Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In 2014, Social Media Highlighted An Absurd War Of Words

For two months of 2014, social media became nothing short of insufferable. Operation Protective Edge, Israel's third foray into Gaza since 2006, was accompanied by a war for public opinion that was fierce, dirty, and headache-inducing for even the most Zen of analysts.

This blog participated in the conversation by making a number of pleas to shift the conversation towards a discussion of new ways to move past suffering on the ground. It was heartening to see voices from all sides - and some from no side at all - respond positively to this call. Months later, we have an opportunity to look more objectively and more systematically at the way the war of words  played out over social media.

There is extensive debate about whether social media has any effect whatsoever on political outcomes (see here for a great and concise piece). But whether or not it changes politics, it seems significant that at no other point in history has the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian clash of narratives been so intrusive into the daily experience of bystanders. True, anyone can narrowcast and interact only with people with whom she agrees. But when news is plastered across the social media pages - even for those who are not politically active - it is hard to ignore. By August 2011, 81% of the American public had followed Operation Protective Edge at least "a little." Conventional media sites as well as social media sites from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter were plastered up and down with pro- and anti- articles. Both narratives went head to head with each other with middle ground or apathetic members of these sites dragged into the melee.

Stated in the most charitable way possible, this discussion was an absolute and complete train wreck.

In 2014, social media highlighted the catastrophic failure of narratives to navigate the complex history and politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides offer clean and neat versions of the conflict on their own. But put two opposing activists in a Twitter fight with each other (please don't actually do that), and the result is total discursive chaos. Proponents of each narrative talk completely past each other using stylized and often ideological concepts with little relevance to facts on the ground. The worst make ad hominem attacks and lock horns in a race to the bottom rather than reach any semblance of common understanding. And outsiders to the conflict bear witness to this tragic excuse for discourse.

Ridiculous Twitter fights, unfortunately, will not remain in 2014. However, they will continue to showcase the sheer absurdity of getting so caught up in a narrative that we lose sight of facts on the ground. Perhaps over time, the showcasing of this absurdity on social media will highlight the antiquated nature of the conversation as well. When grown adults bicker like children, while real children are kidnapped, shot, and killed, there is no choice but to change course. Such a change requires recognizing the futility of the lose-lose status quo, and taking steps to engage honestly, listen, and identity opportunities for reconciliation rather than exploit pain and suffering for quick but Pyrrhic victories.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How Netanyahu Beat Israel's Political System

On March 17, 2015, Israelis will go to the polls for the third time since 2008. Analysts have framed these elections as a mistake hastened by low-intensity violence in Jerusalem, settlement building, and this summer’s war in Gaza. However, they are actually the result of a deliberate and masterful political maneuver by Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s leadership strategy since his election in 2009 has been characterized by undermining opposition. Since that time, he has faced two opposition threats. First, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of the HaTnuah party and Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party are centrist members of Israel’s governing coalition, holding a solid 25 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Netanyahu coopted them in the short term by bringing both into his Cabinet. He put Lapid in charge of cutting popular social services in Israel’s national budget, and Livni in charge of a hopeless peace process. However, Lapid and Livni’s visibility as cabinet members and conflicting policies posed a longer-term threat to his leadership. Second, this summer’s war in Gaza threatened to spur significant opposition after Deputy Minister of Defense Danny Danon, a far-right member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, criticized Netanyahu’s handling of Israel’s military operation. Netanyahu (who leans center-right) fired Danon but needed to do more to undermine the long-term threat of an insurrection from the Likud’s far-right base.

