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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Conflict Watch: In Africa, Preventative Peacebuilding Has It’s Day (Years? Decades?)

A While back, I wrote about the potential benefits of scaling up preventative peacebuilding programs globally. Rooted in protracted social conflict (PSC) theory, preventative peacebuilding aims at addressing the root causes of the majority of intrastate conflict, by addressing human rights violations that lead to violence before a conflict emerges. While this approach obviously has certain limitations, foremost of which is that it is completely ineffective in resolving an ongoing conflict (such as the Syrian Civil War), it has considerable benefits in situations where tensions are escalating but large-scale violent conflict has not yet enveloped the country (think present day Egypt).

A bit of background on PSC: Most new wars can be explained by Edward Azar’s theory of Protracted Social Conflict (PSC). According to Azar,”deprivation of human needs is the underlying source of PSC“. The sources, and therefore solutions to PSC often lay within a state, rather than across state borders, although this is not always the case, particularly in the context of regional insecurity. PSC also shifted some of the focus away from overtly violent conflicts, towards identifying potential future conflict zones based on underlying humanitarian grievances.

PSC theory applied in another context connects human rights violations, conflict, and terrorism. Human rights violations lead to conflict as PSC presumes. When the government is unable to provide basic services and security to it citizens (or in some situations itself perpetuates human rights violations and insecurity), well funded extremist groups can fill this void, providing security, goods and services in exchange for goodwill, legitimacy, and cover (this is essentially how the Syrian Civil War has evolved). By empowering people and building resilient nations (a little UNDP plug), conflicts can be avoided and the breeding grounds for terrorism salted.

It seems as if world leaders have been convinced by PSC theory, and are willing to try putting money into preventative peacebuilding operations in Africa–ground-zero for human rights violations and intrastate conflict (Original article):

“This fall, the United States and Niger will bring together in that West African nation police officers, customs inspectors and other authorities from a half-dozen countries in the region to hone their collective skills in securing lightly guarded borders against heavily armed traffickers and terrorists.”

“Denmark has already forged a partnership with Burkina Faso to combat violent extremism, and backed it up with a war chest of $22 million over five years aimed at stifling the root causes of terrorism before they can bloom.”

“The two-day meeting here in this seaside city was organized by the Global Counterterrorism Forum, an organization of 29 countries and the European Union created two years ago with the State Department’s support to act as a clearinghouse of ideas and actions for civilian counterterrorism specialists.

One of the forum’s five areas of focus is the Sahel, with wealthier Western, Middle Eastern and Asian nations partnering with some of the continent’s poorest countries to address a range of issues. In this week’s closed meetings, officials discussed border surveillance, enhanced intelligence and police cooperation, the rule of law, arms trafficking and undercutting terrorists’ financial networks, according to a conference agenda and interviews with more than a dozen participants.

‘What’s encouraging is that the regional countries here recognize what kind of assistance they need and are able to define that’ said Michele Coduri, chief of the Swiss Foreign Ministry’s international security section. ‘That’s not always been the case.’

“A senior Malian official told the delegates that the Malian authorities had seized many suspected jihadists in the recent fighting. But he said the Malian military and police were not practiced in collecting evidence for criminal court proceedings, according to participants. As a result, only a handful of extremists have been prosecuted, he said.

‘These states need to build counterterrorism policies within legal frameworks,’ said Justin H. Siberell, a State Department counterterrorism specialist who led the American delegation. ‘Still, people feel a sense of urgency that these kind of things have to start happening.'”

It is heartening to see the developing and developed world working together to tackle the problem of terrorism and its underlying causes, as global security is the definition of a global public good (everyone benefits from it, therefore rife with “free-rider problems“, which seem to have been partially averted due to the seriousness and immediate impacts of the issues at hand, as opposed to say climate change which is a serious concern but not as immediate a threat). Conflict undermines the Rule of law and democracy, and inhibits economic and human development. Peace is a necessary precondition for sustainable human development.

It seems that the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is starting to catch-on in fields other than climate change. Western powers, realizing that foreign intervention is extremely costly and only incites further anti-Western sentiments (essentially adding fuel to the jihad fire), and that the results are unsustainable. By having regional forces fighting extremist factions, backed by Western intelligence, weaponry, and technical assistance, a more sustainable and inclusive global security balance emerges. Since everyone will have an important role to play in global security initiatives, a less imperialistic and more democratic decision making process should also follow this approach. Coordinated military operations could also help build the relationships needed for greater economic and social policy coherence at the international level.

