On Ariel Sharon and Gaza.

The Gaza Strip.

The Gaza Strip.

News came out of Israel last week that the health of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (who has been in a coma since January 2006) had begun to deteriorate; it’s been reported in the past few hours that he’s now in critical condition. It really is just a matter of time before the media will have to start publishing obituaries — and if they’re anything like last week’s proto-obituaries, it’s a good bet most will get the story of Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza wrong.

So before that happens, a few quick notes.

The way this story is generally told is some version of the following: “Ariel Sharon, a hawkish former general known throughout Israel as ‘the father of the settlements,’ surprised the world when he left the rightwing Likud to form a centrist party, Kadima, and took the difficult if pragmatic decision to withdraw Israel’s military from the Gaza Strip in 2005, despite fierce backlash among his once fervent supporters.”

The reason this version of the story is inaccurate is because it is incomplete.

The decision to withdraw from Gaza was fiercely contested, it did come as a surprise, and it was pragmatic — but not because Sharon had become somehow less hawkish. It was pragmatic precisely because Sharon was still a hawk, and he had understood that he had to lose Gaza in order to save the West Bank.

As former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies Yossi Alpher pointed out soon after Sharon announced his plan to pull out of Gaza, “the advent of the Geneva Initiative and the frenzied response of the Israeli right – with every senior political figure espousing his or her new plan, and most advocating disengagement – precipitated this development.”

One characteristic of Sharon’s approach has not changed at all: He did not present a realistic strategy for peace. First he “hijacked” the [security] barrier and distorted it by transforming it from a legitimate means of self-defense into a political tactic for creating a Palestinian bantustan. Now he has hijacked the idea of disengagement and the dismantling of settlements – which was originally intended by the left to rescue Israel demographically… and seeks to reconstitute it as a rationale for fencing in the Palestinians and grabbing the rest of the West Bank.

Alpher’s reference to the Geneva Initiative is the key element here. The Initiative (also frequently called “the Geneva Accord”) is a draft plan for a two-state peace along the 1967 borders with a shared Jerusalem. Launched by a group of Israeli and Palestinian thought leaders in October 2003, the ideas represented by the Initiative quickly gained significant support among the Israeli public — by the summer of 2004, that support had reached as high as 76%.

Sharon had seen the writing on the wall, and knew full well that a two-state peace meant the loss of the West Bank and an end to any notion of Greater Israel. Always a very savvy politician, he grabbed some of the Intiative’s ideas and vocabulary in order to stem the tide.

Or, in the words of his close adviser, Dov Weissglas, in October 2004:

The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political [diplomatic] process with the Palestinians.

…The American term is to park conveniently. The disengagement plan makes it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians. There is a decision here to do the minimum possible in order to maintain our political situation. The decision is proving itself…. It compels the world to deal with our idea, with the scenario we wrote. It places the Palestinians under tremendous pressure. 

The “disengagement” also included a withdrawal from four small Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank, which Weissglas described thus:

The withdrawal in [the West Bank] is a token one. We agreed to only so it wouldn’t be said that we concluded our obligation in Gaza.

…Arik [Sharon] doesn’t see Gaza today as an area of national interest. He does see Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] as an area of national interest. He thinks rightly that we are still very very far from the time when we will be able to reach final-status settlements in Judea and Samaria.

And finally, it’s very important to remember that Sharon refused to actually negotiate the pull-back with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, insisting instead that the withdrawal be unilateral — which in turn meant that two-state minded Palestinians had nothing to show for a decade of negotiations, and Hamas, which during the same decade had waged a brutal terrorist campaign, was able to claim victory.

The withdrawal from Gaza was a unilateral act intended to freeze out the Palestinian leadership and put the peace process itself on ice, so that Israel could deepen its hold on the West Bank.

And guess what? It worked.

UPDATE 1/12/14: Haaretz ran a report today suggesting that newly revealed documents show that Sharon was already thinking about further territorial concessions in the West Bank at the time of his death. I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions the writer draws, and will blog about it sometime this week, but I thought I should link to the report in the meantime — to read it, click here. [h/t and thanks to Brent Sasely].

What it means for gravel to enter Gaza.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn international affairs as in life, it’s often the little things. As little as a pebble perhaps, or, more specifically: gravel.

