Saturday, December 27, 2008

What Do You Do When Nothing Changes?

With the shaky cease fire between Israel and Hamas now expired, Israel has commenced a pounding air assault into Gaza, targeting a wide range of Hamas targets and facilities and killing nearly 200 people (no word on the civilian/militant breakdown). Israel launched the attack in response to continued rocket attacks across the border into Israeli townships.

The problem is that I'm not sure how much these reprisals do to deter Hamas' terrorism. Even in the midst of this latest operation, Hamas managed to fire off a rocket which killed an Israeli woman in Netivot. And of course, Hamas has promised to step up its "retaliation" against Israel in the wake of the attack.

But it's not like a more lenient policy changes things either. When Israel withdrew from Gaza -- a major concession to Palestinian authorities -- they were met with more rocket attacks. When they relax border checkpoints and allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, the result is ... more rocket attacks. Very little the Israelis do seems to have much of an effect on the constant stream of rockets falling into their territory. This makes it difficult to formulate effective policy.

UPDATE: Here's Eamonn McDonaugh defending the operation on the grounds that peace will never flow out of Gaza until Hamas is convinced it does not have a military option available that will succeed in bringing down Israel. Two points: First, there is a lot of shaky psychoanalyzing going on here of the Hamas and Iranian leadership. I'm not really sure that they were convinced that Israel was on the brink of collapse, and even if they did believe that, an operation such as this could easily be seen as a last gasp stand. Second, McDonaugh talks at the very end of Israel's obligation to let in food and medicine to the Gazan population. To my knowledge, this is not a duty that Israel is even trying to meet, and that has to be noted as a serious human rights violation wholly aside from how one evaluates the rest of their operation.


Matthew C said...

"Nothing changes" was exactly my reaction to this. I was reading the BBC story about the casualties in Gaza, and I was horrified, but I also realized that it was not a unique kind of horror and it was certainly not the kind of event that I could imagine changing anyone's mind - my reasons for objecting were exactly the reasons I had when Israel invaded Lebanon, and I imagine that Israel's defenders won't put forward any arguments that weren't on the table then. It's tempting to thing of the lack of progress on the ground and the deadlock in moral and political argument as related, but I think that gives us, the commentariat, more importance then we are due. Because there are areas where people like us can find agreement, for example, that the killing of civilians should be avoided as much as possible. And yet, obviously, there are people in Israel and Palestine who do not find that idea convincing; and I don't just mean extremists or rabid nationalists or the guys in Gaza who actually pull the trigger on the rocket launchers, though they are clearly included, but that there are people from executive cabinets down to citizens in both countries who just aren't bothered when civilians get killed. It's maybe a touch more accurate to say they don't care when civilians on the other side are killed, but only a touch, because there is certainly a sense amongst Israelis and Palestinians that people who die in this conflict are doing something really noble and pure.

But even in such a bleak context, not all policies are created equal, and maybe it's even in the lack of forward motion that the need to find a less costly, less violent way of responding to terror can be made clear.

One of the longstanding tenets of just war theory is that violence can only be justified if there is a real possibility that it will achieve its end - independent of constraints on what sort of ends are acceptable. This amounts to a check on the Machiavellian invocation of "necessity", of the consecration of endless sacrifice in the name of an endlessly valuable cause. The security of Israel is a good that its people need and ought to continue to pursue. But if it is clear that policies which cause exorbitant Palestinian fatality and those which do not result in about equal levels of security for Israel, then they are not just. We might understand why Israel pursues them, but that's not the same. Israel's right to defense is a right to pursue policies which demonstrably make it safer - it is not a right to adopt a militant posture at the expense of lives.

This sort of abstraction I think should turn into policy criticism at the level where Israel's executives say things like "We have no choice" or "This will continue as long as it takes." Invoking necessity as a policy justification supposes that the policy in question moves one toward their end; a policy that doesn't work can never be called "necessary".

If this stance cuts against much of what Israel's security and defense establishment has done over the past decades, it cuts all the more clearly against the actions of Hamas. Firing rockets into Israeli cities do not make anyone in Palestine safer. And when one looks at the ends that much of Hamas explicitly own up to - to force an end to Israel - there is no question that their attacks do not make that end more likely. And I wish I could say there was no question that the end would not be worth achieving even if Hamas stood to achieve it, but sadly that is not a point where there is a consensus. I think we both know that there are people on the American left who call themselves our (but mostly my) colleagues who do think that end is beneath justification.

This has been quite a rambling post, but what I meant to say is ultimately that the fact that nothing has changed does not make the question of what to do impossible to answer - it suggests an answer, which is to scale down violence and militancy in policy. If all approaches are equally likely to fail, its better to fail in a way that doesn't cost additional lives. I think this is the stance Israel should adopt, but I don't imagine they will and I suppose its hard to blame them. It's a resigned stance that commits one to never winning but doing the best for the good anyway, even when most of that extra good will be enjoyed by people who one counts as enemies. What politician would be crazy enough to take that position?

Word verification: cheer

Cycle Cyril said...

If you do what you've always done you will get the same results.

Israel for way too long has been on the receiving end of rocketry and has done nothing about it of significance and even this weekend's actions may very well come to naught as did the Lebanon War in 2006 since the leadership is unchanged and clueless.

The Arabs of Gaza and the West Bank, whether it is the leadership alone or not, have shown no regard for any rule of war let alone just war theory either of which truly demands reciprocity for it to be of use.

Warfare is not tit for tat. It is not you shoot one rocket and I drop one bomb. It is the use of disproportionate force to convince your enemy to give up or die. Since the Palestinians don't have disproportionate force the are then using the useful idiots in the West and in the UN to tell you how awful the Israels and Jews are - all the while ignoring the Palestinian call for the destruction of Israel and their general call for the conversion of the West to Islam.

For the Palestinians to stop they need to feel pain. However miserable their lives may be now it needs to be made worse and the leadership decapitated until they give up totally and not just give a hudna (a temporary truce until they can regroup and attack again.)

Many would die but they are literally asking for it and state clearly they are not afraid of death while in the West and Israel care about remaining alive.

For once I say let's be multicultural and give them the culture of necrophilia that they want - before they give to Israel and the rest of the West.