Gaza vs. Israel: The never-ending rematch

Targeting enemy civilians is a war crime. Let’s not entertain any doubt about that. Hamas and other Palestinian militants have targeted Israeli civilians with rockets for years; the fact that these rockets are crude and their aim poor doesn’t mitigate the simple fact: Targeting civilians is a war crime.

Trying to determine who “started” our current state of conflict is not quite so simple, though, unless we accept ideology as fact. For some Jews, the Palestinians started it by refusing to accept our nationalism as ascendant to theirs; for some Palestinians, the Jews started it, in precisely the same way.

If, however, we’re trying to uncover a chain of discrete events leading to the seemingly permanent state of war between Israel and Gaza, the waters are muddy. Did the latest round of rockets come in response to an IDF incursion, or the other way around? Did it start when Israel neutralized a terrorist infiltrator, or was that terrorist a farmer trying to gather crops? Both sides play into the provocation-response cycle, each conveniently forgetting that actions have consequences, often beyond those we first imagined.

Each society brings to this process its own dysfunctions, as well, picking and choosing which events support which narrative, often to paradoxical ends. Israel’s paradoxical storyline goes something like this: We control the West Bank, and Gaza’s borders and airspace, but only because we have no choice, because we’re victims facing annihilation, but/and our military (which we love and are very proud of because it’s the region’s most powerful) can be trusted to pound our enemies (armed with crude rockets and a shattered society, but that goes into the “forgetfulness” file) into submission. Just let the IDF win – t’nu l’Tzahal lenatzeah!

As problematic as any of our cognitive inconsistencies might be (and I can only assume Palestinian society has its own), the biggest discrepancy appears to be all but invisible: The IDF has, actually, been pounding Hamas for some time, and oh hey, look – here we are again.

Let’s go to the tape:

Israel officially withdrew from Gaza nine years ago; the following months saw both rockets and air strikes. On June 24, 2006, Israeli forces entered southern Gaza and kidnaped two suspected Hamas members from their homes. Hamas retaliated the next day with a cross-border raid in which two soldiers were killed, and Gilad Shalit captured.

Israel then launched Operation Summer Rains. Prime Minister Olmert was clear about the operation’s goals: “to release the kidnapped soldier and eliminate terror.”

In the course of hostilities, the IDF seized 64 Hamas-linked Palestinian officials, flattened Gaza’s power plant, razed several bridges, and by October, had killed 256 Palestinians, including 60 children. Two Israeli soldiers were also killed, and 31 civilians injured.

In the winter of 2008/2009, we saw Operation Cast Lead.

To read the rest, please go to Haaretz.

Israel’s addiction to military force, its only response in times of crisis.

People have short memories. It’s an all-too-human quality that frankly allows politics to continue. But even so, there are times when Israelis’ short-term memory loss can leave me breathless.

When three yeshiva students were kidnapped two weeks ago, the collective response was immediate, and visceral: Bring the boys home, and spare no effort, no matter how costly or violent. The nation’s security forces leapt into action, and Israelis’ prayers were mixed with palpable rage. Few worried that dozens and then hundreds of people – Palestinians -were being swept up in a massive and indiscriminate dragnet; few paused to consider the efficacy or ethics of raiding well more than a thousand targets, including private homesuniversities, and media outlets; few questioned the wisdom of using live fire against those who dared protest it all, killing (among others) a 15-year old boy and a mentally unstable man on his way to morning prayers. Military spokesman Peter Lerner told us, and few questioned it, that the government and military “are committed to resolving the kidnapping and debilitating Hamas terrorist capacities, its infrastructure and its recruiting institutions.”

And perhaps – perhaps – if these methods had successfully resolved past abductions, if the forces intent on grabbing Israelis had abated, perhaps we could at least understand the impetus, struggle as we might with the unending horror of this unending war. But the simple fact is that all of these methods, all of them, have been used time and again, and all have failed spectacularly.

To continue reading, please click through to Haaretz.

An Israeli’s thoughts on Palestinian unity.

And thus my regular column at The Daily Beast/Zion Square begins! I’ll be running a post every other Friday, starting today (in addition to the occasional one-off piece, such as the one that ran on launch day).

You’ll find the top of today’s entry below — I suspect it will win me few friends, but there it is. One doesn’t get into the poorly-paying having-opinions-about-Israel/Palestine biz in order to win friends.

To read the whole thing, I encourage you to click here — and just like I did last week, I really mean it: Please click! (And of course: FB, Tweet, Stumble, Pin, Digg, etc, and so on. Tell your friends! Is what I’m saying). I would surely take it as a kindness.