Supporters of Israel’s right-wing government like to insist that the Gaza Strip is no longer occupied, the argument being that once the IDF left Gaza’s interior, the occupation ceased—but consider if you will the following information, released on Wednesday by Israeli human rights organization Gisha:

For the first time since the [blockade] was imposed on the Gaza Strip in [September] 2007, Israel has allowed the entry of gravel for the private sector.

Which is to say: For more than five years, a foreign power has determined that Gaza’s commercial interests may not have access to little rocks.

It’s true that some 1000 trucks’ worth of gravel have been allowed into the Strip in recent months, but it was all bound for international organizations (who had to undergo a lengthy application process to obtain the gravel), and absolutely not for local businesses.

I’ve never had to rebuild a war-shattered economy or infrastructure, but I think it’s a safe bet that without gravel, such rebuilding might be a fair bit tougher. Yet for five years, Israel has kept that resource from any Gazans who have needed it, along with a long and varying list of other items, the fate of each item resting, of course, with Israel’s military bureaucrats. At various times the list has included concrete, paper, musical instruments, and nutmeg. Indeed, as Gisha recently forced the government to admit, at a certain point Israel calculated just how many calories Gazans need in order not to starve.

Israel’s official reason for disallowing gravel and other construction materials is that they’re “dual use,” meaning that they can also be used for military purposes. I’m not sure how nutmeg fits into this calculus, but leaving spices aside for the moment, there’s a special kind of knowing obfuscation that insists that the State of Israel may reasonably prevent Gazans from obtaining, well, anything—and may furthermore make decisions about how much food Gazans need—but Israel is not an occupying power.

And of course it’s entirely possible that gravel and concrete can be, and in fact are, used to produce weapons. I’m pretty sure that Israel’s busy producing weapons even as I type—the difference is that no one’s in a position to stop them.

But here’s another thing that’s likely to produce weapons: Treating human beings this badly.

I don’t know if Israel’s noticed, but human beings who are told how much food they may eat and where and whether or not they may build have traditionally chosen to fight back.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Ceasefires are good.

Ceasefires are good. The decision to no longer actively try to kill each other is good. Few dead babies, fewer destroyed homes, less fear all around — these are good things. But they are not peace.

I think very few people (those who know me in real life, and/or those who know me/my work online) have a sense of just how entirely the recent Israeli-Palestinian violence consumed my every waking hour (and most of my sleeping ones, too) from November 14 through November 21. I was churning out copy for three different outlets (The Daily Beast, where I ran four pieces, The Atlantic, where I ran a particularly research-heavy one, and a couple of posts right here on this wee blog, where I knew people would be turning for additional background), I was on HuffPost Live three times, was invited on to various radio shows, and was in the process of being scheduled to be on Al-Jazeera when the news changed drastically.

And then there’s the activity that people who aren’t on Twitter (or least: the political/activist sub-section of Twitter) won’t really get, but: I was on Twitter all the time. I was vetting news stories and opinion pieces, analyzing events in real time, answering questions, helping create a space for people who wanted to express something other than blind hatred, fielding an enormous amount of anger and ill-will, and following events as closely as I possibly could — I knew what was happening before news outlets reported it, because I was reading the reports of  people actually on the ground, and as Andy Carvin first proved during the Egyptian revolution, being in a position to curate that onrush of information is a much sought-after skill. In short, though I was doing it long-distance, I was reporting. Which meant that I was also reporting in my sleep. Plus I had some other work to do, too. (And I continue to beat back the mess created by someone who decided, in the middle of all this, to hack one of my email accounts in such a way as to subscribe me to 900 different professional newsletters. Because that’ll show me).

And then, much more quickly than all that started, it ended, and the press reported the ceasefire and the world pivoted and it was almost-Thanksgiving, then Thanksgiving, then Black Friday, and done.

I describe my level of involvement with the unfolding of events in order to say this: All of it was fine. I was tired and emotionally spent? So what? My house wasn’t blown to smithereens. I wasn’t in fear for my children’s lives. All I can ever do for anyone over there is be a Jewish Israeli who bears witness to the pain and suffering of both sides, and if that’s my role, that’s fine and I’m privileged to fill it. I’m privileged to hear from Jews who were afraid they were the only ones thinking certain thoughts, I’m privileged to hear from Palestinians who were afraid there were no Israelis who saw their truth. I don’t like dreaming of war, or being accused of terrible things, and/or having my email hacked, but it’s a reallyreally small price to pay, particularly given what people are actually living through.

