Gaza, as seen from a distance

Last week I punted on the Israel/Gaza situation, because what I was reading contained more noise and spin than information and insight, and I didn’t want to make that situation worse. This week I can do a little better.

Immediate causes. ThinkProgress provides a timeline tracing the back-and-forth escalation that began with the disappearance (on June 12) of three Israeli teens who later (June 30) were found dead. Israel blamed Hamas, whose leaders didn’t claim responsibility (as they usually do; Hamas’ leadership constantly battles the perception that it’s toothless against Israel), and began arresting Hamas leaders and their associates in the West Bank, including some released in a previous deal. Hamas saw the kidnapping as a pretext for Israel to renege on that deal, and fired (mostly ineffective) rockets from Gaza in protest.

From there things escalated as they so often do. Israeli troops entered Gaza Thursday night.

A different angle on the immediate causes of the conflict comes from Nathan Thrall’s op-ed in the NYT. Since 2007, the limited autonomy that Israel allows Palestinians has been split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. But Hamas has fallen on hard times recently because of the rapidly diminishing value of its alliances. You can think of Hamas as the Palestinian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian franchise controlled that country for about a year between the fall of the Mubarak government in 2011 and the subsequent military coup, but is now struggling to survive a major crackdown. The Assad regime in Syria was another Hamas ally, but it is now focused on its own problems. Iran’s aid has also diminished.

So in June Hamas was driven to reconcile with Fatah, more or less turning Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, but leaving its 43,000 civil servants in place. Currently, none of those people is being paid, mostly for reasons having to do with Israel and the United States. (Qatar is willing to pay them until something else can be worked out, but that solution is being blocked.) The other thing Hamas hoped to accomplish by getting itself out of the governance business was that Egypt might re-open its border with Gaza, which would be a big deal in the Gazan economy. That’s not happening either.

So Hamas wants:

  • Israeli troops out of Gaza.
  • End the recent Israeli crackdown on Hamas’ people and release the ones who had nothing to do with the kidnapping.
  • Get the Gaza civil servants paid somehow.
  • Open Gaza’s Egyptian border.

Israel wants Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel and to stop kidnapping/murder operations in Israel. (The rockets don’t seem to be doing a whole lot of harm, but it’s the principle of the thing.) I’m not sure what Egypt’s military government wants.

This is where the topsy-turvy logic of the situation comes into play: A ceasefire doesn’t get Hamas most of what it wants — which is why it rejected an Egyptian proposal — but all Hamas has to threaten Israel with at the moment (beyond those pinprick rockets) is bad publicity. The more Gazan civilians die, the more support builds for boycotts of Israel and divestment from companies that do business with Israel. It’s like: “If you don’t give us what we want, you’ll have to kill more of us, and then you’ll be sorry.”

In the long run, how does this end? Whenever the Israel/Palestine conflict flares up, it’s easy to get lost in arguments about the most recent actions of each side; whether what one side just did justifies what the other just did, and so forth. I think it’s important to keep pulling back to the big question: How does this conflict end? I can only see four outcomes:

  1. Two states. Some border line is agreed upon between Israel and Palestine, and they become two independent countries with full sovereignty.
  2. One state with democracy. The Palestinians are made full citizens of a unified state. Given demographic trends, they are eventually the majority.
  3. It never ends. The Palestinians remain a subject population ruled or otherwise dominated by Israel. Israelis continue to be targets of terrorist resistance.
  4. Ethnic cleansing. Israel kills or expels large numbers of Palestinians (or otherwise induces them to emigrate), leaving behind a Greater Israel with a clear and sustainable Jewish majority.

It’s important to realize that anyone who finds both (1) and (2) unacceptable is de facto advocating (3) or (4), because those are the only choices.

Some Israelis seem to believe in an outcome (3A), in which the Israeli occupation continues, but the Palestinians are so beaten down that they submit peacefully. I’m pretty sure that’s a fantasy. I don’t know what level of oppression would be necessary to make (3A) happen (if it’s possible at all), but everything that the Russians have been willing to unleash on the Chechens has been insufficient. Israelis need to take that example seriously: They’d need a strongman stronger than Putin to make (3A) work.