You Don’t Make Peace With Your Friends

I was at the grocery store on Arlozorov Street one bright spring morning in 1997. Tel Aviv was gearing up for Purim, so I likely had hamentaschen in the cart, certainly challah and probably milk. I was, no doubt, staring into the middle distance when I began to notice a certain agitation animating the store’s elderly security guard. He crossed the store and began to speak in urgent tones with his manager, radio in hand.

In Israel, these are signs that “mashehu kara,” something’s happened – and by “something” folks mean: an attack, rockets, Israeli death at Arab hands.

The security guard, it transpired, had heard news of another suicide bombing – but this one was literally around the corner from my apartment. On that spring day, three young mothers, out for coffee, were killed at the now-infamous Apropos Restaurant.

I was then a correspondents’ assistant with the Los Angeles Times, so I rushed home, got my reporter’s notebook, and ran the space of three apartment buildings to the scene. Later that night, having walked past the blood and talked to witnesses and called family to say that yes, it was very near our house but no, we were fine, I sank to the floor in my hallway, suddenly weeping.

Of all the acts of terrorism that ripped through Israel in the 14 years I lived there, this one retains a particular power over me, its proximity to my home a reminder that Hamas was gunning for me and mine, as well. If the three mothers had been three mothers + a young married couple? So much the better. Three people, or twenty; young, or old – as long as they were dead.

I take Hamas very seriously, and I take their hatred of me very personally. I do not like them, I do not support them, I do not apologize for them.

But with whom else am I to make peace?

And of course, while you’re at Zion Square, take a look around! There’s a lot of good stuff being produced, and it’s just about the only place you’ll find that range and depth of opinion. That Peter Beinart, man. He’s a saint to have taken this on, and to be standing tall under all the garbage being dumped on him (seriously, read Andrew Sullivan’s “The Assault on Peter Beinart.” It’ll make your hair stand on end). Show the blog some love. He/it deserves it.

Gilad Shalit comes home, & the two-state solution dies.

Gilad Shalit is embraced by his father, Noam, immediately after his return to Israel.

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is home today, in his mother’s and father’s arms, his physical wounds receiving treatment, his other wounds no doubt just beginning to emerge. But he’s home. And that is a very, very good thing, and it’s good aside from and beyond anything else. Nothing I write here or anywhere else changes that. I am trying to hold that in my mind even as I consider all of the horror that surrounds that one, shining, good thing.

Last week, I wrote about some of what’s been wrong in Israel’s response to Shalit’s capture from day one — from day-minus-one, actually, given the Israeli kidnapping of two Gazan men from their homes, one day before Shalit was captured (in uniform and on duty) by Palestinian militants.

Today I’m going to write about what is so frightening and heartbreaking about the implications of the whole, broader story in which Shalit plays a part.

Gilad Shalit was captured in June 2006, about ten months after Israel’s 2005 retreat from the Gaza Strip. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza was hotly contested, but was presented to the Israeli public as a way to disengage the two warring peoples, leave the Gazans to their own fate, and — in the part that most Westerners failed to notice or chose to ignore — make it easier for Israel to hold on to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The problem (well – among the problems) is that in spite of repeated, and desperate, requests from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel walked away without so much as a by-your-leave.

There were no negotiations, certainly no security arrangements, and as a result, the Palestinian moderates (Abbas and his Fatah party) with whom Israel had purportedly been negotiating for 10 years had nothing to show for their efforts.

As a result, Hamas was able to claim the credit for its decade of terror, boosting the movement tremendously in Palestinian eyes and playing a crucial role in its January 2006 electoral victory (a narrow victory, due more to Fatah’s splintering and efforts to game the system than to any great support for Hamas — witness the fact that the next day, three-quarters of Palestinians polled told Al-Jazeera they hoped Hamas would negotiate peace). Moreover, the lack of security arrangements might very well have played a role in the Shalit capture and Israel’s inability to get him back. We can’t know for sure, but it’s certainly a reasonable question to ask.

Then on June 25, 2006, Shalit was captured. Israel launched an all-out assault on the Gaza Strip, ultimately wreaking tremendous damage on the Strip’s infrastructure and killing more than 250 Palestinians; sixty-four Palestinian legislators and government officials were kidnapped in the operation’s early days. Here’s a snippet from a CNN report on July 1:

Shalit’s abduction on Sunday by Palestinian militants triggered an ongoing military offensive that Israel says is aimed at freeing the soldier.

The groups said they wanted 1,000 Arab prisoners released from Israeli jails, according to a statement faxed to media outlets early Saturday. The statement did not make it clear whether the groups were asking for the prisoners’ releases in return for Shalit’s release.

The prisoners include women and children.

Israel has flatly rejected any prisoner swap.

