Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: The Most Protracted Of Conflicts; Isreal and Palestine

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I have, to this point, refrained from commenting on the current war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip. As both a Jewish American and a development economist / human rights activist, it has been hard for me to separate my feelings from my objective beliefs. But I did not get into blogging about normative responses to various crises in order to shy away from difficult subjects.

The following is my attempt to lay out the grievances of both sides of the conflict, and separate them into their legitimate and illegitimate / hypocritical components.

Israel’s Stance:

Legitimate:

The Jewish people have been historically persecuted, culminating in the worst genocide in human history, the Holocaust. An estimated 6 million Jews we’re killed during The Holocaust; about 1/3 of the global Jewish population at the time.

In order to preserve the Jewish race, and as a “reparation” of sorts, after WWII global powers granted the Jewish people a state–Israel. Directly following this announcement, the Arab League rejected Israel’s existence and invaded the newly formed country. While certain Arab nations have become more accepting of Israel’s existence over time, a strong anti-Zionist movement remains today. Many countries and factions openly call for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.

Against this backdrop of historic persecution and current anti-Semitic/Zionist sentiment, it is not surprising that Israel feels the need to defend itself with extreme and what at times may appear to be disproportionate force.

Illegitimate:

History and geopolitics do not justify all Israeli actions in the name of self defense. Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system has largely neutralized the threat of rocket fire from Gaza. While Israel cannot tolerate regular rocket fire from the Gaza strip, it must do it’s best to respond proportionally to the results of Hamas rocket fire, not the intention / potential damage they represent. Failure to do so is not only deplorable on humanitarian grounds (the killing of innocent civilians), it also plays into Hamas’s hands (or handbook, if recent reports are substantiated) by fueling anti-Israeli sentiment both in Gaza / West Bank, in the Middle East, and throughout the world.

I would go so far as to say that the intention of Hamas rocket fire is not civilian casualties (thousands of rockets fired, single digit Israeli civilian deaths), but rather drawing return fire. Hamas and associated groups regularly fire from highly populated areas in Gaza, and the resulting return fire leads to high civilian casualties. Civilian deaths are part of a military calculus, and, as  deplorable as it sounds, these lives are worth very little compared to anti-Israeli backlash in the eyes of Hamas leadership. It is frustrating to watch the land of my ancestors and sole representative of human rights / democracy in the Middle-East be so obviously and damagingly duped.  

A common response by pro-Israeli factions is that Hamas uses civilians as human shields. While this may be true, it does not absolve Israel of responsibility for civilian deaths. Israel says it has taken unprecedented steps, informing Gaza civilians of areas where it will strike and urging they go to safe zone’s–the issue is where?

Israel currently does not allowing Palestinians to come into Israel for “security reasons” (and has severely restricted movement since 2000). Interestingly enough, the number of Palestinian suicide bombings seems to be inversely related to the ease of crossing from Gaza into Israel. While correlation does not prove causation, there is every reason to believe treating the people of Gaza like prisoners has resulted in a general radicalization of otherwise peaceful people (the situation represents a macro-scale Stamford Prison Experiment is many ways; Israeli’s have become callous to Palestinian suffering, while Palestinians become desperate and more accepting of extremist views).

Furthermore, Israel has allegedly shelled UN compounds thought to be safe on two occasions, which is totally indefensible even to the staunchest Zionist.

If Israel want’s to retain any moral high ground, it must–after careful security considerations–allow Gaza’s citizens into Israel. If Israeli’s are concerned for their wellbeing, the government can setup “Safe Camps”; areas protected by the Iron Dome defense system where the Israeli government provides basic needs (food, shelter, healthcare, schooling, etc.). Separate Gaza’s civilians from Hamas and other Jihad groups, and then continue to dismantle their military infrastructure and tunnels.

Palestinian Stance:

Legitimate:

In 2007, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, prompting an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of goods and further restricting the movement of people out of the Gaza strip. This has resulted in economic recession, compromising the standard of living of people in Gaza (which, according the protracted social conflict theory and common sense, only makes armed conflict more likely). Any long term peace deal must end this blockade in way that is sensitive to the security concerns of the Israeli and Egyptian people.

The blockade created a legitimate use for a series of tunnels–smuggling goods to enable the people of Gaza to bypass the blockade and realize decent livelihoods. However, these tunnels are also used for military purposes, and their destruction has become one of the main focuses of Israel’s current military campaign.

Illegitimate:

The Palestinian Authority spends almost 1/3 of it’s budget on security personnel. One has to question what this is for, as Israel historically has not attacked Gaza without being attacked first. For all the talk about Israeli occupation making it impossible for Palestinians to reach their economic potential, the Palestinian Authority clearly has other priorities as well (to say nothing of Hamas, whose use of  the human dignity argument is as hollow as can be).

This money should be spent on schools, hospitals, and general infrastructure–all of which would be secure in the absence of Palestinian provocation. Israel could commit to a window of non-retaliation, in order to assure the PA that it’s investments in it’s people and country would be safe so long it internally addressed hostile actions from rouge Jihadi groups in a timely manner.

The only legitimate reason for having such a large security force would be to counter Jihad groups, to ensure that Israel has no reason to launch counter-attacks–this is clearly not the case. After the breakdown of the most recent U.S. backed peace talks, the Palestinian Authority created a unity government with Hamas. The PA encourages attacks on Israel by paying monthly stipends to convicted prisoners in Israeli jails; these are not the actions of a party interested in peace.

Hamas is an internationally recognized terrorist organization. It routinely violates cease-fires, and is directly responsible for the current war with Israel by provoking Israel with indiscriminate rocket fire. The role of and blame for Hamas in this conflict cannot be understated.

Israel should make it possible for Gaza’s civilians to separate themselves from fighters, instead of making empty gestures about finding non-existent “safe-zones” within the strip . Once fighting has stopped, Israel should figure a way to end the blockade, leaving no legitimate use for the Gaza tunnel system. 

Muhammed Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, should renounce Hamas, which has proven to be an untenable and uncontrollable partner. Prime Minister Netanyahu must address the socioeconomic needs of Palestinian’s living in Gaza, and own up to / end Israel’s humanitarian failures.

In protracted conflicts, there are always legitimate grievances on both sides. Peacekeeping, however, is primarily about addressing current issues (there is notably a “truth and reconciliation” component of peacebuilding, once both “positive” and “negative” peace already exists, but this step is further down the road). The solutions prescribed here are aimed at decoupling legitimate grievances from the excuses warmongers on both side of the conflict use to perpetuate their agendas.

Notably, these steps require trust which does not currently exist between the two sides of the conflict. Small steps, utilizing all avenues of “multitrack diplomacy” (especially civilian “track 3 diplomacy”), must therefore be taken to build the trust needed for a more comprehensive solution.

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