His solution was as deliberate as it was elegant: tack far-right, manufacture a coalition crisis, and divide potential opposition. On November 16, Netanyahu expressed support for a bill introduced back in 2011 that would enshrine Israel’s nature as a Jewish State in the country’s Basic Laws. The proposal was popular among the far-right, undermining any attacks Likud’s far right ministers could launch against him. As an added bonus, the bill drew sharp but predictable criticism from both Lapid and Livni. Now Netanyahu had a “political crisis.” In a fiery but deliberate speech, Netanyahu accused Lapid and Livni of conspiring to destroy the coalition. In reality, both ministers had acted exactly as Netanyahu had hoped, giving him a reason to dissolve the coalition and move to the elections he had wanted for months. On November 29, he cancelled the Knesset vote on the bill, and on December 7 he told an audience at Brookings' Saban Forum 2014, "I will never agree to legislation that undermines Israel's democratic character. Not now, not ever."

By holding elections at strategic moments, Netanyahu has solved major problems of instability in Israel’s government. From its founding in 1948 until 1977, Israel’s dominant party system meant that there was little instability in government, since one party was virtually guaranteed to win each election. Many of Israel’s major political institutions, for example, those dealing with religion and education, were shaped by the dominant Mapai party. However, when Likud beat Mapai's follow on, the Labor Alignment, in 1977, it was a surprise upset that changed fundamentally the nature of Israeli politics. Israel was no longer a dominant party system since every party could potentially lose. Coalition instability became a larger threat since the Prime Minister (who generally comes from the winning party) could suffer a vote of no confidence at any time. Additionally, the system forced parties with fundamental disagreements to govern together. This arrangement constrained ruling parties since smaller parties could always threaten to leave the coalition and collapse the government.

By holding new elections, Netanyahu can potentially solve this problem of instability. The elections give him a chance to renegotiate his coalition with parties more aligned with Likud’s policy platform. Coalition partners inevitably grow tired of rubber stamping another party’s agenda, see opportunities for growth, and bolt from the coalition. By calling elections now, Netanyahu is preempting the collapse by engineering it on his terms. Such an arrangement will very likely leave Likud on top, and forces potential allies to compete with each other rather than challenge Likud. When it comes time to form a coalition, these parties will likely be weakened and faced with the choice of joining the government or being politically irrelevant in the short term.

However, while engineering election timing is effective for remaining in power, it takes time and resources away from governing. Netanyahu’s tactic is likely to be copied by future Israeli leaders. However, its utility speaks to the need for greater stability in leadership positions in Israel. Such guarantees would allow the Prime Minister to focus on Israel’s long-term challenges rather than on staying in power. These challenges will pose critical threats to Israel over the next few decades, but a political system equipped to handle them is the first step to navigating the treacherous road ahead.

*An earlier version of this post stated elections were held in 2008. They were held on February 10, 2009. It also identified the Mapai party as losing the 1977 elections, but by that point Mapai had merged with Ahdut HaAvoda and Rafi into the Israeli Labor Party, which merged with Mapam in 1969 to form the (second) Labor Alignment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

No, Ferguson Is Not Palestine

The debate over recent events in Ferguson, Missouri is far too extensive to unpack in a single blog post. However, one of the more wonky facets of the response to these events has been what academics call "issue linkage." Protesters, bloggers, and social media mavens have linked events in Ferguson to the plight of Afghanis, Iraqis and Palestinians. The means of linkage is often the use of terms like "oppression," "extra-judicial killing," "occupation," and even "colonialism." It is ironic that activists so quick to invoke Orwell have appropriated such terms based on their strategic emotional connotation rather than their meaning. 

Here are the distinctions.

Oppression in Ferguson is the fact that laws about the use of police force disproportionately affect Americans of color because of systemic social attitudes of racism. Oppression in the Palestinian territories is the result of a set of laws imposed without consent by a military administration which engages in belligerent occupation.

Assassinating Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004 is an example of extra-judicial killing. Targeting Anwar al-Alawki in 2011 is an example of an extra-judicial killing. Both are premeditated strikes against an individual (in the latter case, a citizen) that deliberately deny due process under the law.  A police officer shooting an unarmed 18-year old six times under unclear circumstances is an example of an excessive use of force. There is no evidence to suggest his horrific death was a premeditated act of targeting by the State.

