I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while now, but I wasn’t sure how to begin. After many days of contemplation, insistent on the fact that I speak out and write about something that has so angered me, but still confused on how to go about it, I have decided to write with reckless abandon.
Let me preface this by saying that there is no answer to the Palestine/Israel conflict if neither party will sit down and together decide to set aside steadfast histories and identities in pursuit of a greater peace.
Let me preface this by also saying that no one is absolutely right, and no one is absolutely wrong, in this conflict. No one is absolutely good, and no one is absolutely bad.
What can be said definitively is that the death and the pain and the tragedy absolutely exist.
Something my dad always told me was, “humans are not inherently good, and humans are not inherently bad. Humans are inherently human.” And that’s something that’s stayed with me since the very first time he said it.
It’s so hard to believe, though, that humans would continue to carry out such slaughter and perpetuate such pain.
According to this useful NY Times graphic (last updated on August 5, 2014), 3,834 rockets have struck targets in Gaza that were fired by Israel. 2,909 rockets have been launched at Israel by Gaza. There have been 1,834 Palestinian deaths. Due in part to Israel’s Iron Dome, there have been only 67 Israeli deaths.
HOW AND WHY?
I major in Political Science and International Studies and study various conflicts in variegating forms every day of my life. But my experience with three years of formal study hasn’t quelled the question, or even begun to answer it: how? Why?
How can humans do this to fellow humans? Don’t they realize that, beyond their labels as Palestinian and Israeli, beyond their labels as Muslim and Jewish, beyond their labels as “us” and “them,” their labels of “we” and “you”, they are all human?
Why? Why do people do this to other people? Don’t they realize that we all are, and we all will cease to be? That such death and destruction leads to nothing more than that? Mountains and mountains of death and destruction?
BOTH ARE RIGHT
Both sides can justify themselves in this conflict.
HAMAS is considered by the US Department of State to be a terrorist organization, a radical group who does not have a central core of leadership and acts upon a disorganized and arguably nonexistent chain of command. The underground tunnels linking Gaza to Israel are very real, and the threat HAMAS poses to Israel’s national security is very real.
But Israel is funded by the United States and has an Iron Dome. They can protect themselves, relatively, as can be seen by the numbers illustrated above. A frightening majority of those killed have been civilians- and an even more frightening number of those civilians have been children.
Israel has indeed illegally settled in Palestinian territory since the 1967 war. They do impose strict regulations of all kinds upon Palestinians in the areas they have settled, and those they are actively settling. The travel barriers are impossibly labyrinthine and take hours to navigate on a good, peaceful day (of which there are few). Israel takes water from the West Bank and sells it back to Palestinians for a profit. They have far exceeded the borders allotted them in 1948 for their Promised Land.
And yet they are genuinely threatened by HAMAS and its attempts at bringing justice to the Palestinians it claims to represent. They use collective trauma as an impetus for their actions- more than 2,000 years of collective Jewish trauma.
“But is there such a thing as collective trauma? Or is there really only the traumatized condition of several individuals represented down the generations as the experience of a unified nation?” (Asad, Loc. 437, Kindle Edition).
BOTH ARE WRONG.
Operation Protective Edge is not the way to handle the situation. Listening to Diane Rehm on NPR yesterday (transcript linked here), there was a great conversation on what Israel’s motive might be. One was to entirely eliminate HAMAS, which is impractical and a motive whose long-term destruction outweighs its short-term pragmatism. Doing so would cause impossible short-term damage, foster a generation of Palestinians that would grow up dangerously angry, and leave a power vacuum in Gaza and Palestine that would have to be controlled by Israel but that would be impossible for Israel to actually control.
The second was to accept the status quo, which Israel- as a state that must protect its people- cannot do with HAMAS acting as it is.
So you’re left with the third option, which is a continuation of the existing situation- a painful ordeal, because all attempts at the fourth option, a peace deal, have fallen through.
And it begs the question- if the two sides can’t agree and endure a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire, how can they be expected to rationally agree on any means of peace?
They are both violating the “laws of war,” a term I hate because I hate war, I hate violence, and I despise the idea of legitimate violence because it has been legally structured and ordained.
The United Nations warned Israel 33 times about the coordinates of the UN school that was hit a few days ago. 33 times. And it was still hit, and children still died, and families were still ruined.
