January 29, 2009

Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth

More thoughts on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

My sister and I, like many siblings, had our share of fights while growing up. And our mother, like many parents, tried not to take sides. “It takes two to tango,” she would often say when one of us went to tattle on the other and then leave us to work out our differences.

It takes two to tango. A profound insight, one which I’ve come to appreciate more and more over the years. For it seems clear that most human conflicts involve, not just one, but two guilty parties. Sandbox scuffles erupt because two kids want the same toy, office backstabbing occurs because two employees want the same promotion. It takes two to tango. A simple truth but one which Americans generally fail to apply to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Though many have acknowledged that Israel’s actions in the recent war were disproportionate, and perhaps even excessive, it is still widely agreed that Israel did what it had to do, that it acted in self-defense. For many years now, Palestinian militants have been launching rockets—thousands and thousands of rockets—into Israeli towns. So, the argument goes, Israel had, not just a right, but a duty to defend itself.

While the first part of this narrative is undoubtedly true, it only tells half the story. Yes, militants have been firing rockets into Israel. But these rockets were responses to Israeli violence, which themselves were responses to Palestinian violence, and so on. Remember, it takes two to tango.

Yet most Americans continue viewing this conflict as though it were the latest Die Hard film, with the noble John MacLean (Israel) on one side and the bloodthirsty terrorists (the Palestinians) on the other. Even some of our best journalists hold this prejudice.

In a recent New York Times article, for instance, Isabel Kershner reports that on Tuesday Palestinian militants “detonated a bomb on the border with Israel, killing a soldier. Israel retaliated with limited raids and an airstrike that wounded a militant.” Kershner doesn’t tell us what motivated the militants, thus creating the impression that the Palestinian bomb was the action and the Israeli airstrike the reaction. Strike one against the Palestinians.

Then on Wednesday, Kershner continues, Palestinians launched a rocket from Gaza, which in turn prompted Israel to bomb a Gaza weapons factory. So, once again, the Palestinians initiated the violence, while Israel merely responded to it. Strike two.

Later in the article, she reports that Israel Prime Minister Olmert has decided not to permanently reopen border crossings into Gaza until Hamas returns an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped in 2006. In other words, Olmert’s refusal to reopen the crossing is just another response to terrorism. So strikeout, game over: Israel wins another moral victory over the Palestinians.

So, according to Kershner, it doesn’t take two to tango after all, just one group of very hateful Islamists.

Nonetheless, I still contend that my mom was right, as a closer examination of recent events reveals. First, the Palestinian bombing on Tuesday was more than likely retaliation for a recent Israeli gunboat attack and/or Israel’s refusal to end the blockade. Second, Wednesday’s Palestinian rocket attack was retaliation for an Israel Air Force bombing in southern Gaza. Third, the 2006 kidnapping of an Israeli soldier was retaliation for an IDF kidnapping of two Palestinians.

My point here is not that the Israeli government is guilty and the Palestinians militants are innocent. My point is simply that, as with so many conflicts, both sides here are guilty. And until Americans realize this and begin pressuring their leaders to stop blindly taking Israel’s side, there will never be peace in the Middle East.

January 8, 2009

The Liberation of Palestine

And other Western fairy tales.

“Imagine that it’s 1964,” writes Deroy Murdock of National Review. “President Lyndon Baines Johnson just signed the landmark Civil Rights Act. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrates by ordering his supporters to launch missiles from black neighborhoods into white communities. Picture the rockets’ red glare as they rise from Watts and land in Beverly Hills. Up they soar in Harlem, and down they rain on the Upper West Side.”

While conceding that this is an imperfect analogy, Murdock claims that it roughly approximates the current conflict in the Gaza Strip. Just replace President Johnson with Ariel Sharon, Martin Luther King with current Hamas leaders, and the Civil Rights Act with Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza—and there you have it. After the disengagement, avers Murdock, Palestinians had the “opportunity of a millennium”—a Palestinian MLK would have proclaimed, “Free at last, free at last”—and yet they repaid Israel’s generosity with a three-year-long torrent of Qassam rockets.