Belligerent occupation refers to the governing presence of a military force without the assent of the governed population. Scholars, lawyers, and judges (including Israel's Supreme Court) consider the West Bank to be under belligerent occupation. Ferguson, Missouri is an American town under the jurisdiction of the American government and officials elected by citizens. In no sense of the word is Ferguson occupied.

This blog has seen previous discussion as to whether or not the West Bank is "colonized," but even arguments in the affirmative cannot reasonably be applied to Ferguson. No "foreign" power is expanding its territory, settling a foreign population, or exploiting resources.

There are other differences.

A protest in Ferguson is an act of constitutionally-protected speech. A protest in the West Bank is a "security incident."

Police in Ferguson may be disproportionately white but all are US citizens. Members of the IDF are (almost always) Israeli citizens administering a Palestinian population without such citizenship.

Extreme violence by a small minority in Ferguson looks like looting stores or low-intensity acts against police. Extreme violence in the West Bank by a small minority looks like stabbings, car attacks, kidnappings, and other forms of terrorism.

The very existence of Palestinians as an ethnic and national group continues to be denied in the (conservative) mainstream. That African Americans are a cohesive minority group in the United States and that this group is constitutionally entitled to equality is a fact denied by only the most radically conservative Americans, who are widely ridiculed.

The use of poorly-constructed and inaccurate comparisons is an attempt to invoke notions of a global struggle. While the fight for recognition and rights may very well be global, the ways in which this struggle takes place and the conditions these struggles seek to change vary widely. Misappropriating analytical terms to highlight emotional similarities does a disservice to those to whom the term actually applies (now or historically). It is analytically lazy, since it invokes connections based on feelings rather than a well-constructed argument. Finally, it disempowers the people at the heart of such struggles by constructing them as essentialized agents of a grandiose theory rather than as people with multi-faceted ideas, needs, and agency to change their circumstances.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

BDS And Free Speech At #MESA2014: A Contradiction In Terms

Next Monday, members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) will be voting on a resolution which asks the membership to “affirm the right of MESA members to engage in open and transparent discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” What this boycott would entail and how far it would go are left unspecified in the text. The resolution comes in the wake of a letter by MESA President Nathan Brown which took a fairly neutral stance towards the issue of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). BDS supporters at MESA are hardly the target of persecution. In fact, MESA has announced a special Presidential Forum on BDS where participants will have a chance to speak on the issue.

Nonetheless, the resolution frames itself as affirming members’ free speech, highlighting the membership’s “right” to discuss BDS. Deploring unspecified “measures of intimidation” against similar academic associations, the resolution encourages members to discuss BDS in the name of freedom of expression.

This position is contradictory. Discussing BDS is indeed legitimate. However, by specifically targeting “Israeli academic institutions,” supporters of the resolution are prima facie restricting freedom of expression. A MESA boycott of these institutions and their academics would, by definition, restrict their access to the discourse MESA fosters. Discussing ways to end Palestinian suffering and Israel's military policies in the West Bank are valid topics of academic conversations. However, a body which calls for Israelis to be excluded from those discussions cannot logically do so in the name of free speech.

The resolution also gives no justification for dis-aggregating an Israeli academic boycott specifically from the plethora of actions that fall under the umbrella of BDS. Is it because the Israeli academy has ties with a defense establishment that commits human rights violations? If so, the resolution should also include mention of the plethora of Middle Eastern academies - and the American academy - who have such links. The resolution gives no universally applicable standard for its unique mention of Israel. It seeks to advise MESA members, but gives unsatisfactory justifications for its most noteworthy recommendation.

