This blog is usually devoted to energy issues, but I feel compelled to weigh in on the situation in Gaza, partly since events in the Middle East have a substantial impact on the international oil market, but also because the public debate on events in Gaza seems to me terribly distorted and destructive. In my course at the Fletcher School, I emphasize the importance of precise language in formulating arguments. Unfortunately, politics often encourages people to do the exact opposite. Rather than add to the polemics on Gaza, let me offer a few comments on the language of this debate.
Let’s start with the term “cycle of violence”. If you Google “Gaza, cycle of violence”, you’ll get 174,000 hits, including quotes from people like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Time magazine, the Nation, The Drudge Report, and on and on. The term has no clear definition, but implies two parties stubbornly and irrationally angry at each other and caring about nothing other than inflicting pain on the other. By implication, breaking the cycle requires nothing more than one party replacing emotion with rationality and offering a hand in friendship to the other party. This situation may pertain to neighbors squabbling about their property line, but it does not apply to Gaza.
A quick reading of history shows that Israel, far from provoking the Palestinians in Gaza, made one of the greatest peace gestures in the history of the Middle East. In 2005, Israel voluntarily turned control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, abandoning the Jewish settlements and physically evicting the Israeli settlers who refused to leave. Israel expected – or at least hoped – that the Palestinian residents of Gaza would take the opportunity to engage in peaceful pursuits, like growing the local economy and improving their living conditions. Instead, in 2006, the residents of Gaza elected Hamas to govern them, thereby in essence declaring war against Israel.
The discussion of the Gaza situation in the western press strangely seems to exclude any discussion of who Hamas really is. This omission may result partly from a common, but powerful assumption of the political left that all foreign policy debates can be resolved through negotiation, that all parties have legitimate grievances that need to be respected and that splitting the difference is the solution to all trans-national issues. But is Hamas, formally known as “The Islamic Resistance Movement” really an organization with legitimate grievances that can be reconciled with Israel’s right to exist? Hamas’ Charter, which you can find at http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/www.thejerusalemfund.org/carryover/documents/charter.html?chocaid=397 suggests otherwise. A few observations on the Charter.
First, Article 11 states that Palestine is an Islamic “waqf”, a term referring to property given to Islam in perpetuity for religious purposes. The grant of land for construction of a mosque would be an example. This article states that, since the grant is “in perpetuity”, no party has a right to give away any part of it. To do so would be to give away the birthright of future generations of Muslims, for whom no one can speak.
Second, Article 13 states that “[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement.” In other words, negotiation is inherently unacceptable.
Finally, Hamas’ charter makes clear that its war is not about Palestine alone, but against Jews universally. Article 7 states that Allah’s promise to Muslims cannot be fulfilled “until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!”
These provisions are so startling and so clear that Hamas can be regarded as a legitimate negotiating partner only if you haven’t read the charter or don’t attribute any significance to it. This is precisely the mistake that Britain and France made in dealing with Hitler in the 1930s. In Mein Kampf, Hitler laid out his objectives in stark terms. I suspect that the Western powers just didn’t want to believe what Hitler was saying. Negotiations turned out to be not only futile but damaging, since Hitler was given the opportunity to grow in strength and improve his tactical position. When the Munich agreement was signed in September, 1938, Czechoslovakia had a large, well-equipped and well-trained army in fortified positions. Germany had not yet completed its Siegfried Line in the West and did not have the ability to fight a two-front war. Munich solved all these problems for the Nazis with catastrophic results.
Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia seem to me to be good examples of a “cycle of violence”, where there are no good guys and ancient hatreds overwhelm any interest in peaceful dispute resolution. Russia’s attack on the Ukraine, on the other hand, involves a predatory state seeking control over an innocent victim. China’s absorption of Tibet in 1950 was a blatant invasion, not a “cycle of violence.” Hamas differs from Russia and China only in its relative military weakness and not in its intent. The “cycle of violence” model just doesn’t work in Gaza.
The second puzzling term is “the international community”. President Obama often refers to the “international community” as though its approbation grants legitimacy while its disapproval is an unacceptable burden for any miscreant state to bear. The press often seems concerns about the reaction of the “international community” to what Israel is doing in Gaza. But what exactly is the “international community”?
