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Friday, October 31, 2008

History's Worst Left Turn: Israel in Palestine.

*note: 1/6/09 - if your head has been under a rock, Israel has mortared a U.N. school in Gaza, killing 40ish, most of them civilian. Ostensibly the school was being used as a Hamas mortar base, but for lack of any reliable information (so far), I am without opinion. Israel has decided to open a "humanitarian corridor" in Gaza, whatever that means. If I were to offer advice, it would be to refrain from forming an opinion yourself until the facts are in. If Israel actively resists U.N. efforts to investigate the school incident, however, I will consider that facts enough for me. Neither side is allowing foreign reporters in, and no reporters appear to have the balls to go in anyway or sneak in from Egypt. When reporters follow the rules, investigative reporting is dead.*

I intentionally delayed this article, because I wanted Tiro’s discussion of the concept of Raman and Varelse to predate it. The concepts will weigh heavily in my discussion of the difficulties between Israel and the Palestinians, and how we should approach both groups. The downside is that the delay has resulted in the article being rather hefty, and covering rather more territory than one article should.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians comes in and out of the news in phases, and each side of the conflict has found themselves, at various times, painted as mindless, hypocritical, evil-minded terrorists who scream a lot and brainwash small children. Israel gets the paint whenever they perform a “retaliatory strike” that kills hundreds of civilians (thankfully, they’ve mostly realized that this practice is counterproductive), and the Palestinians get the paint whenever some idiot launches a rocket into an Israeli settlement.

I’ve been back and forth on the issue myself. I think both groups have been acting like ass-holes a significant portion of the last fifty years. They both do their share of crying and bitching and moaning and painting. It becomes difficult sometimes to separate the marrow out from the meat.

There’s a few bits that are easy, of course:
1. “Israelis have killed more Palestinians than Palestinians have killed Israelis” (exact estimates vary, but they all basically agree on “a lot more”). This is true, however I wouldn’t say it’s for lack of trying on the Palestinian side. Frankly, Israel is good at killing people, Palestinians more or less suck at it. Rocket strikes used to be an all-day every-day thing, but they rarely killed anyone because the weapons were difficult to aim. That doesn’t change the fact that all-day, every-day, there were Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (though to be fair, none of Israel’s borders have ever seen many consecutive hours of peace) trying as hard as they could to kill Israelis. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to attempted mass murder or genocide, failure to succeed does not absolve you.

2. “The Wall around the Gaza Strip is working.” The wall was a stupid idea. Statistics indicate that since the construction of the “wall” suicide bombers and rocket strikes are down, but the wall went up in a transitive period, so it’s hard to know where to apportion the credit. The wall itself (in fairness most of the wall is a fence) was expensive to build, is easily climbed, and does a better job of blocking legitimate trade (food) than it does of blocking weapons. Smugglers don’t care if they have to throw a carpet over some barbed wire or toss a ladder against a wall, and there’s a refugee camp along the southern wall that (for diplomatic reasons - Egypt refused to give up “even an inch” of Egyptian land, but also didn’t want the refugee camp and so refused to accept a gift of land from Israel) exists half on one side of the wall, and half on the other. If you want to send anything explosive from Egypt into the Gaza Strip illegally, you just send it there.

It is impossible to grow enough food in the Gaza Strip to feed everyone living in the Gaza Strip, and the trade consequences of the embargo make it impossible to feed them at all. That said, those people (I wrote a paper doing exactly this once, so I include myself) who attempt to compare the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with South African Apartheid are reaching.