True academic discourse evaluates speech based on the quality of its ideas, not the identity of the speaker. If MESA members value the forum that the Association provides, they will opt to engage their colleagues through discourse, not exclude them through boycotts and restricting access. The current iteration of the resolution is inconsistent with the ideals MESA upholds, and should not be adopted by the membership.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Jerusalem Tensions Hit Critical Levels

Tensions in Jerusalem escalated significantly today. These tensions began with a Palestinian attack on light rail passengers October 22. Next, activist Yehuda Glick was shot by a Palestinian assailant on October 29. This morning a Palestinian drove a minivan into a crowd waiting for the light rail, killing one and injuring 13. Hours ago another Palestinian drove a car into 3 IDF soldiers in the area of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and members of his security cabinet blamed Palestinian President Abbas for the 10/22 attack. Netanyahu's primary aim in doing so was to shore up support among his base in preparation for Likud party primaries, which may be held December 25. His secondary aim was to de-legitimize President Abbas as a leader and ease international and US pressure on Israel to negotiate a solution to the conflict that Bibi fears would leave Israel vulnerable. 

However, the original attack turned out to be a spate of attacks by Hamas. The group claimed responsibility for the attack this morning and an earlier attack on October 22. President Abbas, a Fatah party member, extended condolences to the family of the man who shot activist Yehuda Glick, and called Israel's closure of the Temple Mount a declaration of war. Both are extremely unhelpful steps to say the least. But the available evidence points much more towards Hamas than to Abbas as the culprit. Unfortunately, Netanyahu's talking points were set before the Israeli government may have realized the 10/22 attack was not a one-off event. The result is that the Israeli government finds its hands tied, rhetorically speaking.

By attacking soldiers in the West Bank, Hamas can provoke an Israeli reaction in Palestinian areas of the West Bank versus in Jerusalem. These terrorist attacks are designed to polarize Israel's population and rally Palestinian support behind a fragile unity government between Hamas and Fatah. In addition, Netanyahu's Likud adversaries have put political pressure on him to act. Yet IDF action in the West Bank, even in response to terrorism or militant action, would exacerbate tensions. Checkpoints, roadblocks, and searches for attackers in heavily Palestinian areas would look eerily reminiscent of 2001-2005. Since Prime Minister Netanyahu has framed Abbas for the violence, Israel is unlikely to get support from the Palestinian Security Forces for these activities. Jordan's recalling its ambassador from Israel today legitimizes these acts of violence against Israeli soldiers and civilians. It is also a move of dubious wisdom given protests which may occur in the country should a sustained campaign of violence break out.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is calling for restraint, and it's likely he knows how dangerous the current situation is - both in the West Bank and in his party. But conflict is a two-player game and as with Operation Protective Edge, Israel could get drawn into a conflict.  

Israel is low on options here. It could communicate to President Abbas that car attacks show Fatah is losing control of the West Bank. However, Bibi must maintain an anti-Abbas line to remain consistent, and Abbas gains legitimacy from rhetorically attacking Israel. Israel could reach out to Egypt to communicate with Hamas, but given Egypt's ongoing campaign in the Sinai such efforts may be of limited effect. US efforts to calm tensions will not be backed up with a threat and thus are of limited utility. Ultimately, if Hamas is looking for a conflict, it will be very hard for Israel to stop it from happening.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Slow Down - There's No Crisis In US-Israel Relations

DC analysts often have a bad habit of confusing things that are interesting with things that are important. Today's #ChickenSh*tGate is a prime example.

This morning's piece in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg proclaims "The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here," but it's hardly the first to do so. A 2010 JCPA article asks, "A Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations: Have We Been Here Before?" and a YNet article from 2009 asks, "US-Israel Relations: Is there a crisis?" Today's title is a bit more confident in declaring the existence of a crisis, but the evidence to substantiate the claim is shoddy at best.

First, the off-the-record claims made by the "unnamed official" in the Goldberg piece range from dubious to absurd. While US frustration over the Netanyahu administration's conduct in the peace talks may be warranted, other aspects of the comments say more about the official than about Bibi. The official is concerned that Bibi has "a near-pathological desire for career-preservation." But all leaders care about self preservation. The nonchalant way in which the official writes off the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran is a dangerous underestimation of Israeli fear of an Iranian nuclear program. It's also at odds with how the Obama administration has actually conducted policy.

