Monday, January 19, 2009

Response to Basman on Avnery

Simon Tattrie says:


Lainie had a copy of your response to Uri Avnery's "The Blood Stained Monster Enters Gaza" sitting on her table the other day. I read it, and in so doing, felt compelled to reply. I copied your format, but please excuse the length in advance - I didn't intend this to be a shell game. Dealing with your points adequately required more space and time than I expected; I still feel I left out a lot of possible points and sources. That's the skill of writing, I guess. I hope you'll consider my thoughts and respond.

1. The world's outcries and condemnation have been limited to just that, in large part because of the gap in political power between Israel and Palestine. Just as Israel's longstanding occupation of the West Bank owes to its privileged relationship to American power (despite its illegality under international law), Palestine, having no such influential friends, continues to be occupied, blockaded, and controlled without recourse.

As for the propaganda war, Israel clearly has a far broader and more sophisticated media war apparatus. Israel's ability to bar journalists from entering Gaza altogether (which has the obvious effect of reducing the veracity and number of claims with respect to Palestinian carnage) is one example. Another is Israel's very slick public relations apparatus and the ability to control and project that message. The New York Times reports on Israel's refined media strategy since 2006's disastrous war with Hezbollah:

...cellphones of soldiers were confiscated; commanders were banned from talking to reporters, even their friends; the international press corps has been kept out of Gaza; and even the close circle of senior Israeli political and defense correspondents have been getting far less access than before to decision makers, said Aluf Benn, a senior correspondent with the daily Haaretz. "We get briefings, but they're more like talking points," Mr. Benn said.

The international community's overwhelming opposition to Israel's invasion happens in spite of this political and propaganda power imbalance. You might argue that networks like Al Jazeera are undermining Israel's public relations efforts, but that certainly isn't a function of Palestinian power.

2. I take your basic point here to be that Israel's incursion (or "siege" if you like) into Gaza during the ceasefire has been taken out of context, and that in so doing it ignores, among other things, Hamas's "genocidal agenda". You'll get no argument from me about the deeply troubling aspects of Hamas's history and rhetoric. As regrettable as that is, none of it relates to what transpired with respect to the ceasefire agreement that you agree started this war in the first place. Israel, whatever its problems with Hamas, broke the conditions of a ceasefire it agreed to; Israeli officials are on record conceding that of the comparatively tiny number of rockets fired since the ceasefire began, none were from Hamas. No amount of outrage over Hamas's rhetoric or history changes that.

3./4. Perhaps you're right that he's overstating the case with this traitor talk; I don't know what the environment in Israel is like for dissenters (and anyway, it sounds like there are precious few). But I don't think that when Avnery talks about the nature of truth and propaganda in times of war, he's trying to trumpet his own superior knowledge of either, or to make himself a martyr. He's using these assertions, keep in mind, to set up a case study. That case study demonstrated clearly the tendency of western journalists to assume what the Israeli government was telling them was true, and to publish their claims uncritically. As he notes, that claim was proven false, and then proven false again. Avnery isn't suggesting here that he alone knows what really went on with that school; nor is he calling attention to himself as a martyr for speaking the truth. He's simply saying a textbook example of shoddy war journalism - uncritically accepting a government claim - got sent all over the western world without correction or afterthought because journalists bought into Israel's propaganda. What's more, that pattern has been irrefutably common, particularly in America.

5. You're granting here what Avnery has not assumed: that the bombing of the U.N. school was mistaken. That's vitally important for the obvious reason that everything following from the logic that Israel never intends to kill civilians makes it by default, a tragic but ultimately inevitable reality of war. To entertain an alternate possibility - namely, that we shouldn't take any government's word for why civilians were killed - is to bring this conflict into much murkier moral waters. It seems to me that a government forcibly barring journalists from a war zone with a long history of flawed or altogether silenced investigations into laws-of-war violations deserves at least some skepticism.

Furthermore, the "So what? War is Hell! Mistakes happen!" attitude, even if Israel were operating in good faith, appears to violate international law under the Doctrine of Proportionality which states:

a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians, and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante
Given that to date, the death toll is 3 Israeli civilians and 10 soldiers versus over 1,100 Palestinians, many of which were civilians, it looks like a pretty straightforward case. Perhaps you know more about this than I do though, and if so, I'm open to a legal education.

6. If Avnery fails to provide evidence that Israel sees Hamas as rulers of a population of Palestinians taken hostage instead of democratically elected representatives, it's likely because the preponderance of evidence makes it obvious. The Israeli record is replete with these kinds of statements. A snippet from Foreign Minister Livni's recent address to the Knesset on December 28th is just one of hundreds of examples:

Hamas is an extremist Islamic organization that does not represent any of the Palestinian people's aspirations, but rather is ruling them for its own ends and purposes...Hamas is a terrorist organization – and we are treating it as such….Israel would like to reiterate to anyone with complaints about the [Gazan] population, to redirect them to the party directly responsible for the population's situation – Hamas, which is holding the population hostage.
Whether Israel's real intention with this invasion was to overthrow Hamas, versus the stated objective of only destroying its infrastructure, isn't clear. I've not seen or heard Israeli government officials state explicitly that the invasion's goal is regime change. But it's certainly clear that Israeli officials' rhetoric about the relationship between Hamas and Gazans are exactly what Avnery's suggesting they are.