Israel continued to “flatly reject any prisoner swap” for years, insisting that it would wrest Shalit from Hamas’s hands/punish Hamas for taking him in the first place, right through the 2008/09 Gaza War, in which some 1,387 Palestinians were killed, including 773 who weren’t involved in combat and 119 who were under the age of 11. During these same years of non-negotiation, 13 Israelis (soldiers and civilians) were killed in the course of hostilities.

Not quite a year after it launched the Gaza War, Israel said that it would be releasing 980 prisoners in exchange for Shalit. That deal fell apart, and in the ensuing nearly three years, Israel has continued both to try to do the thing it had “flatly refused” to do, while also still pounding away at Gaza intermittently. Gazan militants have responded off and on with rocket fire, but as in the past, the vast majority of casualties have been on the Palestinian side.

Jump to today. Five + years later, a total of something like 2,000 Palestinians and several Israelis dead — and Hamas has successfully worn Israel down, winning the release of more than 1000 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Or at least that’s what it looks like to Palestinians, and unsurprisingly, Hamas’s popularity has soared as a result.

My read is that Hamas in fact wore Israel down, but also caught Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a time when he was both desperately in need of an image boost (being universally reviled across Israel at this point), and really interested in sticking it to Abbas.

After all, Abbas just went to the UN to ask for state recognition for Palestine, and furthermore, the prisoners ideologically closest to Fatah (and furthest from Hamas) had just launched a hunger strike that was gaining real ground. It’s my read that Netanyahu still thinks (despite decades of evidence to the contrary) that Israel can just wait the Palestinians out, and he need never negotiate peace with anyone — particularly if he manages to entirely discredit and fatally weaken the one set of people most interested in such negotiations. And with this previously unthinkable prisoner swap, it is my opinion that Netanyahu has done just that.

So bottom line, from August 2005 through October 2011, from Sharon to Netanyahu, Israel’s greatest achievement in its relationship with the Palestinian people has been to throw Abbas and Fatah off a cliff. Which I gather was, at least in part, the point.

But what Israel — Netanyahu, his government, their supporters, the various pundits, and plain-old-folks who are happy to see Fatah go over the edge — has failed to understand is that there is a cord tied tightly around Fatah’s waist, and the other end is tied to us. By rendering Fatah/Abbas impotent, Israel has finally destroyed the possibility of a two-state peace, and thus doomed the Zionist experiment.

And I mean that. I believe that October 18, 2011 is the day on which Gilad Shalit — a pawn in the hands of more people than I can rightly count at this point — came home, and the day on which the possibility of a two-state solution finally died. I am now more convinced than ever that when history looks back on the modern nation-state of Israel, the Jewish State will feature as just one more disaster in the long list of Jewish disasters.

And we will have people like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu to thank for it.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

Gilad Shalit and 5,383 Palestinians

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next in the blogosphere (and in meat world I happen to be in Israel) so in the meantime I’m running some old posts — today I’m running an updated version of a piece I ran a year ago today. It never fails to stun me how much sturm und drang there always is in Israel/Palestine without anything ever actually getting any better….

Today is the fifth anniversary of the capture of Gilad Shalit. Shalit was serving at an Israeli military post on the border with Gaza when he and his unit were attacked by Palestinian militants. Two other Israeli soldiers were killed; Shalit was taken into Gaza.

This event came a day after Israeli forces went into the homes of two suspected Hamas members in Gaza and kidnapped them, taking them to jail in Israel. According to Israeli human rights group B’tselem, working from figures provided by the Israeli government, Israel currently holds 5,383 Palestinians in its civilian and military detention systems. Also according to B’tselem, and other Israeli human rights organizations, Palestinian prisoners are “routinely tortured” in Israeli jails.

In a joint statement released yesterday, B’tselem along with several Israeli, Palestinian, and international human rights groups called for Shalit’s immediate release:

Human beings are not bargaining chips

Marking five years since the capture of Gilad Shalit, Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organizations state:

Hamas must immediately end inhumane and illegal treatment of Gilad Shalit

Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit has been in captivity for five years. Those holding him have refused to allow him to communicate with his family, nor have they provided information on his well-being and the conditions in which he is being held. The organizations stress that this conduct is inhumane and a violation of international humanitarian law.

Hamas authorities in Gaza must immediately end the cruel and inhuman treatment of Gilad Shalit. Until he is released, they must enable him to communicate with his family and should grant him access to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Truth be told, I wept when Shalit was taken, as I wept over the loss of the soldiers he served with, Lt. Hanan Barak and Staff-Sgt. Pavel Slutzker. I spent hours before the computer, listening, reading, willing the facts to not be facts. These are my people, and as I read the stories of these young men’s lives, I felt I knew them. I cannot imagine the torment their families have lived through in the past  nearly 2,000 days

But I likewise call on Israel to recognize that the political prisoners it holds are just that.