Another version of (3A) is: Palestinians end all resistance for a long enough time that Israelis feel safe, and then Israel will consider what rights the Palestinians should have. That’s another fantasy. Nothing in the history of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians entitles them to that level of trust. In fact, I don’t trust the Israelis that far, and I’ve got no skin in the game at all. I believe that once the terrorist threat subsided, Israel would forget about the Palestinians until the violence restarted, and then claim all over again that no deal can be reached until the violence stops.

So I repeat: The four outcomes listed above are the only ones.

With that in mind, it’s discouraging to read the recent remarks by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.

That eliminates (1). (2) is obviously unthinkable to anyone who values Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. So this goes on forever or there’s ethnic cleansing.

Moral calculus. A lot of the media back-and-forth concerns the morality of the two sides. The argument comes down to: Hamas targets civilians while Israel takes steps to avoid killing civilians, but Israel’s weapons are so much more effective that they end up killing far more civilians than Hamas does, on the order of hundreds to one.

Another reason for the disparity is that Israel prioritizes civil defense, while Hamas puts military targets in civilian areas and doesn’t even build bomb shelters. As Netanyahu put it on Fox News:

Here’s the difference between us. We are using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.

Charles Krauthammer quoted that line in a WaPo column called “Moral Clarity in Gaza“.

Personally, I see this less as a moral difference between the two sides than a difference in their tactical situations. Gaza has no way to stop the Israeli attack by force. Israel will stop when the number of dead civilians creates enough international pressure. So Gazan civil defense would just enable the Israeli attacks to go on longer, with the same eventual body count. What’s Hamas’ motivation to go that route?

And that brings me to a moral principle that I think deserves more attention: Asymmetric warfare is morally asymmetric. In other words: If you are so much more powerful than your adversaries that your decisions create the gameboard and dictate the moves available to the players, then your actions have to be judged differently. You bear responsibility for the shape of the game itself, and not just for the moves you make.

Friendly frustration. Even pro-Israel commentators at some level realize the tactical and strategic realities. Krauthammer writes:

[Hamas rocket fire] makes no sense. Unless you understand, as Tuesday’s Post editorial explained, that the whole point is to draw Israeli counterfire.

Taken for granted here is that the Israelis are helpless in the face of this masterful strategy: They must fire back, even if that’s what Hamas wants. Perversely, Krauthammer presents Hamas as the player powerful enough to have choices, while Israel is driven by necessity.

Friends of Israel more in touch with reality are frustrated by the Netanyahu government’s lack of vision. Fred Kaplan describes the short-term logic of invading Gaza, but then laments:

The Israeli government seems to have forgotten how to think strategically; at the very least, they have a self-destructive tendency to overplay their hands. … Until this conflict with Gaza, Israel had been enjoying a level of security it hadn’t seen in many years. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are all but nonexistent. Its enemies to the north—Syria, Hezbollah, and a gaggle of Islamist terrorist movements—are embroiled in their own wars with one another. Egypt is once again in the firm grip of a military government committed to putting down the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies (including Hamas). Iran has—at least for now—frozen its nuclear program, as a result of negotiations led by the Obama administration. … Instead of capitalizing on Israel’s unusually strong strategic position, Netanyahu risks squandering it—destroying what little support he has in the West and making it hard for Arab governments that share his interests (Egypt, Jordan, and, even now, the Palestinian Authority) to sustain their tacit alliances.

At The Jewish Daily Forward, J. J. Goldberg marked yesterday as the moment when the tide turned against Israel. After initially receiving a certain amount of international support — or at least seeing Hamas condemned in equal-or-worse terms

What happened next was something that’s happened over and over in Israel’s military operations in recent years: The government overestimated the depth of its international support and decided to broaden the scope of the operation. … The sympathy Israel won because of the kidnapping and shelling is melting before our eyes. Until the weekend, protests of Israel’s actions were limited to street demonstrations by leftists and Muslims in various cities around the world, with almost no governmental backing. Now governments are starting to switch sides. … Many Israelis will argue in the next few days that the mounting international criticism is hypocritical, that Israel has a right to defend itself and that the fast growing civilian toll is entirely Hamas’ fault. Whatever the merits of the arguments, they have lost their audience.

