Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Peace Activists, Self-Defense and Other Frothy Dillusions

Here we go again... My inbox is filling up with youtube clips of how things "really" happened in the international waters just outside of Gaza one week ago, photos of what the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is "really" like and what positions I reasonably ought to have, as there "really" isn't much to explain....


As usual, people want to find a simple way of understanding what is going on between Israel and Palestine. They want to adopt a Position and to have an Opinion on the topic.   It's easier that way, saves time and face and makes our chests puff up impressively. In the words of J. Wagoner, "For every problem, there exists a simple and elegant solution which is absolutely wrong." And although the simplistic hand-washing going on regarding the flotilla among Israelis, Palestinians and Europe's "enlightened" and well-meaning liberal-minded citizens feels like the higher moral ground, it is, in fact, absolutely wrong - because these arguments only shed light on an aspect of the whole balagan.  So I've tried to put together a description with some historical and political perspective so that we can gain a more nuanced picture of the situation. Let's start with the Israelis:

It was self-defense. Our boys were threatened and they did the only thing they could: defend themselves. True, we've all seen the clip (couldn't resist, the clip includes some fun Fox bashing) of them being lowered onto deck and attacked. But you have to wonder how they decided that the best way of stopping a large boat with ca. 600 people on board, who really don't like you, was to lower individual soldiers into a pack of club-wielding activists. Where did the point of the project, the, 'let's stop the boat' part come into this plan? Ok. I'm not a naval officer, not a soldier, but in the wise words of Louis Black, "I have thoughts." Similar flotillas, seeking to break through the blockade on Gaza and hoping to deliver humanitarian aid have been successfully stopped before by the Israeli Navy, without violent incident. With regards to sunday night's chaos, Isabel Kerschner reporting for the New York Times wrote, 

"Einat Wilf, a Labor Party member of Parliament who sits on the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that she had warned Mr. Barak [the Israeli Minister of Defense] and others well in advance that the flotilla was a public relations issue and should not be dealt with by military means. “This had nothing to do with security,” she said in an interview. “The armaments for Hamas were not coming from this flotilla.”"(May 31, 2010)

So, why on earth did they board the boat in the first place - in international waters? Why did they endanger their young men, who, once on the deck of the boat, clearly had to defend themselves? Why did they risk committing (successfully) political suicide? And why! Oh why... did they allow the situation to escalate in such a way that lead to the death of nine people? If I am to follow the advice of some of my more well-lathered e-mail correspondents, then I suppose, the answer to this question could be that the "Israelis" (that would be the collective term, government and civilians alike) are terrorists and they think they can do whatever they want. 
But again, I have thoughts... 

And how about those activists, eh? Well done! Peace, love and happiness! They just want to deliver aid... I am not suggesting that the organizers and passengers aboard this "aid convoy" were actually smuggling arms (although some sources claim to have proof to the contrary - but if this "proof" were true, it would be screaming from the headlines of haaretz - and its not) or planning a terrorist attack, but their agenda was clearly two-fold: 1. deliver aid and 2. challenge and break the blockade. Their agenda is political and they were and continue to be quite vocal about this, as the launching of the Rachel Corrie  only a few days after the original flotilla situation bears witness. But did they ever ask why the blockade was made in the first place? In the meantime, the media has dug out quite an impressive list of cv's among those involved with and onboard the Freedom Flotilla and they're not all well-meaning ladies like this one....
Israeli soldier helping an activist disembark from the 'Rachel Corrie' aid ship in Ashdod on Saturday June 5, 2010.

Woman disembarking the Rachel Corrie at Ashdod port earlier this week (

In fact, the Iranian Navy has jumped on the aid bandwagon and plans to send off a few ships of their own, while also offering to escort other aid ships who might need "assistance". Should they have trouble breaking the blockade, the Iranian Navy has kindly offered military reinforcement, just in case....

For now, however, my concern is civilian opinion and not what militaries, governments or talking heads have to say. And so, although we'd rather not, I suggest we take a messy look at the story behind the blockade - something that the activists and their protesting friends seem eager to avoid. 

