Cool heads must prevail in the Israel-Egypt-Gaza conflict

When conflicts arise, as they inevitably will, we should maintain perspective. When I attack you in order to take your money or your land, it is clear who the enemy is, and you have a legitimate claim to self defense. But not all conflicts are that simple. In many cases, the attack that riles us is a case of revenge. Revenge can be considered justified by anyone who believes they have been wronged in the past. If you took my land five years ago, I might take revenge on you today. Many nationalists believe that revenge can take place hundreds of years after the initial wrong, as the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Our memory of the wrongs of others is comprehensive, and we tally the score of every misdemeanor to prove our enemy is our enemy. However, our memory of our own wrongs is highly selective. To us, any action taken against us or our national groups is an inexcusable act of aggression. If we keep in mind our mental limitations, we can control our reactions and reduce the severity of the conflicts in which we find ourselves embroiled. This week, an incident in southern Israel sparked a dangerous conflict that can only be understood with calmness.

It is difficult to know what has happened, as we rely purely on official Egyptian and Israeli accounts. Many people who would agree that we cannot simply believe everything governments tell us do not think critically about every government press release, especially when emotions run hot. Some media assume government information is true and present it as such, instead of doing the journalism themselves. We should not claim to know anything for sure. As far as one can determine, some Palestinians attacked a bus in southern Israel, killing eight Israelis, mostly civilians, and wounding more, in a coordinated terrorist attack. (Regular readers of this blog will know I do not throw around the word “terrorist”. It is appropriate in this case. And saying “the Israelis are the real terrorists” may have some truth to it, but it does not help our understanding of the situation.) The attack came from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and was blamed on the Popular Resistance Committees, a Palestinian terrorist group operating from Gaza. How did they get into Egypt?

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chased the militants into Egypt. Egyptians are calling this a violation of Egyptian sovereignty and of the Camp David Accord, which it was. But what were the terrorists doing in Egypt? The IDF then killed and wounded some Egyptian soldiers (the number of which depends on the source). Did the Israelis target the Egyptians? Did the Palestinians use the Egyptians as cover? Or were the Egyptians covering for the Palestinians? If so, they violated the spirit of the Accord as well. These questions will probably never be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, except in the minds of those who are willing to accept arguments that justify their prejudices. How can we fairly apportion blame under such conditions?

That evening, the Israeli Air Force bombed the homes of the leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees and killed five of them, plus a boy. Assuming this information is correct, the killings were targeted, thereby minimising civilian deaths, and legitimate, in response to terrorism. Dozens of rockets have hit southern Israel since Thursday. For all its faults, Israel sometimes acts purely in self defense.

What should be done? Demanding official apologies, as Egyptians have done of Israel, will help nothing. The dead will not come back to life, nor will there be fewer deaths in future. The attitude that accompanies the demand for an apology is one of blame: it is entirely their fault. Assigning blame paints others into a corner, making them more self righteous and defiant. It tends to reduce conflict only if employed after the conflict is over and when there is a clear aggressor, as when Germany and Poland coordinated efforts to educate schoolchildren on the Second World War.

Should we hate the other? History shows that hate, like revenge, keeps conflicts going until one side is dead, unless the hate can be suppressed long enough to see the long-term benefits of peace. It does not help us as individuals, either, as it consumes and destroys us, making us neither safer nor wiser.

Some Egyptians say their government should reject the Camp David Accord, a treaty that has brought peace to Egypt for three decades. Why would they want to reject it? To go to war with Israel again? The IDF is perhaps the sleekest and deadliest military in the Middle East. I hope Egyptians are not so angry they become suicidal. As I have written elsewhere, the ending of a peace treaty (like the recalling of an official envoy, which Egypt did yesterday) does not mean war is inevitable or even desirable. It is more like an insult. Nonetheless, the existence of a treaty lends legal legitimacy to the state of peace and its violation by any party would mean international condemnation. I am not accusing Egyptians of wanting war; indeed, I would be surprised if more than a few people truly wanted it. But war is not usually a sudden action in response to something small, as it is when swatting a fly. Rather, it tends to come at the end of a spiral of conflict propelled by anger, accusation and propaganda.

Besides, while Israel is not likely to attack Egypt any time soon, it could well wreak havoc on the Gaza Strip again. Provocation from Egypt, whether in the form of young Egyptians’ attacking Israeli embassies or perceived Egyptian complicity in terrorism against Israel, will make the task easier. Like Operation Cast Lead, any major assault on Gaza will be a signal to the surrounding states that Israel can hit hard and fast, suffer minimal casualties and experience little guilt.

