Thursday, August 7, 2014

Ferry Ride to Larkspur

[The following conversation is a construct.  The setting is fictional, but the exchange is an accurate  record of email and Facebook conversations I've had with friends in response to my last blogpost about Gaza; I have edited to streamline and for clarity]

I walk out of my office on California street and stride towards the Ferry building, well in time for the 6:25 p.m. boat to Larkspur.  It’s a breezy sunny afternoon. I settle down on the upper deck, where I manage to save three seats for my friends, and watch the sailboats beating through the whitecaps towards Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Josh:  I see you’ve been blogging again.

Me:  Hello Josh. I’m not sure I like where this is heading. 

Josh:  Well I read your blogpost. When you start out, it seems that you are a "neutral," making the point that so much results from poor choices, implying that better choices would improve everyone's life. But after you make it clear that all this fighting, likely resulting in no dramatic changes, is pointless and results in so much pain and suffering, you basically give Palestinians a free pass. Many more of them die, you say, Israel is an occupier and they are fighting against that; Israel has the big guns, and those rockets are "ineffectual." 

Me:  Uh Hmm.  

Josh:  Almost all of your blog is about Israel's sins of omission and commission and you pretty much let Hamas off with a tiny scolding for putting Gazans in harm's way. 

Don:  Surely 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.

Josh: I am gravely disappointed in you. You lacerate Israel, but you say only a little about Hamas. If you were serious about unwise policy choices and you meant by that both Israel and Hamas, then I think you need to say something even a little bit critical of Hamas.  But no, you say nary a word about Hamas' tactic of storing rockets in schools and staying as closely parked to civilians as possible.

Me:  Umm…but

Josh:  The fact that rockets send people shuffling off to shelters and scare the daylight out of them is simply no big deal to you because they are "ineffectual?" Come on.  Are rockets only effective if they kill a lot of people?  I will forward to you my friend’s email who has been traveling in Europe and just recently returned to her home in the Upper Galilee. Don’t tell her that the rockets are "ineffectual." I don’t think any Israeli will understand that word.

Don:  Yes, There are many questions and no correct answers. If I were in charge in Israel I would hesitate to believe that Hamas would live in peace with the "Zionist Entity." After all, it is not uncommon in the Middle East to have simmering tribal warfare last for centuries. Is it wise social policy? No, but it does seem to be the condition of the peoples of the region.

Me:  But are you ready to condemn Israel as just another dysfunctional tribal entity? Isn’t Israel supposed to be the enlightened democracy of the region?

Don:  Speaking as one of the Jewish people, the threat of annihilation is not as remote as some people believe. It was just six 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 belief is your destruction, when their supporters, in Europe especially, attack Jewish institutions and businesses while chanting anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli slogans, one is hard pressed not to be moved to self-defense. 

Josh:  Yes, rockets can reach lots of places.  Running into shelters and surviving just means it's your lucky day; not the day you die. If Hamas had better rockets and were better at killing Jews and non-Jews, too, would that make them worse than they are?

Marc:  Yes, the fact that Hamas is bad at killing Jews doesn't in any remote way offer the exculpation you suggest in your blogpost.

Don:  The Palestinian quest for "meaning" cannot have the destruction of Israel and killing Jews as a component. As long as it does, there won't be peace. Jews are very sensitive about being threatened with annihilation you know. Nazism has become trivialized by it being used as a synonym for groups that others oppose. Worse, it is a punch line, soup-Nazi, feminazi, the Producers. It is another "n'; word that should be confined to history books and not reimagined. To a Jew, the existential threat is not a psychiatric condition (although it could be that too), it is a recognition of history.

Me:   Guys, I have no idea what Hamas intended when they started firing rockets. But once it was clear that their rockets were not causing damage, it seems incorrect to say that "they are bad at killing Jews." That's not the purpose of the rockets. The purpose of the rockets is to be provocative and make a ruckus--and they were effective at doing that.

Josh and Marc together:  … but 3,400 rockets!  Obviously Israel has to respond to that.  No country in the world could stand by and absorb such an assault without response.

Me:  Look, the rockets carry only small warheads. About 20 pounds.  Their capacity to damage anything is pretty much limited to direct hits.  And they cannot be aimed except in a very general direction.  Israel has an effective civil defense system to cope with the rockets, which includes a sophisticated warning system, shelters, and the Iron Dome system.  The Times of Israel had a report on the latest information handed out by the IDF today.  It included this tidbit… and this strikes me as crucial…. of 3,356 rockets fired from Gaza over 29 days only 116 landed in populated areas.  116 rockets.  That’s it.  It struck me, of course, it makes sense, that’s why there’s no damage.  

Marc:  Well, I agree that Israel is required to act with as much restraint as possible when stopping them. We can debate the minutiae of Israeli tactics, but from my view - a view where if Israel chose to, they could make Gaza look like Cologne after the Thousand Bomber Night - they have acted with restraint. I'm happy to dicker over whether it's 'enough'.

Me:  Marc, Marc, Marc …. the fact that Israel could level Gaza (and kill a few hundred thousand?) but isn't doing so doesn't illustrate "restraint." It’s no more "restraint" than not committing mass murder in the mall with a semi-automatic "just because you could." Or to put it another way, it's "restraint" only if Israel were a genocidal maniac at heart. I assume we're in agreement they are not.

