On the Left, it is obvious: Zionism must be overthrown and Gazans freed. On the Right, the answer is clear: Hamas is a terrorist organization that must be obliterated. And amongst humanitarians it is an article of unquestioned faith: women and children must be protected, ceasefires upheld, and medicine, water, and food permitted to enter the country. To talk with representatives of any of these three camps is to be confronted with a tsunami of facts in airtight logically cohesive diatribes. Each one has a set of facts that is unimpeachable so long as it is recited without interruption. But what these radical proponents do not seem to see is that their blinkered radicalism serves nothing more strongly than the status quo, deepening the deadlock, and making it ever less likely for meaningful compromise. As my friend Uday Mehta so aptly formulated it, these radicals are the vanguard of the status quo.Let’s consider the truths. Yes, Israel is an occupying power that upholds a blockade of Gaza—now in its sixth year—that has crippled the economy and made Gazans subservient and dependent on UN Aid. Any people so fully oppressed would rise up and, what is more, has a right to revolt and fight back. The American colonies did it in 1776, having suffered much less. The South Africans did it. And now the Gazans are following in their footsteps, resisting oppression and fighting for freedom. As Rashid Khalidi writes in the New Yorker,
In the past seven or more years, Israel has besieged, tormented, and regularly attacked the Gaza Strip. The pretexts change: they elected Hamas; they refused to be docile; they refused to recognize Israel; they fired rockets; they built tunnels to circumvent the siege; and on and on. But each pretext is a red herring, because the truth of ghettos—what happens when you imprison 1.8 million people in a hundred and forty square miles, about a third of the area of New York City, with no control of borders, almost no access to the sea for fishermen (three out of the twenty kilometres allowed by the Oslo accords), no real way in or out, and with drones buzzing overhead night and day—is that, eventually, the ghetto will fight back. It was true in Soweto and Belfast, and it is true in Gaza. We might not like Hamas or some of its methods, but that is not the same as accepting the proposition that Palestinians should supinely accept the denial of their right to exist as a free people in their ancestral homeland.
Khalidi argues, “What Israel is doing in Gaza now is collective punishment. It is punishment for Gaza’s refusal to be a docile ghetto.” He avoids the more extreme rhetoric that compares Gaza to a concentration and suggests that Israelis are Nazis (though many other do not). But Khalidi does tie the Israeli attacks on Gaza to Zionism, arguing,
What is going on in Palestine today is not really about Hamas. It is not about rockets. It is not about “human shields” or terrorism or tunnels. It is about Israel’s permanent control over Palestinian land and Palestinian lives.
Khalidi makes strong points. He has the facts to back him up. But those facts are, of course, partial.It is equally true, that Hamas is a terrorist entity hell bent on destroying Israel and willing to sacrifice the safety and well-being of Gazans by terrorizing Israelis in order to provoke Israeli responses and gain worldwide support. The Hamas strategy may not be working. World leaders from President Obama to Prime Minister David Cameron have repeatedly insisted that Israel has the right to defend itself. As Cameron has said,
I’ve been clear throughout this crisis that Israel has the right to defend itself. Those criticising Israel’s response must ask themselves how they would expect their own government to react if hundreds of rockets were raining down on British cities today.
And not only the Anglo-American alliance, but Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, traditional allies of the Palestinians, are supporting Israel over Hamas:
Egypt has led a new coalition of Arab states — including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — that has effectively lined up with Israel in its fight against Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip…. The Arab states’ loathing and fear of political Islam is so strong that it outweighs their allergy to Benjamin Netanyahu,” the prime minister of Israel, said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington and a former Middle East negotiator under several presidents. “I have never seen a situation like it, where you have so many Arab states acquiescing in the death and destruction in Gaza and the pummeling of Hamas,” he said. “The silence is deafening.”
So strong is the argument against Hamas thought to be, that former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has argued that Israel must be permitted to crush Hamas.