Times are tense in the Middle East. Israelis have seen polls of Egyptians indicating that most of the latter would like to rescind the peace treaty between the two countries. Israelis are afraid that the attack on its embassy and its borders could mean it is under greater threat internationally than any time since the international terrorist attacks of the 1970s. And the (supposed) opening of the Rafah crossing of the Gaza Strip could mean Gazan militants pouring into Egypt and attacking Israel from there. Egyptians have no love for Israelis, whom they see as the occupiers of Palestine, the oppressors of Palestinians and the murderers of Egyptians. These attitudes are not helpful.

The best way to prevent the escalation of this conflict is to remain calm, and work to understand one another. This is easier said than done. Governments and their multimillion-dollar communications budgets are adept at making us think we are thinking for ourselves when we are, in fact, being fed information and told how to think. We need to learn to think critically and listen to our enemies. We must avoid giving in to anger and hatred and fear, and instead choose our actions carefully. Otherwise, we will drag ourselves and innocent others into endless conflict.

The Egyptian army is no friend of the people

Egyptian military clears Tahrir Square tent city of sit-in protestersToday, the Egyptian army showed its true colours. Today, on the first day of Ramadan, a day of celebration and peace if ever there was one, the army cleared Tahrir Square of the tent city that had controlled the Square since July 8 and arrested some of its occupants. This overt use of force against the revolution should persuade the people that the army is not their friend.

Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11 under somewhat mysterious circumstances. After claiming he would remain in power the night before, Mubarak quickly disappeared to the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces stepped in. It is possible that the army persuaded him to leave, and equally possible that the power elites had planned this move to make the new government popular.

The army has paid lip service to the demands of the protesters, but has done little to satisfy them.

-First, the families of the martyrs of the revolution, many of them camped out in Tahrir, have seen no justice. They are demanding restitution, and they are getting the strongarm.

-Second, as many as twenty thousand of the peaceful revolutionaries jailed since the beginning of the revolution received trials lasting a few minutes and sentences lasting several years. The jailed youth, such as blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad, a 26 year-old blogger sentenced to three years in prison for criticising the military, usually have had no access to proper legal counsel. The people have been calling desperately for their release, and the military has not been forthcoming. “Egypt’s military leadership has not explained why young protesters are being tried before unfair military courts while former Mubarak officials are being tried for corruption and killing protesters before regular criminal courts,” said Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch. “The generals’ reliance on military trials threatens the rule of law by creating a parallel system that undermines Egypt’s judiciary.”

-Third, instead of trying the peaceful and innocent, Egyptians expected trials of the police, the thugs and the ancien regime. The police were the repressive hand of the government while Mubarak was in power, and have lost most of their power since the revolution. Police and interior ministry snipers are responsible for the deaths of many of the protesters killed in the early days of the revolution. The youth fought back and repelled the police, but the government had other tricks up its long sleeve. During the 18-day demonstrations that brought down Mubarak, the government released a number of thugs from prison to attack the people. They burst into Tahrir Square on the Day of the Camels, riding camels and horses into the Square and wielding swords and sticks. After the police fled, the thugs went to every neighbourhood to terrorise the people into begging the police to come back. Instead, the people banded together to protect their neighbourhoods. The corrupt ministers of the old government, too, are perceived to have been protected since the fall of Mubarak. Demonstrators have demanded a complete overhaul of the interior ministry, and have been given a shuffle. The people want justice, which to them means the trial and sentencing of the police, the thugs and the thieves, and they want their money back. Thus far, they have not found it.

-Fourth, the ever-present Palestinian question was supposedly answered when Egypt’s government announced in May that it would open the Rafah crossing to the Gaza Strip, giving at least some freedom and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians trapped in the prison camp of Gaza. Both Israel and Egypt have imposed a strict blockade of Gaza since 2007, when Hamas took it over. Restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza have eased slightly, but progress has been disappointing at best. All the real demands of the protesters have gone unheeded.

The army will do its best to ensure that the privileged position beyond the control of civilian government it has always maintained remains protected. For the past few months, volunteers have stood at every entrance to Tahrir Square, checking passports for anyone who might be a known thug. They have entered the Square once or twice nonetheless, with violent results. Today, the army seems to have ushered them in with the soldiers. Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm stated that “[m]ilitary police, Central Security Forces and civilian supporters” destroyed the sit-in that has characterised the heart of Cairo for the past few weeks. Perhaps the paper does not want to editorialise, but it is probable that the “civilian supporters” are the same thugs that have been trying to wreck the revolution since the Day of Camels.