Under Apartheid the intent was to force residents to leave the “Bantu-stans” to do manual labor in South Africa to pay the monetary indemnities imposed on them. The “stans” were put on the crappiest land possible, deliberately overpopulated (massively) and divided into as many small “tribal” territories as possible, separated by tracts of South Africa proper. It was slavery. There is no analogous situation in the Gaza Strip. Aside even from the fact that Israel gave the Palestinians a massive stretch of perfectly viable coastline and a sufficient amount of land to live on (let’s face it, Palestine sucks for crops everywhere if you don’t irrigate) Israel’s government would absolutely love it if the Palestinians all got together under one government and settled into a daily routine that didn’t involve suicide bombing and rockets. Governments that exist are way, way easier to negotiate with than governments that don’t exist, and Israel (quite frankly) hates fighting wars. They’re costly, both in lives and money. It’s much cheaper to settle violent matters through the intervention of Mossad. As we’re learning in Iraq, a completely decentralized enemy loses every battle, but since none of them have the authority to concede defeat, it’s basically impossible for them to lose the war. Israel would like it very much if the Palestinian areas stabilized and grew prosperous. That would solve so many of Israel’s problems that the notion of Israel actively working against this outcome is patently ridiculous.

3. “Palestinians had Palestine before the Jews came. They’re just trying to get it back.” Don’t be stupid. The term “Palestinian” wasn’t even a nationalist term before Israel came into being. The land in question was shared between Jews and Arabs. There was occasional fighting, but for the most part eking out a living on Palestine’s worthless soil was hard enough without making trouble with the neighbors. Hell, the reason the location was chosen for the formation of Israel was that there was virtually no one there to cause a ruckus (most people could think of thirty or forty places they’d rather live, and did so if it were even remotely possible), and the allies figured any local Muslims who felt uncomfortable under the new government could just up ship and move to one of the (many) neighboring Muslim territories.

Which would have worked fine, if any of the neighboring Muslim nations had been willing to take them. Jordan didn’t want them because it already felt it had too many of “those people” and none of the other nations wanted the immigration either.

Point being, of course, that Israel invented the modern cohesion of the “Palestinian people” by existing. This is a war between two recently invented peoples, one of which (the Israelis - I realize the Jews existed before Israel, but Israel is a surprisingly diverse nation with an identity independent from the founding religion) now vastly outnumbers the other.

4. “Israel controls our government.” ... I don’t even know how to argue against this one. It’d be like getting in a fist-fight with a ten-year-old cripple. The United States has every reason, logically, philosophically, and morally, to be Israel’s ally. It would be a terrible mistake, particularly now, to break down that relationship. That means we act often in their interests, because their best interest often coincides with our own. I’ll go into greater detail in a few paragraphs.


By now, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that my sympathies mostly lean towards Israel. In terms of nationalities, you are correct. However, in terms of the people, my sympathies are with the Palestinians. Most of them are innocent. Like everywhere else in the world, the greater percentage just want to get on with their lives and be left alone. This is as true in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as it is in Israel itself.

Hell, even in the Bantu-stans, most people wanted to get on with their lives. The reason the system was possible was that the South African government understood just exactly how much people would take before they went to war. (They miscalculated a bit, thankfully, and I’ll do an article later about how glad I am to see factions springing up within the ANC... a one-party system is unhealthy and I don’t believe that was ever the ANC’s intention, let alone Mandela’s.)

Even here, in America, we get wrapped up in politics about once every four years. The rest of the time we get up in the morning, go to work, make a buck, and go home to spend it on beer and pizza and toys for our kids. That’s what life is all about. Living.

So when someone comes along and twists your entire life around, makes it so the only options are “with us” or “against us,” everything goes out of whack. When you have to wave flags and march and hold up AK-47s (or stick a yellow ribbon on your SUV) or be called a traitor to “your people,” a line is drawn in the sand.

We see images of people shouting on soap boxes, screaming that they’re going to see Israel wiped off the map (it’s been all talk ever since the six-day war, of course... god damn but that was a beautiful piece of work and an article all in itself), but what we don’t see is people getting up, going to work, making a buck, going home, and spending it on beer and pizza and toys.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the point.

Raman. Varelse.

It may, in fact, be true that the Palestinian authorities and Israeli authorities cannot ever get along. They may be Varelse to each other. They may be incapable of communicating, or (as Tiro so aptly put it) incapable of coexisting culturally. But the people on both sides are not. They are people. The only battle lines drawn between one working mom and another are drawn from above.