That being the case, my sense is that Avnery thinks Israel's intentions with such a major ground and air offensive are to weaken Hamas to the point that the civilian population rises against them. And maybe he's wrong; there's a legitimate argument one could have about that. On the other hand, your argument that Israel might know and accept the consequences of provoking international outrage while stoking popular support for Hamas (and in so doing all but ensure the continuance of rocket fire) strikes me as a less charitable version of Israel's rationale than the one Avnery's provided.

7. To which, someone might respond in kind, if Israel had not broken the ceasefire agreement there would have been no rockets.

8. You're absolutely right that in using inflammatory words like "sociopaths" and "monsters" to describe Israeli leadership, he's preaching to the choir instead of engaging Israeli fears seriously and trying to reason through their responses. That does nothing to advance his arguments and rightly angers Israelis (it earned the title of "drivel" from you, after all, and you're not even from Israel!). To ignore Hamas's practice of firing rockets at civilians, and the blatant violation that is of international law is an unacceptable omission as well. Pointing out the deleterious effect these missile attacks have on the Israeli citizenry, and by extension, the peace process is also important to include in any serious analysis of what's taking place. We're agreed on that, I think.
But frankly, I'm less bothered by those shortcomings than I am by the constant stream on network news of Israeli officials and residents recounting the great terror and suffering they endure when a Hamas fired rocket ruins a chunk of a house while 750,000 next door are imprisoned in a city, their houses obliterated and their lives lost by the thousands. It's a matter of scale - I don't see Israeli suffering as any greater or less than that of Palestinians, and if the humanitarian cost is 100 times greater on one side, we need news stories to reflect that reality.

I assume you value the life of innocent people no differently. If you agree that over seven years, intermittent rocket fire that killed thirteen Israeli civilians is tragic and demands the kind of retribution you're advocating, what would you think is the appropriate response for Palestinians, over 700 of whom were killed in three weeks? Furthermore, what retribution would be appropriate for the 1.5 million people living in squalor and disease, many dying prematurely of perfectly preventable causes for the actions of a few?

I'm sure your response would have something to do with the idea that Hamas uses civilians as shields, and that we ought not to treat those deaths as the same. Lay all those deaths at the feet of Hamas, seems to be the line. I would suggest, first of all, that we should treat claims of terrorists surrounding themselves with innocent women and children, or with babies strapped to them with a good deal of skepticism. I've seen no evidence supporting those claims that hasn't come from Israeli officials. Gaza is also one of the most crowded and poorest cities on earth - there likely aren't many places Hamas fighters can seek protection that won't be near people. Consider also the distinct possibility that more than a few Palestinians are supporting the defence of Hamas, their duly elected government. What would it suggest about Gazans' level of desperation that they were willing to sacrifice themselves in solidarity with Hamas? It would certainly upset the familiar innocent civilians taken hostage by terrorists rhetoric that Israel uses to characterize Gaza.

Even if everything you suggest is true, your acceptance of Israel's ways and means of conducting this war must be recognized for what it is: an isolated island of support amidst a sea of international condemnation.

9. As stated above, to the extent that he excludes Hamas completely, I agree it's an error and a shortcoming. But for the reasons I alluded to earlier with respect to Israel's disproportionate public relations and political power, there are no shortage of voices decrying their suffering.

10. You've got a point here, but I'm not sure that it means much. Avnery's certainly going overboard when he suggests Israel thought it could escape media scrutiny altogether. He sets this up, I think, in order to cast a larger shadow over Israel and make it appear that the voices of freedom ring out beyond their iron grip. This overheated rhetoric hurts rather than helps his case. But if his error is in going too far with a legitimate point, yours is evading it altogether. Israel's breaking its own laws and defying its supreme court – that's no small matter.

Recall that despite the Supreme Court's ruling that journalists be allowed entry into Gaza, Israel continues to deny entry under such patently ridiculous justifications that its motivations are obvious. Perhaps the idea is that since Israel's already violated international law, first in its occupation of Palestine and now in its warfare against it, it was about time to thwart some laws closer to home. Give them credit, they went straight to the top and broke one of the most fundamental freedoms of a democracy.

I'm being a little tongue in cheek here, but my serious question to you is this: Where does it stop? How far should Israel be allowed to go in breaking international and domestic law in waging war? And how many Palestinian civilians would need to die before you'd think Israel went too far? In the eyes of the vast majority of the international community it's gone much too far already; in the eyes of Israel's own supreme court it has as well. Where do you draw the line on Israel's behalf?

