January 11, 2009

Thinking about Gaza

And thinking about this particular narrative. I suspect that most Americans watch this war through a particular narrative of Israel-as-good-or even Godly. For some, of course, this is because of the ties (however tenuous) to the ancient state through which we understand the Bible. For others, it is simply because whatever they might think of Israel, they identify with a common enemy of Islamic fundamentalism. For others, it might be the narrative of the "under dog" which so many Americans identify with.

Those narratives, at least as we witness in our political dialogue, has created an oppositional struggle between good and evil, and with our history and support of Israel, it is clear who is good and who is evil.

That exceptionalism, I think, has created a certain blinder when it comes to seeing Israel as broker in the region. Turn on any talk show, with any politician from any side, and you will hear that particular narrative echoed. Harry Reid said that if Canada or Mexico was sending rockets into civilian areas, we would respond just as Israel has. A former Marine wrote into the Times to respond to that particular claim, and suggested that American soldiers and civilians face just such attacks from far better trained and armed insurgents in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But, he notes, American servicemen and women do not respond as the Israelis have, and have studiously avoided firing into civilian areas even when they know that the insurgents are hiding there.
In particular, I am stunned at the Israeli explanation for the 30+ civilians killed at the UN school. The Israelis say they were responding to mortar fire from the school. Mortars are insidious because their high trajectory and lack of primary flash make it very difficult to trace the source of the fire; you have to have a spotter locate the crew. The Israelis claim that they traced the source of the fire precisely to the school; if so, they must have directly spotted the crew. Thus it is inconceivable that the Israelis did not know that the target was a crowded UN school, yet they chose to fire on the school anyhow. I say without hesitation that this is a criminal act. If the Israelis had said, “sorry, it was an accident”, that could indicate a targeting problem, confusion, or inferior training. But to openly admit that they responded reflexively to the Hamas fire without consideration for the inevitable civilian casualties is beyond the pale. The Israelis blame Hamas for firing from the school (although UN personnel on the ground dispute this), but choosing to fire directly at civilians is far worse; it is tantamount to murder. US servicemen do not behave that way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we face much deadlier adversaries (Hamas mortar crews are apparently not very effective: I believe that all but one of the total Israeli combat fatalities have been from friendly fire). In the rare and unfortunate cases where US personnel have willingly targeted civilians, they have been court-martialed and punished.
Israel should be seen as any other nation state trying to defend itself, and should be held accountable for when they, like other nation states, over-react and cause more harm then they have to in war. In other words, the counter narrative here is not to see Hamas as some kind of "freedom fighter" going against an evil colonial regime, but to see Israel as over-reacting--perhaps understandably, but still over-reacting to terrorism. As one writer noted (lost the link) Israel has fallen into a rather dysfunctional way of responding to their enemies, and seem to have decided to respond with hatred to hate, and with killing to loss. One TMP writer compared this conflict to the Spanish Civil War where many Americans and Brits imagined (correctly) that Franco was a terrible enemy, but missed that those fighting for the Communists were hardly better. When George Orwell tried to point that out, he was shunned by those who wanted to see those battling Franco as good.

Not comparing Israel to either side, actually, but merely noting that in this particular war, good versus evil is not a useful narrative, and, I believe, stops us from getting to any kind of genuine solution. Bush didn't invent this approach, but he seemed to canonize it into American policy. Perhaps if this were a conflict in Africa or South America, Americans would be able to see both sides with some degree of clarity--clarity that they lack when they see Israel.


Bootleg Blogger said...

Hey Streak- Not sure if you're familiar with Fareed Zakaria, but his new show on CNN each sunday is one of my favorites. He's one of the few journalists that has conversations with about anyone- often people that others wouldn't even sit down with. Today his show had a panel discussion on the Gaza issue. If you're interested it's

Zakaria was the editor of Newsweek International so I loved reading his stuff regularly when not in the US. I'm reading his book, "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad". I'd highly recommend it. He's one of the few journalists/commentators that has hit the mainstream that seems to have an international perspective and is able to articulate it to us laypeople.

This is a very tough one- decades of recent history, not to mention ancient variety. I do feel like Israel (and the US) are often the personification of "if all you have is a hammer it's tempting to treat everything like a nail".


Streak said...

Thanks for the reading suggestion, Bootlegger. I like Zakaria and have read some of his articles and he has actually been on the Daily Show several times. A smart guy, who, as you note, has an international take on some of these things.

As for Israel, I agree. As I think Kristoff said the other day, just because Israel can respond to Hamas this way, doesn't mean that they should.

steves said...

Zakaria is a fantastic journalist, and that is something that isn't true of most people in the media today. Thanks for the link.

This article from David Berstein over at Volokh has an interesting take on the past ivolvement of the USSR in the Mid-East conflicts. I have heard tons of criticism for what Israell has done or is doing (not entirely undeserved), but very little in terms of any solid plan to end this conflict.