Second, that Bibi has "written off" the White House is hardly news. Netanyahu's address to AIPAC and Congress, both in 2011, show that Israel's strategy for years has been to mobilize Congress rather than curry favor with the White House. The Hellfire missile incident during Operation Protective Edge this summer is evidence of the same. A crisis implies an immediate and impending disaster save for corrective action, but the existing dynamic between the US and Israel has remained as such for years.

Finally, US-Israel relations have been much, much worse than they are right now. President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened Israel with sanctions in 1957. In 1967, Israel torpedoed the USS Liberty, killing 34 US personnel and injuring 171. In 1991, Jonathan Pollard was caught committing espionage against the United States for Israel in 1985, a fact that Israel did not admit until 1998. Each of these constituted serious crises. And each shaped the US-Israel relationship for decades to come.

Today's comments are an embarrassment to the Obama administration and an offensive slap in the face to Israel and its leadership. They are indicative of friction between the US and Israel. But they are hardly a crisis, especially given how sustained the current relationship has been. Vague assertions to the contrary only set back US national interests: Promoting a sustainable peace agreement, fostering regional stability in the Middle East, and improving the quality of life for millions of Israelis and Palestinians who bear the burden of ongoing conflict.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Stop Politicizing The Death Of Children

On Wednesday evening, a four year-old named Mohammed Abu Jarad was killed in Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip when an unexploded missile from a previous Israeli operation went off near where he was playing. Mohammed was severely injured and rushed to Shifa Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

That same Wednesday evening, a 3-month old baby named Chaya Zissel Braun was killed when a Palestinian purposefully drove a car into a group of people exiting the Jerusalem light rail. She was thrown 30 feet, landing on her head, and died two hours later.

The death of a child, regardless of the different circumstances that cause it, is perhaps the most universal tragedy. Nothing can help family and friends make sense of such a horrible event. The juxtaposition of the pure innocence of a child with the sheer terror of a violent death is too great for any human to truly make peace with it.

But without even waiting until the small bodies had been placed in the ground, the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian spin machines swung into gear. Each side emphasized its own victimhood while denying the victimhood of the other. "Yes, but" statements splattered the Twittersphere like the blood in Beit Hanoun and Jerusalem which had not even dried. These statements excused, diluted, dodged, obfuscated, and slanted the tragedies unashamedly and with unabashed self-righteousness. Morality became meaningless as it was twisted, redefined, misappropriated, and applied with little concern for consistency.

How sick have we become when our first thought upon seeing a picture of a dead infant is "Yes, but they do it too" or "This is a perfect example of my political beliefs"? How many more dead children will it take before supporters of Israel and/or the Palestinians step back from the microphone or the keyboard and see the devastation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for what it is? This conflict is not winnable. It has never been and it will never be. Yet some are more concerned with advancing the rhetorical football than accepting the fact that it will never move beyond the 40-yard line.

We, collectively, are missing the forest for the trees. Progress doesn't look like children singing in a field. It doesn't look like justice flowing like a mighty stream. It doesn't even have to look the tired cliche of a peace treaty photo op.

Progress on Wednesday evening would have looked like pausing. Pausing to see on the sheer tragedy of this conflict for what it is. Without spin and without rhetoric. The way it has engulfed a generation too young to understand it or be complicit in it. The way it lets us so easily throw our most basic human instincts - compassion for children - to the wind. 

Chaya and Mohammed did not die as Israelis or Palestinians. They died as human beings. For their sake, we should try to live in the same way.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bibi Panders, Hints At Chance For Cooperation In UN Speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's speech at the UN General Assembly today was intended largely for a domestic audience. However, he signaled areas in which Israel might be open to progress in a post-Operation Protective Edge environment.

Netanyahu glossed over critical differences between extremist groups, linking together Hamas (with whom Israel has been negotiating in Cairo), ISIS, Iran, the Mahdi Army, and the Nazis. His speech spared no criticism of the UN for hosting Hamas rockets in its schools, and referred at one point to the UN Human Rights Council as the "Terrorist Rights Council." Netanyahu tried to link the Islamic State (aka ISIS) with the "Islamic State of Iran" (its formal name is the Islamic Republic of Iran) and used several other well-rehearsed talking points about Iran's imminent danger to regional stability. 