11. A lot of the answer to the question of how effective Israel's war will be depends on how one understands Hamas. If one is inclined, as Avnery is, to see it as a movement driven by an angry people in desperation, then killing scores of civilians and some of its fighters only exacerbates it. If one is inclined to see Hamas as a bunch of fanatics who will yield to compromise on the basis of overbearing force (i.e. "don't fuck with the Jews") as you appear to, then the answer is that it will in some measure be effective. As you've probably guessed by now, my inclinations lead me much further toward Avnery's direction than your own. I think the tendency to regard groups like Hamas as instruments of fanaticism ultimately leads to bad policy for both countries.

First, it tends to fail at having us recognize and deal strategically with the well-established links between terrorism and the conditions under which it thrives – in this case, foreign occupation and control, along with staggering poverty.

Second, it often precludes the reevaluation of existing policy ("we don't negotiate with terrorists" is a typical example that helps to propel the use of force to the exclusion of meaningful alternatives). And third, it distorts our view of the general population's agency and intrinsic worth (i.e. popular support for fanatics indicates that either the population just doesn't know what's best for them or it's fanatical. In either case, its an easy step to unilateral military force that can set things right.) If history is any guide, hard line and wildly disproportionate military responses like Israel's frequently serve to fan rather than extinguish the flames of terrorism.

12. Israel's had a vested interest in a peaceful and prosperous Palestinian state for over 40 years; neither peace nor prosperity have been forthcoming and we're unlikely to have any meaningful form of either in the near future. Alas, having a vested interest in achieving something has not, by default, meant acting in a manner consistent with its pursuit.

Your characterizations of Israel's policy – then and now - exclude important facts. Viewing this problem solely through the prism of Israel's security leaves much out of the equation. Yes, Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. But in so doing it effectively traded tracts of relatively worthless land requiring a major military presence for far more strategically valuable settlements near critical water resources in the West Bank. The continued expansion – indeed, even subsidization - of illegal settlements are encroaching further into West Bank territory every day with no signs of abating.

It's also worth noting that while Israel has renounced its territorial ambitions in the Gaza Strip, it hasn't renounced any control over access to the Strip by land, air or sea. Israel has repeatedly exercised that power to cut off basic humanitarian necessities from aid groups and other countries to collectively punish the population in various ways. I don't think these factors can be ignored in any meaningful assessment of Israel's relationship with Hamas or Palestine more generally.

What's more, I find your justifications for Israel's action on the basis of its security concerns untenable when we apply that same logic in reverse. Put yourself in the shoes of Hamas. Israel has refused to recognize you as legitimate and elected representative of the Palestinian people in all of its rhetoric, despite your having won a legitimate election. It illegally occupied land inside the Strip for decades, and its creeping occupation of strategically located and resource rich land in the West Bank continues daily. Israel has facilitated - in peacetime and wartime alike - massive impoverishment and overpopulation in your land by controlling your borders and restricting essential goods and services unilaterally.

Your defence capabilities are virtually nil since all weapons shipments are tightly controlled. This renders any meaningful defence of your sovereignty impossible. Your militant rhetoric taps into the political force of a bitterly angry and oppressed population whose civilian casualties have outpaced Israel's a hundredfold, by promising a mandate to defend Palestinian people's interests immediately via the use of force and to eradicate Israel completely. As often, the discipline of power later pushes you to moderation.

You sign and abide by a ceasefire agreement conditional on the blockade's easing, only to find that in the ensuing months the blockade persists and the ceasefire's been violated. Radical options are revisited - rocket fire into Israel resumes until West Bank lands are relinquished and the blockade of the Strip is lifted.

Can Hamas's response be so surprising, given all of this? Is the security of Palestinians not also an overarching concern for a political entity like Hamas? If Hamas's rocket fire on civilians (however insignificant their relative effects) is a major security threat and an act of immorality, is death by humanitarian strangulation at the hands of Israel for decades any different? And does the massively disproportionate killing of civilians by Israeli forces for the actions of a few not also constitute a kind of terrorism in reverse? Would we not expect the political difficulty Israel has in controlling hard liners who settle in Palestinian land and routinely kill their civilians to be a hundred times harder for Hamas, given its constituency's conditions and history? The answer that Israel has the moral high ground, that it ought not to apologize for or end its illegal occupation and military action is, I think by this point, indefensible. To the extent that it justifies their military response, so too are appeals to the great suffering and terror endured by Israelis when that suffering pales in comparison to the lives of most Palestinians in the Strip during times of peace.

I agree that we need reasoned debate but I come to opposite conclusions with respect to what so often passes as reasonableness on the Israel Palestine question. Reasoned debate on this war began with the premise that it was Hamas who broke the ceasefire. Reasonable people were everywhere uncritically accepting Israel's claims of high-minded morality in the face of fanatical terrorism while Israel proceeded to slaughter over a thousand for the sake of thirteen of their own.

Reasoned discussion never asked if over forty years of illegal occupation under international law and the systematic violation of millions of Palestinians' basic human rights might have something to do with why a terrorist – albeit an elected terrorist – government might see the killing of someone else's civilians for a change as a viable strategy in response. And reasonable reactions, as ever, remind us there's never too much empathy for the death of civilized Israelis and always too much for Palestinians when a terrorist is to blame.


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