To preserve the values they cherish and to send an unequivocal message to terrorist organizations and their state sponsors everywhere, Israel must be permitted to crush Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This is the lesson of previous rounds of fighting between the Israeli Defense Forces and terrorist strongholds. In Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008 and again in 2012, Israel responded to rocket attacks on its cities with fierce counteroffensives. Fighting against a deeply dug-in enemy that both blended in with the local population and used it as a shield, Israel’s best efforts to avoid civilian casualties invariably proved limited. Incensed world opinion generated immense pressure on governments to convene the U.N. Security Council and empower human rights organizations to censure Israel and stop the carnage. These measures succeeded where the terrorists’ rockets failed. Israel was compelled to back down. And the terrorists, though badly mauled, won.
Oren argues for crushing an evil terrorist organization like Hamas. The facts are clear. But as justified as Israel may be in defending itself, the disproportional extent of its response has shocked the world. It may be, as Michael Walzer argues, that Israel is not actually violating any rules of war. But even Walzer recognizes that some of Israel’s attacks are wrong:
Except when they are being used for some military purpose, houses where people live are not legitimate targets—even if the people who live there include Hamas officials. These attacks are wrong because the officials live with their families, who can’t be called human shields.
What Walzer helps us see and Oren ignores is that in modern warfare, the kind of “crushing blow” Oren longs for is no longer realistic. As I argued recently, the nature of war has changed;
war today is increasingly impossible, at least wars with clear victors and losers. War is being replaced by police-actions, patrols, terrors, and assassinations that go on without end. It is nearly inconceivable that Israel and Palestine would fight a war to the end in which one side was defeated—imagine the unthinkable horrors that defeating either side would require. Victory is impossible, just as it was inconceivable during the cold war that the United States and the Soviet Union would fight World War III. From such a war, there would be little hope of any life remaining. And thus we are left with the condition of eternal war without end and mini-wars that corrupt political and peaceful institutions. In a world in which war has lost its power to settle disputes, we have ongoing wars that mobilize societies. The war on terror is a permanent part of our always-mobilized societies. We are left, as Nusseibeh sees, with the hell of war as a relatively permanent part of everyday life. Nowhere is that possibility more visible than in the Middle East.
What this means is that the radicals supporting Hamas’ terrorist rebellion and the radicals supporting Israeli’s crushing war are actually supporting the status quo. This is the conclusion reached by Walzer.
Like the present Israeli government (or, better, its leading members), Hamas doesn’t believe in a Palestinian state alongside Israel. These two bitter enemies are actually helping one another. Every rocket that Hamas fires weakens the Israeli left and makes it more difficult for ordinary Israelis to contemplate a withdrawal from the West Bank—since rockets from there could make all of Israel uninhabitable. And every new settlement, every “price tag” attack on the West Bank, weakens Fatah and the PA and lends credence to Hamas’s claim that violence is the only way. Hamas wants Greater Palestine; the Netanyahu government, though it doesn’t admit it, is moving steadily toward Greater Israel. Hamas opposes Little Israel, and Netanyahu opposes Little Palestine. One might well want to say, a plague on both their houses! But now they are at war, and choices have to be made.
Walzer chooses Israel because, he says, they are a democracy and because, in his account, the fault for this war is Hamas’ terrorism. I understand his point. But, in making his choice, Walzer falls into the very trap he warns against, strengthening the status quo and giving solace to the radicals on both sides.
Would it be better to stick with his first insight: “A plague on both their houses!”? Maybe. Such a judgment is not an abdication from judgment. It is to say that the only way out of this tragic conflict, if there is still an exit to be found, is for leaders to emerge in both Gaza and in Israel who are willing and able to risk abandoning the comfort of radically one-sided narratives and forge a middle ground. What that middle ground will be, I do not know. I do know that it will never be found by insisting on either radically partial Zionist or anti-Zionist narratives that ignore the basic fact that both Israelis and Palestinians live in Israel and the Occupied Territories and both have the right to live there with some modicum of peace and justice. Until both sides recognize and begin living with that fact, the cycle of terrorism and war will continue. The truly radical response may be to forego radical self-certainty and risk trying to think from the perspectives of others.
If you want to explore two essays that may help to articulate the beginnings of such a way and the emergence of a common world, try out Jonathan Freedland’s essay “The Liberal Zionists” in the New York Review of Books and Sari Nusseibeh’s “How Israel Can Avoid A Hellish Future,” in Haaretz. They are your weekend reads.