At last count, the military and its supreme leader, Gen. Mohamed Tantawi, enjoy wide support among Egyptians. This move may sour the belief that the army is a friend of the revolution. Either way, Egyptians have no reason to continue to trust the government or end the demonstrations of the ongoing Egyptian Revolution.

The PA, the UN, Egypt and the flotilla: no help for the Palestinians

Two states?

In September of 2011, the Palestinian Authority will approach the United Nations for a resolution recognising Palestine as a new member state. Against the backdrop of what are still hopefully being called the Arab revolutions, much of the world believes that UN recognition will force Israel to follow suit and recognise, and thus leave in peace, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

The government of Israel often warns that a sovereign Palestine would mean Hamas’ taking power, probably violently, and then using a new state as a launching pad for the destruction of Israel. However, one must doubt that Hamas is so irrational. Its leaders are well aware that they would be blown to dust if they initiated a war with Israel. Their being religious does not change that. Religious governments are not crazy, and are as likely as non-religious ones to make war. Iran, for all the Israeli and US rhetoric attacking it, seems to have no intention of starting wars. Why would a poorly-armed, dishevelled group like Hamas?

However, with a state, a legitimate government would set up legitimate defense forces against Israeli aggression. It would enable Palestine’s acceptance as a member of the UN. It would also mean the possibility of self-reliance for its citizens, instead of depending on foreign aid under the constant threat of land expropriation and housing demolitions. Finally, it could end the Palestinian refugee issue (though not satisfactorily, as many insist on the “right of return” of all refugees to their previous homes and parents’ and grandparents’ homes, which could be anywhere in Israel or the Palestinian territories). Of course, given Israeli government interests in the status quo in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and its continual proving its ruthlessness in pursuing those interests, all these hopes are mere hopes. After all, asked one West Bank resident, “who cares if we get recognised as a state if the Israelis can still block the roads?”

If Palestinians want a state, international law states that certain conditions must be met. First, it must have a stable population. Check. Second, it must have a government. The Palestinian Authority is not great, but it has the necessary institutions of a government. Check. Third, it must have a defined territory. This issue is contentious, to say the least. It is hard to know exactly where Israel begins and Palestine ends; but the hope is that a Palestinian state would be built on the pre-1967 lines: the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. More recent negotiations (not to mention the settlements) have reduced the size of the West Bank that could belong to Palestine but have partly compensated for the loss of territory with the idea of land swaps between the two states. The solutions are on the table, though the current Israeli government continues to require conditions that make reaching those solutions all but impossible. Fourth, it must have the capacity to enter into relations with other states. That requires recognition by other states. Most of the world’s states now recognise Palestine as sovereign, with the exception of the most powerful ones. But some governments do not recognise Israel as a state either, and some of its territory is considered illegal (the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem were annexed and settled—an unequivocal violation of international law) and yet it is obviously sovereign. But getting and holding a state will not be easy for anyone.

First, the Security Council needs to recommend statehood to the General Assembly, which might not happen. The US government, which can veto any Security Council resolution, has always vetoed resolutions that are not in the Israeli right wing’s self interest, and has done so recently. In doing so, it goes against the international consensus; but the powerful are not constrained by others’ opinions. Despite its posturing for decades, the US government has done little to promote peace and allow the recognition of a Palestinian state. It is possible that the PA can use General Assembly Resolution 377, which can be invoked to bypass the Security Council when it fails to act to maintain international peace and security (its main function), though it may not be valid for the purpose of recognising a new member state. Second, Israel’s diplomats are flying around the world to drum up support for the Netanyahu government’s Bantustan vision for Palestine. The US, of course, supports Israel in this endeavour, as does Germany.

Third, if somehow Palestine is recognised, the US government will not be its friend. The US senate voted unanimously last week that statehood should (a non-binding resolution) be obtained through negotiations and not unilateral declaration. In fact, not only will the US not negotiate with Hamas, whose participation in talks is just as legitimate as that of any other party, the PA opted to approach the UN because there was no peace process to speak of. The resolution consists entirely of conditions directed at the Palestinians (eg. “any Palestinian unity government must publicly and formally forswear
terrorism, accept Israel’s right to exist, and reaffirm previous agreements made with the Government of Israel”, including, presumably the humiliating Oslo Accords), as the US government never puts any pressure on Israel. Susan Rice, White House ambassador to the UN, has also threatened to suspend all aid to the PA if it gains statehood. Though much of that aid goes into the pockets of the corrupt PA, some of it is nonetheless recycled back into the economy. If a sovereign state will lead to rapid growth in the private sector, Palestine has a chance for self-sufficiency. If not, the Palestinians might be worse off than before. Do the Palestinians have any powerful friends?