I think it is important to remember that when you speak of defeating an entire people, what you speak of is genocide. Their army, their leaders, these are fair game. But to defeat a people, that is murder. When the Palestinian authorities rail about destroying “Israel,” they speak of genocide. Whether they “mean it” or not, or have “the capability” is irrelevant, particularly since they are speaking to a people who already went through that shit once. If Mexico started calling for the extermination of all Americans and launching rockets into Texas, how long would we put up with it? Sure, there’s no way in hell they’d ever accomplish anything, but there’s only so much of that kind of thing a government can put up with from its neighbors.

I’d give an analogous example from Israel, but there isn’t one. There have been no calls for genocide on that end, certainly not from anyone with authority. The government of Israel has been remarkably willing to make concessions of land, barring a few strategic locations from which Missiles were having unacceptable casualty-generating success. Even possessed of overwhelming military superiority, they agreed to divide Jerusalem and share the holy land. This is not South Africa. This doesn’t even resemble South Africa.

But he-said she-said doesn’t matter. What matters is you have two peoples spread out over a patch of land. All things being equal, both peoples just want to get up, go to work, make a buck and spend it on pizza, beer and toys. But certain small groups (capable of generating remarkable amounts of public drama) are unwilling to share, and they’re getting ordinary folks wrapped up in a fight they don’t want.

A professor I took a class from once whom I respect immensely (Professor Victor T. Le Vine) once told a story about a person he knows in the West Bank who expressed that they were glad of the fence surrounding them. They said the obstruction made “retaliatory raids” from Israel less frequent. They were better able to live their lives. Whether the raids are reduced because the incidents needing retaliatory action are reduced, or because the fence makes a huge, expensive obstruction if you want to move men or tanks over the border, is irrelevant.

What was important was that they could get on with their lives with less fear.

They’re not Varelse.

Hamas may be, and Al Qaida, and all those other little fringe groups that have been around since the formation of the Hash’Ashins back 1600 years ago or so. These groups (or at least their leaders) may be Varelse, and it seems likely that they are. But the people for whom they claim to fight are not, and it’s important that we remember who it is we’re fighting against, and who it is we’re fighting for.

Radicals of every tribe, nation, religion and creed are dangerous animals. They have managed to convince themselves that they have a mission more important than human life. We see it here in the hypocrites that blow up abortion clinics (abortion is murder, but not apparently the fire-bombing of an inhabited building). In Timothy McVeigh, as well, among others. We see it over there in Al’Qaida. It is important that we realize that a people cannot be held accountable for the errors-in-programming that spring up amongst them.

If your neighbor bombed an abortion clinic and someone retaliated by bombing your entire block, would you consider that justice? Of course not. That’s a ridiculous way to handle crime and punishment.

I realize it may be “hard” in the new era to separate out the Raman from the Varelse. Children walk up to helicopters and take the pins out of grenades. Mentally challenged individuals explode bomb-vests in crowded marketplaces.

I think, however, that it may be worth our while to try. To kill Varelse is arguably not a sin. The conflict is inevitable. To kill Raman though... that is troubling.

So my stand towards Israel, quite honestly, is that to take any “side” is to take the wrong side. Supporting “Palestine” is as foolish as not supporting “Palestine.” This construct exists only in the abstract, while the people exist in the actual. If you must support something, support the Palestinian people.

By this I mean to suggest that if you want to do something nice for the Palestinians, work to get them a government that works for them. Right now, their options are all demagogues who are long on power and short on common sense. Palestinians don’t need more land, they need a government capable of trade-relations and coordinated irrigation. You don’t have to look at many pictures of Israel compared with Palestinian-controlled territories to know which government is working out better for the people. And yeah, hatred is still a factor, but over time that will iron out. It always does. It just takes a hundred years or so of not killing one another and a hundred years more of getting addicted to each others’ coffee brands and textiles.

As far as the United States goes, there are a number of simple, strategic reasons why our friendship with Israel (yes, the construct, but it’s a democratic nation in the actual, so the construct is representative of the people to an acceptable degree) should be continued and enhanced.

1. We need a landing strip in the Middle-East. Anyone remember D-day? Me neither, and thanks to our bases all over the world, neither will our kids. Maintaining an effective military presence in Iraq is impractical because there isn’t a government there to legitimize us. We will constantly be fighting a war. However, should we withdraw from Iraq and need to return later, our good friend Israel will probably be more than willing to allow us to land our army on their airfields.