I would call on Israel and my fellow Israelis to think of the families on the other side of the fences and walls. I would call on Israel, and my fellow Israelis, and the world at large to remember all of the many, many God-awful mistakes that Israel has made (including a series of military attacks in which hundreds upon hundreds of Palestinians were killed) in trying to force Hamas to free Shalit — to absolutely no avail.

There are two sides here, and much as I mourn my own people’s losses and pray for Shalit’s safe return home, I cannot forget the suffering that my people, in turn, have caused.

The only way to end the madness is to end it. The only way to end the madness is to build a just peace.

************************

In December, 2010 it looked as if a deal might have been struck to swap Shalit for nearly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. I wrote about it at the time, but as we all know, nothing came of those negotiations. I want to quote some of the facts and figures from that post here; to read the whole thing, click here.

I have compiled a short, and certainly incomplete, timeline outlining the things Israel has done since June 25, 2006 in retaliation for the capture of its soldier, in retaliation for subsequent Hamas retaliations to Israeli attacks, and/or in the name of bringing Shalit home without negotiation:

  1. June 28, 2006 – Israel launches an assault on Gaza, dubbed “Operation Summer Rains” and said to be aimed at freeing Shalit. Great damage is done to Gaza’s infrastructure in the first days, including the destruction of several bridges and the Strip’s single power plant, leaving much of Gaza without electricity or running water.
  2. June 28, 2006 – Israeli jets fly a sortieover the home of Syrian President Bashir Assad, an act of saber-rattling directed at the government Israel accuses of being one of the main sponsors of Palestinian militant organizations. The IDF simultaneously “[raises] its alert level on the northern border, mainly for fear that Hizbullah or other groups will attempt to take advantage of the situation and cause an escalation.”
  3. June 29, 2006 – The IDF kidnaps64 Palestinian legislators and officials from inside Gaza, including eight government ministers.
  4. October 10, 2006 – The UN reportsthat a total of 256 Palestinians have been killed since June 28, of whom 60 are children. 848 have been injured. Some 355 acres of agricultural land have been destroyed, and 3,000 commercial fishermen have lost their incomes because the Israeli navy will not allow them access to fishing grounds off the Gaza coast. Two Israeli soldiers have been killed and 31 Israelis injured. In response to the operation, Hamas has fired 465 Qassam rockets into Israel.
  5. November 1, 2006 – Israel launches “Operation Autumn Clouds,” focusing its attack on the Beit Hanoun neighborhood which frequently serves as a base for rocket fire into Israel. Over the course of eight days, the UN reports that at least 82 Palestinians are killed and 260 injured, and HaAretz concludesthat “the IDF wreaked havoc and terror in Beit Hanoun and left behind hundreds of wounded, as well as destroyed houses, uprooted orchards and a water system that was brought to a standstill. But despite all this, the declared aim of the operation was not achieved and the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel continues.”
  6. November 14, 2006 – The UN expressesits “shock at the horror of Israeli targeting and killing of Palestinian civilians in Beit Hanoun while they were asleep and other civilians fleeing earlier Israeli bombardment.”
  7. February 27, 2007 – Israel launches Operation Warm Winter; between Feb 27 and March 4, Israeli forces kill120 Palestinians, including 34 children, and 269 Palestinians are wounded. In the course of hostilities, 224 rockets and 49 mortars are fired into Israel; one Israeli is killed and 14 injured.
  8. December 27, 2008 – Israel launches Operation Cast Lead, now more commonly known as the Gaza War. In the first day, at least 225 Palestinians are killed and 700 wounded; B’tselem reports that in the course of the war, which lasts until January 18, 2009, Israeli forces killed 1,387 Palestinians, of whom 773 did not take part in the hostilities and 119 were under the age of 11. Three Israeli civilians were killed by Qassam rocket fire, six Israeli soldiers were killed in combat, and four were killed in a friendly fire incident. In July, the United Nations Development Program reported that it would likely take the Palestinians a year to clear the half a million tons of rubble created by Israeli bombardment and bulldozing in the course of the war. It’s widely presumed (and suggested by official Israeli statements) that the continued captivity of Gilad Shalit is at least one of the reasons for the launch of the war.

Yup – Hamas is a terrorist organization. Now what?

Please note update, below.

I’m frequently asked about Hamas with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and this past week has certainly been no exception. The questions take many forms, but they tend to boil down to this very reasonable query: “Hamas is a terrorist organization. How do you make peace with a terrorist organization?” Following is a bulked-up version of an email that I sent last night, in answer to that very question.