Egypt

Egypt’s revolution held promise not only for Egyptians, but for Palestinians as well. In 2007, at Israel’s behest, Egypt blocked all access to the crossing at the town of Rafah that straddles the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. In post-(or mid-) revolutionary Egypt, under pressure from the people, the transitional government promised it would open the crossing. A legitimate Israeli fear was that the crossing would become the transfer point for masses of weapons, but it was to be screened for such things like a normal national border. But since the Egyptian junta’s announcement, little has changed. Palestinians applying to leave Gaza—some 20,000—are being told to come back in September. Aside from a few hundred travelers (on a good day) and a mere two truckloads of exports a day, mostly only journalists and ambulances can leave the Strip. One official said it might take months for the Egyptian government to send enough personnel to man the border. Perhaps they are walking there. It has also been reported that, despite pledges of independence from the US and Israeli governments, these two have been reportedly pressuring Egypt not to ease restrictions. Disappointing, to say the least.

The flotilla

The Freedom Flotilla of over a dozen ships is headed for Gaza. The purpose of the flotilla is partly to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza but mainly to bring international attention to the terrible plight faced by the Strip’s inhabitants. It is carrying three thousand tons of aid and its members are from dozens of countries. It is easy to understand why so many people feel strongly about Gaza. Gaza is the most crowded area on earth, with 1.5m people crammed into 360km2. Four out of five Gazans rely on humanitarian aid; 40% of Gazans are unemployed; 80% live in poverty.

Given the impossibility of legitimate trade with the outside world, Gazans long ago resorted to transporting goods by tunnels, which are sometimes bombed by Israel (see here and here for two articles on the latest such attack). Middle East Online says that “[p]rior to Israel’s ‘easing’ of the blockade in 2010 [following the first flotilla debacle], an estimated 80 percent of goods in Gaza’s stores were smuggled through the border with Egypt. Now most consumer goods in the markets and corner shops come from Israel.” Gazans are as enterprising and rugged as anyone else. They do not really need humanitarian aid; they need the ability to trade. According to deputy head of the ICRC in Gaza Mathilde De Riedmatten (and everyone else who has been there), the Strip, essentially a large prison camp, continues to experience crises in health care, water and sanitation. Agriculture has suffered, not only because fertilizers are on the long list of items banned under the blockade, but also because the IDF periodically levels the land and uproots trees. Construction materials cannot enter the Strip, and since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, they have been needed to repair all manner of buildings. God knows what would happen if Israel repeated its indiscriminate slaughter of Gazans from two years ago, with Gazans still unable to leave. But despite implausible claims that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the powerful do not want the flotilla to continue.

Professor Stephen Zunes said in a recent piece on the flotilla that “nothing frightens a militaristic state more than the power of nonviolent action.” Israeli newspapers have printed the foreboding words of many Israeli officials that Hamas is involved in the organisation of the flotilla, that its intent is to smuggle arms, and that its members plan to attack Israeli soldiers, while others have ridiculed such claims. In his inimitably clever way, Christopher Hitchens attempts to take apart the members of the flotilla. He assumes that the humanitarian convoys will bolster Hamas, rather than help the people; and he questions the motives of the organisers by implying they are associated with the regime of Bashar al Assad of Syria and Hezbollah, which seems, I think any reasonable reader can agree, a stretch. Then he mentions al Qaeda, having learned from George Bush that saying two words in the same speech (“Saddam” and “al Qaeda”) forces listeners to associate the two mentally, when of course they have nothing to do with each other. Despite their use of words such as “proof”, there is little reason to take anything these people say seriously.

The only argument they have worth considering is that any feeding of the people of Gaza bolsters the Hamas government. However, that is only true if the blockade of Gaza had any hope of turning the people against Hamas, and so far it has not worked. How could it? History suggests that people punished collectively for supporting a certain group do not turn on the group but on their punishers. It is obvious that the true oppressors are the ones turning the screws on Gaza: Israel, and to a lesser extent the US and Egypt. The stated goal of the siege of Gaza has not and will not work. The inhumanity of punishing 1.5m people for 44.45% of voters’ electing a terrorist group when their alternative was a corrupt, unresponsive, collaborator party also escapes those who insist on maintaining the blockade.