The United Nations currently has 193 members, but only about two dozen are true democracies whose governments can claim to speak for their people. Most UN member sstates are governed by mafia-like elites. Fifty-six UN members – about 30% – are Muslim states who reflexively condemn Israel no matter what happens. The UN cannot speak to the morality of actions by the US, Israel or any other country.
Since nobody really cares what Chad or Yemen thinks about the morality of US or Israeli actions, the term “international community” has essentially come to mean Europe. During the Iraq War of 2003, the American press regarded Europe’s disapproval of the US effort as an important if not definitive indication that our actions were illegitimate. Since a number of European countries, including the UK, Italy, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, participated in the US coalition in Iraq, somehow the French and Germans became the true voice of Europe and of the “international community.” France and Germany are entitled to act as their national interest dictates, but they are hardly in a position to serve as judges of the morality of anything.
Europe is currently struggling with its own historical anti-Semitism, particularly in France, and with growing numbers of angry and unassimilated Muslims in their midst. Their anti-Israeli sentiments seem far more related to these issues than to an objective assessment of what Israel is actually doing in Gaza. Why should Israel or the US pay any attention at all to what Europeans think?
My final issue is over the term “self-defense.” In both municipal law and international law, self-defense is an inherent right to commit violence against aggressor who is posing an imminent threat to life or limb. The person or country asserting a right of self-defense has an obligation to take reasonable precautions to avoid harm to innocent bystanders. The right to survive, however, grants the self-defender wide latitude in choice of means. To people like President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and the Europeans, however, Israeli “self-defense” seems to require that no innocent civilians be hurt under any circumstances. In other words, Israel has a right to survive, but only if it can do so without hurting anyone.
This has never been an accepted principle. In fact, during World War II, the United States and Britain argued quite explicitly that the right of self-defense included the right to inflict massive damage on the enemy’s infrastructure, including not only military installations, but factories, railroads, power generation and residential communities. We further argued that enemy civilian deaths were a regrettable, but acceptable side effect of winning the war, since the consequences of losing would have been catastrophic.
Israel’s efforts to save civilian lives have been extraordinary, from text-messaging and leaflets to “door-knocker” explosives designed warn Gazans of impending attacks. Gaza has a population of about 1.8 million, and about 1,800 civilians have reportedly died in the most recent fighting. In other words, despite bitter fighting in a dense urban environment, 99.9% of Gaza’s civilian population has been spared. By comparison, Germany suffered 2-3% civilian casualties during World War II.
It’s clear that civilian deaths in Gaza would have been substantially lower than even these small numbers had Hamas not encouraged and/or forced Gazan civilians to remain in the line of fire, even when given advance warnings of specific attacks. Who then takes the blame?
We have an analogy for this situation in US municipal law. Let’s say two people rob a bank, take hostages and come out of the bank with automatic weapons blazing at the police. The police are obligated to take reasonable precautions to avoid shooting hostages or bystanders, but their primary obligation is to stop the bank robbers. Otherwise, they are providing potential criminals with a template for getting away with crimes. Under federal law, and the laws of most states, the bank robbers can be charged with second-degree murder if a police officer shoots a bystander during the incident. Why? Because the law reasonably argues that the bank robbers, not the police officer, started the chain of events which led to the bystander’s death and are therefore responsible for the consequences. This seems to me to be the correct analogy in Gaza. Hamas is the instigator of the war and therefore bears the responsibility for all the consequences that follow, provided only that Israel exercise reasonable care with civilian lives, which it has clearly done.
The situation in the Middle East is critical. We have one and only one true ally in the region – Israel. We need to keep a clear focus on what’s actually happening there and not get diverted by the sloppy use of language and the distortion of logic. Describing the situation as a “cycle of violence”, demanding European approval and redefining the concept of self-defense just muddy the waters. What we need is a clear policy of destroying Hamas, just as we destroyed the Nazis. Nobody wanted a cease-fire in Europe in 1944, and we shouldn’t want one in Gaza now.