Meta-discussion. In some ways as interesting as the discussion itself is the meta-discussion about how to discuss such a divisive topic, where the sides are dug in so deeply and so many of the arguments rehearsed and ready to pull off the shelf. Also at The Jewish Daily Forward, Jay Michelson posts “5 Ways To Turn Down the Social Media Flame“. He’s basically rediscovering the three principles of Quaker discussions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? And he asks:

If a bunch of privileged Americans with so little at personal stake can’t internalize the importance of multiple narratives, how do we expect Israelis and Palestinians — both of whom are living under threat of imminent death, while I sit behind a screen in Brooklyn — to do better?

And the blog This is Not Jewish gives instructions on “How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic“. Knowing how off-base the line “Democrats think anybody who criticizes Obama is racist” is, I was ready to be skeptical of “Jews think anybody who criticizes Israel is anti-Semitic.” In each case, it’s easy to be a lot more racially or ethnically offensive than you realize, and so get hit with criticism that you deserve, but think you don’t deserve. (“What I meant …” is not a defense. And anything that includes the phrase “if I offended anybody” is not an apology.)

Many of the tips are common sense, if you stop to think about it (i.e., don’t appeal to stereotypes). But I had never made the connection between labeling Israel-supporting Jews as “bloodthirsty” and the pogrom-causing blood libel, in which Jews are accused of literally drinking the blood of sacrificed Christian children. I don’t believe I’ve ever violated that rule, but duh, why didn’t I see that? Also be careful about equating Jews, Israelis, and Zionists, who are three different groups of people.

And finally, it’s crazy to hold your local Jewish community responsible for whatever Israel might be doing. (Just like it was crazy to hold your local Muslims responsible for 9-11.) As John Lloyd points out:

There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London – and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.

All four of my grandparents were German-Americans during the World Wars. None of that was our fault, and I’m willing to let Americans of all other ethnicities make similar claims.

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  • SamChevre  On July 21, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    I am not certain that your option #1 is entirely attainable, but I do think something close to it could be.

    The sticking point is “with full sovereignty.”

    I’m thinking of the post-WW2 peace with Japan and Germany; they were allowed to run internal affairs, but not to have an army, and they were required to allow US troops to be based on their territory. The US, in important respects, STILL has “security control” of Japan–but there is not an ongoing state of war.

  • Ricky Greenwald  On July 21, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    This was a rather nice analysis in that it boiled a complicated situation down succinctly. I believe it was a good-faith attempt to be balanced, but I don’t think it entirely succeeded. The impact of terror on Israel was dismissed as insignificant — “The rockets don’t seem to be doing a whole lot of harm, but it’s the principle of the thing.” — when in fact it is anything but, both in terms of injury and death (when the terror is successful), and psychological harm. Many of Israel’s infamous offenses, including the blockade, the wall, etc., not to mention the Iron Dome, are to protect itself from the terror. The fact that Israel’s self-protection efforts have been modestly successful does not make the harm or the threat of terror any less. It is disingenuous to claim that Israel loses moral standing both for battling terror and for (thereby) not being so damaged by terror as it used to be.

    Another error I see is here: “Another version of (3A) is: Palestinians end all resistance for a long enough time that Israelis feel safe, and then Israel will consider what rights the Palestinians should have. That’s another fantasy. Nothing in the history of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians entitles them to that level of trust.” This does not take into account what happened when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza some years ago, leaving behind millions of dollars’ worth of greenhouses. This was a moment that Israel did “consider what rights the Palestinians should have,” at great cost. But instead of the Palestinians proving their own trustworthiness, they looted and destroyed the greenhouses, and made Gaza a base for terror against Israel.

    Given these issues, I think it’s a leap of logic to hold Israel morally responsible for Hamas’ human shield strategy, just because Israel has more military power. The power imbalance goes in both directions, because while Israel has a more powerful military, Hamas seems to have no moral constraints when it comes to attacking Israeli civilians as well as putting its own in the line of fire. Each of these positions has its own power. Indeed, when Hamas manages to manipulate Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and then well-intentioned people apportion more blame to Israel, they are in fact rewarding Hamas for its terroristic attacks and its human shield strategy, since the generation of anti-Israel and poor-little-Palestine PR is Hamas’ goal.