It will ultimately be difficult to assess the effects of this program for a number of reasons. For one, the stated goals are long term and preventative–on a certain level it is impossible to say whether conflict did / didn’t occur due to these programs, as there are so many variables at play. Therefore, in order to test the efficacy of this project, I think we will ultimately have to look past just the security outcomes in Africa (while also still considering these as well). How this project affects overall standard of living, freedoms, and happiness in the region will ultimately be the yardstick by which we should judge this program. While this project is designed as a military endeavor, it is in reality a human development initiative.

I can’t help but think that this is the type of news that, while somewhat off the mainstream radar now, will in the future be credited with drastically changing the world for the better. I sure hope I’m right…

 

 


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Conflict Watch: The Deteriorating Syrian Civil War and Humanitarian Crisis

The Syria sinkhole

The Syrian opposition recently offered a dangerous ultimatum, which is symbolic of the overall deterioration for the prospect of a political transition in Syria:

“The Syrian opposition will not attend the proposed Geneva conference on the crisis in Syria unless rebel fighters receive new supplies of arms and ammunition, the top rebel military commander said Friday.

‘If we don’t receive ammunition and weapons to change the position on the ground, to change the balance on the ground, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva,’ Gen. Salim Idris said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in northern Syria. ‘There will be no Geneva.’”

“Mr. Assad’s military position has been strengthened by flights of arms from Iran and the involvement of thousands of fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. The change of fortunes on the battlefield was illustrated last week when the Syrian military and Hezbollah fighters captured the town of Qusayr.”

“The proposal to hold talks in Geneva at a point when the Syrian opposition has suffered a bitter reversal has led many in the opposition to question the West’s strategy. In effect, they say, Mr. Kerry is insisting that the Syrian opposition sit down with representatives of a Syrian president who appears as determined as ever to hang on to power and at a time when the opposition’s leverage has been diminished.”

“‘There is agreement on one point within opposition circles: the regime, Iran and Hezbollah, supported by Russia, aim to win; the U.S. aims for talks,’ said Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former senior State Department official who worked on Syria transition issues. ‘This helps to explain the opposition’s reluctance to attend a Geneva conference and the difficulties it’s having organizing itself around a coherent goal.’”

“At the State Department, Mr. Kerry and his aides have long said that it is vital to change Mr. Assad’s “calculation” about his ability to maintain his grip on power in order to facilitate a political transition.”

“At a meeting in Istanbul in late April, Mr. Kerry announced that the Supreme Military Council should be the only funnel for providing Western and Arab military support to the opposition.”

“General Idris said that while the West has been debating how much military assistance to provide to the moderate opposition, extremist groups like the Nusra Front have begun to play a more prominent role in the struggle against the Assad government.

‘They are now winning sympathy from the people,’ he said. ‘They are very well financed.'”

This is essentially textbook protracted social conflict (PSC). The Syrian government denied the majority of Syrians the human rights they believed they deserved. Peaceful protests were met with violence, turning the ideological divide into a civil war. As the war has progressed, opportunistic extremist groups (Al Nursa for example), seeing a void in Western support for the rebels, have filled that void.

This further complicates American intervention, as arming the rebels could eventually lead to greater military capabilities for anti-American Jihadist organizations.

The call for greater European intervention is well heard, and steps have been made in order for Europe to put itself in position to provide weapons to the opposition should peace-talks not bear fruit (which is not unlikely, but they must at least be attempted). But the Syrian opposition has to realize it cannot try to force military aid, that it must play ball and prove in open forum that Mr. Assad’s “calculations” will not be changed (except to be further emboldened by bolstered support while the opposition loses momentum).

It is an order of operations thing; I truly believe that if the opposition comes to Geneva and makes a real attempt to negotiate a political transition, that if that attempt failed, European powers would provide more military support to the Syrian Supreme Military Council.

Another Western ally that is being dragged into the Syrian sinkhole is Israel. This past week, fighting broke out along the Golan Heights.

“The United Nations Disengagement Force (UNDOF) monitors the buffer zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.”

