So Much To Say, Yet So Little Meant

Okay, time to get down to it.



Armageddon in our time.

This is going to be long, even by my extended standards, so let’s put the rest below the fold, so I don’t completely dominate the page.

Let’s start with some ground rules, some axioms of our discussion.

  1. Israel has a fundamental right to exist, and to remain a majority-Jewish state, if it so pleases.  I can’t give you a really strong international affairs reasoning behind this axiom; all I can do is appeal to your sense of fairness.  For a people who have been the butt of the world’s malfeasance for much of the last 2000 years, it’s kind of the least we can do.  Not the most convincing argument I’ve ever made, but that’s why they’re axioms – they’re things we assume before we get started.
  2. Israel has a right to self-defense.  If the Israeli government believes that it is facing an existential threat, or even a serious threat of massive harm to a large chunk of its populace, it has the absolute right to take actions to relieve that threat.
  3. There are no easy answers here, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t even qualify for the label ‘fool.’  In all honesty, there probably aren’t even hard answers, things that, if we were to do them, would definitely have a positive effect.  To my mind, right now, there’s nothing but questions, along with solutions that we know don’t work, from too many years of failed attempts to implement them.
  4. Israel is, fundamentally, the good guys here.  They try harder to do better, and want nothing more than to exist and be left alone.  Radical Palestinian elements, on the other hand, target civilians and have as their goal the complete destruction of the state of Israel.
  5. Like the physician, our first goal should be to do no harm.  Better to do nothing than to do something which will almost certainly make things worse, just for the sake of doing something.

Okay, with those out of the way, let’s get started.

As you undoubtedly know, Israel and Hamas had a 6-month ceasefire, which expired in mid-December.  All throughout the so-called ceasefire period, Hamas forces would occasionally lob rockets over the border from Gaza into Israel, usually aimed at the city of Sderot.  The rockets were unaimed, and most fell harmlessly into the desert, but the sorties continued, albeit sporadically.  When the ceasefire stopped, Hamas significantly increased the frequency of the rockets.  Soon after, Israel unleased a volley of air attacks, both bombing runs and mortar attacks, on known and suspected Hamas facilities in Gaza.  That’s been followed up by a ground invasion by Israeli troops, basically going door-to-door to locate and destroy Hamas ammunition depots, weapons stocks, and personnel.

Unfortunately, Hamas is not afraid to use civilians as human shields, and often locates these facilities near, or sometimes even in, buildings which house large civilian populations, such as hospitals and schools.  Israel tries to warn civilians to leave areas which are about to be bombed, but invariably there are civilian casualties in almost any successful attack on Hamas forces.

As an example, today a U.N. Relief and Works Agency building was hit by an Israeli mortar shell, destroying it and injuring at least 3 people.  Israeli forces claimed to have been attacked by Hamas militants from just outside the facillity, who then ran into it to take cover.  To date, over 1,000 Palestinians have been killed in the attacks, about half of whom are thought to be civilians, including at least 300 children.  At least 13 Israelis have also died in the conflict, some civilians living in or near Sderot, and some Israeli soldiers.

To me, the big question when you undertake military action is, “what do you hope to accomplish with this?”  It’s a strong question, and one that all-too-often does not get satisfactorily answered before the first bullets fly.

Not to get too personal in my opinion-forming, but one potential answer here actually comes from my father.  My parents did a mission to Israel in November, and published an article about their trip in Shalom Delaware.  Let’s quote Dad’s thoughts, after visiting Sderot and learning about the random, albeit generally ineffective missile attacks.

In most civilized parts of the world, firing of such missiles by one population against another would be considered an act of war and would be dealt with accordingly (picture the U.S. response if Mexico decided to shoot a thousand or so missiles into south Texas). Over the years, it would appear, the Palestinians have concluded that such behavior is acceptable to large parts of the world’s population, and therefore they can engage in it with no threat of serious consequence.

Although we experienced no problems on the day we visited Sderot, we learned afterwards that the Palestinians had fired 10 or so missiles into the area on the day after our visit. No injuries occurred during that attack, but it was a reminder of the random terror threats these folks experience every day of their lives.

So, there’s the first answer to what Israel hopes to achieve.  Show that they are to be taken seriously, teach the Palestinians that there are real consequences to hostile actions like launching missiles across the border.  Not to put words into Dad’s mouth here, but he once told me that the only way Israel ever achieved peace with any Arab nations was to kick them in the teeth hard enough that they decided war wasn’t a viable option for achieving their goals, with the primary examples being Jordan and Egypt.  So, I suspect, he and many others hope that if Israel can demonstrate to the Gaza residents that there are serious, deadly consequences to supporting Hamas’ militants, they can turn the population against Hamas, which will make it much harder for them to continue lobbing missiles across the border.

