The Israeli-Palestian Conflict

2009 08 03
Recently read: Sowing Crisis

Rashid Khalidi. Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East

I read and enjoyed Khalidi’s The Iron Cage back in January, and so got this, Khalidi’s latest book, out of the library shortly afterwards (I’m only getting around to writing about it now). Sowing Crisis is a more sharply polemical book than The Iron Cage and I liked it a bit less, partly because I have a limited appetite for polemic and partly because Khalidi isn’t really great at it. (He’s not awful; just not great.) Nevertheless, there is a lot in this wide-ranging review of American foreign policy to learn from and by stimulated by. Khalidi’s main objective seems to be to try to get Americans to understand how non-Americans see American foreign policy. This is a worthwhile project, and Sowing Crisis is a worthwhile book.

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2009 01 06
Recently read: The Iron Cage

Rashid Khalidi. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood

The story of Palestinian dispossession and statelessness begins in the transfer of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire to the British in the aftermath of World War I. The terms of the League of Nations mandate under which the British assumed responsibility for the territory encouraged the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” but in the same breath warned that “nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

How exactly these aspirations came to find expression in the space of a single sentence, let alone a single document purporting to articulate a workable plan for the territory, is not clear. In 1922 the Jewish population of Palestine was a little under 10% of the total. Even in the 1930s, after the waves of immigration to Palestine that followed Hitler’s rise, and the shutting of other borders around the world to Jews (including, to their eternal discredit, those of the U.S. and Canada), the Jewish share of the population remained about a third of the total. This move to establish a national home for a single minority was hardly welcome to what the terms of the Mandate delicately refer to as the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” And indeed, it was clear to less myopic Zionists that, given the natural resistance of the then current inhabitants of Palestine, the establishment of such a national home would eventually require the mass “transfer”—ethnic cleansing—of a significant portion of that population. This is exactly what later happened when war broke out in response to the founding of Israel after WW II.

The stage was set for tragedy early, then, with a mix of desperate Jewish refugees fleeing antisemitic persecution in Europe, in search of a national home for which there was now some plausible basis in international law; British colonialism, with all its stupidity, mismanagement, double dealing, and arrogance; and the growing nationalism of the Palestinian people out of the old political order of the Ottoman Empire.

Rashid Khalidi’s superb Iron Cage examines this tragedy, with a special focus on the many causes of enduring Palestinian statelessness, past and present. It is a remarkable work, characterized by moral sophistication and a refusal to settle for simplistic narratives. Khalidi is acutely aware that the Palestinians faced considerable odds from the start in their own struggle for national rights. The influence of the British, the Arab nations, and then later the U.S., as a staunch and deeply biased supporter of Israel, has deeply disadvantaged the Palestinians in their struggle for recognition as a people deserving a national home of their own. It is impossible to understand the Palestinian predicament without grasping the larger forces acting against them throughout their troubled history.

But Khalidi is also motivated by a respect for Palestinian agency, which means an insistence on treating the Palestinians as always more than passive victims of events that befall them. Although facing very long odds, Khalidi argues cogently, Palestinian leadership during the Mandate period failed, among other things, to develop the state or para-state capacities which would have served it well in the coming confrontation with Israel. Many of the failings of the Palestinian Authority after Oslo were continuous with this original failure to prepare in a serious way for the eventual responsibilities of statehood. Subsequent Palestinian responses to Israel were often incoherent on the uses and limitations of political violence, and deeply ambivalent about the shape of a final settlement that might be both plausible and acceptable. A discussion of the successes and failures of Arafat, and the dismal mess made of things by the Oslo Accords rounds out Khalidi’s remarkably balanced treatment of this subject.

A final word about the author might be in order. For those who have short memories, Rashid Khalidi was recently the target of some vicious rhetoric during John McCain’s recent Presidential bid. Having finally gotten around to reading Khalidi’s book, I now think that McCain couldn’t have chosen a less appropriate target in his attempt to smear Obama by association.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 03 26
And you want to lecture people on balance?

Michael Walzer, long-time fan of my work, has an exchange with a critic in a recent edition of Dissent Magazine about Walzer’s attitude to Israel. I’m not familiar enough with Walzer’s recent writings on Israel to judge the critic’s case, but I can’t help noticing that Walzer’s response is not very strong.

