Normative Narratives


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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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Transparency Report: An Olive Branch Israel is Obligated to Extend

A Palestinian emergency worker holds a boy on a street flooded by sewage water.
(Thanks to Wissam Nassar, NYT)

 

Israel-Palestine peace talks resumed this past July at the behest of Secretary of State John Kerry. These talks have, until this point, failed to yield meaningful results:

A high-level Palestinian source told Al-Monitor that not even one agreement had been achieved in the discussions so far, not even regarding marginal topics that were not defined as core issues. According to the source, not only has there been no progress, but there has been regression: Israel’s announcements about continued construction in the territories caused the Palestinian public to direct harsh criticism against its representatives in the talks, causing them (the negotiators) to harden their positions around the discussion tables. The highly placed source said that when the Palestinian team complained about this to Tzipi Livni, head of the Israeli team, she expressed her understanding of their perspective, but argued that this [the construction] reflected the Israeli political reality and, nonetheless, a way must be found to make progress.

When the talks were renewed, representatives in the prime minister’s environs promised “surprises” and explained that he is ready to make a dramatic diplomatic decision that would avert Israel’s isolation. Netanyahu agreed to release prisoners with blood on their hands, and his associates said that he was willing to discuss all the issues on the table, including Jerusalem’s status and delineation of the borders of the future Palestinian state. The prisoners were, indeed, released but soon afterward provocative statements were released about building in the territories. The negotiators had not managed to touch upon even one critical issue before the negotiations exploded. Simultaneously, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett embarked on a media campaign in the United States where he argued that Israel was not an occupying nation because the entire land of Israel belonged to it.

In protracted conflicts such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, there is often a deep level of distrust and dislike between the two sides. Marginal steps like releasing Palestinian prisoners cannot realistically be expected to change public opinion. However, circumstances in the Gaza Strip have created an opportunity for the Israeli government to swing public favor in it’s direction, while also living up to its international human rights obligations:

Raw sewage has flooded streets in a southern Gaza City neighborhood in recent days, threatening a health disaster, after a shortage of electricity and cheap diesel fuel from Egypt led the Hamas government to shut down Gaza’s lone power plant, causing a pump station to flood.

“Any day that passes without a solution has disastrous effects,” Farid Ashour, director of sanitation at the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, said Tuesday in an interview. “We haven’t faced a situation as dangerous as this time.”

“You’re asking me why? Ask the world why instead,” Mayor Rafiq Mekki of Gaza City said as he toured sewage-filled streets around the flooded Zeitoun pumping station. “We are under siege, and ask the world which besieges us this question. We called on all international organizations to intervene, but no one cares so far.”

“I blame Israel, the Ramallah government and Hamas for the crisis,” said Mr. Khouli, [a Palestinian baker] referring to the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. “They should work together and find a solution for this because it’s the people who are paying the price.” 

“Every day, we call the electricity company and they say, ‘It’s not our responsibility,’ ” complained Thabet Khatab, 56, a grocer, who was busy piling dirt in front of his house to prevent sewage from seeping inside a second time. “We call the municipality, but they say, ‘Bring diesel for us so we can run the generator in the pumping station.’ ”

Amnesty International succinctly explains why Israel is responsible for upholding human rights in Gaza:

Israel maintains effective control over Gaza, controlling all but one of the crossings into the Gaza Strip, the airspace, territorial waters, telecommunications and the population registry which determines who is allowed to leave or enter Gaza. Therefore, Israel is still considered the occupying power and is responsible for the welfare of the inhabitants in the strip under international humanitarian law.

Palestinians in Gaza faces their worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory. The Palestinian National Authority lacks the capacity to remedy the problems facing it’s citizens. Inaction fuels public resentment towards the international community in general and Israel specifically. An opportunity has presented itself for Israel to come to the rescue in a time of dire need, while also upholding its obligations under international human rights law.

It would be hard even for the staunchest pessimist / cynic to argue that Israeli humanitarian aid would not improve public perception of the Israeli government, both in Palestine and abroad (where Israel has received much criticism of late due to controversial housing development plans in disputed territory). Palestinians are people just like anyone else, they will not forget who came to their aid in their darkest hour. 

I am Jewish, but I am not observant. However, one aspect of Judaism I have always identified with is the concept of Tzedakah (charity). The Israeli government–in the spirit of Tzedakah, in compliance with international human rights law, and in hopes of reinvigorating stalled peace talks–should come to the aid of Palestinians in Gaza.


