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?


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