Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Taking Sides: Why Gaza?


The latest stage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being played out on newsfeeds and timelines as we speak. Free from the curatorial process of professional news editors, who decide which views and perspectives get aired to a captive audience, subaltern perspectives are now able to reach a wide audience.
The loss of life and devastation of infrastructure experienced by the people of Gaza is both too visceral and too widespread to be denied. In response, a new apologetic tactic has emerged: an affected neutrality that recognizes, to some extent, the human rights violations committed by the Israeli government but attempts to minimize them by dehumanizing the Palestinians and promoting easily debunked myths about them, by depicting the conflict as inevitable and intractable, and attempts to deter activism by concerned citizens by either a ‘pox on both your houses’ stance or by engaging in concern trolling by bringing up other international conflicts that have higher death tolls or less morally ambiguous combatants. There are three compelling arguments that can be made against this studied indifference and for activism by Americans on behalf of the people of Gaza.

The American Role

The first is that, unlike many other human rights disasters, the US plays a direct role in the form of military aid and political support that it gives to Israel. The same is not the case for ISIS, the Taliban, the Assad regime and its opponents (with some exceptions). As US citizens, we have a chance to influence policy and create a better, more just outcome, even if it is a small one. We also have an obligation to use that influence in an attempt to prevent injustices committed in our name or on our dime.

The Nature of Israel

The second argument is that Israel is a liberal democracy that can be swayed by public opinion and is very conscious of its image both abroad and internally. ISIS and the Assad regime couldn't care less and Saudi only cares to a small extent. Similarly, we hold liberal democracies to a higher standard than rag-tag terrorists groups, brutal dictatorships, or absolute monarchies because they represent the will of a sovereign people and ostensibly stand on a moral foundation of consent, consultation, and justice.
Part of that standard is proportionality in military response. This does not mean that casualties on either side have to be equal or nearly so, but that it is illegal when “an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage” (Moreno-Ocampo).This is clearly the case in regard to the current operation in Gaza where the military goals include stopping rocket fire that has resulted in less than three dozen casualties over the course of a decade and collapsing tunnels alleged to be used to smuggle parts for the rockets (but are also known to be used to smuggle food and medical supplies as well). The military response has killed over 40 times more civilians than the offense that ostensibly provoked it. That is the definition of disproportionality.
It might be objected that Israel is showing great restraint and that they don’t intentionally kill civilians- why would they when it hurts their image? Israel IS sensitive to how it is perceived abroad but it is even more sensitive to internal Israeli opinion and nothing makes that go sour like military casualties. As Norman Finkelstein has pointed out during a recent speech, “Israel’s first rule is to minimize combatant casualties.” One way of achieving this goal is by indiscriminate bombing that leaves little standing in its wake. He also mentions other motivations such as revenge for IDF casualties and a strategic goal of using widespread bombing to cow the Palestinians into submission. The argument that Israel is showing 'great restraint' has been ably debunked by P.Z. Myers. Needless to say, the good intentions of the IDF will not bring back the civilians they have killed.
It may be said that holding the Israeli government to a higher standard than the Arabs is an example of the 'racism of lower expectations.' I have to disagree with this. Israel is a state with a liberal democratic form of government. The Arabs are an ethnic group with a vast degree of differences among them in terms of forms of government, language, and cultural features. It's an apples to oranges comparison. My argument is not that Arabs are not/should not be held to a higher standard, it's that liberal democratic states are and should be held to a higher standard than non-state terrorist groups, authoritarian dictatorships, and absolute monarchies. A state, and especially a liberal democratic state, enjoys the monopoly of the legitimate use of force in a given territory. In order for that monopoly to remain legitimate, it must observe certain moral standards and maintain the rule of law. Not observing them actually degrades the rule of law, the enforcement of which is one of the main justifications for the state's existence.
Tolerance and even receptiveness to criticism is the strength of an open society. Nobody does Israel (or the United States, for that matter) any favors by attempting to shield it from criticism. It is a virtue that Israel does care about the opinions of its citizens and, to a lesser extent, it's image in the rest of the world (especially the West). Assad couldn't care less. Putin couldn't care less. This means that we have some small means of influencing Israel's actions towards a less destructive path that we do not have in relation to conflicts elsewhere in the world.

The Siege

The third argument is that the siege of Gaza, which constitutes an ongoing act of war that has cause far more death and suffering than the rockets fired by Hamas, makes it impossible for the civilian population to flee. This makes the situation different, and far more dire, than is the case in Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and other countries. There is no safe, neutral ground to which refugees can flee and receive aid to ease their suffering. This makes a direct political/social intervention in the conflict more pressing because it is the only alternative available if a truly staggering amount of death and suffering is to be avoided. For example, according to a UN report, by 2020 Gaza will be incapable of supporting its population. This is a direct result of Israeli policy aimed not at an organization but at an entire people.
There are some who maintain that the occupation of Gaza ended in 2006 with the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the dismantling of the settlements there. This is erroneous. An ongoing siege that confines a population to a small territory cut off from the rest of the world and that is repeatedly punctuated by bombardment and invasion is indistinguishable from an occupation, a view with strong support in both International and Israeli law.


The claim that the conflict is insoluble because of the tribalism on each side and the purported religious roots of the conflict obfuscates the actual material goals of each side, goals that can at least be partially met via compromise. The settlements, the confiscation of land, the network of checkpoints that impede free movement by Palestinians, control of the borders between the territories and their Arab neighbors, seizure of valuable natural resources, most especially water, all have a clear, material goal: increasing the level of control that Israel has over the Palestinian people and increasing Israel's own strategic depth vis-à-vis its neighbors. Hamas also has outlined clear material goals (based on international law) the satisfaction of which would lead to a long term truce. A treaty that met the material goals of the Palestinian people while at the same time giving Israel security from its neighbors would make the settlements and checkpoints unnecessary and would allow the Palestinians to rebuild their lives, undermining calls for further violence on both sides. The Palestinians have a clear record of supporting a resolution to the conflict on the basis of international law. It is Israel that remains recalcitrant in regards to its obligations and we have a duty, as Americans whose government has given so much support to Israel, to hold it accountable.
It has been pointed out that a great deal of the outrage over the conflict in the Middle East is selective and that the focus on Israel is due not to a concern for human rights but to a hatred of Jews. Even if true, this is beside the point. Haters gonna hate. People quite often do the right thing for the wrong reason. The question is what motivates you to take notice and take sides. And have no doubt; not taking sides when a civilian population is facing siege and bombardment IS taking sides- against them.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
Confessions of an Ironic Muslim by Shaheed At-Tanweer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.