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Disproportionate Force

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Disproportionate Force 2

13 July 2006

Disproportionate Force 2

By Gwynne Dyer

“The objective of the operation is clear to no-one — not the government, not the prime minister, not the Israel Defence Force with all its commanders,” wrote journalist Hagay Huberman on Thursday in the conservative Israeli newspaper Hatzofe. “No-one tried to think 20 steps ahead. When an operation is called a ‘rolling operation’ they mean that the operation continues to roll independently and then we will all see where it leads.”

In just a few days, the situation has spun completely out of control. Beirut airport’s runways have been cratered by Israeli fighters, rockets have landed on Haifa, Israel’s third-biggest city, and the Israeli army has crossed into southern Lebanon. Israeli troops were there for eighteen years after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, and they took hundreds of casualties and killed several thousand people before they finally withdrew. Now they’re back, for God knows how long.

Less than a year ago, the IDF also pulled out of the Gaza Strip. They’re back there now, too, blasting away at houses and government offices and police stations, not because they really think that that will help them find their kidnapped soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, but because they cannot think of anything else to do. The whole game-plan has unravelled, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has run out of strategies. He is just responding by reflex — and the habitual Israeli reflex, when confronted with a serious challenge, is to lash out with overwhelming force.

That’s understandable, because Israel’s great asset is exactly that: overwhelming force. Its armed forces are incomparably superior to those of all its neighbours combined, both because they have state-of-the-art technology and because they simply outnumber all the other armies they face. Only Israel in the region is rich and well organised enough to mobilise its entire population for war, with the result that it has actually had numerical superiority at the front in every war it has fought since 1948. When you have that kind of advantage, it seems foolish not to use it.

Except that winning all the wars and killing tens of thousands of Arabs never seems to settle anything. There are only six million Israelis, and about a hundred million Arabs live within 500 miles (750 kilometres) of Israel. Sooner or later, if Israel is to have a long-term future, it must make peace with its neighbours — and that depends critically on making peace with the Palestinians, the main victims of the creation of Israel.

That is not impossible, for the Palestinians are pretty desperate after almost forty years of Israeli military occupation. Most of them are willing to settle for a pretty meagre share of what used to be Palestine — say, the twenty percent that they retained until Israel conquered them in 1967. But that has never been on offer.

The so-called “peace process” has been paralysed for fifteen years by bitter Israeli arguments over whether the Palestinians should be allowed to have fifteen percent of former Palestine for their state, or ten percent, or none at all. Almost nobody in the Israeli debate was willing to let the Palestinians have everything they had controlled in 1967, because that would mean abandoning the Jewish settlements that had been planted all over the occupied territories.

Ehud Olmert’s goal, inherited from former prime minister Ariel Sharon, has been to impose a peace settlement on the Palestinians that leaves East Jerusalem and all the main Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank in Israeli hands. “Impose” rather than negotiate, since no Palestinian would ever agree to such a deal, but Israel could only justify such an arbitrary act if it could plausibly claim that there were no reasonable Palestinians to negotiate with.

The Palestinians’ election of a Hamas government that rejected any kind of peace with Israel helped Olmert to make that case. The killing of two Israeli soldiers and the abduction of Cpl. Shalit by Hamas’s military wing three weeks ago should have reinforced that case, and initially it did. But then the temptation of overwhelming force kicked in.

Since Shalit was taken prisoner, increasingly indiscriminate Israeli military strikes in the Gaza Strip have killed close to a hundred Palestinians. Arabs elsewhere watched in helpless rage, and eventually, last Wednesday, the Hizbollah guerillas who drove the Israelis out of southern Lebanon six years ago struck across Israel’s northern border, killing three Israeli soldiers and taking two others hostage.

Everyone knows that the Lebanese government does not control Hizbollah, but Israel held Beirut responsible, rolled its tanks across the border, and launched a wave of air strikes that has already killed over fifty Lebanese. That won’t free the hostages, and it poses the risk of a wider war that could involve not only Lebanon but Syria, but at least it protects Olmert from the accusation of being “weak,” always the kiss of death for an Israeli politician.

Both Hamas and Hizbollah are adept at pushing Israel’s buttons and getting it to overreact (even if that does involve Israel destroying what little infrastructure there was in the Gaza Strip, and destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure all over again). The dwarf superpower of the Middle East is good at smashing things up, and so long as the real superpower behind it does not intervene, nobody else can stop it. But nobody in this game has a coherent strategy for getting out of it.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“That is…territories”)

Disproportionate Force

7 July 2006

Disproportionate Force

By Gwynne Dyer

The Europeans have rediscovered their backbones. “The EU condemns the loss of lives caused by disproportionate use of force by the Israeli Defence Forces and the humanitarian crisis it has aggravated,” said Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, on Friday. The Swiss were even blunter, condemning what Israel is doing in the Gaza Strip as “collective punishment,” which is contrary to the Geneva conventions.