First off, as a response, let me note that the analogy between Israel/Gaza and South Texas/Mexico is, to my mind, fatally flawed.  If some folks started lobbing missiles across the Mexico/U.S. border, we wouldn’t have to do anything about it.  I highly doubt that the Mexican government looks kindly on independent militias being built up in their country, and for one to try and flex its muscle in this way would be very seriously frowned upon, indeed.  So, I suspect, the Mexican government would work very quickly to put down any such forces.

Similarly, it’s antithetical to the very notion of analogical thinking to postulate that the Mexican government itself would start lobbing missiles over the border in some vain attempt to…what?  Reclaim South Texas for itself?  You know…I’ve been to South Texas.  They can have anything south of Padre Island, as far as I’m concerned.  But, the point is, Mexico would never try this.  They don’t have any particular reason to.  We have maintained positive and generally friendly, and always cordial, relations with Mexico, at least for the last century or so.  You would have to postulate an entirely different history of the continent to get to the point where today, in 2008, Mexico would start lobbing missiles over the border.

Having effectively, at least to my mind, debunked the analogy portion of the quote, let’s get to the logical argument part.  It is undoubtedly true that some Palestinians felt that Israel may have “gone soft”, and that they could now get away with acts of malfeasance like the rocket launching without consequence.  They have definitely been dissuaded from that belief at this point.

Counterbalancing that, I believe that you have to ask the question of what the other consequences are of your actions.  In particular, look at my post from earlier today about Guantanamo.  If these acts are creating more potential terrorists, people who hate Israel so deeply that they are interested in nothing more than exacting revenge and visiting terror on the people of Israel, than they are dissuading civilians from helping the terrorists commit their atrocities, what have we accomplished?  When I see casualty numbers like the ones cited above, over a thousand dead Palestinians vs. 13 dead Israelis, I feel like the outcome of calculus like this simply can’t be in Israel’s favor.

As Ezra noted, although Israel makes a specific point of trying to avoid civilian casualties, by only attacking suspected military targets and by warning civilians of imminent attack, while Hamas has a the policy of attempting to kill civilians through their campaigns of suicide bombing and unguided missile fire, at some point you have actually look at the actual outcomes of your actions.  And the undebated fact is that Israel, while it makes many more attempts to mitigate civilian casualities, kills many more Palestinian civilians than Hamas or Hezbollah or anyone else manages to kill on the Israeli side.  Undoubtedly, Israel could kill many more civilians, but because they are the good guys (see axiom #4) they put themselves and their soldiers at increased risk in order to prevent civilian casulaties.  Regardless, in practice, every time fire is exchanged, more Palestinians than Israelis end up dead, often by a large factor.  Not the sort of thing that makes for good PR.

And, as Yglesias points out, it’s not as if Israel has always been the most honest broker in what types of self-determination the Palestinians were allowed over their land, which predisposes them to see the (all-too-evident) worst aspects of these sorts of military strikes.

But another piece of the puzzle is that though American Jewish liberals tend to take a lot of comfort in the idea of Israel’s good intentions and good faith throughout this whole process, there’s a reason approximately no Arabs anywhere in the world see it that way. All throughout the “peace process” years — through the good ones and through the bad ones — Israel continued expanding both the geographical footprint of its settlements and the population living upon them. For most of this time, Israel has often appeared unwilling to enforce domestic Israeli law on the settler population, to say nothing of abiding by international law or agreements made. And while Israel has stated a desire to leave the Gaza Palestinians alone in their tiny, overcrowded, economically unviable enclave, the “disengagement” from Gaza has never entailed letting Palestinians control their borders or exercise meaningful sovereignty over the area. The proposal has basically been that if Palestinians cease violence against Israel, then the Gaza Strip will be treated like an Indian reservation. Israel’s policy objectives in the West Bank appear to be first seizing the choice bits of it, and then withdrawing behind a wall with the residual West Bank treating like post-”disengagement” Gaza.

So, although it is definitely possible to imagine the Palestinian citizens “learning a lesson” from this sort of thing, I believe that the lesson they will learn is much more likely to run against Israel than in favor.  I find it very likely that the Gazans will believe all the more strongly that Israel is a bad actor, killing hundreds of civilians, including children, and visiting destruction on their property, and that against such a force nothing other than implacable resistance must be maintained.

A second possible desired outcome was noted by Ezra this morning (what can I say?  He’s not only dreamy, he’s brilliant!)

Even crazier is the depth of Israel’s self-deception: “Israel is proposing, with the tacit agreement of Egypt and the United States, to place the Palestinian Authority at the heart of an ambitious program to rebuild Gaza, administering reconstruction aid and securing Gaza’s borders.” That certainly doesn’t seem like a plan that will wreck the credibility of Fatah forever. Towards the end of the article, an Israeli defense official says, “Hamas will not let the Palestinian Authority come out of this with an achievement. I don’t know what to say. We’re not there yet.” That sentence where “I don’t know what to say” sits is the sentence where an explanation of Israel’s strategy should go. The fact that it’s occupied by a verbal shrug of the shoulders is further evidence that Israel has no idea what it’s still doing in Gaza, or what realistic outcome they favor.