Walzer gets off to a bad start with his take on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Perhaps the low point of this part of the discussion is when Walzer ties himself in knots trying to argue that Israel’s behaviour, “however much one criticizes the harshness” is “reactive.” Since Walzer sternly condemns the occupation, and the long, sordid history of illegal land-theft and collective punishment, the reader can only wonder how this is supposed to be a useful description of matters in the occupied territories, or indeed what exactly it would take, on Walzer’s view, for Palestinian violence to similarly qualify as “reactive.”

As it happens, I’m much more sympathetic to Walzer’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute than I am to his reading of the Second Lebanon War of last summer. As in any war, the ambitions and intentions on both sides were fairly complex. But I think your head needs to have been pretty far up your ass last summer not to notice that one important aim of Israeli policy was to try to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and the rest of Lebanon by inflicting a high level of suffering on Lebanese civilians.

Walzer admits that “[s]ome Israeli strategists certainly hoped that the punishment of the civilian population would have a good political effect,” adding that “others warned that it almost certainly would not.” But again, it certainly seemed at the time the civilian and military officials calling the shots were following the advice of the first group of strategists. I doubt that these strategists were right, but I’ll leave it better informed people to make the final call on that. Moral judgment, in this case, is a bit less complex: Inflicting massive suffering on Lebanese civilians in order to apply pressure indirectly on Hizbollah was wrong, for all the same reasons that blowing up civilians in pizza shops or crowded buses in order to effect changes in Israeli policy is wrong.

Walzer makes a few other points that are, to my mind, pretty weak. But don’t take it from me. You can read Walzer’s response yourself, and make up your own mind. My point here is just to report an impression: Walzer’s response bears a very strong resemblance to the lame “yes, but” style of apologetics for Palestinian terrorism that Walzer has little difficulty seeing through. I certainly don’t envy Israel its enemies, and I also think that sorting through the moral complexities of modern Middle Eastern politics is a demanding job for even the most fair-minded philosopher. But Walzer, it’s pretty clear, isn’t that philosopher.

Anyway, notice the moment of unintentional comedy at the end of Walzer’s response when Walzer complains about his critic’s attempt to distinguish him from his friend, Martin Peretz. If I were trying to establish my impartiality on the issue of Israel, I don’t think I would want to go out of my way to associate myself with Peretz, of all people.

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2005 08 13
Linda Grant on disengaging from Gaza


Update: And here is Helena Cobban with another take on disengagement.

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2005 04 05
Israel to dump 10,000 tons of garbage a month in the West Bank

I don’t think this is a very nice thing to do. Two highlights from the piece:

Israel’s construction and operation of the Kedumim dump appears to be in violating the international law, as it involves transferring garbage to territory defined as occupied. Second, experts warn that the dump would jeopardize the Mountain Aquifer, one of the largest freshwater sources in Israel and Palestine. This is because the dump, which was originally used for “dry waste,” will receive and absorb household garbage with organic substances.
[. . .]
The Kedumim dump will create an absurd situation. The West Bank is filled with illegal Palestinian garbage dumps, which constitute serious environmental hazards and jeopardize the groundwater, because the civil administration refuses to let Palestinians build modern waste disposal sites. The most modern dump being built there – the Kedumim dump – is intended only for garbage from Israel.

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2005 01 27
More on suicide bombings

The blogger “Lenin” weighs in on the subject. He doesn’t think that it is at all surprising that some Palestinians engage in suicide bombing, citing both the brutality of the Israeli occupation and the collapse of Oslo. I wouldn’t follow Lenin in giving quite such a one-sided account of the collapse of Oslo, but that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of our discussion. Lenin is talking about the motives and pressures at work in the individuals who choose to engage in suicide bombing, and I was speculating about the strategic considerations which at least some of the higher ups in Hamas and co. must have entertained regarding the tactic. Anyway, even if Lenin is entirely right about all that, this seems an entirely distinct point:

The Palestinians do not have hawk air-jets or tanks or helicopters. They don’t even have a very well-equipped army. They have a subterranean movement which includes both religious and secular groups. In direct combat with the IDF, they don’t stand a chance. Hence, suicide bombings.

But they don’t stand a chance with suicide bombing either. Setting aside questions about the motives of individuals, suicide bombing could only be justified as a last resort attempt to liberate the Palestinians if it actually bore any to relation to the liberation of Palestinians. And it’s patently clear that it doesn’t.

