Monday, August 4, 2014

Life and Death in Gaza




Israel’s attack on Gaza and the resulting mass slaughter of civilians – especially children – has elicited a flood of opinion everywhere in the world. Though there are many who have supported Israel’s actions, most of the commentary has reflected the natural outrage of people everywhere. It is hard to analyze rationally when babies are dying in their mothers’ arms and ambulances carrying the injured are being bombed. Humanity itself seems to be under attack. And yet, it is also true that we are where we are in part because rational analysis has too often been superseded by emotional choices. The consequences of this on the Palestinian side have been analyzed very eloquently by Omar Ali in a recent article on Brown Pundits. I will focus on two other parties in this matter – Israel, and the so-called “Muslim World”.

One of the greatest luxuries one can have in any conflict is to choose one’s opponent. It is not a choice available in most cases, but Israel has that luxury when it comes to the Palestinians, for reasons that are too obvious to need discussion. It can choose the moderate, accommodating Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad, or the hard-line, militant Hamas. Almost all Israeli actions over the last few years seem calculated to humiliate the former, thereby elevating the latter by default. Perhaps, it can be argued, the plan was to delegitimize both – the PA by the encroachment of settlements and refusal to negotiate, and Hamas by turning Gaza into an impoverished hell-hole. If so, the plan has only half-worked. Hamas has managed to periodically recharge its “reputation” by firing rockets into Israel and, most importantly, engaging in combat with the IDF during a series of invasions (2008, 2012 and now 2014): Every time Israel invades, hundreds of innocent people die and Hamas emerges strengthened by having “stood up” to Israel, thus frustrating Israeli attempts to diminish it. A more cynical reading of the situation – and I plead maximal cynicism when it comes to international affairs – is that Israel’s current government actually understands this dynamic very well, and plays along with it for strategic reasons. Making Hamas the face of the Palestinian cause and turning the purveyors of ineffectual rockets into Arab “heroes” fits well into the right-wing narrative of Likud and its allies. Palestinians cheering for Hamas are easily portrayed as irredeemable anti-Semites out to annihilate Israel, and, as an added bonus, the periodic conflicts often force the normally moderate PA to move towards Hamas – at least temporarily – for political reasons, making the demonization of all Palestinians even easier. It seems like a good strategy, but in fact, it is a disastrous one for two reasons.

First, it eats away at one the greatest assets Israel has – critical thinking. One thing that has enabled Israel to adapt and succeed in its difficult environment is its tradition of messy, contentious, skeptical argument within the society at large – a kind of intellectual dynamism that has made its politics both chaotic and flexible. Now, under the systematic influence of right-wing strategy, that diversity of thinking is being replaced by a frighteningly uniform and blind nationalism based on an “us-versus-them” attitude with de-humanization of the other side. Though there are still islands of critical thinking in Israeli society, once a process of mindless de-humanization gathers steam, it seldom leads to anything good, and the de-humanizers often end up de-humanizing themselves.

Second, empowering Hamas indirectly enhances the prestige of Islamist movements as champions of Muslim causes and undermines whatever traces of secular humanism may remain in most Muslim societies. It is neither in Israel’s interest, nor in that of Europe or the US, to have this happen – though it may well be in the interest of military-industrial complexes on all sides. Which brings me to the attitude of the Muslim world.

Deploring and rejecting Israel’s actions in Gaza is natural, and not confined to Muslims by any means. All too often, however, condemnation of Israel has turned into glorification of Hamas. Nothing could be more dangerous or counter-productive. Not only is Hamas following a strategy that exacts an unnecessarily high cost in Palestinian suffering, it is part of a larger movement – revivalist Islam – that represents the single greatest threat to Muslim societies everywhere. When I see Pakistani friends who despise the Taliban and want to “bomb them into the stone age” celebrating Hamas as brave champions of freedom, I find it perplexing. If Hamas had the opportunity to implement its desired state, it would be far closer to what the Taliban want than to a secular democracy. Of course, there are differences. Unlike the Taliban and ISIS, Hamas (and Hezbollah) are not nihilists. They have a “positive” agenda too, and much more sophisticated political strategies. They are more akin to the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood – but these groups are all on the same spectrum. Over the last few years, countries like Pakistan and Iraq have suffered terribly at the hands of Islamist extremists, and many people – including most liberals – advocate tactics against these groups that are not very different than what Israel is applying in Gaza today. In part, this reflects the widely-held (and justified) view that the Palesitinians are seeking their freedom, while the Taliban and ISIS are just seeking power. However, we would do well to remember that Hamas is also seeking power along with freedom, and that its power will not be used in ways that many of those cheering it on today would find acceptable.

Another thing to keep in mind is that selective outrage is usually ineffective. Israeli bombs have killed almost two thousand Palestinians, which is a terrible toll – especially horrific because of the high number of civilians killed. But Bashar al-Assad has killed more than a hundred thousand people! People are being massacred almost every day in Pakistan and Iraq for belonging to the wrong sect or religion. The innocent girls kidnapped by Boko Haramis in Nigeria are still missing, with even more abductions since. Militants are on the rampage in Libya, the Central African Republic, and in various other parts of Africa, often in the name of Islam. These too deserve an equal measure of outrage – unless, of course, one finds being killed by Jews worse than being killed by Muslims. Say it ain’t so.

On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, unfortunately, we seem to be trapped in a nightmare. Unless one of the parties changes its stance radically, we are likely to see escalating cycles of violence, initially with mutually facilitated radicalization, and eventually reaching mutually assured destruction. And while most of the deaths will no doubt occur on the Palestinian side, Israel would do well to remember that there are ways of dying other than losing one’s life.