I find it almost inarguable that the civilians in Gaza will emerge from these actions hating Israel more than they did previously.  If so, as Ezra points out – any entity seen to be collaborating with the Israelis will be utterly delegitimized in the eyes of the Gazan populace.

Along that same vein, it seems to me much more likely that, if you manage to remove Hamas from power, whatever pops up to replace it will be a more extremist group, rather than less.  As Yglesias noted, (equally brilliant, less handsome – sorry Matt, the ‘fuzzy bear’ thing simply doesn’t do it for me!)

It’s important to recall that the rise of Hamas is, in part, the result of a very successful Israeli effort to undermine the authority and infrastructure of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Israel interpreted the collapse of the Camp David talks as indicating that Yasser Arafat and his movement were not reasonable negotiating partners and that the whole enterprise of trying to deal with them had been a mistake.

…one has to contemplate the possibility that Israeli efforts at disempowering Hamas won’t so much fail as suffer “catastrophic success” as the area is taken over by a Palestinian branch of al-Qaeda.

Just so.  It seems to me very possible that the Israelis could sufficiently destroy Hamas’ forces so that it loses control in Gaza, and chaos would reign.  As we’ve seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, those are exactly the conditions that the truly extreme Islamist forces thrive under.

The final reason that I’ve seen bandied around is that Israel is simply being pragmatic – they are being attacked by rockets, so they are trying to take out the rockets, and the people who launch them, damn the second-order consequences.  Which is, to me, the only reasoning that makes any serious sense here.  It will almost certainly work, in the short term.  Every rocket destroyed is a rocket that won’t fly towards Sderot, and every extremist killed is one less person to fire a rocket, at least until Hamas can train someone new to pull the trigger.  But I think the likely outcome, if you sufficiently deplete Hamas’ resources, is the above scenario, where new actors, at least as likely to be more extreme as less, move in to fill the power vacuum.  There would almost certainly be short-term, maybe 6 to 18 months’ worth, relief from the attacks, but the multi-year outlook would get much worse.

And so, I just don’t see any likely set of outcomes that is actually positive for Israel along any of the vectors noted above, unless you consider the temporary stoppage of missile attacks which I believe would result to be sufficiently worth the cost, in terms of (Gazan) blood and (Israeli) treasure, exacted thus far.

There have been rumblings that the attacks are based on Israeli politics, in that there is a new Parliamentary election soon, and the incumbent Kadima party wanted to stake out a place where it could not be out-hawked by Likud (what are they going to do – promise to kill 3,000 Gazans?)  I find this mere idea to be so deplorable that I choose not to engage with it.  Suffice to say that if it is true, even remotely, that it’s an utterly detestable use of the most important power a government wields, and that there are no penalties sufficiently severe to appropriately punish its practitioners.

So, having debunked, again, at least to my satisfaction, all the reasons behind invading Gaza, what would I propose?

See Axiom #3 above.  There are no answers, certainly no easy ones.  But I did hear an interesting solution from Peter Beinart this morning, in his diavlog with Jonah Goldberg over at  Beinart suggests that we need to funnel massive amounts of resources into the West Bank, make it some sort of relative paradise like Singapore or Sweden, under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

At that point, you really give the Gazans a choice to make.  Right now, they believe the choice is between ‘shitty living conditions under the P.A., who collaborates with the people who we believe are primarily responsible for making our conditions so shitty’ and ‘shitty living conditions under Hamas, who lobs rockets at those assholes’.  Frankly, I don’t think it’s really a choice at all, and I see why the Gazans choose the way they do.  Alternatively, if we could positively reform the West Bank, the choice becomes ‘deal with the collaborators, but have better living conditions’ and ‘stay with Hamas, and keep suffering.’  That’s the kind of choice I would be interested in seeing how the Gazans decide.

In the meantime, rockets will continue to fly, and Israelis near the border will live with the slight, but real, daily possibility of a rocket crashing through their house.  In response, all I can say is that there are literally hundreds of millions of people in the world who live in worse conditions than that, who don’t know where tonight’s dinner is going to come from, or if they’ll be able to get medicine for their daughter’s dysentery.  Far from ideal, but far from the worst thing imaginable, either.

Additionally, I would have been very interested in seeing, a couple years ago, how Hamas would have reacted to being given real responsibility when they won the elections in Gaza.  If Israel had negotiated hard with Egypt to control weapons smuggling into Gaza, while also opening the Gaza border to trade and free exchange, it might (stress: might) have resulted in Hamas learning to love being in power, enough that they would be willing to soften their anti-Israel stance, at least in their actions, if not with their words.  But it’s a bit late to try that now, so we’re back to trying to figure out how not to make the situation worse.

