel optimistic--so I won't speculate.

War is a terrible thing. All available information (even from the most anti-Israeli accounts, if one reads them with a careful eye) indicates that the Israeli assault is focused on Hamas's armed forces and organizational apparatus, who seem to account for the great bulk of Palestinian casualties. But there have also been significant numbers of civilian casualties, and the suffering and terror of Gaza's civilian population caught in the crossfire is bound to increase the longer this battle goes on.

Meanwhile, let me pass along two useful commentaries.

=> Judging from historical experience, most international news coverage and discussion of this conflict is bound to be one-sided (overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, in an anti-Israel direction), and it is also likely to get increasingly hysterical if it goes on much longer.

On the first day of the conflict, Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston pre-emptively offered
the first in a two-part guide to the 10 most gratuitous, least productive, most resolutely [dis]ingenuous claims likely to be hurled in an effort to attack Israel. The first five are arguments of the anti-Israel left, claims which are, curiously, as tired as they are unflagging.
You can find Burston's catalogue of these standard propaganda lines, and his responses to them, below.

As far as Burston is concerned, "the Alpha-male displays" of many on the on the allegedly pro-Israel right ...
the group which constantly berates the government and the IDF for not bombing Gaza into a parking lot, for not shooting and starving and freezing innocent civilians to death
... are also, in reality, anti-Israel. His response to them is promised for next week.

=> What should happen next? It's hard to even think about that question without getting depressed, since all the available alternatives at this point are so unpromising. But some of the responses I have read so far make more sense than others, and among these I refer you to a characteristically thoughtful, intelligent, and cogent contribution to the discussion offered by my friend Gershon Shafir, which you can find HERE.

--Jeff Weintraub
Saturday, December 27, 2008
The worst anti-Israel charges you'll hear in wartime
By Bradley Burston

It is, abruptly and again, wartime. Across the globe, the selective pacifists of the left and the recliner Rambos of the right are spoiling for their next battle, the war in Gaza.

They will fight one another in letters to Congress, in cable news sound bites, in raucous talk-radio phone-ins, in the virtual mega-heroics of the online battlefield of the talkback.

They will fight one another in the United Nations as well, unashamedly one-sided in their concern for human life.

Herewith the first in a two-part guide to the 10 most gratuitous, least productive, most resolutely [dis]ingenuous claims likely to be hurled in an effort to attack Israel. The first five are arguments of the anti-Israel left, claims which are, curiously, as tired as they are unflagging.

Leftist 1: Israel's true motive in bombing Gaza, is genocide against the Palestinian people and extermination of their right to statehood.

Israel's genuine interest in this campaign is strikingly similar to Hamas' interest in firing scores of rockets into Israeli population centers: Forcing a cease-fire on better terms than the one just ended.

For Hamas, this largely means easing Israeli economic sanctions against Gazans. For Israel, this centers on ending shelling by Qassam and Grad missiles and mortar shells. For both sides, this means a prisoner exchange, centering on Gilad Shalit and hundreds of jailed Hamas members.

Leftist 2: The Palestinians have no recourse but to defend themselves, and the makeshift rockets they fire are nothing compared to the world's most advanced warplanes and munitions, which the IDF is using against them.

The Human Rights Watch organization has been unequivocal in condemning the use of Qassam rockets as a direct violation of international humanitarian law and the laws of war. The firing of Qassams and mortars against civilian populations also constitutes collective punishment against hundreds of thousands of innocent Israeli men, women and children.

Moreover, the firing of Qassams began not as a response to the siege against Gaza, but as a marathon celebration by armed Islamic fundamentalist groups following Israel's withdrawal of its troops and settlers from the Strip. To purposely add insult to injury, Islamic Jihad and other organizations used the ruins of settlements as launch platforms.

Leftist 3: All that Hamas is asking, is recognition as the democratically elected government of Gaza, and an end to the Israeli economic embargo. Were they to attain these goals, there would be calm on both sides of the border.

It is both unrealistic and dangerous to believe that Hamas has abandoned its clearly stated and often reiterated goal of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in all of the Holy Land, including all land claimed, annexed by, or in any way occupied by Israel.

Beyond that, Hamas has strong alliances with the Egyptian opposition Muslim brotherhood, as well as working partnerships with the Iran-dominated Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

Israeli restraint, when practiced, has been met with contempt and additional Hamas and Hamas-tolerated strikes against civilian populations.

Leftist 4: The Israeli blockade against Hamas is state terrorism and any means to fight it are legitimate.

There is every reason to believe that Israel's economic siege against Gaza is misguided, but not for an essential cruelty, rather because Hamas taxes collected on the influx of goods imported through tunnels from Egyptian territory have subsidized and cemented Hamas rule.

Leftist 5: The world overwhelmingly sympathizes with the Palestinians against Israel, and unreservedly backs their struggle for independence.

In an era of global revulsion against radical Islamic terror, Hamas' protracted program of suicide bombings, drive-by murders and shelling of civilian populations, coupled with its refusal to renounce violence, recognize Israel, or accept past peace agreements, coupled with its ideology of militant jihad, have drained the Palestinians of international sympathy and have, in fact, legitimized Israeli arguments of military self-defense.

Nothing has been more instrumental in harming the cause of Palestinian independence than Hamas, with its brutal take-over of Gaza in a war with brother Palestinians, and its frank efforts to build a large-scale regular army force in the Strip.

In Part Two, in the coming week: The second five will be newer claims, the Alpha-male displays of the Israel-bashing right, the group which constantly berates the government and the IDF for not bombing Gaza into a parking lot, for not shooting and starving and freezing innocent civilians to death.