    Finally, I’d like to comment on the role of Jew-hatred in the present discussion. You can’t stay clean in this deal simply by criticizing the Israeli government, or Zionism, as if that’s not a criticism of Jews. Don’t get me wrong, criticizing the Israeli government is one of our (Jews’) favorite sports, and there’s plenty to criticize. Here is when it comes off as Jew-hatred:
    – When Israel is the only party criticized or held responsible or seen as in the wrong.
    – When Israel’s right to self-defense is not recognized, or is recognized in passing but then somehow dismissed or delegitimized.
    – When Israel is accused of intentionally harming Palestinian children/civilians, or of being Nazis, attempting genocide or ethnic cleansing. These are blatant lies designed to inflame hatred against not only Israel but against all Jews.
    – When those crying crocodile tears for the poor Palestinians have barely noticed all the greater harm being done to others, in the region or internationally. Where is all the hair-pulling and street protests regarding the much larger-scale killing of civilians — with far less justification or care — in Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, and Syria (just to stay in the neighborhood)? So what are the differences in these situations? (a) The harm that Israel does tends to be much smaller; and (b) that harm is done by Jews.
    – When the suggestion is to abandon Zionism in favor of the so-called one-state solution. Given the reason for Israel’s creation, the obvious continued need for a Jewish haven, and the likely consequences of this “solution” to Jewish Israelis, it’s hard for me to hear this in any other way than “You want me dead.” OK, maybe I’m sensitive, but given the history and current situation, shouldn’t I be?

    I do not wish to minimize the horrific situation of the Palestinians, or of the Israelis. Indeed, the horrific situation of the Palestinians is itself a horrific situation for Israelis, as well as for Jews worldwide. I did not personally agree with the ground invasion this time around, for strategic reasons similar to those you pointed out. I do not have a fine solution to offer, and it seems that every Israel-initiated solution that has been suggested has already been tried and failed. I applaud your effort to contribute to the conversation, including how to conduct the conversation.

  • Linda Bell  On July 21, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    I think it is reasonable to at least partially blame your local Jewish community (hold the tomatoes a moment) because Israel cannot behave as it does without United States support and United States support is contingent on the American Jewish support. If the US Jewish community and the US government demanded that Israel act more humanely, they would. I do not support Hamas; I do not support violence. I do believe, however, that Israeli policies which have lead to this crisis and that it will not be over until both sides can see the other as human beings.

  • sherioz  On July 21, 2014 at 11:05 pm

    I support Ricky Greenwald’s comment here and would like to add the following: Your statement in which you talk of those “pinprick” pesky little ineffective rockets that you think Israel should just ignore is insulting on the one hand, and shows that you don’t understand what it is like to raise your children not knowing when you have 15 seconds to run for shelter at any time of the day, on the other hand. Do you know kids have grown up walking home, not by the shortest route, but by the one that provides the closest proximity to shelter, just in case! And the Israeli government should ignore that? Would you want your government to do that?

    I always have and still support a two-state solution. I am as willing to make the West Bank judenrein as I was supportive of our having pulled every last Jew out of Gaza. That will mean that there will be no more Jewish communities outside the tract of land now called Israel, as opposed to there having been large thriving Jewish communities across northern Africa from Morocco to Egypt (some Jews remain in Morocco) and in such countries as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, . . . Why do Jews have to leave in order for there to perhaps be peace with Israel? But, many in Israel are willing to uproot the settlements (in fact 4 were pulled down at the same time as the withdrawal from Gaza). And when we left Gaza there were open borders, Gazans continued to work in Israel, and we prayed for a strong, free and proud self-supporting Gaza. After that turned out the way it did, I don’t think anyone can expect us to just leave the West Bank without security arrangements for a long long time.

    So please, don’t talk to me about pinprick rocket attacks until you have lived a few months with your kids being threatened by pinpricks!

  • cdud  On July 22, 2014 at 8:59 am

    “Israel engages in ongoing practices of dispossession, population transfer, illegal settlement, and political incarceration, in the context of continuing settler-colonialism occupation and the blockade of Gaza” and that Israel “engages in systematic discrimination against both its Palestinian citizens and against migrant workers and refugees of color.”

    Read more:
    Inside Higher Ed

    • sherioz  On July 23, 2014 at 12:38 am

      We certainly have our problems and we are not a perfect society. While there is discrimination in Israeli, there is no “systematic” discrimination. Arabs are supreme court judges, Members of Knesset, foreign diplomats in Israeli embassies, doctors, lawyers, teachers, university professors, and just normal shop owners and workers in various occupations in Jewish areas as well as Arab towns. Arab students regularly demonstrate against government policies (and sometimes even against the existence of Israel) with full permission as long as demonstrations do not become violent. Sometimes a demonstration is denied permission, as may happen in any country for a variety of reasons.

