A policeman’s nightmare is the prospective suicide who forces the constable to shoot in self-defense. No matter how justified the killing, others always will wonder whether the shooter had an opportunity to avoid a fatal outcome.
Peoples commit suicide as much as do individuals. The geopolitical cognate of “suicide by policeman” is Hamas’ attempted suicide by Israel. Israel’s objective is to eliminate Hamas rule. There are only two ways to do that: destroy Hamas’ international support, or make its rule in Gaza insupportable.
I hate to be the one to bring up the unpleasant things that no one else wants to talk about, but just what do you do when a substantial group of people would rather die on their feet than live on their knees? For Hamas, to live on one’s knees would be to accept a permanent Jewish presence in the historic land of Israel, an outcome which Hamas was formed to prevent in the first place.
One answer is that a slow-motion humanitarian disaster will gradually erode the fighting capacity and morale of Hamas and its popular base in Gaza, presuming that external sources of support can be throttled. What the International Red Cross calls “a full-blown humanitarian crisis” in Gaza is, in a certain sense, part of the solution, not part of the problem. A million and a half people have no way to live in Gaza except on the dole of the international community, in a Petrie dish for Islamist extremism.
As the pro-Israeli analyst Martin Kramer observes in his blog, economic sanctions against Gaza – that is, pressure on the civilian population – are an integral and entirely legitimate aim of Israeli policy. “Were Israel to lift the economic sanctions,” Kramer writes, “It would transform Hamas control of Gaza into a permanent fact, solidify the division of the West Bank and Gaza, and undermine both Israel and Abbas by showing that violent ‘resistance’ to Israel produces better results than peaceful compromise and cooperation. Rewarding ‘resistance’ just produces more of it. So Israel’s war aim is very straightforward, and it is not simply a total ceasefire. At the very least, it is a total ceasefire that also leaves the sanctions against Hamas in place. This would place Israel in an advantageous position to bring about the collapse of Hamas rule some time in the future – its long-term objective.”
Israel’s alternative would be to ignore Hamas, and instead attack Iran or Syria, Hamas’ main supporters in the Muslim world. A humiliating blow against the state sponsors of Hamas would make it harder for an organization that represents itself as a non-state player to continue fighting. Last April, Israel had the opportunity to deal such a blow to Syria, and had it taken preemptive action against Syria at the time, it is unlikely that the present attack on Gaza would have been necessary. (Please see Ehud Olmert on the Damascus road Asia Times Online, April 15, 2009.)
War with Syria or Iran, to be sure, entails far more risk for the Jewish state. As Barak Ravid wrote in Ha’aretz: “Defense Minister Ehud Barak told [a December 20 conference in Tel Aviv] that Israel is strong enough to take down the Assad regime in case of war with Syria … However, even if Israel strikes a severe blow, he told the conference, Syria ‘even when battered and weak has a significant ability to inflict damage, as a result of the weapons it has and its capacity to use Hezbollah.’ Barak emphasized that in the case of a confrontation with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah would also likely join the fighting, and that it is exceedingly difficult to forecast how another war in the Middle East would play out.”
It is hard to fault Israel for not taking the risk of war with numerically larger, if technologically inferior, opponents, when those risks are very difficult to assess from the outside. Nonetheless, it seems clear that Israel chose to attack Gaza as a low-risk alternative. Hamas is a far softer opponent than Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War. Hezbollah had received massive military support from Iran in building tunnel defenses and deploying sophisticated weapons. Hamas does not even appear to have night-vision equipment. A risk-averse strategic posture does not show Israel in a particularly strong light, whatever the merits or demerits of its present policy.
If the world had wanted Israel to adopt an alternative defense strategy, it should have encouraged an Israeli attack on Iran, or Syria, or both. Both the Bush administration as well as the Barack Obama transition team (via Obama’s Middle East advisor Robert Malley) favored “engaging Syria,” as did Israeli Prime Minister Olmert. That idea may have reached its best-used-by-date. As Lee Smith wrote December 24 on the Hudson Institute website, “The goal of trying to wedge Syria away from Iran is to return it to the so-called ‘Sunni fold,’ which includes, most importantly, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The problem, however, is that over the last several years Damascus has alienated the Sunni powers, especially Saudi, whose King Abdullah has suffered multiple insults at the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When enmity becomes personal, as it often does in the Middle East, there is no telling how or when it is likely to be resolved. In other words, there is no Sunni fold for the Syrians to return to: the Sunnis are hardly eager to embrace an Arab regime that over the last four years has served as the Persians’ pitbull.”
For the moment, Israel is treating Hamas as a state rather than as a state actor. As in any war, economic pressure on the civilian population, as well as military operations that kill civilians as collateral damage to the pursuit of military objectives, are legitimate instruments of warfare. It is hypocrisy to pretend otherwise.
To insist that Israel desist entirely from military activities that have a high probability of causing civilian casualties is doubly hypocritical. That would demand, in effect, that Israel value the lives of Palestinian civilians more than those of its own civilians, who are subject to rocket bombardment. That is something no state in the world can do, and it is silly to ask it. Israel has less reason than any other on Earth to heed such a demand. Never has the state of Israel been offered mercy by its enemies, nor has it any reason to expect it. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by following the almost-golden rule: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
Israel is in the unenviable position of mopping up a problem created by the inertia of the international community. Fourth-generation “refugees” living in towns officially designated as “camps” never have existed under international law until the world community found it expedient to defer the “Palestinian problem” into the indefinite future. The Gazans cannot be economically viable on their 139 square miles of sand, and the humiliation of perpetual dependency and poverty makes a political solution unattainable.
The international community could help most by finding better homes for a few hundred thousand Gazans. The best-case scenario would be a parallel to Hurricane Katrina, which forced the mass evacuation of the city of New Orleans during 2005. Displaced to Atlanta, Georgia, Houston, Texas, and other cities with a strong black middle class, the poor African-American refugees soon were earning more and living better than they had in corrupt, backward New Orleans.
I reviewed the good fortune of the New Orleans refugees here (See Katrina and China’s whirlwind growth Asia Times Online, April 25, 2006) and observed that the best way to help poor people is to move them out of poor regions into rich ones. The late Sam Kinison’s stand-up comedy routine about world hunger applies doubly to Gaza. “You want to help world hunger? Stop sending them food. Don’t send them another bite, send them U-Hauls … we’ve been coming here giving you food for about 35 years now and we were driving through the desert, and we realized there wouldn’t BE world hunger if you people would live where the FOOD IS!”
Otherwise, the default recommendation is what I offered five years ago, (See see More killing, please! Asia Times Online, June 12, 2003). As I observed at the time,
A recurring theme in the history of war is that most of the killing typically occurs long after rational calculation would call for the surrender of the losing side. Think of the Japanese after Okinawa, the Germans after the Battle of the Bulge, or the final phase of the Peloponnesian War, the Thirty Years War, or the Hundred Years War. Across epochs and cultures, blood has flown in proportion inverse to the hope of victory. Perhaps what the Middle East requires in order to achieve a peace settlement is not less killing, but more.
That is horrifying, but nonetheless true, and the international community simply may have to raise its threshold of horror.