Monday, August 4, 2014

Building a Civil Society: It's not about "Justifications"; It's About Wise Policy Choices

The war in Gaza is winding down without fanfare or negotiations.  Israel's stated mission of destroying tunnels in Gaza is nearly complete.  IDF troops are beginning to withdraw.  Israel has advised Gazans that, in northern Gaza, it is now safe to return to their homes.  Netanyahu has announced some troops will remain inside the strip indefinitely.  Rockets fired from Gaza on Sunday were down to 55.  What remains is a sick feeling that nothing decisive has changed, that the status quo is affirmed and the parties are doomed to repeat this dance of death a few years hence.

Hamas will get no concessions from Israel to compensate for the price Gazans have paid in blood and destruction.  No surprise there.  At the invitation of the Egyptians, Hamas has sent a team of senior negotiators to Cairo to negotiate the terms of a durable truce. They will come back empty handed because Israelis did not show up.  Israel will end this war on its own terms.

So what has been accomplished? Has it all been foolishness?  Have war crimes been committed? Where is this all headed?

The Toll

As of Sunday, the Palestinian Ministry of Health reports 1,822 killed in Gaza, with 9370 injured, and approximately 6,000 buildings destroyed, including hospitals, UN refuge centers, schools, a power plant, and other infrastructure.  Destruction of Gaza's only power plant has left 1.7 million Gazans without electricity, running water, or sewage treatment.  Seventy percent of the casualties have been civilians. Israel has lost 64 soldiers in this war.

It's not About Justification--It's the Policy Choice Stupid!

Everyone is hung up on whether this action by Hamas, or that action by Israel is justified, or not. All manner of emotional heat and gesticulation accompany the discussion of such questions. But ultimately it's not about justification, it's about the wisdom of policy choices.

Israel has argued that its action was a justified response to rockets fired into Israel, and tunnels excavated under the Gaza wall into Israel.  Israel claims Hamas is an international terrorist organization that wants the destruction of Israel in order to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state.  Israel claims it has attempted to minimize civilian casualties by telling people to evacuate and by issuing "knock-knock" warnings.  All these things, says Netanyahu, justify his actions.  It's a popular move in Israel. After scurrying to reinforced shelters multiple times each day, ninety-five percent of Jewish Israelis have supported this Gaza war.  But really, who cares if it's justified:  is it wise?

The novelist Amos Oz is also hung up on justification. He recently started an interview with the German media outlet Deutsche Welle, with a pointed question of his own, as follows:
Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusal way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?
Deutsche Welle: Go ahead! 
Question: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery? With (this) question() I pass the interview to you.
What reaction is Oz's hypothetical designed to provoke?  Presumably something like this: "Yes, of course, we must send our snipers to take out this porch terrorist; if in the process his little boy is killed, that is terrible, but we have no choice because we must protect our nursery."   It harkens back to the Golda Meir quip: "We can forgive them for killing our children; we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill theirs."  After this war on children, this claim rings more hollow than ever.

Oz's hypothetical, of course, is misleading and incomplete.  If Hamas is the balcony terrorist, we must observe that he fired rubber bullets wildly into an open field, and that the few bullets that struck the nursery were harmlessly deflected by bullet proof glass; in addition, it was apparent to all that this terrorist would soon run out of rubber bullets.  We should also take note that the parents of this particular nursery have been oppressing their neighbor in a degrading manner for years: hassling him on a daily basis, preventing him from getting a job, repeatedly cutting off his electricity, his water, intercepting his food deliveries, all because they would like to force him from the neighborhood?

Are these niceties?  Does the fact that rockets are launched at all and, by fluke, one may cause real damage even though after a couple of thousand attempts none have, change everything?  Does it excuse killing 1,822, injuring 9,370, and destroying hospitals, power plants, hospitals, and houses?  Here is how fair minded Texan Jim Schutze feels it:
"When you put me in it, when you put Gaza in Maypearl and Tel Aviv in East Dallas, when it is my problem, then I will not agree to any tricks by which Hamas can fire rockets at me and I am not allowed to bomb the rocket launcher. None. Wherever they put the rocket launcher firing at my house, that is where I want my government to bomb. I hate it that there will be terrible collateral damage. I hate all of this. But I do not want a rocket to hit my house."
This question of moral justification has no answer.  It's true, because these rockets were in fact entirely ineffectual at causing death and destruction, nothing forced Israel to kill 1800+ Palestinians, or to bomb Gaza to rubble.  But at the same time, it's pointless to deny the emotion expressed by Schutze. It's pointless to argue about justification because the important question is not whether the reaction was justified; the important question is "Was this a wise policy choice?"

The same holds true for Hamas.  Supporters of Netanyahu's policy have complained that Hamas has pursued a strategy of creating "photogenic victims."  Hamas has surely known from the outset that its rockets were ineffectual at causing Israeli casualties, but effective at drawing Israeli fire.  Hamas also knew from the outset that its firing of rockets would likely result in untold suffering for Gazans.

Hamas's firing of rockets in the numbers they have done is a considerable accomplishment given the blockade and occupation of Gaza.  Is it immoral? Just like the visceral reaction to the launching of uncontrolled rockets in the general direction of one's house cannot be denied, the desire of Palestinians to struggle against the occupation cannot be denied.  The interesting question is not "Is this moral or justified," but rather "Is this a wise policy choice given that the rockets had no ability to cause real damage, and given the predictable response by Israel."

Has Hamas Gained Anything?