We have to go waaaay back to 2005, when there were thriving settlements in Gaza. Israelis lived there and built homes, schools and synagogues. Due to internal and international pressure, Ariel Sharon and his government adopted the Disengagement Plan. It is important to remember that the disengagement from Gaza marks for many the end of the 2nd Intifada, a bloody and terrifying period of time for Israelis, regardless of their religious affiliation or political convictions, by the way. Bus bombs and suicide bombings were everyday occurrences and no one knew where they would hit next. The disengagement plan entailed dismantling all of the Israeli settlements in Gaza and four villages in the West Bank. Settlers who did not accept the government's compensation offer  (they owned homes there and were offered compensation so they could relocate elsewhere in Israel "proper") and refused to leave the strip, were removed by force by the IDF in August 2005. 

The strip was then left over to the Palestinians, which was politically split between two squabbling parties, Fatah and Hamas. "Squabbling" is probably not the right word... Anyway, it came to an election in 2007 and Hamas won.

Now, Hamas is an interesting organization - very messy indeed: I have a friend who refers to them as "saints", others who call them "terrorists".  Hamas was elected because, opposed to Fatah, they were seen as uncorrupt and non-elitist. They have provided Gazans with invaluable aid and infrastructure. They built schools, hospitals and subsidized life-saving operations for Gazans who couldn't afford them. Sounds like a bunch of nice guys, right? Well, that's why they won. But they didn't like the Israelis and just for good measure, they wrote a rather unfriendly charter stating that they did not recognize the existence of Israel (a position that Swedish author Henning Mankell, who was on board the flotilla, shares) and would fight the Zionists until all of "Palestine" was under Muslim rule. Hamas is an acronym meaning The Muslim Resistance Movement; their name and raison d'ĂȘtre is defined by religion and resistance. 

Since Hamas took over in Gaza they have, in any case, lived up to their promise of fighting Israel. Thousands of Qassam rockets have rained down on Israeli cities close to the Gazan border since 2006, which was clearly not the case when Israel lived in and occupied Gaza. Although the rockets have not claimed many lives (under 30), they have sent Israeli citizens into bombshelters on a regular, in some places, daily basis, some of them built within playgrounds for convenience. Homes and property have been destroyed. Another significant detail in this story is that these rockets and other weaponry are provided in part by Iran- whose current government proclaims it's love for Israel regularly. And how did these armaments get into Gaza in the first place? In part, by sea. Given this history, Israelis ask, rightly so, why should we allow unknown cargo into Gaza? And why should we leave the territories and or end the blockade in Gaza, when the response is violence? 

This position, by the way, is inherantly different from those who claim that the territories should belong to Israel, well... just because. But that is material for another article...

Of course, your reaction may be, but they're getting shot at anyway - the occupation and blockade are not fulfilling their "purpose"! This is true. Thanks to Moshe Dayan, Israel has really gotten herself into a pickle, with regards to the territories. They should never have stayed in Gaza and the West Bank after their success in 67. That land should have been used as leverage in peace negotiations - and given back once clear borders were defined. But they didn't. Now they get shot at for being there and they get shot at when they leave.

So, now what? I see two strategies, a short and long term one.

Short term: With regards to the current security concern, it is not so much a  question of whether the Israelis should or have the right to defend themselves, and here I'm referring to the many armed struggles that have come to pass in recent years, not just the flotilla flop. It is more a question of how and to what extent, that is of essence. The flotilla tragedy and certainly the colossal loss of civilian life in Gaza a little more than a year ago during Operation Cast Lead, clearly point to problems of proportionality and appropriateness. In terms of the ongoing blockade, Israel needs  to address and react to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza for which they carry a significant amount of - though not exclusive -  responsibility. Many innocent people are suffering and of course, the blockade needs to be ended. In turn, the international community needs to put more pressure on Hamas to recognize the existence of Israel as a sovereign state, just as Fatah does (within the pre-67 borders, among other things) and to enter into peace negotiations with them. 

