The Middle East: A response and a proposal
Distortions, proportionality and peace
By David Perlstein
Neighborhood monthlies normally focus on food, shopping and entertainment. In February, Northside San Francisco ventured into world affairs, often a journalistic minefield. Alas, Matt McFetridge’s “According to our man in Gaza” played fast and loose with the facts. His editorial, termed “a less politically correct take” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, included quotes from an unidentified journalist in Gaza and references to Schlomo (Hebrew: Solomon) to describe Israeli soldiers. (Imagine journalists calling Palestinians Omar or Muhammad!) Perspective is in order.
What was left unsaid
Several “facts” underlying Mr. McFetridge’s piece bear reviewing:
• Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but still controls access to the area. Left unmentioned was Hamas’s immediate response: rocketing Israel to kill civilians rather than establishing conditions enabling Israel to withdraw access controls.
• Hamas won elections in 2006 and routed the Palestinian Authority in 2007. The latter event merely suggests that bullets trump ballots. Regarding the former, no election legitimizes a political entity’s desire to destroy its neighbor. In 1932, the Nazi party won a plurality in the Reichstag, leading to Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933. The world gave no sanction to the Reich’s campaigns of military conquest or the Holocaust.
• Most human rights groups refer to Gaza as a prison for its residents. Such “imprisonment” is self-inflicted, since Hamas continues rocket attacks and weapons smuggling. The key to the “prison” lies in Hamas’s hands
• Hamas does not accept Israel’s existence. Who else does it accuse of “imprisoning” it? Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist.
This stated, Gaza’s suffering must be acknowledged and the forcefulness of Israel’s response discussed.
The proportionality puzzle
Rules of war have long been observed, albeit more in the breach than the practice. Hamas – and others – term Israel’s response to rockets launched from Gaza as disproportionate. Critical questions abound.
Just what are the rules of proportionate response? When jihadis launch two rockets from Gaza, may Israel launch only two in return? Are three Israeli rockets disproportionate? If Israel returns fire with two rockets, must they be of the same size and manufacture? Or may Israel launch larger rockets, artillery shells or bombs? Further, when Hamas’s rockets fall on a small town such as S’derot, must Israel target only Khan Yunus? Conversely, when rockets fall on a larger city, may Israel target Gaza City – or must it wait until larger, more powerful rockets explode in Tel Aviv? And if Hamas positions forces and weapons in houses, schools and mosques, do they earn a “free pass” while equivalent Israeli structures don’t?
Moreover, why does Hamas presume that it, not Israel, has the right to make the rules governing proportionality? Hamas’s goals and Israel’s are disproportionate. Hamas wishes to destroy the Israeli state. Israel, facing an avowed existential threat, seeks to defend itself by crippling or destroying Hamas’s military wing to prevent further attacks. Israel has no concern with Hamas’s political goals regarding such internal Palestinian affairs as governance and economic development. Detached from the vow of aggression, these pose no threat.
Hamas leaders, however, continue to express their shock that Israel refuses to commit national suicide. They provoke violent Israeli responses then claim victim status when Israel fights back – then rocket Israel again. As former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk advises that Hamas must decide whether to “feed or fight.” It cannot do both.
What is peace?
Those seeking peace first must define it. Rabbi Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, offers an incisive observation (Reform Judaism magazine, Winter 2006). To Muslims and Arabs, peace means a ceasing of violence. Peace may be temporary with violence resumed following the end of a truce or ceasefire. To the West, including Israel, peace represents a cessation of the causes of violence. Conflicting parties agree to end hostilities and normalize relations.
A substantial number of Israelis and the Palestinian Authority agree that peace equates with a permanent end to hostilities through a two-state solution. Hamas stands opposed, as does the Israeli right. Complicating the matter, the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas lacks the strength and cohesion required to forge an agreement. And given the current lack of a defining Israeli political will as reflected by the February 10 elections – if a new government is formed when you read this, it will consist of an uneasy coalition – Israel is challenged to present itself as a reliable peace partner. Yet prime ministers Rabin, Barak, Sharon, and Olmert all expressed their willingness to accept a Palestinian state.
Ultimately, peace will develop in either of two ways. One side will defeat the other, militarily or psychologically. Or, two states will arise from a negotiated agreement with each making major concessions. Neither the “one-Israel” right nor “no-Israel” Hamas will gain a victory; the peoples of both states will emerge the winners.
The spin cycle
Finally, a comment on Mr. McFetridge’s railing at the Israeli “spin machine.” After emerging from their bunkers days after an initial ceasefire took hold (a long-range ceasefire may soon be initiated), Hamas leaders declared victory. I leave it to Mr. McFetridge and the Hamas supporters who rallied in Civic Center Plaza to urge, “one Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan,” to explain the credibility of such claims. I fear, however, that if Hamas believes it won the day (media reports indicate that the Gaza street disputes this), it will spin future claims of victory amidst even larger piles of rubble. One shudders when imagining a defeat.
The Palestinian people deserve a viable state in which to live alongside Israel with dignity and respect. Supporters of Hamas’s ideology and the death culture it glorifies should be honest enough to admit that they define peace only as conditions imposed by the victor over the vanquished. Meanwhile, they condemn Israelis to constant fear and Palestinians in Gaza to ever worsening despair.
David Perlstein is a freelance advertising copywriter, author (Solo Success: 100 Tips for Becoming a $100,000-a-Year Freelancer, 1998), aspiring novelist, and member of the board of trustees at Congregation Sherith Israel.