Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rachel Corrie - A Middle East Tragedy

Yesterday a judge in Haifa cleared the Israel Defense Forces of wrongdoing in the death of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old non-violent activist affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement, who was killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer while attempting to physically stop the IDF from razing Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip.  The issue has been extremely sensitive for the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian communities, and with good reason: It is emblematic of so many of the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians.  Everyone is part right, everyone is part wrong, and as they argue it out, real humans suffer elsewhere.  That is the reason why discussions yesterday of the Corrie verdict quickly morphed into discussions of the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010 and other incidents where both sides are right and wrong all at the same time.

Rachel Corrie was killed in a closed military zone, which she and other ISM protesters refused to leave.  The danger of being in such a space in the Gaza Strip during the height of the second intifada is evident, even if some understand the designation of that zone to be unjust.  While non-violent protesters have no practical expectation of safety in a designated military zone, the IDF should and has learned from this and prior experiences by, for example, arming soldiers with non-lethal means of population control and taking more seriously the presence of civilians in most zones in which the IDF operates. The bereaved Corrie family, assisted by the U.S. Department of State, availed themselves of Israel's judicial system, one of the most integral and respected branches of the Israeli government.  While there have been questions about the availability of evidence, and broader questions about due process for charges brought against IDF soldiers, the fact that yesterday's verdict came down on the side of the IDF is not itself evidence of injustice.  The questions of procedure are substantial and important enough to warrant further inquiry, but not enough to be conclusive evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the court.

At the same time, the response from the pro-Israel community has been generally apathetic, with some attempts to link Rachel Corrie herself to questionable actions taken other ISM members or the terrorism against Israel was reacting.  For a community which touts Israel's respect for humanity, this standpoint is dubiously effective.  It also comes across as apathetic to pro-Palestinian constituents who see it as emblematic of Israeli apathy towards basic Palestinian rights and those of their supporters.  But more importantly, the outcry over yesterday's verdict reveals the extent to which non-violent resistance, from BDS to active interference in IDF operations, has become seen as more and more legitimate in the international community as a tactic against Israel's government and military.  Non-violence is dangerous and part of its power is that its practitioners accept that danger.  However, Israel must respond to the fact that it will face increasingly strong international sanction for its role in creating danger for people protesting activities that many less radical people see as unjust.  

The fact that support exists for people who jump in front of IDF bulldozers is for many in the pro-Israel community frustrating and in certain ways unfair.  It is also a reality of Israel's military presence in Palestinian territories.  And no amount of frustration should blind any analyst of Israeli-Palestinian politics to the tragedy of Rachel Corrie, for a radical human being is still a human being.  The Rachel Corrie issue is delicate and explosive all at the same time.  But it is also one with which all sides should respect the pain, grief, and frustration so deeply embedded from all sides within its fabric.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Lord Of The Flies In Jerusalem's Zion Square

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu roundly condemned last week's attack on Jamal Julani, 17, in downtown Jerusalem.  Julani was assaulted in the early hours of Thursday morning by at least five Israeli youth who beat him nearly to death.  PM Netanyahu's remarks come on the heels of statements by President Shimon Peres, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.  

Both supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestinians have expressed shock at the attack.  Both sides have expressed a willingness to work to prevent such attacks in the future, much to their credit.  Yet comments over the past week on various media outlets indicate a sad truth: both sides remain addicted to politicization.  And its effects are now impacting the next generation in the Middle East.

Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian activists have become hooked on the very conflict they profess a desire to end, engaged to the bitter and petty end in a zero-sum war of words, snark, and outright offense.  Many in the pro-Palestinian camp paint broad brushstrokes in Jamal Julani's blood about a violent and hateful Israeli society.  Many in the pro-Israel camp tout the universal condemnation of the attack as if it were somehow special for leaders of a liberal democratic society to speak out when one of its members is assaulted and beaten in the heart of its capital.

Broad attempts to link this shocking attack to some greater point about Israel's presence in the West Bank or its history of conflict with the Arab World are tacky, ineffective, and dehumanizing.  The attack on Jamal Julani is tragic because he is a human being, not because he is a Palestinian.  The attack has returned universal condemnation from a wide swath of the Israeli and American Jewish community.  Just as Americans should not be considered "violent" based on the actions of gunmen in Aurora, CO or Oak Creek, WI, neither should we let the anomaly of a near-murder in downtown Jerusalem define Israelis.

At the same time, the politics of the situation are evident.  If Mr. Julani had been attacked just a few miles to the east in the West Bank, his fate and the reaction of the same individuals and groups would likely have been different.  Similar unprovoked attacks such as this one in 2008 by settlers show how easily politics can move decent people to silence in the wake of human suffering.  Israelis too have been the victim of similar violence (such as in this incident where a Palestinian drove a bulldozer over an Israeli woman in her car).  Yet the actions of the young attackers in Kikar Tzion on Thursday remain deeply disturbing of their own accord, and have rightly prompted serious self-reflection in Israel.