Murdock is just one of many court intellectuals who would have us view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in simplistic black-and-white terms, with Israel cast as the good guy and Hamas the villain, with Israel offering an olive branch in 2005 and Hamas deciding to continue its jihad.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the Palestinians were hardly liberated in 2005. Israel retained complete veto power over all Palestinian legislation, as well as control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, and territorial waters. Moreover, Gaza remained all but severed from the West Bank, with the West Bank itself divided into what Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti refers to as three bantustans.

These facts, along with the continual flux of new settlers to the West Bank,[1] sent a very clear message to the Palestinian people that the Oslo process was dead, that Israel had no intention of returning to its pre-1967 borders. It seemed, as Harvard's Sara Roy writes, that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza was merely an attempt to rid itself of “occupier status” and, as a result, obtain “international acceptance (however tacit) of Israel’s full control over the West Bank—and eventually Jerusalem—while retaining control over the Strip in a different form.”

Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to Ariel Sharon, confirmed that these were Sharon’s intentions. Speaking to Ha’aretz in 2004, Weisglass explained that the disengagement “supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” He continued: “Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a [US] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

It was under these conditions that Palestinians gave Hamas an overwhelming victory in the January 2006 parliamentary elections. This has been the pattern for twenty years now: Palestinians turning to Hamas when the peace process has seemed dead but looking elsewhere when progress seemed possible.[2]

Despite all this, Charles Krauthammer recently claimed that that the only legitimate grievance the Palestinians could have had after 2005 was the existence of Israel.

The truth, however, is that the vast majority of Palestinians—72% according to a 2002 PIPA poll—are willing to accept a two-state solution. Even Hamas has expressed a willingness to peacefully co-exist with Israel. In January 2006, for instance, Hamas’ Gaza leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, declared on CNN that Hamas would be willing to make a long-term truce with Israel if Israel withdrew to its pre-1967 borders.[3]

Though there’s no way of knowing if Hamas would have kept its word, the demand itself was reasonable. (And is, by the way, demanded by international law.) But Israel’s response to Hamas’ democratic victory was to punish the Palestinian people. First, Israel, along with the US and EU, suspended aid to the Palestinians. And second, it closed the Karni crossing, a cargo terminal in northern Gaza that Ynetnews describes as an “oxygen tube” for the Palestinian Authority, noting that “food, medicine, textile and various essential products enter Gaza through the crossing, while goods for sale or for transfer to the West Bank also pass through it.”

All this, it should be noted, occurred when Palestinians were undergoing what the World Bank considered the worst depression in modern history, a depression, Roy writes, which was “caused primarily by the long-standing Israeli restrictions that have dramatically reduced Gaza’s levels of trade and virtually cut off its labour force from their jobs inside Israel.”

It should also be noted that Israel did not implement these actions in response to ongoing violence, as Hamas had called a ceasefire at the time. Rather, Israel’s purpose was to force Hamas to (1) recognize Israel’s right to exist, (2) renounce violence, and (3) honor international agreements—all unfair, even laughable demands, given that Israel itself is unwilling to abide by them. “The idea,” Weisglass explained at the time, “is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

None of this, of course, justifies the Gazan militants who finally resumed firing rockets into Israel. (To show that one side of a conflict is guilty does not necessarily mean that the other side is innocent.) In the situation at hand, both IDF forces and Palestinian militants have committed atrocities and both Israeli and Palestinian civilians have suffered.

Nonetheless, most Americans believe the fairy tales told by the likes of Murdock and Krauthammer. As a result, very few are outraged that the US government continues ignoring the suffering of 1.5 million Gazans and instead places blame for the recent war entirely on Hamas. As usual, widespread ignorance and apathy have allowed all kinds of evil.


[1] Roy notes that in 2005 nearly twice as many Israelis settled in the West Bank (15,800) as left Gaza (8,475) (Roy, Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, 327).

[2] Support for Hamas, for instance, grew in 1991 when it appeared that the Madrid peace talks were failing. However, when optimism grew upon the signing of the Oslo Accord, Hamas’ popularity quickly fell (Ibid., 168).

[3] Hamas again proposed a truce in April 2008, when Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal offered a ten-year truce if Israel agreed to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.