There’s no doubt that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Indeed, when I lived in Tel Aviv, they tried to kill me — by sending people to blow themselves up on buses that I rode frequently, and in the middle of a cafe just two half-blocks from my home. I had to cover several of those stories as a newspaper reporter, and I would be lying if I said that doing so wasn’t a particular kind of awful. Seeing what I saw, and knowing that the perpetrators would have been just as happy to have my blood join the blood that was splashed across the sidewalk before me didn’t always leave me feeling particularly even-keeled.

So, yeah. No love from me for Hamas.

But all throughout history, nations — Israel among them — have made peace with organizations and nations they found genuinely reprehensible.

  1. The PLO was (and some factions, let’s be honest, still are) a terrorist organization, and Israel found a way to talk to the PLO.
  2. Egypt and Jordan gave wiping-Israel-off-the-map a very, very good go, and yet Israel managed to find a way to achieve peace agreements with them.
  3. Going farther afield, the IRA was a terrorist organization, and today Ireland has peace.
  4. Not to mention that Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir were, in fact, bona fide terrorists themselves. Egypt made peace with the former, and the world went through the motions of trying to get the latter to make peace with the Arab world writ large, so, yeah. Humanity has a history of making peace with terrorists, both literally and figuratively.

Much of Hamas’s popularity among the Palestinian people is explained much more by their service work than by their violence, however — things like providing soup kitchens, schools, and assistance to families of Palestinians killed by Israel. I’ll admit that I have a hard time giving them any credit for any of that, though, because even having said that, they’re beyond vile. Their vision of Islam is extremist and stultifying, they romanticize and have in the past perpetuated a truly twisted form of violent resistance, and they hate me and mine because of who we are.

But they were, in fact, democratically elected to lead the Palestinian Authority (if only just – people don’t realize that. It was a protest vote against the PLO’s rampant corruption, and it was a “landslide” kind of in the sense of Newt Gingrich’s “revolution” in 1994 or Bush’s “mandate” in 2004. Which is to say: Not really) by people who’d been served by their service projects and were hoping to find accountability from their politicians, and who had given up on the PLO after 10 years of absolutely fruitless negotiations. I can’t blame the people who voted for them – and Israel all but handed Hamas that victory when it withdrew from Gaza without first negotiating security arrangements.

Also, it’s worth noting that the day after those elections, 75% of the Palestinian electorate expressed the hope that Hamas would negotiate with Israel*, and in his book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, Jimmy Carter reported that only 1% of Palestinians polled wanted to see a theocracy such as that envisioned by Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Moreover, just last week, a poll showed 70% of Palestinians opposed to the launching of rockets into Israel from Gaza, with 75% believing that military escalation would serve not them, but Israel. As a political movement, Hamas has political, national goals, and a constituency to which it is at least somewhat accountable and which is demonstrably not particularly keen on its more extremist tendencies — and thus, contrary to what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would have us think, vile as I find them, Hamas is not the Palestinian answer to al-Qaeda.

And finally, if I want peace, I have to build peace with the actual Palestinian people, not the Palestinian people I imagine in my head — and Hamas represents a certain slice of the Palestinian polity. If Israel gets behind a genuine, workable negotiating process toward a two-state peace plan, three-quarters of Palestinians have said time and again that they would support it — and Hamas, for its part, has said time and again that it would honor a referendum that approved such a plan.

So sure. Like a lot of people, I don’t like Hamas. But that doesn’t matter. One makes peace with one’s enemies, not with one’s friends — and one doesn’t get to pick and choose one’s enemies.

UPDATE: The first commenter, below, poses a reasonable question: How can anyone expect Israel to negotiate with an organization that doesn’t recognize its right to exist? Please be sure to read the question and my response, as well.

*This figure is from a 2006 poll conducted by al-Jazeera immediately after the elections. I wrote about it at the time, and have the original link, as well as a link to the Google-cached page — but neither works any longer! You’ll either have to trust me, or get in touch with al-Jazeera.

Dear Israel: Your house is on fire, & you’re worried about the pilot light.

Palestinian family fleeing fighting, 1948. Source: http://imeu.net/

Just as the establishment of the State of Israel was a big deal for the Jewish people, it was a big deal for the Palestinians. Only for them, the outcome was a little less uplifting.

I’m on record all over the place — on this blog, on my Twitter account, in the archives of America’s op/ed pages, in the transcripts of lectures, and even on the occasional bit of video tape — as being a Zionist. I have no doubt that, as long as the modern world is organized along nationalist lines, the Jewish people has as much a right to a homeland as anyone else — and that furthermore, that homeland can only be genuinely found in the land that stood at the center of the Jewish people’s identity for centuries.

At the same time, however, I am also on record (in all those places) as recognizing that the land that belongs to the Jews also belongs equally to someone else.