What matters is not the symbolic importance of Jamal Julani as a Palestinian, nor the admirable condemnations of these actions by Israel's leadership.  What matters is that a 17 year old kid was nearly beaten to death on the street in the heart of Israel's holiest city.  We need to talk about this and this alone.  Without spin, without snark, and perhaps, with a healthy dose of shame.

Until violence finally compels the self-righteous warriors on all sides to see the clear and stark reality of human suffering through the haze of politics, the story of Jamal Julani is one which will repeat itself.  The war for competing utopias in the Middle East is addicting.  But it is taking a toll in the real world.  Jamal Julani is its latest victim, but is unlikely to be its last.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Israel Approves Of Egyptian Operations In Sinai

In the wake of a spate of attacks in the Egyptian Sinai, including one today on a police station, the Egyptian government has responded in a rapid and strong manner.  President Morsi asked Field Marshall Tantawi, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to replace the commander of the military police.  Morsi himself fired the commander of his presidential guards and ordered new chiefs for police in Cairo, as well as the police's central security.  He also fired the governor of North Sinai.

In addition, Egypt has responded with military activity in the Sinai.  Besides being the first airborne attacks on Sinai-based insurgents in decades, the military operations are outside of activity allowed by the 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel.  The Framework Agreement of the peace treaty states, "No more than one division (mechanized or infantry) of Egyptian armed forces will be stationed within an area lying approximately 50 km (30 miles) east of the Gulf of Suez and the Suez Canal.  In other words, the terms of the agreement limit Egyptian military action in areas from which insurgent activity is now being launched.  The ongoing Egyptian military operations in these areas, technically, are a violation of these agreements.

However, throughout this activity, Israel has been supportive of these Egyptian activities.  On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced Israel would allow the deployment of an extra 3,500 Egyptian troops to the Sinai.  Today, Israel also approved the use of helicopter gunships as part of a "temporary easing of terms" of the Camp David Accords.  Both actions, had they been unapproved, would have constituted major violations of the Egypt-Israel peace agreement.

The takeaway from these actions is that Israel and Egypt's mutual interest in pacifying the Sinai is evident.  By approving Egyptian military operations in the Sinai, Israel is signaling in a very clear understanding of the need for cooperation.  By obtaining consent from Israel, Egypt is now signaling an intent to preserve the peace which has existed between itself and Israel for 33 years.  For Egypt, the issue comes down to government control and preventing flare-ups with Israel.  For Israel, the issue is border security and preventing the decay of Israel-Egypt relationship.  For both countries, a Sinai which is not a safe haven for insurgents is a mutual interest.  In addition, the alarmism of those claiming Morsi's victory in the Egyptian elections was a nightmare scenario for Israel is refuted directly by this careful and rational coordination between the two states to achieve their mutual interests.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sinai Border Attack - Egypt And Israel's Next Steps

Egyptian and Israeli news outlets continue to provide updates on an attack by jihadists on Egyptian soldiers on the Egypt-Israel border.  Current reports indicate at lease 15 Egyptians were killed in the attack and 10 wounded.  At least one vehicle hijacked by the attackers penetrated the Israeli border.  Egypt's president Mohammed Morsi has called a meeting with the SCAF to discuss the attacks.  Today's attack comes almost exactly one year after terrorists from the Sinai attacked an IDF patrol, a civilian bus, and a civilian car just north of Eilat.  In response, Israel returned fire across the border, killing 3 Egyptian soldiers in the resulting crossfire.

Both Egypt and Israel have a strong interest in maintaining stability in the Sinai.  That is one of the reasons why during the protests in Tahrir Square, Israel allowed Egyptian troops into the region despite it being a violation of the 1979 Camp David Accords.  Israel realized, correctly, that keeping the peace in the Sinai was worth the risk of bringing Egyptian troops close to the border.  In the aftermath of this attack, both the IDF and the SCAF will need to coordinate closely to prevent escalations.  That Israel had advance knowledge of an impending attack indicates that today's tragedy may have been an operational rather than an intelligence failure.  In any case, the solution will require close coordination between both governments.

The attack will also be a major test for Egypt's President Morsi.  Morsi's rhetoric since assuming the presidency in June has consistently signaled a no-first strike policy towards Israel.  However, in the wake of a terrorist attack which was directed - if only secondarily - at Israel, he will be forced to take action in the Sinai.  Morsi will need to strike a careful balance between coordination with Israel and not appearing to compromise the FJP's decidedly anti-Israel sentiments.