All manner of coercion is taking place to prevent the flotilla from reaching Gaza. The Greek government, in a move that presumably will not make it any more endearing to its people, banned all ships in the freedom flotilla from leaving its ports. When a Canadian ship left Crete, Greek authorities intercepted it and took all 50 people on board into custody. Israel’s government threatened to jail any journalists found covering the flotilla for up to ten years. It dropped the ban not long after, though having changed their minds so quickly, one wonders if they might change them back. There is evidence that Israelis had sabotaged some of the flotilla ships.

However, there is no evidence any of the ships that are attempting to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza have been found to contain weapons or materials that could be used for military purposes. No evidence was found for the claim that the flotilla organisers have links to Hamas or other terrorists. In fact, flotilla organisers have likely done everything they can to assure there is no legitimate cause for Israel to attack any of its members, as it did last year when nine activists died in a confused fracas. Their non-violent resistance seems in line with the thinking that produced the phrase “If you want to beat Mike Tyson, you don’t invite him into the ring, you invite him to the chessboard.”

Though there is no real evidence the flotilla poses any threat to Israel, the US government has stated it is not willing to protect the US citizens on board against an Israeli attack, and that such an attack is well within Israel’s right. The ships will not be passing into Israeli waters but international waters, followed by the coast of Gaza, which is only blockaded by Israel. It seems unlikely any state has the right to attack unarmed people in international waters; either way, it leaves the Palestinians and those who want to help them find justice without a friend or saviour.

How about one state?

Does all this mean the only hope for a Palestinian state for the PA to take matters into its own hands? Much has been made of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, with its possibility of integrating Hamas into a new PA. But not only will such a government be rejected by Israel and the US, Palestinians do not seem to hold out much hope for it either. The PA, set up by the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, is seen by many in the West Bank as collaborators: the police of the occupation. The two parties presumably feel the need to work together to obtain statehood, but where would they go from there?

Another question that others have asked is, is a Palestinian state the best way to achieve freedom? Again, if Israel is still in the neighbourhood, still wary to the point of paranoia about any Arab provocation, still hungry for land based on ancient myths of an Eretz (Greater) Israel, an independent Palestine will mean little. One often hears the phrase “facts on the ground”, usually used to imply that settlements have changed Israel’s requirements since 1967, but which obfuscate the issue by making the settlements of the West Bank and East Jerusalem seem irreversible, when the settlements of the Sinai and Gaza were not. In spite of the mess on the ground, it has been said since the beginning of the Arab Spring that Israel will have to make peace sooner rather than later. I do not share this optimism; but since many of the people who do are people who know the issue better than I, let us consider an audacious, less realistic but vastly improved possibility: the one-state solution.

Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada, writes in his book One Country: a Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, “There is no credible ‘peace process’ to provide hope that the misery on the ground is merely a transitionary phase on the way to deliverance, and the one big idea that is supposed to save us—the Palestinian state—lies in tatters.” His thesis is that, if the inhabitants of the Holy Land can just learn to share, they would all be far better off. It is hard to escape his logic. Jews and Palestinians boast roughly equal numbers in Israel and the territories (6m each). They both claim ownership of the land on which they live. The fact that the West Bank and Jerusalem are so important to both Palestinians and Jews alike provides legitimacy to the claim that they should be shared. One state could mean the true right of return that gives all Palestinian refugees a place to live outside the squalid camps so many still inhabit. The two-state solution may in fact be the movement of the old guard. Fatah and Hamas may become (even more) irrelevant as the one-state cause picks up steam among young people in the Palestinian territories.

Israelis would need to abandon their unswerving claims to a purebred Jewish state in all the land of Israel/Palestine, which at the moment seems more distant than ever. Hamas would need to permanently abandon its rhetoric and violence. But if the flotilla achieves its PR goal, if non-violent Palestinian resistance continues to succeed, if the two-state bid fails and if international pressure on Israel increases, one state for Jews and Arabs might be the answer to the question of peace that everyone claims to want.

A glance at Egyptian political attitudes: the mood is high

Today, on the three-month anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution, a new Pew Global Attitudes Poll of Egypt has come out. Now that freedom of speech is a reality, everyone is talking politics, and they are bursting with opinions.

The past:
77% of those polled said Mubarak’s resignation was a good thing. (Judging by the party blazing in and around Tahrir Square tonight, people are still pretty happy with the outcome of the revolution. I have met few young people here who had no involvement in the revolution.)