My difficulty — my ridiculous, petty, and unimportant difficulty — comes when the guns fall silent, and I look at an agreement made between two sworn enemies given to violence, and all I can see is a chance to rest before the next bout of violence begins. When I look back on a quarter century of peace advocacy, and realize, yet again, that not only have we gotten nowhere in our efforts, but our goal — a genuine, durable, peace — is in fact more impossible now than it was during the first intifada.

Despair is a luxury, and it’s one for which neither my children nor the Israeli and Palestinian peoples have time. There are people to be fed, and other people who need to be heard. I don’t have the time, nor do I have the right, to sink into despair.

And yet here I sit.

I don’t know exactly where the future will bring us, and I know that some are looking at the events of last week and seeing reasons for hope (Hamas’s willingness to not block Abbas’s UN bid is a good sign! Netanyahu and Obama found a way to work together! That one Hamas cleric said breaking the ceasefire would be a sin! Some Israelis thought it was a good thing to stop pounding Gaza!) — but I weary of the desperate effort to claw hope from hopelessness.

Aside from any other consideration, the Israelis currently in power are about to get re-elected, and because of this war, their mandate will be bigger, and more right-wing. They have not heretofore shown even the slightest interest in resolving the conflict — quite the contrary — and there is simply no reason to think that post-election, short of an enormous amount of US pressure, they will do anything but become more set in their war-mongering/occupation-perpetrating ways. None.

Unless I’m very much wrong (and please God, let me be wrong), my job here is to serve as a witness to the end of something. I will fill that role — paid or unpaid, apparently — but that’s the role.

Israelis role-play Palestinians: “I’m God’s creature, too.”

Please watch this short video of Israelis living in Sderot, one of the towns most frequently hit by Palestinian militants’ rockets, role-playing Palestinians living under occupation. It starts out depressing, and by the end, has a kind of excruciating beauty to it.

*

I wish I could thank all the people involved here personally.

h/t +972

Incompetence or indifference?

There’s a ceasefire now between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, and that’s good, because it’s better that people get to sleep without fear, really and truly. But if it doesn’t lead to a genuine peace accord (which…), it’s just a breather and we’ll be right back here again in four years or four months. So it goes.

Meantime, in all the flurry of activity, I somehow forgot to post this here, so I post it now.

As a peace advocate, I am forever confronted by Israeli and/or American Jews (and the occasional gentile) who take one look at any exchange of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants and say: “Yes, sure, all civilian deaths are terrible—but for Israelis, they’re unintentional. The Palestinians actually target civilians.”

And as one of those civilians who used to be targeted on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I have no problem saying that intentionally targeting civilians is wrong—is, in fact, a war crime. I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again, but I have no love for Hamas or the other extremist Palestinian militant groups. None.

But I weary of the desperate clinging to the word “unintentional” on my side of this decades-long war.

From the end of September 2000 through the end of September 2012, Israel was responsible for the deaths of 3,034 Palestinian noncombatants, of whom well more than a third were minors: 1,338. And that’s not counting the noncombatants and children (including several toddlers and at least one pregnant woman) killed in the last week alone.

Whether these corpses can be considered collateral damage, accidents, the unintended outcome of well-targeted efforts—simply no longer matters to me. When your state has piled up more than 3000 dead bodies, more than 1,300 of them the bodies of children, it simply no longer matters.

If we accept at face value the idea that Israel takes every possible precaution to preclude civilian deaths (a notion I cannot help but question when I read reports like this, and this, and this), then we are left with only one possible explanation: Rank, criminal incompetence.

If we reject the idea of incompetence (though I have yet to meet a human being incapable of serious error), then we are left with only one other possible explanation: Rank, criminal indifference.

I can already hear the protests that Hamas and other militants hide among civilians, that they are really to blame for these deaths, that it’s not Israel’s fault—and I do not deny that Palestinian extremists share the blame.

But is it really “hiding among civilians” to go to your own house? Is it really “hiding among civilians” to drive down a residential street?