The Palestinians were already experiencing the birth of their own modern nationalist identity (see today’s earlier post, re: Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity) when the Zionists came along to pursue Jewish nationalist goals. The ensuing war (which, let’s be honest, continues to this day) has been the result of two clashing nationalisms, and the people behind each behaved exactly as one might expect people fighting for their homes and their lives to behave — that is: abominably.

But bottom line, to the extent that the war has yet produced a victor, that victor is Israel. We have a state; the Palestinians don’t. We control our destinies; the destinies of Palestinians living in Palestine are controlled by Israel. And so on.

Thus: One people’s joyous event is another’s day of national sorrow. If the Palestinians had won, I have no doubt everybody’s shoes would be on the other feet.

Israel celebrates Independence Day according to the Hebrew calendar — meaning it shifts about in the spring every year — but Palestinians mark Yawm al-Nakba, Day of the Catastrophe on May 15th, the anniversary of the establishment of Israel. This fact is no doubt uncomfortable for those who like to celebrate Israel’s birth, and I can understand why some would feel the need to try to tell the Palestinians that their lived reality is a bunch of lies and prevarications. Such is the nature of people — holding two opposing ideas in our minds at one and the same time is nothing if not painful.

But the thing is: Declaring a series of facts to not be facts doesn’t actually change their factual nature. It merely puts off the inevitable reckoning with those facts, and, in the case of armed conflict, tends to add to the body count. This is as true for Israelis who deny the Palestinian narrative, as it is for Palestinians who deny the Jewish narrative.

So, here we are, two days before Yawm al-Nakba, and protests marking the day are already underway. Israel is responding it typically overheated fashion, meeting the protests with live fire and tear gas (if you can stomach a graphic photograph, click here to see a chunk of the scalp of an American protester who was hit this morning with a tear gas canister).

But honest to God, on Nakba Day 2011, the fact that the people it occupies want to express their anger with that occupation is quite genuinely the least of Israel’s worries.

First of all, if Israel still thinks that violent suppression of dissent is ever going to snuff out that dissent — well then Israel’s Problem #1 is its complete and utter detachment from reality and the lessons of more than 44 years of occupation.

But other than that:

  1. Fatah and Hamas are moving ahead with their unity agreement
  2. Israel is almost literally surrounded by civil unrest and violent political upheaval (Jordan being the only country on or near Israel’s borders that has yet to see serious signs of revolution [Lebanon has been in a state of upheaval for so long that no one really notices anymore]) — and, as is consistently noted by those who know a thing or two about the Arab world, the one thing that secularists, Islamists, the left and the right can agree on in each of these countries is a distaste/loathing for Israel/Israeli policies.
  3. The Palestinian Authority is moving ahead with its plan to put an independent Palestinian state up for a vote in the UN in September (click through if only to see the incredible picture of Palestinians praying in a field across from a line of Israeli soldiers).
  4. George Mitchell — the man who successfully facilitated peace in Irelandhas finally thrown up his hands and given up on Israel/Palestine.

Sure, the Palestinian perception of the establishment of Israel as a nakba, catastrophe, is the spark — the pilot light, if you will — of all the troubles that Israel faces in the region and across the globe. And yes indeed, if Israel could just put that spark out, it’s possible that, in the fullness of time, those other troubles might go away.

But a) Israel has not, in the 63 years of its existence nor in the nearly 45 years of increasingly brutal occupation, managed to so much as decrease the spark, and continuing to think that it might manage to put it out entirely represents a frankly mentally unhinged level of denial, and b) while Israel continue to train its firehoses on that spark? The entire damn house is burning down around its ears.

If Israel wants a hand in shaping its own future, if Israel wants to continue to exist as the Jewish homeland and not as a fortress state forever forced to react to the actions of the world around it, it needs to face reality — real reality, the reality in which Palestinian experience and truth also exists, and in which exhausting the patience of a man as accomplished as George Mitchell is in fact a very, very bad thing.

Here’s hoping that President Obama uses the opportunity of his upcoming Middle East speech (next Thursday, May 19) to say something along these lines to Israel.

Though, given that George Mitchell just threw in the towel, I will admit that I’m not exactly holding my breath.

Palestinian unity government – the I-don’t-have-any-time edition

Updated, below.

In a particularly inconvenient turn of events, the Palestinian people decided to make big news today, when I have been far too busy to even really follow the news, much less react to it.

So for now, here’s a quick n’ dirty post, with the assumption that I’ll be writing more as the days go by.

Here’s the gist of what happened (from the NY Times):

The two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, announced Wednesday that they were putting aside years of bitter rivalry to create an interim unity government and hold elections within a year, a surprise move that promised to reshape the diplomatic landscape of the Middle East.