When asked what has concerned them most in Egypt in recent years, respondents answered corruption, lack of democracy, and then the economy. The first two of those are likely to change thanks to the revolution, as from now on Egyptian governments will need to listen to the people. (An end to corruption could help the economy, though a democratic government could create any kind of misguided economic policy.)

The present:
Most have very or somewhat favourable opinions of the Muslim Brotherhood and the April 6 Youth Movement. The Muslim Brotherhood has been the largest opposition group in Egypt since 2005, when its members ran as independents (because the party was illegal) and won 20% of the vote. The Brotherhood came a little late to the party, officially joining the revolution after its inception and declaring that the revolution was not an Islamic but an Egyptian revolution. Now, having maintained its organisation, it remains one of the most powerful political parties in Egypt. The April 6 Movement started as a Facebook group in 2008. They demanded democracy and an end to corruption. April 6 was one of the groups encouraging young people to come out into the streets on January 25. April 6 was also one of the reasons some observers said that, though the outbreak of the revolution was a black swan, some kind of uprising had been a long time coming.

The poll found Mohamed Tantawi, head of the Egyptian Armed Forces (and thus de facto head of state) and Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, the most popular leaders, though Tantawi will probably not contest the fall presidential election and Moussa probably will. The military is still seen in a positive light, with 88% approval. The people are more cautious about the religious leaders, though they approve with similar numbers. The police, widely viewed as agents of Mubarak’s oppressive regime, are seen by 61% of respondents as unfavourable. In the kind of irony typical of public opinion, Mohamed El Baradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the man who stood up to the US on Iraq and Iran, came fourth in the polls, after Tantawi, Moussa and Ayman Nour. He is seen as something of a sop to US warmongers, when in fact he defied them. Amr Moussa, meanwhile, seems to have lost no popularity despite his affiliation with the Mubarak regime.

Egyptian opinions of the US and Barack are low (20% and 35% favourable respectively) but have not changed much since last year. 52% disapprove of Barack’s approach to the other Arab revolutions. Now that the people’s views need to be considered more strongly by Egyptian politicians, these low ratings have become more important, and will affect Egypt’s future responses to US foreign policy.

More significant might be Egyptians’ attitudes toward Israel. By a margin of 54% to 36%, Egyptians believe their country should annul the three-decade-old peace treaty between the two countries. The end of a peace treaty does not mean the start of a war. Canceling the treaty would be a kind of rebuke, an insult, or a demarche, saying “we are not happy with you”. It is one way to put pressure on another state. Knowing Israel’s habit of not caring what the rest of the world thinks, this poll result, and even the cancellation of the treaty, is not likely to change much. I suspect that there will be meaningful pressure on the next Egyptian government to end Egypt’s role in the blockade of Gaza; however, for strategic reasons, I doubt it will cancel the peace treaty or end the blockade.

The future:
65% said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the country, and 57% said they were optimistic about the future. I think it is safe to say that the 77% who are happy Mubarak is gone are happy with the outcome of the revolution, implying that they believe Egypt is better off now. That too is a kind of optimism.

41% believe a free and fair election is very likely, and 43% say it is somewhat likely. Again, the mood is very or cautiously optimistic. And so it should be. Egyptians, like Tunisians, accomplished a great feat in a matter of weeks, and have become a beacon to the rest of the world’s oppressed peoples.

Revenge does not work: Israeli policy and the failure of deterrence

Revenge is a natural impulse with a rational purpose: to deter future violent actions by one’s opponents. But due to the complicated twists and turns of our thinking, revenge only brings pain. One clear lesson from the history of Israel is that revenge, however overwhelming, however clear the message it sends, does not work.

Through many incidents of tit for tat violence before Israel’s declaration of statehood, conflict between Jews and Arabs raged in British Mandate Palestine. The Jews gained the upper hand, and by the end of 1948, some 700,000 Arabs had been kicked out of their homeland. This event was known as the Nakba, or catastrophe. Though comparisons to the extermination of 6m Jews may seem unfair, this event was the Palestinian Holocaust. It served as the unifying event that created the Palestinians as a people, at the same time millions of Jews became Israelis.

For a few years after 1948, Israel felt the need to define and secure its unsteady borders. The newly-constituted Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were always on the lookout for the next invasion, but instead of coming in the form of a unified Arab assault, it tended to be Palestinians crossing the armistice lines. Though most of them simply wanted to visit relatives (150,000 Arabs had remained in Israel) or return to their homes, some attempted to exact revenge for the Nakba. They rarely did much damage, but because Israeli security forces adopted a policy of shoot first and ask questions later, somewhere between 2700 and 5000 people were killed crossing the border, most of them unarmed.