It won’t change anything on the ground, and both the EU and Switzerland can expect the usual torrent of abuse from American sources for daring to criticise Israel. But Israel’s actions in the past two weeks, since an attack on a military outpost left two Israeli soldiers dead and one a prisoner in the hands of Palestinian militants, have clearly “violated the principle of proportionality,” as the Swiss put it. On Thursday, for example, the death toll was one Israeli soldier and 23 Palestinians, close to half of whom appear to have been unarmed civilians.

Corporal Gilad Shalit, the soldier who was taken hostage, is no more to blame for the mess he inherited than any other 19-year-old Israeli or Palestinian, and he certainly does not deserve to die. But it is hard to see how blowing up the Gaza Strip’s main power generating station, or arresting eight cabinet ministers and 34 legislators of the democratically elected government of the occupied Palestinian territories in simultaneous night raids on their homes, furthers the cause of Cpl. Shalit’s freedom. There is no sense of proportion here.

Israeli columnist Gideon Levy, writing in the newspaper “Ha’aretz”, put it best. “It is not legitimate to cut off 750,000 people from electricity. It is not legitimate to call on 20,000 people to run from their homes and turn their towns into ghost towns. It is not legitimate to kidnap half a government and a quarter of a parliament. A state that takes such steps is no longer distinguishable from a terror organisation.”

I am quoting Gideon Levy because, in large parts of the Western press, only Israelis are allowed to say such things (and even Israelis holding such views are quoted only rarely). For a non-Israeli non-Jew to say them brings instant accusations of anti-Semitism and, in the case of newspaper columns, corporate banning orders. But what the hell. Let’s take Levy’s argument a step further.

The Israeli government has not accidentally stumbled into the plot of a stupidly sentimental Hollywood movie called “Saving Corporal Shalit.” It is run by men and women with decades of experience at navigating the shoal waters of Middle Eastern politics — people who think strategically, and who fully understand the complex relationship between an elected Palestinian government that doesn’t carry out terrorist attacks, and related but semi-autonomous militant organisations that do. They understand it because it was part of Israeli history, too.

Sixty years ago, when the Jews of British-ruled Palestine were an unrecognised proto-state under foreign military occupation, they had respectable political and military organisations like the Jewish Agency and the Haganah (the militia self-defence force that ultimately became the Israeli Defence Forces). They also had brutal terrorist organisations like Irgun and the Stern Gang, who killed both British soldiers and the Palestinians who had a rival claim to the land without compunction. The legitimate organisations did not control the illegitimate ones, but there were constant contacts between them.

The Palestinian Authority’s relations with the current crop of terrorist outfits is very similar. Hamas, the militant Islamic party that won the Palestinian elections last January and subsequently formed a government, has observed a self-imposed cease-fire with Israel for more than a year. Its “military wing,” a largely separate organisation, has not, nor have various other radical groups whose main goal is to discredit mainstream Palestinian organisations that want a negotiated settlement with Israel.

Israel’s past offers enough parallels that its government should and probably does understand that it has a choice: to ignore the extremists and talk about some kind of peace deal with the mainstream — or to use the extremists as an excuse not to talk to the mainstream either. It has chosen the latter option, and the current, vastly disproportionate Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip are the evidence for it.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has big plans for imposing a “peace settlement” and new frontiers on the Palestinians — frontiers that will keep all the bigger Jewish settlement blocks (plus all of Jerusalem, of course) within Israel. International political correctness requires that he negotiate this with the Palestinians, but he knows perfectly well that they could never agree to such a terrible deal. Why should they? So he must find a way of demonstrating that negotiations are impossible.

That is what this is really about. Corporal Shalit is a convenient casus belli, but if it hadn’t been him it would have been something else. The first objective of the Israeli attacks is to destroy the elected Palestinian government led by Hamas. As President Bush said, “We support democracy, but that doesn’t mean we have to support governments elected as a result of democracy.”

Olmert knows (even if Washington doesn’t) that destroying the Hamas government will not bring the “moderates” back to power. It will just create a power vacuum in the occupied territories that will be filled by all kinds of crazies with guns. Ideal circumstances for carrying out Olmert’s plans, wouldn’t you say?

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“I am…further”; and “That is…democracy”)