We can’t go back in time, and so we can’t replay history with a (strictly) non-violent Palestinian liberation movement. And so it’s hard to speculate. But I find it very difficult to resist the temptation. I think that such a movement would have crushed the Israeli right, and that the Israeli right knows that in its heart and fears such a movement most of all. (And yes, I know that many Palestinians groups have been engaged for many years in non-violent protest, and that they’ve been ignored to a large extent by the media. But surely part of the blame here lies in the way that very violent protest has muddied the water.) I don’t know if such a movement would have been successful. But I imagine it would have gotten Palestinians much further than anything Hamas or Islamic Jihad or any other group employing violence against innocents has.

I was mainly interested in questions of strategy and tactic, rather than moral justification. But of course you can’t morally justify a means to an end if the means aren’t really means to that end. I should also note that the question of moral justification is to some extent separate from the question of sympathy or understanding. Palestinians in the occupied territories typically live under horrifying amounts of pressure. I do hope very much that I would refrain from deliberately and directly attacking innocents under any circumstances – indeed, I think I would refrain – but whether I would act in non-violent and constructive ways under that much pressure is an entirely different question. Some days I doubt it.

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 01 26
Eagleton on suicide bombing

Terry Eagleton writes about suicide bombing in today’s Guardian. There’s a lot to disagree with here (and others have). I just want to note that Eagleton’s piece is entirely taken up with what he takes to be the personal motives of suicide bombers. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Eagleton is exactly right about these motives. There is still the larger political question of what the people who order and justify suicide bombings have in mind from a strategic point of view when they order them. (I’ll just focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Eagleton also talks about the use of the tactic in Iraq.)

The leaders of Hamas are obviously under quite a bit of pressure. They no doubt suffer from moments of despair and, given their limited military capabilities, from feelings of powerlessness. But they surely also have goals in mind, which they hope that the suicide bombings they help to organize will further. To the extent that limited military capabilities and feelings of powerlessness operate higher up the chain, I suspect it is to justify or rationalize a tactic which the leaders take themselves to have independent reasons for employing.

Suicide bombing, it has always been clear, will never, ever dislodge Israel from the occupied territories. Indeed, it has long been clear that suicide bombing only strengthens the Israeli right, and helps them generate the political capital they need to press forward with their wretched policies. The only sense I have ever been able to make of suicide bombing from a strategic point of view is that it is aimed squarely at the result that it is all but guaranteed to achieve, rather than the far fetched result of improving the position of Palestinians.

I’m not saying it’s a good strategy. Indeed, I think it’s a stupid one. I’m saying it’s the only thing I can recognize as even remotely resembling a strategy in the actions of groups like Hamas.

Why would they think this way? Well, suppose you’re a radical. Suppose that you oppose any kind of reconciliation with Israel. Suppose that you find your fellow nationals dispiritingly soft and willing to compromise. You must convince them to reject any kind of accommodation. And you must recruit others to your brand of radicalism. But if you attempt this by force, you will fail, because you are weak (at first) relative to the rest of society, and because this would only alienate you from people you want to persuade and recruit. So you invite the Israeli right to do your recruiting for you. You invite reprisals and collective punishment. The collective punishment is very persuasive. Because it is collective, it is unfair, and because it is unfair and brutal, it is reasonably effective at sapping interest among Palestinians in accommodation and compromise.

The dynamic, I think, is similar within Israel. And this is why it seems a bit misleading to be always talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially when the discussions are about the Palestinians’ use of suicide bombing against Israel. From a strategic point of view, though the immediate effect is (of course) to kill Israeli citizens, Palestinians suicide bombing seems to me to be aimed as much at Palestinians moderates as it is at Israelis. That’s why it seems much more illuminating to talk about two simultaneous conflicts, between moderates and extremists on either side with one another.

I’m curious if anyone else has the same impression, or if people think that I’ve simply gone and misinterpreted Hamas. Or? Let me know in the comments.

Howls of outrage (7)

2004 12 08
Cole on Israel

Today’s reading: Juan Cole explains why he opposes the call to boycott Israeli academics. I think he makes a pretty convincing case.