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Conflict Watch: Rocket From Gaza Hits Southern Israel (Cease Cease-Fire)

Well that cease-fire did not last long. Since agreeing to a cease-fire last November, brokered by controversial Egyptian President Morsi, Palestinians ended the 3 month cease-fire by launching a rocket into southern Israel from Gaza strip Tuesday. The rocket caused damage but no casualties:

“A subgroup of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of the PalestiniansFatah faction, said in an e-mailed statement that it had fired the rocket in ‘an initial natural response to the assassination of prisoner Arafat Jaradat,’ a 30-year-old Palestinian who died in an Israeli jail on Saturday. The statement also said that Palestinians ‘should resist their enemy with all available means.’

“During a rally Sunday in Gaza, Hamas officials had expressed frustration with its rival Fatah faction in the West Bank for not doing more to support the prisoners. Attallah Abu Al-Sebah, Hamas’s minister of prisoner affairs, urged Fatah ‘to set the hand of resistance free to deter the occupation and stop its crimes against the prisoners,’ and called for kidnapping Israeli soldiers ‘instead of pursuing playful negotiations that brought nothing to the Palestinian cause.'”

“Mr. Masri [a Hamas lawmaker] said Israel was “fully responsible for the consequences of the wave of the Palestinian public fury.” He also accused Israel of violating the cease-fire first, citing several incidents in which Gazans have been shot near the strip’s borders with Israel and fishermen attacked at sea; the Israeli authorities have said their soldiers and sailors were only responding to efforts to breach the new limits set out in the cease-fire agreement.”

It is deeply disturbing that high level political leaders in Palestine are calling for kidnappings and rocket strikes only three months after a cease-fire was agreed to. Even if Hamas claims are true, the death of a prisoner during an interrogation is a poor reason to resume open warfare (especially when the last time open warfare occurred, the Palestinian side took much larger casualties than the Israelis. Clearly extremist political groups like Hamas and Fatah have no interest in securing a lasting cease-fire in the Gaza strip.

After the rocket fire Tuesday, Israel shut Kerem Shalom, the crossing through which commercial goods enter Gaza from Israel, and closed its Erez border crossing except for medical, humanitarian and “exceptional” cases, according to a statement from the military.

Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, a group that advocates for lifting Israel’s restrictions on the Gaza Strip, protested the closures in a letter to Israel’s defense minister, saying the timing raised ;serious concern that this is not a travel restriction necessitated by a concrete and weighty security imperative but rather a punitive act aimed at Gaza’s civilian population.’ She called the move ‘a dangerous regression to a policy that violates humanitarian law.'”

You know what else violates humanitarian law? Firing rockets at innocent civilians. It is absurd to believe that there will be no response to a rocket being fired into Israel by Palestine; citizens of Gaza should hope that supplies are the only response Israel plans for the attack.

“President Shimon Peres, who was visiting southern Israel on a previously scheduled tour, said, ‘Quiet will be met with quiet; missiles will be met with a response.’

‘I believe both sides have a deep interest in lowering the flames,’ Mr. Peres added.”

Palestinians can claim humanitarian grievances, but if they continue to pursues actions  that are likely to lead to open warfare, their words will remain hollow. Any chance of a real two-state negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine requires trust between the two sides, but also the ability for The Palestinian Authority to keep factions such as Hamas and Fatah under control (not the other way around). A ceasefire also requires a certain admission of past wrongdoings (so they do not occur again); the fact the Palestinians routinely break cease-fires and continue to blame Israeli’s is a microcosm of the larger intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There has not been one rocket fired from Gaza since the operation, and the recalcitrant organizations were there all the time,” he said. “Now it is proven that the organizations can’t fire unless Hamas lets them.”

Adnan Damiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security services in the West Bank, accused Hamas of wanting “to make chaos in the Palestinian territories” and working against the Palestinian Authority and its security force.”

It is unclear whether this is a tactic to shift blame from the Palestinian Authority to Hamas / Fatah, or whether a rift truly exists between the two. Either way, it is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority (with the help of the international community if need be, Palestine recently secured “observer state” status at the U.N.) to control factions within its own borders. How can the Palestinian Authority believe it can agree to a meaningful two state solution (the organizations state goal) if it cannot even control security issues within it’s country?

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