In addition to territorial integrity, massive retaliation was Israeli policy. In 1953, some people infiltrated Israel and murdered an Israeli mother and her two children near the Jordanian town of Qibya. The IDF responded with a devastating raid on Qibya, led by Ariel Sharon, blowing up 45 houses and killing 69 civilians. Guerrilla attacks escalated and in 1954, the IDF attacked Egyptian military outposts in the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian rule but inhabited by 300,000 Palestinian refugees) and killed 37 Egyptian soldiers. The message was clear: control the Palestinians or you will be sorry. It did not work out as Israelis hoped.

At the funeral of an Israeli farmer killed by Arab marauders in 1956, Moshe Dayan cogently summed up Arab feeling toward Israel.

Let us not today fling accusations at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred for us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.

He went on to say

We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house…. Let us not be afraid to see the hatred that accompanies and consumes the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who sit all around us and await the moment when their hand will be able to reach for our blood… The only choice we have is to be prepared and armed, strong and resolute, or else our sword will slip from our hand and the thread of our lives will be severed.

Dayan recognised the injustice of the advent of Israel and believed, I think rightly, that it had come to mean there could be no accommodation with the Arabs. Strong reprisals, he believed, meant that Arabs would see Israel’s strength and be less inclined to fight back. Far from preventing further violence, however, reprisals increased resistance to Israel, the Palestinians organised and eventually, the Six Day War began.

The causes of the Six Day War are numerous and complicated, but the initiation of the war was Israel’s attack on Egypt on June 5, 1967. Egypt had sent a large number of Egyptian troops into the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. A major reason for Israel’s preventive attack on Egypt, according to Aharon Yariv, Israel’s chief of intelligence at the time, was to restore Israel’s deterrent capacity. If Israel had looked weak in the face of pressure from Arabs, it might have faced greater threats. Israel won the Six Day War, but the threats kept coming all the same.

In the 1970s, Palestinian terrorism went international. Of many attacks that brought international attention to the Palestinian cause, the most infamous was probably the Munich massacre. A group calling itself Black September entered the Israeli athletes’ compound at the 1972 Munich Olympics and took the team hostage. Black September called their operation “Ikrit and Biram”, after two Palestinian villages whose residents were killed or expelled in 1948. Clearly, it was itself an act of revenge. In the messy rescue attempts that ensued, Black September murdered 11 athletes and coaches. In response, Israel launched Operation Wrath of God, the assassination of those suspected of organising the murders at Munich (dramatised in the film Munich). Wrath of God was followed by plane hijackings and raids on Israeli territory, and the cycle of violence rolled on for decades.

When Gaza and the West Bank were sealed off to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel, the weapon of choice for Gazan militants became the Qassam rocket. Thousands of rockets and mortars fell on southern Israel, and 22 Israelis were killed. In order to punish all of Gazas 1.5m residents for their tacit or active support of these attacks, on December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead. Cast Lead killed 1400 people, including 300 children, and wreaked untold devastation on the perpetual humanitarian crisis known as the Gaza Strip. The massacre on Gaza did not, in fact, end the rocket attacks (though it reduced them), and reciprocal violence has characterised life in southern Israel and Gaza since then.

Recently, the violence has escalated. On March 23, 2011, a bomb attack at a bus station in Jerusalem killed a British national and wounded 39 other people and setting off the latest pointless cycle of vengeance. The Israeli Air Force responded to the bombing with strikes on Gaza that killed eight people, including children, even though they did not reveal (presumably because they did not know) who committed the bombing. Last Thursday, members of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, fired an anti-tank missile at a school bus in a kibbutz in southern Israel, critically wounding a teenage boy. Israel again bombed the Gaza Strip. On Saturday, Israeli officials said that 120 rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel since the school bus attack, some 50 last Saturday alone. On the same day, while visiting the wounded teen in the hospital, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said there “is no immunity for anyone in Gaza.”

According to the International Crisis Group, the regional turmoil has raised Israeli anxiety that embattled Arab governments will seek to divert attention from domestic matters and provoke some kind of conflict between Israel and the terrorist groups that oppose it. It also says that Hamas has been emboldened by these developments “and is therefore less likely to back down from a challenge.” It may also need to prove itself in the face of challenges from more radical, rival Palestinian groups, who in turn may be the ones to bring on the next massacre of Palestinians. The blindness that righteous indignation induces is the root cause of all of these attacks.