Via Brian Ulrich

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2004 11 11

Jonathan Edelstein has some harsh words, but I agree with most of what he writes.

And just piss off if you want me to say something nice. Frankly, Arafat’s (natural) death came sooner than anyone had any right to hope for, and I’m glad for it. If he had been killed by the IDF I would have been furious. But oh how I longed for him to get out the way these past few years – and it was clear that only death would accomplish that.

And, no, I won’t be crying for Sharon when he goes either.

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 07 27
Dreaming about peace

From a piece in the New York Times:

The demonstrators included many of the almost 240,000 settlers of the West Bank and Gaza, and also secular and Orthodox Israelis from around the country. Many dismissed Mr. Sharon’s argument that it is foolish to send hundreds of Israeli troops to protect 7,500 Jewish settlers living among 1.3 million Palestinians.

“If we give up the Gaza Strip, by the same token we can give up Israel,” said Chaim Markuza, a 62-year-old retired businessman who was standing near the Latrun junction about 15 miles outside Jerusalem.

Ayelet Schwartz, a 24-year-old teacher from the northern West Bank settlement of Dumim who had her 2 �-year-old daughter, Shira, in a stroller, said, “If we believe in the Torah, then we believe that all of the land of Israel belongs to us.”

. . .

One of the people at the wall was David Hatuel, whose pregnant wife and four daughters were killed last May in a roadside ambush by two Palestinian gunmen in Gaza. “Peace should be made with people who want peace,” he said. “The Palestinians don’t educate their children to want peace, and you can’t have a peace with someone who doesn’t dream about peace.”

Mr. Hatuel makes a very good point, a very good point indeed. One wonders, though, if Mrs. Schwartz is teaching Shira to dream of a day when they can set the Torah aside.

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2004 07 20

Helena Cobban has a long and thoughtful post up about Yasser Arafat.

Arafat has been a nightmare for Palestinians. If the Israelis assassinated him I would be outraged. If, on the other hand, he were to drop dead of a heart attack, it would be a toss up for me between relief and annoyance that it took him so long.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2004 07 09
Chomsky on the fence

Noam Chomsky writes:

If the goal were security, Israel would have built the fence a few km inside its borders. It could then be a mile high, patrolled on both sides by the IDF, mined with nuclear weapons, utterly impenetrable. Perfect security.

The problem would be that it would not take valuable Palestinian land and resources (including control of water), drive out the population, and lay the basis for still further expansion as Palestinians flee from the dungeons that are left, like the town of Qalqilya. So to interpret as a land grab seems appropriate.

Doubtless a side benefit is to increase a narrow form of “security,” while probably in the long run seriously increasing insecurity not only because of the regional impact but because sooner or later it is likely to inspire terrorist acts against Israelis abroad in revenge. But terror and security are not driving concerns, any more than they have a high priority in the planning of “the boss-man called `partner’,” as more astute Israeli commentators describe Washington.

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Howls of outrage (6)

2004 06 07
Henley on Sharon’s “Disengagement” plan

When he’s right, he’s so very right.

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2004 04 15
Bush, Sharon, and all that

Yesterday on the bus I read this. The first thing I read this morning was this, which begins as follows:

President Bush yesterday endorsed Israel’s claim to parts of the West Bank seized in the 1967 Middle East war and asserted that Palestinian refugees cannot expect to return to their homes inside Israel, an explicit shift in U.S. policy immediately attacked by Palestinian political leaders.

Standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House, Bush said it would be “unrealistic” to return to the region’s prewar boundaries, affirming that some large Israeli settlements long considered illegal by American and international diplomats would be allowed to remain.

Bush stopped short of specifying which settlements Israel could keep, but, in publicly backing an Israeli strategy developed without Palestinian input, he set aside years of U.S. policy that deemed the West Bank settlements obstacles to peace in the region. The shape of the border and the fate of refugees were to be settled in final negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

The new U.S. approach is aimed at breaking a three-year stalemate in the peace process marked by deadly violence, reprisals and deepening despair. Bush administration officials said they concluded the best hope of jump-starting the process was to embrace Sharon’s unilateral strategy, which includes withdrawing Israeli settlers from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip and building a security wall between Israelis and Palestinians.

If I hear the phrase “honest broker” today, I think I’m going to throw up.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2004 04 05
Re: Israel

The truth hurts.

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