2. We need an intelligence agency capable of working in the Middle-East. Remember that national intelligence estimate (the N.I.E.) that said it was highly unlikely Iran was still working on nuclear weapons? That came from one man. Yes, we had (at that time) exactly one agent in Iran. Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence Agency, which has hundreds of agents there, told us he was full of shit, and I’m inclined to believe them. We just don’t know how to handle that region, but Israel does. A good working relationship between our agency and theirs is essential. We allow them to use our satellites, and they allow us to use the information generated by their spy networks. The gain is very mutual.

3. We often find it diplomatically prohibitive to take care of certain kinds of situations (assassinations and the like) but Israel does not. They can get away with it because they are not us (so we can’t be blamed) but they are under our protection (so they can’t be retaliated against). The system is pretty cool, actually. They took out the Egyptian nuclear program by assassinating half the scientists and making the remainder flee the country. They bombed the Iraqi attempt into the ground. Saddam didn’t have nukes when we got there in large part because Israel had already taken care of the problem for us.

They need us too, of course:

1. Protection. Israel is pretty tough on its own, but they are a cashew nut. We are a coconut.

2. Mossad is great, but the CIA has more toys, and Mossad benefits from these quite a bit.

3. We give them technology, often willingly, but sometimes not. They stole their first fissile material from the U.S., for instance. I’m cool with that. They got away with it because we had friendly relations and we didn’t want to mess them up. I’m cool with that too.

4. Support in the United Nations. Israel is not a member of the United Nations Security Council, so they do not have a voice there. We do.

So you see, we have with Israel the perfect diplomatic relationship. We get something, and they get something. Both the give and the take are valuable and the net trade for both parties is a profit. There is no problem here. The Israel lobby is so successful partly because they have a damned easy case to make. There’s no particularly good reason why we would want bad relations with Israel.

Oh, and I'm deliberately ignoring the whole issue with Britain making promises to everyone. Someone crossed his fingers behind his back a few too many times and suddenly the whole world's accountable and thousands have gotta die rather than deal with the reality of the situation? Not buying it, and neither should you.

That’s my ten cents for the day.

Tomorrow: Halloween. But check back Saturday and Sunday.


Marcus Tullius Tiro said...

An excellent post, and a rather thorough introduction to something that I think many of us would be better off knowing more about. I'm reminded, though, of the old saying:

"There's 2 things that you never want to let people see how they're made: laws and sausages."

The idea seems to extend to the various sorts of quasi-legal national security maneuverings, too...


Maxwell Evans said...

I think the problem with Israel is that people know what the sausage is made of, they just don't realize yet that the sausage is delicious.

Maxwell Evans said...

Given the recent developments in the conflict (Hamas being stupid because they're Hamas, Israel preparing to be stupider because an election is coming up), I'd like to point out that the wall has evidently done absolutely nothing to prevent rocket strikes (about which I was correct), and Israel has not, in fact, learned that slaughtering civilians with tanks is counterproductive (about which I was apparently wrong).

Tinct said...

Interesting article. I particularly like the bit about the mutual benefits Israel and the US enjoy as a result of their alliance.

I agree that the wall hasn't done excitingly much to stem rocket attacks, because rockets obviously can just fly over them. I do have to say, though, that I think it (as well as the checkpoints) have done a tremendous job in reducing the amount of terror attacks that occur inside of Israel- not 100%, unfortunately, but a great deal.

The Palestinians are in a sticky situation. While a majority of them may indeed want to just get on with their lives, some of that majority is forced by Hamas into collaboration, whether its Hamas digging smuggling tunnels under their houses, using their houses for their affairs, using their family as human shields in gunfights, etc.

Clearly, as you say, the enemy here is the extremist element present in Gaza (and, some would argue, in the West Bank) and not the Palestinian people. It's just unfortunate that many on the pro-Israel side fail to make that distinction, and a disturbing amount of the anti-Israel side see the people and terrorists as one and are willing- on a disturbing level- to excuse or even support factors like Hamas and Hezbollah.