      I am against any expansion of the settlements on the West Bank and I would like to see us get out of the West Bank totally, in spite of the fact that the area has many significant Jewish historical sites. Did you know that Hebron was a thriving Jewish community from the beginning of time (almost) except for 1929-1967. My ex-mother-in-law was born there and had to run away at the age of 6 because of the pogrom. Still, for peace, if they can’t bear to see a Jew, we should leave. But not without security arrangements like we left Gaza. We cannot agree to any possibility that tunnels will be built under our communities with terrorists preparing to pop up near parks or daycare centers as happened in Gaza.

      Gaza was blockaded only when it was discovered that “aid” and humanitarian deliveries often hid weapons and when alongside Gazans going to their jobs in Israel were terrorists who came into Israel to kill us.

      Regarding the treatment of refugees in Israel. This is a problem common to any host community and it why refugees are kept in refugee camps run by the UN and forbidden to work outside the camp. I was at Kakuma and there is already a 3rd generation refugee population being born there and the refugees cannot work outside the camp. This is what happens in camps around the world. The refugees in Israel live among the regular population and work. Their children go to Israeli schools with Israeli kids. Yes, there were racist demonstrations against them when there a few rapes and people were scared. Right? No. Normal human response? Yes. Now calm and there are no demonstrations against the refugees and they continue to work and study alongside Israelis.

  • trying_for_outside_the_box  On July 24, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    How about a 3 state solution:
    Gaza to Egypt.
    West Bank back to Jordan.

    • Eshy  On July 26, 2014 at 12:52 am

      You mean the true pre-1967 borders that everyone keeps forgetting about.

      • trying_for_outside_the_box  On July 26, 2014 at 2:12 pm

        Yes, though Gaza did not belong to Egypt. This would require a concession from them to accept the additional land and economy. (Israel probably should have required Egypt to take it as a part of getting the Sinai back.)

    • Donna  On July 26, 2014 at 1:16 pm

      Egypt and Jordan do not want the territories.

      • trying_for_outside_the_box  On July 26, 2014 at 2:10 pm

        I know. However, the West Bank was ostensibly Jordan’s before the 1967 war and in 1970, the then-PLO wanted Jordan and was strongly based there.

        Further, there are lots of things Israel doesn’t want that the world seems willing to try to shove down its throats – why not this for other places, as well. After all, the Arab countries were the ones who prevented the creation of a Palestinian government well before the declaration of the State of Israel!

        Given the feelings of imprisonment expressed by the Palestinians about their rigid borders and lack of trade opportunities for the Gazans, this would ease their situation.

        And do you see *any* solution that would make everybody happy? How much worse is this than either the One State or Two State solutions?

    • Donna  On July 26, 2014 at 4:16 pm

      Forcing (if even possible) Gaza and the West Bank to Egypt and Jordan is simply a one state solution with different borders. If a two state solution is not possible (which I am starting to believe) then the issue becomes how is the one state set up (Lebanon tried a government with clearly defined political roles for Christians and Muslims) and what are the borders,

      I think the biggest help to the crisis (humanitarian and political) would be to close the UNRW and transfer the Palestinian refugees into the UNHCR. The UNCHR works to find new homes and resettle refugees who cannot be returned to their homes. The UNRW has created generations of permanent refugees. This would also make Egypt and Jordan more likely to agree to retaking responsibility for Gaza and the West Bank if that was to happen.

  • Slingshot  On July 25, 2014 at 1:27 am

    Something in all of the people of the region refuses the idea of defeat and surrender. If the Arabs outlasted the Crusaders, the Otttomans, and the British they believe they will prevail against the Jewish State–though it takes many generations. Their sense of dignity will not allow them to make a peace where they do not have ruling power. The Jewish Israelis bear the scars of thousands of years of persecution but they have also survived and believe they will continue to prevail in Israel. Their experience as a minority teaches them not to surrender the ruling power they now possess. I believe a two-state solution with a verifiably demilitarized democratic Palestine, protected by the Israeli military, is the only solution. It worked for Japan. Imagine a cooperative peace for the next ten years. Imagine money spent on war spent on peace. Imagine the hard liners in both camps losing political power as peace and prosperity grows for a few generations and fear diminishes.


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