And for the long term plan: As soon as all Palestinians categorically refuse to use violence as a tool of resistance, as is the case to a great extent in the Fatah ruled West Bank, Israel will not be able to withstand the pressure from the international community and will be forced to take a seat at the negotiating table. The blockade will end, as will the continued harassment at checkpoints, settler violence, and house demolitions and relations with the neighboring Arab countries will surely improve, putting, in turn, pressure on Iran. Finally, once viable and internationally recognized national borders are agreed upon, they will be much more easy to defend and this eternal messiness of whether it was self-defense, who started it and who the underdog is, will begin to fade. So if its so easy, why isn't anyone following my expert advice?

There are several loopholes: 

1) There are fringe groups affiliated with the Palestinians who don't want peace with Israel; they want Israel to go away (such as  sub-groups in Hamas). Although these violent groups are a minority, they cause a lot of trouble. There are parties on the Israeli side who are similarly uncooperative and categorical in their views. Borders are not of interest to either of them, unless those borders represent the entire area, devoid of their enemies. 

This is a factor that cannot be ignored and the reason why the "land for peace" equation that well-meaning westerners like to talk about is bogus (there are other nationalist voices who also argue that the equation is bogus for racist reasons, but we won't get into this here). This does not mean that land should not be exchanged and given back. It just means that peace will not be the outcome of such a step. It may help or it may also make things worse, but it should nevertheless be done because it is ethically the right decision. Peace is a separate project.

2) Each side is completely unable to actually lead because they are are are not willing to risk voter support - they don't want to lose power.  Its all about politics, not religion, not ethnicity or "culture". If the populations rose up and demanded that the violence stop and a peace agreement made - these politicians would be falling all over themselves to be the first ones in line to implement such a change. 

In Israel, the current government is held together by a rocky coalition with right of center Likud (Bibi's party) taking the lead and two ultra nationalist right-wing parties Yisrael Beiteinu (non-religious) and Shas (orthodox religious affiliation). The more moderate Labour also plays a role in this confederacy of dunces, but they seem to be regularly bullied by their coalition bedfellows, so that it begins to look more like a three stooges skit than high-powered governing.

And so government in Israel does not seem to be about what is right and good for Israel, but what policies minority parties can push through by throwing their political weight around. This scenario may sound familiar to my Danish readers- only the consequences in Israel are not just maddening and ethically questionable, but deadly. Granted, there will always be shenanigans (that's new Yiddish, in case you're wondering) and some degree of crab antics, but the way things are run now is beyond absurd. 

I don't know much about Palestinians politics, but it seems to be defined by a matrix of hidden agendas and alliances that can be traced to influential clan ties that continue to exist and date back to the various empires that have left their marks on the region. Here I am referring to the Ottoman Empire, Jordanian rule, the British Mandate and a host of other stakeholders over time throughout the Middle East. What you see is anything other than what you get - especially when trying to see Middle Eastern politics through a western optic.

So, where does all of this leave us? From an Israeli point of view, ending the blockade in Gaza would mean bringing themselves into unnecessary danger. At the same time, I detect a slow awakening to the fact that the blockade has played a big role in the daily misery that Gazans live in and Israelis do not want to be part of this either. Seen from this perspective it is pretty clear that simplistic answers and moral hand-washing are counter-productive.  Whatever the solution will be, it will have to protect Israel from physical threat, so they can concentrate on saving themselves from their impending moral demise.


Aileen said...

All very interesting, as usual, A, and thought-provoking.

Is there evidence that armaments are getting to Gaza by sea? I had the impression that it was more of a tunnel issue. But while I have no evidence or citations for either, it does seem relevant. Has the Israeli navy intercepted arms shipments by sea?

Also, the quotation you begin with is shockingly similar to one of my favorites, from H.L. Mencken:
"There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong."

Apparently Wagoner's is from a mathematics context (hence "elegant", a fave of mathletes), but in this context I prefer Mencken's, with the implication that we humans want the answer to be "easy". If only.

Adrienne said...

Thanks Aileen. Yes, there is evidence that armaments are getting in by sea and the Israeli Navy has intercepted such ships in the past.Check this out, its very polemic, which is interesting in itself...

It is also a tunnel issue, as you mention.

I have to admit that I was inspired by the quote on your page...I do like elegant though because it reminds us of our puffed up chests and vanity when it comes to siding with those on the supposed higher moral ground...