MY ARGUMENT AGAINST IT ALL
What saddens me is that there is absolutely no solution to the problem. I stand with Gaza and I stand with Palestine, but I do understand Israel’s motives (Model UN has allowed me to see from many lenses and to understand many viewpoints).
Psalm 122:6-8 reads, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls, and security within your citadels. I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’”
I find that ironic.
One of my favorite professors, Joyce Dalsheim, is a scholar on peace studies and conflict resolution and an anthropologist whose field work is pulled from Israel/Palestine. Her latest book, Producing Spoilers, was featured in this blog post, which I encourage you to read (at least, the part about Dalsheim’s book) as I continue and use quotes from it.
At the beginning as she describes the nature of conflict, she analyzes Kant, saying,
“…since rational citizens would be loathe to enter into a state of war for all it would cost them in life and livelihood, peace should be the expected norm in a world of democratic nation-states.” (Loc 451, Kindle Edition).
Two voices that are noticeably absent from this conflict are the voices of the civilians of both sides. In Rehm’s discussion yesterday, Hussein Ibish (Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine) addressed this question as it related to Palestine, saying,
“But once the dust settles and people emerge from their hiding places, as they are now in the north of Gaza, and looking at the destruction, they’re going to ask Hamas, why did you keep fighting when there were cease-fires available? And Hamas had better have a damn good answer.”
While some Israeli citizens are assisting the effort- some students spend days in “war rooms” responding to social media inquisitions with pro-Israel responses (This week’s Economist, pg. 16-18), the majority of voices have been absent as well.
While Kant may be correct in saying that “rational citizens would be loathe to enter into a state of war for all it would cost them in life and livelihood,” it seems to not be a problem for the Israeli government- who, unlike HAMAS, is very organized, at least ostensibly- or HAMAS to enter into such a state, despite such cost to life and livelihood.
She further uses Zvi Beckerman, a peace scholar and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in her work, using him in her discussion on identity. For my purposes, though, I’ll apply the following quote (Loc 849, Kindle Edition).
“The powerful ‘attain the status of essentiality while the weak are reduced to the rank of an unfortunate but necessary accident.’”
It seems in this conflict that Israel has attained the “status of essentiality” while the Palestinians have been “reduced to the rank of an unfortunate but necessary accident.” Especially when the civilian-to-civilian death ratio has exceeded 425 Palestinians to every one Israeli.
And those numbers begin to make you think: both camps are probably internally employing the “greater good” argument. But at what point does the current destruction exceed the greater good of the future?
WHO IS THE TERRORIST, REALLY?
Last year, I was made to read the first chapter of Talal Asad’s On Suicide Bombing, which isn’t really about suicide bombing at all- rather, it’s about who gets the privilege, and how, of being labeled a terrorist of illegitimate violence.
Asad begins his work with the statement that, “I argue that the creation of terror and the perpetration of atrocities are aspects of militant action in the unequal world we inhabit, of our notions of what is cruel and what is necessary, and of the emotions with which we justify or condemn particular acts of death-dealing.” (Loc. 90, Kindle Edition).
I focus here on the phrase, “what is cruel and what is necessary.” Who even has the right to decide those things?
He continues to say, “What seems to matter is not the killing and dehumanization as such but how one kills and with what motive.” (Loc 117, Kindle Edition).
I add to that, “and with whose money.” Between 2009 and 2018, Israel will receive 30 billion USD in military aid from the United States’ government. In addition, the United States has a $1 billion supply of arms, known as the War Reserves Stock Allies-Israel program, which is “intended for use by America in the event of a Middle East war but can also be transferred to Israel.” It’s stored at Israeli military bases, and the other day the US government okay-ed the transfer of 120mm mortars and 40mm grenades- even as the White House condemned the shelling by Israel of the UN school, a shelling that killed 16 people, mainly children.
Asad further writes that, “the notion of evil is not conceived of as a principle essential to the world… but as a dynamic principle that opposes divine will and is therefore eliminable. Consequently, it is resistance to that will that defines evil, and all virtuous men are urged to overcome it at any cost.” (Loc. 124, Kindle Edition).
But whose perception of evil triumphs whose perception of evil? Israel’s, or HAMAS/Palestine’s?
