Life and Death in Gaza

Israel’s attack on Gaza and the resulting mass slaughter of
civilians – especially children – has elicited a flood of opinion everywhere in
the world. Though there are many who have supported Israel’s actions, most of
the commentary has reflected the natural outrage of people everywhere. It is
hard to analyze rationally when babies are dying in their mothers’ arms and
ambulances carrying the injured are being bombed. Humanity itself seems to be
under attack. And yet, it is also true that we are where we are in part because
rational analysis has too often been superseded by emotional choices. The
consequences of this on the Palestinian side have been analyzed very eloquently
by Omar Ali in a recent
article
on Brown Pundits. I will focus on two other parties in this matter –
Israel, and the so-called “Muslim World”.
One of the greatest luxuries one can have in any conflict is
to choose one’s opponent. It is not a choice available in most cases, but
Israel has that luxury when it comes to the Palestinians, for reasons that are
too obvious to need discussion. It can choose the moderate, accommodating
Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad, or the hard-line,
militant Hamas. Almost all Israeli actions over the last few years seem
calculated to humiliate the former, thereby elevating the latter by default.
Perhaps, it can be argued, the plan was to delegitimize both – the PA by the
encroachment of settlements and refusal to negotiate, and Hamas by turning Gaza
into an impoverished hell-hole. If so, the plan has only half-worked. Hamas has
managed to periodically recharge its “reputation” by firing rockets into Israel
and, most importantly, engaging in combat with the IDF during a series of invasions
(2008, 2012 and now 2014): Every time Israel invades, hundreds of innocent
people die and Hamas emerges strengthened by having “stood up” to Israel, thus
frustrating Israeli attempts to diminish it. A more cynical reading of the
situation – and I plead maximal cynicism when it comes to international affairs
– is that Israel’s current government actually understands this dynamic very
well, and plays along with it for strategic reasons. Making Hamas the face of
the Palestinian cause and turning the purveyors of ineffectual rockets into Arab
“heroes” fits well into the right-wing narrative of Likud and its allies.
Palestinians cheering for Hamas are easily portrayed as irredeemable
anti-Semites out to annihilate Israel, and, as an added bonus, the periodic
conflicts often force the normally moderate PA to move towards Hamas – at least
temporarily – for political reasons, making the demonization of all
Palestinians even easier. It seems like a good strategy, but in fact, it is a
disastrous one for two reasons.
First, it eats away at one the greatest assets Israel has –
critical thinking. One thing that has enabled Israel to adapt and succeed
in its difficult environment is its tradition of messy, contentious, skeptical
argument within the society at large – a kind of intellectual dynamism that has
made its politics both chaotic and flexible. Now, under the systematic
influence of right-wing strategy, that diversity of thinking is being replaced
by a frighteningly uniform and blind nationalism based on an “us-versus-them”
attitude with de-humanization
of the other side
. Though there are still islands of critical
thinking
in Israeli society, once a process of mindless de-humanization gathers
steam, it seldom leads to anything good, and the de-humanizers often end up
de-humanizing themselves.
Second, empowering Hamas indirectly enhances the prestige of
Islamist movements as champions of Muslim causes and undermines whatever traces
of secular humanism may remain in most Muslim societies. It is neither in
Israel’s interest, nor in that of Europe or the US, to have this happen –
though it may well be in the interest of military-industrial complexes on all
sides. Which brings me to the attitude of the Muslim world.
Deploring and rejecting Israel’s actions in Gaza is natural,
and not
confined to Muslims
by any means. All too often, however, condemnation of
Israel has turned into glorification of Hamas. Nothing could be more dangerous
or counter-productive. Not only is Hamas following a strategy that exacts an
unnecessarily high cost in Palestinian suffering, it is part of a larger
movement – revivalist Islam – that represents the single greatest threat to
Muslim societies everywhere. When I see Pakistani friends who despise the
Taliban and want to “bomb them into the stone age” celebrating Hamas as brave
champions of freedom, I find it perplexing. If Hamas had the opportunity to implement
its desired state, it would be far closer to what the Taliban want than to a
secular democracy. Of course, there are differences. Unlike the Taliban and
ISIS, Hamas (and Hezbollah) are not nihilists. They have a “positive” agenda
too, and much more sophisticated political strategies. They are more akin to the
Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood – but these groups are all on the
same spectrum. Over the last few years, countries like Pakistan and Iraq have
suffered terribly at the hands of Islamist extremists, and many people –
including most liberals – advocate tactics against these groups that are not
very different than what Israel is applying in Gaza today. In part, this
reflects the widely-held (and justified) view that the Palesitinians are
seeking their freedom, while the Taliban and ISIS are just seeking power.
However, we would do well to remember that Hamas is also seeking power along
with freedom, and that its power will not be used in ways that many of those
cheering it on today would find acceptable.
Another thing to keep in mind is that selective outrage is
usually ineffective. Israeli bombs have killed almost two thousand Palestinians,
which is a terrible toll – especially horrific because of the high number of civilians killed. But Bashar al-Assad has killed
more than a hundred thousand people
! People are being massacred almost
every day in Pakistan and Iraq for belonging to the wrong sect or religion.
The innocent girls kidnapped by Boko Haramis in Nigeria are still
missing
, with even more abductions since. Militants are on the rampage in
Libya, the Central African Republic, and in various other parts of Africa,
often in the name of Islam. These too deserve an equal measure of outrage –
unless, of course, one finds being killed by Jews worse than being killed by
Muslims. Say it ain’t so.
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, unfortunately, we seem to
be trapped in a nightmare. Unless one of the parties changes its stance
radically, we are likely to see escalating cycles of violence, initially with
mutually facilitated radicalization, and eventually reaching mutually assured
destruction. And while most of the deaths will no doubt occur on the
Palestinian side, Israel would do well to remember that there are ways of dying
other than losing one’s life.
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