So, that’s where I’m at right now.  Frankly, I’m stunned if anyone is with me, if only because it would have required them to trudge through some 3000 words to get here.  I’d appreciate it if anyone who gets to this point would at least leave a note in comments – I’m quite curious to know how far anyone gets in reading my mega-posts like this.


9 Responses to So Much To Say, Yet So Little Meant

  1. Lisa says:

    I am proud to say that I got all the way through it! Certainly makes for interesting thinking!!!

  2. TN says:

    I made it to the end. That is all.

  3. DJH says:

    I too made it all the way through.
    I agree with much of what you said.
    One thing I think is missing is discussion of Egypt’s role. The Egyptian government has no love for Hamas; anything Israel can do to co-opt them into helping push for a solution that forwards common interests could make a difference in the long-run. Not sure what that is, other than that it has to start with avoiding doing things that piss off the entire Arab world.

  4. […] regards to my mega-magnum opus about Gaza and Israel, commenter DJH writes One thing I think is missing is discussion of Egypt’s role. The […]

  5. Joe Ben Avraham says:

    I admit I skipped over some paragraphs, but you are indeed on the correct path. The solution to the problem is in figuring out where to put pressure and make change, as opposed to the vast majority of finger-pointing and tongue-wagging.

    There are two routes: they cynical one I’ll deal with first is to provide free university education and teach trade skills to all Palestinian women and girls, while at the same time giving all the Palestinian men free unlimited satellite tv (lots of sports, no porn). The women will be empowered, and the men will be watching soccer and soaps all day.

    The non-cynical route is to drive Fatah into the modern world. They have to be accountable, they have to be transparent, and they have to start giving jobs on merit, not on cronyism. Once you do that, then the Pals have a viable alternative to Hamas.

    However, it could be that we’re talking mission impossible here. Can Fatah really be reformed so that it is a functioning organization where promotion is more or less based on performance?

    I believe it can be done when you dangle the right carrots and exercise the right punishment. They need a constitution, they need an independent court system backed up by the police and respected by the PA, not a police back up by the courts and used as a tool by the PA.

    The Pals can’t do this on their own. They simply aren’t wired for it. Can the wiring be changed? Dunno, but there’s only one way to find out and it’ll take a lot of time and effort by the EU, Yanks and Japs and lots of NGOs.

  6. Aman says:

    Read and shared. The first two sentences caught my attention; I was conversing with friends on this topic over dinner.

  7. Tripp says:

    done. Nasty situation, that. Both sides are at fault, in their own ways, and are not willing to do a little self-reflection. Until that happens we’re going to stay on the battery/counter-battery merry (or is it shitty?) -go-round.

    I think that the price of oil might have had something to do with the timing of this. When Isreal went into Lebannon in 2006 Hizbollah has sufficient funds from Pappy Iran to rebuild the mess that they had provoked. Iran is struggling now with oil being much cheaper. As I recall, they’ve been funding Hamas too (which is why the other Arab states don’t care for them). Now Isreal has a chance to batter Hamas and Hamas won’t have the ability to clean up Gaza because they probably won’t be getting the funds to do it. Gaza has no real economy so the only place the money can come from is outside. If Iran can’t pony up, there may be a lot of resentment towards Hamas once the firing stops and palestinians aren’t so unified. I think it’s interesting that Hamas outside of Gaza are the ones that are doing all of the sabre rattling, not the ones under the cosh in Gaza.

  8. Joe Ben Avraham says:

    Interesting angle that, and there may be something to it. With oil back down around $35, the Iranians are back in the dogpen at home. They can’t run their own economy, and there will be a lot of domestic pressure to cut back on funding the whackos around the world instead of putting gasoline in their own cars (absolutely amazing that Iran can’t provide itself with enough gasloline!).

    As for being “under the cosh in Gaza”, that is also a relative term. The infighting these days has little to do with Israel and lots to do with Iranian and Syrian meddling. The closed borders are in large part a sane move by both Egypt and Israel to prevent al-Qaeda type infiltration which would endanger Gaza even more. Hamas are amateurs compared to the evil wrought by the al-Qaeda monsters.

    The world, of course, ignores the war crimes committed in Iraq by al-Qaeda and others against fellow Muslims – thousands have been murdered and maimed. The Pals have so successfully manipulated the world press that they are page one all the time, while other more distressing conflicts fester unchecked.

    And they claim the Jews control the press? Not at all.. the Pals do!

  9. […] Good times, good times.  If only someone could have predicted that bombing the shit out of people doesn’t make you more popular with them… […]

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