And what if the shoe were on the other foot? Are we willing to say that Israeli soldiers are “hiding among civilians” when they ride city buses, or that Israel’s Defense Ministry is “hiding among civilians” because it’s located in the very heart of Tel Aviv? Yes, Hamas are terrorists and the IDF is a state’s army—but are military targets in civilian locales legitimate, or not?

I can no longer keep track of all the Israeli and American Jews who have contacted me in recent days to tell me (as if I might not have yet heard) that Hamas intentionally targets civilians, and Israel does not.

But when I look at those numbers, when I see the pictures of tiny, broken bodies pulled from utter destruction, when I see the wailing of fathers and mothers, their dead children wrapped in white shrouds, never to feel their parents’ arms around them again—I no longer care.

Incompetence or indifference, neither can be an excuse anymore. And in the meantime, more children die.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Yep, again, on HuffPost Live about Israel and Gaza. And Twitter.

No yelling this time, mostly agreement and gentle head-nodding. I’m pretty glad I managed to wrangle my needs-to-be-cut hair a little more successfully today.

If you want to watch, click here; if you’re my mom, I start talking at the 6 minute, 35 second mark.

What Israel doesn’t get about Twitter.

I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and since the violence escalated between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza last week, my Twitter time has only increased.

And as others have noted before me, official Israel doesn’t seem to really get how Twitter works.

The IDF Spokesman has tweeted warnings to members of Hamas not to show their faces above ground, warned journalists to stay away from Hamas operatives (which would likely make it difficult for them to get the story) and, of course, sent out the now infamous poster of Ahmed Jabari, the assassinated head of Hamas’s military wing, with the word “ELIMINATED” emblazoned across it.

For his part, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., American-Israeli Michael Oren, has tweeted and then deleted an apparent willingness to negotiate with Hamas, has made a point of the “pin-point” accuracy of Israel’s airstrikes (with nary a mention of the pictures that suggest otherwise), and while he’s expressed concern over the fact that Hamas is known to intimidate members of the press in Gaza, he has yet to tweet his concern for the members of the press who were in the Gaza City media tower when Israel bombed it. Twice. (For the record: Several were injured, and one lost his leg.)

What official Israel doesn’t understand is that Twitter is not a press release office, where people in official positions offer top-down, authoritative information, setting the narrative for any and all, in 140-characters bites. Twitter is not, to put it another way, the best outlet for hasbara.

Twitter is, in fact, as far from top-down as it could be—it is horizontal, and sideways, and loop-de-loop. If you misspeak, there’s no simple deletion—that tweet will live in screen-caps forever and aye, unless and until you actually address what was said. If you crow about the deaths of your enemies, people all over the world now have an equal chance to point out just how heartless that makes you look. And no matter how hard you try to direct the narrative, millions of other voices can chime in to say you’re wrong—and do so in the hearing of the very people you’re trying to win over.

A big part of why my Jerusalem-born-and-bred husband and I chose to raise our Israeli children in the Diaspora can be seen buried in official Israel’s hasbara-ish tweets: A callous, arrogant indifference to the lives of those we occupy (and upon whom we are now waging war), and a swaggering, overweening insistence that everybody else sit down and listen. Even if it means stretching, ignoring, or re-weighting the truth, even if it means a constant drumbeat of insistence that we, and only we, suffer. That we, and only we, deserve human compassion. That we, and only we, have a right to behave as if we live in the middle of a war.

The unwillingness to admit the existence of legitimate competing narratives, the cavalier indifference to any lives lost on the way to our latest target, and the stalwart insistence that Israel is always right drove my husband and me from our home. It is reflecting very badly on that home as this war continues.

And far more to the point: If more reasonable voices do not appear soon (on Twitter or, rather more importantly, in the halls of Israeli power), I fear that it will ultimately mean the end of the Zionist dream.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Yes, again! On HuffPost Live, talking about Israel and Gaza.

It was significantly less shouty than the segment that I did on Friday, but I fear I wandered around a bit when I first started talking, but then later I got to say “I’m sorry, did you call me a liar?” So that was ok.

To watch it click here; if you’re my mom, I start talking at about the 4 minute mark.

Some helpful background for talking with folks who support Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza.