Hamas is not destroyed.  It appears that the underground command structure remains in place.  They will have the opportunity to rearm and rebuild tunnels.  Once again, the brutality of the occupation has been exposed in gory detail.  Israel's supporters have been placed in the uncomfortable position of arguing that the death and maiming of thousands is justified in order to maintain this occupation, or to respond to an ineffectual rocket barrage. It's not an easy position to defend with an untroubled conscience.

The world community is not buying it. Israel has been further isolated internationally.  There likely will be UN investigations, even as the suffering of Gazans will continue.  For now, the status quo is maintained.  If Hamas has accomplished anything, it is to make it more obvious than ever that the status quo is not acceptable.

The Road to Bosnia or Development of a Civil Society?

Back before Operation Cast Lead, in October 2008, Bernard Avishai gave a talk at Vanderbilt University.  In this talk he summarized his argument for the establishment of a Hebrew Republic as a modern civil society.  A Hebrew Republic, he argues, would preserve the Hebrew language, recognize the Jewish Holidays, provide space for (but not require) the practice of the Jewish religion, but otherwise guarantee equal rights for all of its citizens. It's the only type of state the Arab minority will ever accept, he argues. During the question period he was asked "but would the radical philosophy of Islamic Fundamentalism ever be able to accept such a secular state providing for equal rights for Jews and Arabs within a Hebrew language culture?"   

Here is Avishai's response:  
It's almost self-evident that people who do believe this way (Islamic extremist fundamentalists) have been feeding off a condition of violence and conflict in the last 25 years.  I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1970s ... (and) you could go anywhere in the West Bank, sit and talk to people.... It's just self-evident to me that this kind of mentality, this kind of ecstatic, sacrificial, violent approach to politics, feeds off a condition of frustration, poverty, violence... 
Human beings have a terrible thing about them: they want to live a meaningful life. And if they can't live a meaningful life, maybe they can have a meaningful death. But people want to be meaningful. And it's frightening, it's frustrating; I don't known if Islamic jihadist ideas can be made to dissipate over a period of time. But I have a stake in trying to make that happen.... 
If Israel thinks that the status quo serves its purpose in trying to prevent jihadism, it's completely crazy because what it's leading to is Bosnia. Where we're going now is Bosnia.  The status quo cannot be sustained.  And the people who are actually making the country rich, are going to go to Santa Clara.  It's already happening. And what's going to be left is a little Jewish Pakistan trying to hold out in a Bosnian war of ethnic cleansing on both sides. That's not a prospect that's going to ultimately lead to the consolidation of a "Jewish state." 
So ... even if you're right, that we're looking at forces that are very, very hard to control...and these genies are out of the bottle...the only possible way to mitigate them is to mitigate them the same way that people the world over have mitigated sacrificial, ecstatic, religious violence, and that's through the developments of civil societies. 
Avishai's warning seems more apt than ever in the wake of Operation Protective Edge.  And if it turns out that Israel's leaders and Hamas have collectively steered the region closer to a Bosnian-style civil war, justification or no, they will have made truly disastrous policy choices.


  1. There are many questions and no correct answers. Were I in authority in Israel, I would hesitate to believe that Hamas would live in peace with the "Zionist Entity." It is no uncommon in the Middle East to have simmering tribal warfare to last centuries. Is it wise social policy? No but it does seem to be the condition of the peoples of the region.
    Speaking as one of the Jewish people, the threat of annihilation is not as remote as some people believe. It was just 6 years before I was born that the Nazi death camps were liberated by the Allies. I lived in a community with a high percentage of survivors.
    When a political movement in an adjacent region continually states that their believe is your destruction, when their supporters in Europe especially attack Jewish institutions and business while chanting anti-Jewish as well as anti-Israeli slogans, one is hard pressed to not to be moved to self-defense,
    The fact that Israel is stronger is no accident. They have been at war since 1948 against a variety of leaders who have included pan Arabists, Russian supported socialists, secular nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists. Their enemies cannot agree with each other, but they agree that Israel's presence in the region is intolerable.
    The countries that have formal and informal peace accords with Israel are not subject to horrific scenes of destruction and they have agreed to accept Israel into the middle east. If and when the Palestinian people (and their leaders) accept that their quest for "meaning" does not mean the destruction of Israel, there will be some form of peace,
    Until then, the cycle will continue,

  2. Does killing thousands of non-combatants - people whose minds you need to change in order to create a Palestine that "accepts that their quest for "meaning" does not mean the destruction of Israel" - lead us closer to that goal???

  3. Was it the "Warsaw War" and "Stalingrad War"?

    A one-sided turkey shoot is not balanced, not a battle between equals. Israel is Mike Tyson stomping a baby while the American ref looks the other way, to order Mike more food, massages, and workouts.

    Israel says WWII was really a "German-Jew" war, the Aryan State being justified in killing Jewish men who hid among women and children. Alas, the latter became unfortunate collateral damage.


    Kristallnacht was no big deal, either. A Jew killed a German minister. The Reich could not know where in the Juden "infrastructure of terror" the next bullet would come from. It had to protect its citizens. So it gave the Hassidic Hebrews a little "beard shaving."

    The Holocaust was also not intentional. Adolf, Inc. simply offered Jews free de-lousing, plus train rides. The problem was someone, unfortunately, incorrectly read the dilution instructions for administering Cyclone-B, the insecticide.

    Hey, in war mistakes happen...right?

    (Bibispeak is sooooooo much fun!)

    Ashkenazis copying Nazis: whodathunk!