Asad then uses Michael Walzer, author of Arguing About War. Walzer discusses the differences between war and terrorism, a discussion that Asad uses in his own discussion and critique of the differences between the two:
“This immediately makes it quite clear what terrorism is for Walzer: terrorism is not only illegal and therefore morally worse than killing in war; it is worse even than the crime of murder. ‘This, then,’ he writes, ‘is the peculiar evil of terrorism- not only the killing of innocent people but also the intrusion of fear into everyday life, the violation of private purposes, the insecurity of public spaces, the endless coerciveness of precaution.’” (Loc. 298, Kindle Edition).
If this statement is applied to both HAMAS and Israel, it is difficult to distinguish between the two- who is, indeed, the terrorist?
The difficult question is when Asad clarifies Walzer’s views: “What Walzer condemns in war is excess and in terrorism is essence.” (Loc. 310, Kindle Edition).
But if the essence of the actions of HAMAS render them terroristic, how can one legitimately argue that the actions of Israel are simply excess, and not terroristic as well?
But Walzer has a solution, and it’s one that Asad doesn’t like: “He [Walzer] proposes that a public transgression in the domain of war should be accompanied by a sense of remorse and that when this happens, the feelings of guilt about what has been done may make it more difficult to repeat that transgression in the future.” (Loc. 332, Kindle Edition).
But how many times should that transgression take place to elicit the quantity of feelings of guilt required to not repeat the transgression again?
5,000 civilian deaths?
Let’s remember that approximately 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. Is 6 million enough people to feel guilty enough not to do it again? That’s certainly worked in the case of that genocide.
And yet, HAMAS is considered the terrorist. And Asad has an answer for that as well: “It is a banal fact that powerful states are never held accountable to such institutions, that only the weak and the defeated can be convicted of war crimes against humanity.” (Loc. 406, Kindle Edition).
Asad continues on this train of thought: “the sincerity of the terrorist’s conscience, of the excuses he makes, is of no significance in the categorization of his action: the military commander’s sincere conscience, on the other hand, may be crucial to the difference between an unfortunate necessity and a war crime… the just modern soldier incurs guilt when he kills innocent people- the terrorist does not.” (Loc. 470-661, Kindle Edition).
So these 1500+ Palestinian deaths and nearly 100 Israeli deaths are an unfortunate necessity and have incurred guilt that absolves the perpetrators of larger crimes, and the label, “terrorist.”
“Punishing civilians may be the only way to obtain results- given, of course, that an appropriate sense of guilt accompanies the action, because unlike barbarians civilized nations know what compassion is.” (Loc. 685, Kindle Edition).
The last paragraphs are the most telling, and most applicable:
“So: it is not cruelty that matters in the distinction between terrorists and armies at war, still less the threat each poses to entire ways of life, but their civilizational status. What is really at stake is not a clash of civilizations (a conflict between two incompatible sets of values) but the fight of civilization against the uncivilized. In that fight, all civilized rules may be set aside. Captain Colby observes of war with savage enemies: ‘If a few non-combatants …are killed, the loss of life is probably far less than might have been sustained in prolonged operations of a more polite character. The inhuman act thus becomes humane, for it shortens the conflict and prevents the shedding of more excessive quantities of blood.’
Clearly, Colby thinks the savage is incapable of such acts of humanity, and he is probably right. But what is especially intriguing is the ingenuity of liberal discourse in rendering inhuman acts humane. This is certainly something that savage discourse cannot achieve.” (Loc. 685-696, Kindle Edition).
If despising this conflict makes me uncivilized, so be it. But for those trying to legitimately use the “greater good” argument, as Colby alludes to above, remember the discussion earlier about how Israel seems only to pursue the avenue of continuing the conflict at its status quo.
I have a friend living in Nepal and she posts pictures of tall, green mountains, saying that in Nepal, they call them hills, because only mountains that have snow on them year-round are bestowed with the privilege of being labeled, “mountains.” For these hills of death and destruction that have been created by Israel and Palestine to be allowed the label of mountains, one must only perpetually top them with the snow of the ashes of the Jews that burned at the hands of those who labeled them as “other.”
I was at a funeral the other day and spent the service staring at a stained glass window of Jesus and a child, illuminated by the twilight, a religion that is supposed to spread love, and how can it be that it spreads so much pain and blood and death and destruction? Thousands of Palestinians, dozens of Israelis, hundreds of children, everyone is right and everyone is wrong and there is no solution, no answer, no end in sight, all for a religion that only preaches kindness and love.
They have made the Earth the Hell they try so desperately to avoid.
The scholar in me hopes desperately for a peace deal. The realist in me knows that this is not going to happen.
The human in me just wants to sit in a corner and cry.