… While the deal, reached after secret Egyptian-brokered talks, promised a potentially historic reconciliation for the Palestinians, Israel warned that a formal agreement would spell the end of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Now, the truth of the matter is that Fatah and Hamas have done this in the past — in 2007, in a deal brokered by who I think are pretty much the same players on both sides of the Palestinian divide — and the result was not so much unity as a civil war which led to Fatah’s leaders fleeing for their lives from Gaza to the West Bank. So, caution is in order.

On the other hand, the US and Israel not only rejected the 2007 government out of hand, but the Bush Administration was actively pushing Fatah toward that civil war, even going the extra mile of arming them for the fight. While it’s clear that today’s Israel has no more interest in working with a Fatah-Hamas government than it did four years ago, and will do all it can to delegitimize it in the eyes of the international community (and, I suspect, will likely attempt to launch a renewed round of hostilities), I somehow can’t see the Obama Administration going the Bush rejectionist route. Nor can I see Obama quietly acquiescing Israel’s rejectionism — not least in light of the Arab Spring/ongoing wave of unrest across the region, in the course of which this Administration has been at pains to place itself on the side of democratic reforms.

Of course, Obama has disappointed me time and again on Israel/Palestine, falling into the decades-old trap of letting Israel lead the US government by its nose, but I think it’s more than just dogged hope that makes me think that this turn of events will be greeted differently. For the first time in decades, there are some genuinely new dynamics playing out both in the Middle East, and in Washington.

So: Keep the history in mind — but don’t assume that history will be destiny this time around.

As to my personal response, in brief, I think Palestinian unity could ultimately be excellent for Israel — if Israel uses the opportunity to genuinely seek a lasting peace. It’s worth remembering that any peace Israel might have achieved with the Fatah-led government in the West Bank (to the extent that we’re willing to accept the conceit that the Netanyahu government was actually looking to achieve peace) would have been doomed to failure, by virtue of the fact that the Fatah-led government is a) unelected and b) represents at best half the people.

Ok, now, for some of the reactions to the announcement:

So far, of course, Israel’s reaction has been entirely predictable:

“The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace with both. Hamas aspires to destroy Israel and fires rockets at our cities … at our children,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

“The idea of reconciliation with Hamas demonstrates the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and makes one wonder whether Hamas will seize control of Judea and Samaria the way it seized control of the Gaza Strip,” added the premier, referring to the West Bank.

America’s has been somewhat nuanced:

“We have seen the press reports and are seeking more information. As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace,” the State Department said.

“To play a constructive role, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles by renouncing violence, accepting past agreements, and recognizing Israel’s right to exist…. Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

(The nuance, in case you missed it [!], is that the US didn’t lead with rejection, but rather with “we are seeking more information” and “supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace.”)

Writing in Israel’s paper of record, HaAretz, Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel provide some useful analysis, including laying out the ways the Israeli government might be served by the announcement (though not necessarily in a fashion that promotes a peace agreement), as well as how it could all still go wrong:

Despite [Israel’s] harsh response, the reconciliation may well work to Israel’s advantage. Israel has been struggling internationally, as more than 100 nations prepare to recognize a unilaterally declared Palestinian state in the UN in September. Renewed relations between Hamas and Fatah, however limited, could shed a different light on Abbas’ intentions, and Netanyahu, who is due to speak before both houses of Congress next month, will be able to present the agreement as proof that Abbas doesn’t really want peace.

…However, if Hamas is participating in a unity government, even if through technocrats, this would minimize the group’s desire to renew the conflict on the Gaza front, which could help maintain calm there.

In the most optimistic scenario, the reconciliation may even improve the chances of a deal to return captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

…Both parties appear increasingly interested in implementing a deal, but many of the details remain unclear. One key detail is who the ministers will be, and more important still, who will lead it and what will happen to the incumbent prime ministers – Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and Salam Fayyad of the PA.

As the full details of the reconciliation agreement are not yet known, it’s too early to judge its practical implications. In any case, it does not bode well for Israel, because it enables Hamas to utilize more powerful levers in order to thwart a long-term political agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Here I’d just like to note that it’s striking that in both of these cases, it’s assumed that what’s best for Israel is what’s best for the current Israeli government.

And Americans for Peace Now says the Palestinian announcement could be an opportunity for the Administration:

For years the U.S. has made the mistake of opposing Palestinian reconciliation rather than encouraging it; it should not compound this mistake by wasting this opportunity to engage a new Palestinian government. It should do so making clear that U.S. relations with this government… will be based solely on the positions and actions of the government.  Unfortunately, there are many in Israel and the US… who will try to spin today’s announcement as evidence that the Palestinian Authority is not a partner in peace.  Such a reaction is at best mistaken; at worst it is a cynical pretext for not negotiating peace.This reconciliation announcement bolsters the conclusion that now is the time for President Obama to redouble his own commitment to peace.  By laying out his own plan for peace — including presenting substantive peace parameters and his plan of action for moving forward — Obama has the opportunity to re-assert credible US leadership, to forestall action at the UN in September, and to take the true measure of both the Israeli and the Palestinian governments’ commitments to peace.