For its part, Israel will have to find a way to ensure that such attacks are prevented in the future without jeopardizing its very sensitive but important relationship with Egypt.  While last year's attack was the first of its kind and intensity post-revolution, Israel can only work quietly under the table so many times before public pressure from the right will push the government to take a harder line.  Israel should frame its concern as support for Egyptian efforts to secure the Sinai region, while seeing that the institutional gaps in Egypt that allow such attacks are remedied.

Israel will also have to be careful that any response it gives to today's rocket attacks from Gaza are not conflated with a response to the attack from Egypt.  If the Arab street perceives an airstrike in Gaza as a response to jihadism more broadly, it could needlessly exacerbate ill will.  This animosity could constrain Egypt's ability to coordinate with Israel, something that would not be at all in Israel's interest.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Silence Over Self-Immolation In Israel

A second Israeli has died from wounds resulting from self-immolation.  Akiva Mafi, 45, passed away today after setting himself alight and burning 70% of his body.  His death follows that of Moshe Silman, who set himself alight on July 14th.  Both men were disabled IDF veterans aligned with the J14 Israeli protest movement over housing prices.  

Surprisingly, the deaths - which are part of a spate of other non-fatal self-immolation attempts in Israel - have not received that much attention in the Israeli press.  Mainstream outlets such as Haaretz, Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post recognize the self-immolations as acts of the mentally ill.  However, this assessment contrasts sharply with other Western accounts that interpret these acts as indicative of deeply-rooted social problems in Israel.  The self-immolations (and their political implications) have also received considerable attention in the Arab press (see hereherehere, and here).

The somewhat morbid social phenomenon of copycat suicides identified in the Israeli press is certainly at play in this situation.  While the Israeli press is under-playing politics as a motivator, it's likely the Arab and European press are over-playing it.  However, such an important question deserves an objective look.  To what extent does politics play a role in self-immolation?  Why have the self-immolations generated relatively little political response from the Israeli public?

Both cases of fatal self-immolation clearly were political.  Mr. Mafi's suicide note referenced his economic woes, stating, "The State of Israel has robbed me," and accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu's government of "taking from the poor and giving to the rich."  Moshe Silman's suicide note was similarly political, stating "I blame the State of Israel.  I blame Bibi Netanyahu."  At the same time, the phenomenon of copycats seeking attention for their pain cannot be completely overlooked. But either way, the decision to self-immolate may very well be more rational (though obviously boundedly rational) than Israeli society is willing to admit at the moment.  A person's decision to self-immolate may be the result of a rational desire to shame the state or draw public attention to a political issue.  While those who self-immolate may be in extreme emotional distress, they need not necessarily be crazy.

Such rationality alludes to the second question of why the self-immolations have not prompted a greater response in Israeli society.  There are three reasons this may be the case. 

First, the self-immolations are associated with the J14 social protest movement.  This movement has lost steam, meaning that its current members are more mobilized (and radical) than the wide cross section of Israel which turned out to massive protest marches last summer.  While Israelis are certainly sympathetic on a human level to disabled IDF veterans who self-immolate, the political cause with which they align is postured too far outside the mainstream right now to gain political traction.  Shifts in the platform of the movement could change this lack of traction.

Second, there is a lack of desperation among the Israeli public.  While a certain number of Israelis are hurting from the high price of housing, Israel's economy has done relatively well in the global economic recession.  Israel hasn't fought a war since 2009, and major terrorist attacks have been few and far between.  When Mohammed Bouazizi self-immolated in Tunisia last year, his desperation struck a chord in Tunisian society.  It was this national sense of prolonged desperation that finally pushed Tunisians into the streets to protest.  In contrast, Israelis are not particularly desperate at the moment.  As a result, similar self-immolations likely have a lesser political effect in Israel.  

Finally, there are more salient political issues about which Israelis are concerned.  The expiration today of the Tal Law sets up further negotiations about the status of religious service in the IDF, an issue which has deep implications for the secular-religious divide affecting all Israelis.  The threat from Iranian nuclear weapons (and closer to home, Syrian chemical weapons) has important implications for how Israelis respond to a pervasive sense of danger to Israeli society.  In contrast, a small spate of self-immolations by desperate IDF veterans has lesser political appeal.  Again, this is not to say Israelis are indifferent on a personal level to IDF veterans who set themselves on fire.  However, the political implications of such self-immolations affect a much smaller subset of Israeli society than the other issues currently on the table.

Because Israel's self-immolations lack sufficient political salience, they are not likely to change the Israeli political landscape at the present time.  If the J14 movement regains steam or rebrands itself (or both), it may draw more attention to the issue.  However, the more likely scenario is that more cross-cutting political issues will hold the attention of the Israeli public in the months ahead.