Marc:  The larger issue is effectiveness; whether Israel makes more terrorists than it kills. But until the international community excoriates Hamas for who they truly are, we'll just have to deal with that problem.

Josh:  Israel falls into the trap, every time, of overdoing it. Do they really try to minimize civilian deaths? I hope so. Can they possibly succeed? Not a chance. The more civilians/innocents die, the better for Hamas. They stand for only one thing- keeping themselves in power and living for the day when they can wipe out Israel. I don’t think a Mandela peace commission could ever succeed against that sort of ideology. 

Me:  Josh, when you say Hamas “stand for only one thing- keeping themselves in power and living for the day when they can wipe out Israel” I have to ask:  how many Hamas guys have you met and talked to? Had dinner with? This is like saying “Israelis stand for one thing-- … and fill in the blank.”  You know that’s bullshit. Right?  Take a look at my piece on Feiglin a few days ago; listen to the settlers at their convention for the application of Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. Does it make sense for anyone to say “Likud stands for one thing and one thing only (for ever and ever), and this is it!”  You know that’s not right.  Well, the same holds true for Hamas. 

Josh:  Both sides make poor choices each time they come to a crossroads. And all of them pay for it. More dead bodies easily make Gazans the winners in the victim sweepstakes. That's good fodder for the world to consume. All Israel gets is the short-lived, joyless sense of beating them down for a while (knock out some rocket launchers, destroy some tunnels, kill maybe 200 Hamasniks—not much to brag about, really). I think both sides each knows that they won't get very far keeping up this stupid dance.

Me: But Josh…

Josh:  You call it "this war on children". That takes a lot of chutzpah, Roland. You really think so? I saw a lot of them, and their mothers, on TV, just like you did. I never saw one single picture of a dead or injured Hamas fighter. It shouldn't have been difficult to put one of those pictures on TV. Kids are better at winning sympathy, however. But if you are really calling it a "war on children", then you have gone too far. I cannot believe that you think that is true. If you really believe that, and maybe you do because you wrote it, then your protesting about being seen as anti-Israel isn't credible.  Sorry about that.

Me:  “Kids are better at winning sympathy,” you say.  This alludes to the photogenic victims sneer that is making the rounds.  That’s what it is, this meme, isn’t it, a sneer?

Josh:  Am I trying to "justify" Israeli strikes on refuges, schools, and hospitals, of course not. But, if you mean to sound even-handed, then I think you need to be a little tougher on Hamas. You gave them a pass-the fighters against occupation (never mind their ideology). Maybe when Hamas has better rockets that can be aimed better so they can kill better (dead Jews count as much as soldiers), it will be different.  But your posting is so one-sided that it amounts to a one-way diatribe against Israel. The Palestinians get plenty of sympathy, as they should, but their despotic, tyrannical rulers get a pass. Why? They are part of the problem, but you really don’t have anything bad to say about them, except for maybe getting a lot of Palestinians killed, and I'm sure they aren't sorry about even one of them. 

Me:   Josh, when you say that you think Hamas “isn’t sorry about even one” dead Palestinian, are you listening to yourself?  Really listening?  Does it sound like you have dehumanized them?  It does to me.  

Don:  Now, now, guys…

Me:  We must take into account that Gazans have been refugees since 1948, and Gaza has been an open air prison since 2005.  Life for Palestinians has been extremely oppressive. They have been suffering from 20-40% unemployment.  No opportunities.  Hamas won an election in 2006 but Israel and the Bush administration sabotaged that election, no?  Yes, Hamas has controlled the tunnels which have provided a tax base.  You hear that they have used this to maintain power and to enrich themselves, and I believe that.  I also believe they have provided social services, employed 40,000 civil servants, etc.  How can this not be corrupt?  Of course it is.  But that’s not Hamas so much as human nature in a very difficult environment.  Do I know enough to judge the souls of these peoples individually, or collectively. No. 


I am baffled that the Western Left is so disinterested in liberating Gazans from the oppression of Hamas.

Don:  Israel knows the world cheers for the underdog. But except for rare periods in history, the Jews have been historic underdogs since the destruction of the second temple; but they have not always been the recipient of the underdog bias. The territory right next door to them fires rockets to scare/and or kill citizens of Israel. The Israeli army is in the process of degrading their capability to kill Israelis. Perhaps, this crisis will allow the Arab moderate capitalists to create sanctions against Hamas for using resources to secure offensive weapons. Or as is more likely the case, there will be a cold-blooded calculated truce until one of the many, many red lines is crossed and the war continues. 

Me:  For what it’s worth: It looks to me like the prospects for Hamas are not looking so good. Their tax revenue source (tunnels) is gone, and Egypt does not appear to be friendly to reopening them; Iran has cut back support because they are a) making nice (sort of) with Kerry, and b) conditioning aid to Hamas on Hamas support for Assad against the Sunni rebels (which Hamas can't do because of its allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood); Qatar has cut back aid because of Assad and because the Saudi's and Egyptians are putting pressure on Qatar; and finally, Israel is going to try to put the PA back in business in Gaza.  We na├»ve optimists might say--there's an opportunity to demilitarize and open up.  Realists will say “forget it, Netanyahu won't open up, and he can't because if he loosens on Gaza Hamas in the West Bank will say ‘see we were successful--let's do it here.’"  

Marc:  Can we get a beer now?

Don:  How about those Giants?

This post was first published on August 7, 2014 at Mondoweiss

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