“Austria – which contributes about one-third of UNDOF’s troops – has announced its decision to withdraw its soldiers, reportedly citing a lack of freedom of movement and an unacceptable level of danger to its personnel.”

“‘Everyone agreed that UNDOF should continue in its mission, even if it is temporarily reduced in its ability to fulfill the current mandate,’ Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant of the United Kingdom, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council for June, told reporters after closed-door talks on the latest developments.

“‘Everyone felt that UNDOF played a key role in guaranteeing the 1974 ceasefire disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria and also acting as a conduit of communications, including in the last few days between Israel and Syria,’ he added. ‘It was therefore an important symbol of the stability across the Israel-Syrian border.'”

Russia has offered to replace the Austrian troops. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest Russian troops would represent in Syria, the offer was rejected on legal grounds:

The UN has declined a Russian offer to bolster the understaffed peacekeeping force in the cease-fire zone between Israel and Syria. Austria has said it would be withdrawing its troops from the Golan Heights.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Friday that permanent Security Council members were barred from deploying peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, under the terms of the 1974 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Syria.”

Israel would like to remain out of the Syrian Civil War, but the small military power continues to collect intelligence on the Syrian military and strongly reaffirms it’s right to protect itself:

“The confluence of events confronted Israel with the complex reality of a civil war just across the border in which both sides are hostile to the Jewish state. Hezbollah has vowed in recent weeks that it would facilitate attacks on Israel through the heights. And the most effective rebel force is made up of radical Sunnis aligned with Al Qaeda, while many of the other militias are led by self-identified Islamists.

The result has been a kind of paralysis in Israeli society, where options are debated but no clear consensus has emerged about which outcome of the Syrian crisis is preferable or how to prepare for it.”

If Western powers decided to intervene militarily, they would have to rely on Israeli military supremacy and geographic position to support the operation (Turkey is another important geopolitical ally, while Egypt remains a bit of a wild card). The Syrian opposition and Israeli leaders should be in communication with each other (if they are not already) as they are likely to need to have a working rapport in the foreseeable future.

All the while, the silent majority of Syrian refugees and internally displaced peoples continue to bear the brunt of the suffering and human rights violations, threatening regional stability in the Middle-East:

“The United Nations launched a $5 billion aid effort on Friday, its biggest ever, to help up to 10.25 million Syrians, half the population, who it expects will need help by the end of 2013.”

“The appeal comprises $2.9 billion for refugees, $1.4 billion for humanitarian aid and $830 million for Lebanon and Jordan, the biggest recipients of Syrian refugees.”

“The appeal updates and multiplies the existing aid plan for Syria, which sought $1.5 billion to help 4 million people within Syria and up to 1.1 million refugees by June. The worsening conflict soon overtook those projections.

The new forecasts expect the refugee population to more than double to 3.45 million from 1.6 million now, based on current numbers arriving in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

But it assumes the number of needy Syrians inside the country will remain static until the end of the year at 6.8 million. The number of internally displaced Syrians is also assumed to stay where it is now, at about 4.25 million.

That means the current plan could again turn out to be an underestimate if the fighting goes on.”

“‘We have reached a stage in Syria where some of the people, if they don’t get food from the World Food Programme, they simply do not eat,’ the WFP’s Syria Regional Emergency Coordinator Muhannad Hadi said.”

“A few months ago I would like to recall that there was a donors’ conference in Kuwait, and Persian Gulf monarchies promised to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the U.N. agencies in order to help Syria,” Russian ambassador in Geneva Alexey Borodavkin added.

“I don’t think that the amounts mentioned in Kuwait ever reached these agencies and were ever used to help the Syrian people.”

World powers are famous for committing money for development / humanitarian purposes and falling short on those commitments. And often it is for understandable reasons, as it is difficult to be sure the money is going where it is supposed to go. But given the global attention and direct UN involvement in the Syrian humanitarian crisis, these fears need not prevent commitments from being fulfilled.

It is difficult to be optimistic about a political end to the Syrian Civil War. Mr. Assad seems recently emboldened, while the opposition continues to shoot itself in the foot. Hopefully the opposition rethinks its position; only with Western support can they hope to remove Assad from power, be it politically or militarily.  All Syria’s most vulnerable can do is sit back and watch, and hope the the UN can raise the aid needed to keep them alive as the conflict grinds towards its eventual conclusion.