The IDF has been warning since last year that something bigger than Cast Lead could result if the attacks on southern Israel do not stop. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF chief of staff, said on the second anniversary of the beginning of Operation Cast Lead last December that Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and warned that “the IDF is preparing for any scenario”. This week in Ashkelon, a town near Gaza that has been the target of many of the rockets, locals called on the IDF to do something. Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that “many residents still believe an extensive ground operation against Hamas is the only way to bring peace to the south.” They are, of course, wrong, as the inevitable carnage would simply provoke further attempts to even the score.

Egypt has called a conference in Cairo that has a chance of reducing tensions. Serious efforts by outside parties can temporarily defuse the situation but without substantial changes in attitudes, revenge will remain the bloody reality in Israel and Gaza.

The history of Israel is a history of revenge. Israel has consistently retaliated with massive violence in the face of guerrilla attacks, terrorism and other threats. The idea seemed sound: show them we mean business and they will not mess with us again. But they do. And retaliation has not, and never will, bring either Israelis or Palestinians the peace they claim to believe in.

If you are angry, you see your attack as nothing but attempting to right a wrong. One’s own actions are never aggression: we are the victims, they are the terrorists. But the real wrong is any attack that is not based purely on self-defence. If there is no immediate threat, we are better off mastering our emotions so that the cycle of violence stops. As hard as it is, controlling one’s anger and turning the other cheek are the only way to prevent further bloodshed and misery.

Operation Cast Lead, two years on

Two years ago, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began the indiscriminate slaughter it named Operation Cast Lead. Some 1400 people were killed, thousands more wounded and displaced. Hundreds of sad people marched in Gaza in commemoration.

See here for the reasons Israel attacked Gaza.

Here I write about why the Mavi Marmara (the Gaza flotilla) incident may have been good for Israel, because it distracted the world from Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.

I wrote here about attempts to try Tzipi Livni as a war criminal, which apparently did not go anywhere.

And here I wrote about how Israel’s culture legitimised Cast Lead (and other violence in Israel’s name).

Gaza is still under blockade, which means little rebuilding gets done. Things had been relatively quiet along the Gaza border for the past two years until recently, when more rockets have been fired from Gaza, Israeli air strikes have followed, and thus tensions are higher. There are fears (or hopes?) that another Cast Lead-like massacre might be “necessary”. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff, said Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and “holds the Hamas terrorist organisation solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip”, which means the IDF does not distinguish between rockets fired by Hamas or by any other group.

It is sad that this crime will go unpunished, and that it may even repeat itself.

"Ismail, Abed and Leila don't go to the infant clinic anymore"

Why probe the Gaza flotilla?

The UN has announced it will launch a probe into what happened at the Gaza “Freedom Flotilla” incident. Nine Turks were killed two months ago when Israeli soldiers boarded one of the vessels. We know that. Why are they probing any further?

Perhaps the move is to embarrass Israel. It is the latest in a long series of attacks on Israel by the UN and many Arab states. These attacks have grown so numerous and disproportionate to all the other terrible things that happen in the world that they have become meaningless and counterproductive. The incident may have been a debacle, but what effect will a committee investigation have? Even if it produced a report showing that Israel’s leaders were the most devious people in the world, would they change? Would a new round of voting be held immediately, followed by the election of a flock of doves? More likely, Israelis who are not doves themselves would become self-righteous and more entrenched in their defiance than ever.

Perhaps this probe is intended to benefit Israel. Until a few months ago, people were still talking about Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report. Now, they have been distracted by a shiny object and have bitten the hook. Operation Cast Lead was truly a disaster, bad for Israel’s already tarnished image and a nightmare for the Gazans who lived through it. The Gaza flotilla incident was an accident. As such, the government of Israel is taking up the probe commission idea with gusto, offering its choice of investigator for this “independent” investigation. The probe can thus be seen as a way to show Israel is complying with international commissions and has nothing to hide. Just don’t mention the Gaza war.

Or perhaps the probe is to provide work for bureaucrats. Either way, if the UN wants to do good, why does it not focus on the big things? The 1400 dead in Gaza from Cast Lead only a year and a half ago have gone unapologised for. The blockade of Gaza continues to cripple the economy and freedom of 1.5m people. The occupation and settlement building continue in the West Bank. This was never supposed to be about a few dead Turks who were presumably just provoking Israel with the flotilla in the first place. Israel will be seen as making one concession and pressure on it will abate, while its hardcore opponents will not change their stance whatever happens. The UN is just wasting its time.