That’s it for now! Watch this space for more….
*****************
Update: Make sure you also read Mitchell Plitnick’s just-posted excellent analysis on the unity announcement. He breaks his analysis down to four crucial questions: Is this for real? What will this mean for the Palestinians? What will this mean for Israel? What will this mean for the USA? Among his conclusions: “This agreement is a very clear statement that [Palestinian President] Abbas considers the peace process as we’ve known it since 1991 to be dead and buried,” and “despite the hysterics from the Israeli right and their friends and supporters, there can never be peace with part of the Palestinian body politic, any more than there could be with only part of Israel.”

Israel, this is insanity. And abject failure.

The aftermath of an Israeli air raid in Gaza, 2009.

For as long as I can remember, Israel has been saying that it was going to do “whatever it takes” to stop Palestinian terrorism.

On Thursday, an Israeli bus filled with kids was hit by an anti-tank missile fired out of Gaza. Two were injured, including a 16 year old boy who may well die of his injuries; there is some indication that those who fired on the bus knew that it was transporting students.

The Israeli military responded with intensified bombing of the Gaza Strip (it should be noted that Israel frequently runs bombing raids over Gaza, sometimes in direct response to violence, sometimes not, and has in fact been strafing Gaza off and on over the past several weeks at least), resulting in five Palestinians killed, including a 50 year old man, and five injured, including a young child.

In a statement that surprised exactly no one (and probably did little to reassure anyone), Prime Minister Netanyahu said: “We will not shy away from taking all the necessary action, offensive and defensive, to protect our country and to protect our citizens.”

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, circa 2011? I’d like you to meet Israeli President Ezer Weizman, circa 1994:

Speaking after an especially grisly suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, then-President Weizman said:

This cannot be allowed to continue…. We will have to catch [Hamas members], to tear them apart, to chop them to pieces. This is what I’m certain the Israel Defense Forces and the security service will do.

I remember that bombing particularly well, because I reported on it. I remember hearing these official Israeli responses, over and over again, during those horrible years of suicide terrorism, and watching the IDF tear into the Gaza Strip and West Bank, over and over again.

Very little — not to say nothing — has changed in the intervening years.

Consider the much-forgotten War-In-All-But-Name “Operation Summer Rains” (summer 2006), when Israel responded to the capture of one of its soldiers by decimating the Gaza Strip from the air, destroying roads and bridges as well as the Strip’s single power plant, and killing 202 Palestinians (five Israeli soldiers were killed) — all in an effort to win release of the soldier (Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas to this day), and prevent the firing of rockets from Gaza.

Consider further the It’s-Really-A-War-This-Time “Operation Cast Lead” (winter 2008/2009), in the course of which Israel bombed the Palestinian Justice Ministry, Legislative Assembly and Education Ministry, among thousands of other structures, and killed 1,396 Palestinians, 763 of whom were noncombatants, including 344 minors — all in an effort to “break Hamas resistance” (six Israeli soldiers were killed, as were three Israeli civilians).

Then cut to the Jerusalem bus bombing just last month, and Israel’s response (Netanyahu: “Israel will react firmly”, followed by more bombings of, and deaths in, Gaza).

Then jump to yesterday.

Even if we put aside, for the moment, the staggering moral implications of the occupation, the settlement project, and the wildly disproportionate violence that Israel has wreaked on the Palestinian people as a matter of course in this decades-long war (and let’s call it an on-going war, please, because that’s what it is), as I look back on nearly two decades of Israel’s responses to Hamas violence, I can only come to one conclusion.

Israel has failed miserably.

Time, and time, and time again, Israel has gone into Gaza (and, in the past, the West Bank) and torn the Palestinian people and its institutions to bloody shreds in an effort to stop Hamas — and yok. Nothing. Abject failure.

Israelis are not secure. Israelis do not live in peace. Israelis do not know that they will be able to raise their children to adulthood without sending them into a meatgrinder on the way — on the contrary, Israelis tend to assume that the next war is just a matter of time.

So, fine. Forget the Palestinians. I know I said just two weeks ago that Israelis have to recognize Palestinian humanity, but for the sake of argument: Screw that. Thousands of Palestinians bodies don’t matter. A decimated economy and ruined infrastructure don’t matter. All that matters is Israeli security.

And everything that Israel has done for 44 years has failed to deliver just that.

Insanity, it’s said, is the act of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

But I’m the crazy one for suggesting peace.