On Friday, commenter Jane mentioned that she’s been getting email from a beloved (and generally pretty groovy!) family member asking her to “Join my cause: Israel Has a Right to Protect Itself,” and that while she understands the point, she would like to help dial down the tone a little and “have an actual discussion about what the occupation and the settlements are doing to real, live human beings” (which desire, it should be noted, Jane acknowledged as being “like the unicorn of Israel/Palestine politics”…!)

I thought I’d front page the question and my response, because I know that people frequently come here looking for just that kind of help!

With a few small edits, this is what I said:

I try to take a two-pronged approach.

One prong is purely practical: Whatever one thinks about the ethics of Israel’s policies, have they worked? Israel has been talking about chopping Hamas to pieces (literally) for 25 years — are Israel’s citizens safe now? Did that work? You could send her this, about how futile Israel’s anti-Hamas efforts have been which, among other things, points out that

“In other words, a policy with the stated goal of weakening Hamas in Gaza has not only had the effect of strengthening its rule there but also resulted in the proliferation of tunnels through which terrorist groups have been able to obtain weapons.”

And if she counters with “We tried peace” (which is what people often counter with), you can say that during the years of the Oslo Accords, during which time Palestinians were nominally supposed to start building their state, settler numbers doubled (and the settler population has since more than doubled again) — which is to say: The number of people living on land that everyone in the world including Israel thinks is Palestinian doubled at precisely the time that Israel said that it had committed to establishing a Palestinian state on that land.

And if she counters with “But Israel withdrew from Gaza” (ditto), you can say that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas *begged* Israel to negotiate that withdrawal, or to at least negotiate security arrangements, and the Sharon government refused — meaning that the minute Israel left (though it remains surrounding Gaza, determining who and what goes in and out), Hamas was free to claim victory for the withdrawal, and thus, there have never been any arrangements with the Palestinian government to deal with security breaches. Five months after the withdrawal (January 2006), Hamas narrowly won legislative elections, in part because of the impression that their terrorist campaigns ran Israel out of town.

The second prong is: This is a war. When people are in the middle of a war, they react defensively, they prepare for battle, they become enraged when their homes are destroyed and children killed, and sometimes they do terrible things, whether on purpose or by error. This is how it always is and always has been — you’re right that Israel has a right to defend itself, but it simply makes no sense to expect that Palestinians won’t react to their suffering, too.

My Atlantic piece might also be helpful — it’s meant to demonstrate just how much each side has been firing away at each other all along + causality numbers. I don’t editorialize in it, I just present the facts, but the facts paint something of a picture. You might send her that, as well.

“Who started the Israel-Gaza conflict?” – me on The Atlantic online.

You read that right – I have a piece up at The Atlantic online right now, and not just up, but up in the blog space of senior editor Robert Wright…!

He tweeted a question out to the world yesterday, I offered to help him with it, in the manner of “I used to be a correspondent’s assistant, I can totally do that for you,” and last night he let me know that he’d be posting it as my post!

It’s a timeline of events, as drawn from a variety of sources, from Nov 8 – Nov 15. Following is my introduction; to read Mr. Wright’s brief backgound on how the piece came about, and to read the timeline itself, click here.

Recent events in Israel and the Gaza Strip have been unusual only in scope. Violence and fear of violence is a near-daily reality for the residents of Gaza and Israel’s southern communities. There’s a constant back and forth, and on both sides, there’s always something or someone to avenge.

For instance, some Palestinian sources date the start of this latest round of violence back to November 4, when Reuters reported the death of “an unarmed, mentally unfit man” who strayed too near the border fence, did not respond to reported Israeli warnings, and was then shot. Palestinian medics report that Israeli security personnel prevented them from attending to the man for a couple of hours, and say that he likely died as a result.

But it’s genuinely impossible to date today’s hostilities conclusively to one incident or another; even the “two-week lull” that some outlets have said preceded Nov. 8 (when the timeline below begins) was, according to Reuters “a period of increased tensions at the Israel-Gaza frontier, with militants often firing rockets at Israel and Israel launching aerial raids targeting Palestinian gunmen.”

According to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as of November 13, Palestinian militants had fired 797 rockets into Israel in the course of 2012 , and according to the Israeli human rights organization Btselem, between January 2009 (the conclusion of the last all-out Gaza war) and September of this year, 25 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, and 314 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces, with six more being killed by Israeli civilians.

To read the rest, please click here. (And thank you so much, Bob!)

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