Such a speech made few gains for Israel's political capital with the international community. However, it will likely be well-received by the Likud base on whom Netanyahu relies for political support. In the wake of Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu is under pressure to stem a post-war decline in popularity and demonstrate a clear victory over Hamas. Just yesterday, MK Danny Danon, a representative of the Likud's most hawkish constituency, implied that Netanyahu's response to Hamas was not sufficiently strong. As competitors seek to take advantage of the opportunity to chip away Netanyahu's base, a fiery speech to the UN is a surefire way for the Prime Minister to consolidate support.

Despite domestic pandering, Netanyahu's speech indicated the government's current negotiating position. Netanyahu's demand for "rock solid security arrangements" refers to an Israeli military presence on the West Bank - Jordan border. It will be very difficult to achieve this demand (the US has suggested cameras instead). The Prime Minister also called the need for territorial compromise "obvious," though it's unclear whether one-for-one land swaps are comparably obvious.

More significantly, Netanyahu called for regional Arab cooperation, mentioning Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia as potential partners. Invoking "joint interest," Netanyahu may be seeking to outflank the Palestinian Authority which has threatened to pursue statehood at the UN and to bring Israel to the ICC on charges of war crimes. His comments also resonate in the wake of a re-affirmation of the Arab Peace Initiative on September 25th by GCC states meeting with US officials. These comments may have particular salience given cooperation by GCC and other Arab states on the conflict against ISIS in Syria. 

If the Prime Minister's objective was to stem the tide of anti-Israel sentiment at the UN, he was certainly unsuccessful. However, if he intended to bolster domestic support while signalling the potential for cooperation with major Arab powers, Netanyahu achieved his goal. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kuwait Mends Ties With Palestinian Leadership

Kuwait's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah, made an historic visit yesterday to the West Bank and the Temple Mount. The significance of the visit is couched in a tumultuous relationship between Kuwait and Palestinian leadership. 

The Foreign Minister's appearance in the West Bank is the first by a senior Kuwaiti official since 1967. His visit, part of a larger tour, is likely intended to mend relations and to increase Kuwait's general influence in the region. Kuwait's regional role is not particularly activist. The Emir was congratulated just last week at the UN for Kuwait's humanitarian efforts on Syria. Yet Kuwait has been hesitant to join a Saudi-led regional force, and did not follow suit when Saudi, the Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March. Rather, it worked with Oman to mend ties and maintain regional stability. As Kuwait seeks to use its mediating power to gain regional influence, its relationship with the Palestinian leadership will be important. A quick look at the history of this relationship explains why.

In the mid-twentieth century, Palestinians played a vital role in Kuwait's development. Oil drilling required technical expertise, and many highly educated Palestinians came to Kuwait to fill these positions. Palestinian engineers in the 1950's and 60's were in high demand in Kuwait. They had the expertise to run oil extraction sites, and were also proficient in both Arabic and English.

Kuwait was originally one of the main financial backers of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and it had a presence in the country. However, governments in the region, including Kuwait, became fearful of the PLO as a political force. Since many of the region's governments were installed by Western powers, these governments feared the PLO would target them as illegitimate. As a result, Kuwait kept a close eye on PLO activism within the country.

Relations because critical after PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat met with Saddam Hussein two days after the Kuwait invasion. As Kuwait University Professor Shafeeq Ghabra describes, the PLO chairman expressed support for "the Iraqi policy" and incurred the lasting animosity of Kuwait as a result. After an attack on a Kuwaiti aircraft in October 1990 in which Palestinians were implicated, the Kuwaiti government fired over 3,000 Palestinians from government jobs. Fearing arrest and intimidation, around 200,000 Palestinians fled Kuwait during the invasion and liberation of Kuwait. 

Mutual animosity continued after the end of the Gulf War. It lasted for over a decade. In 2001, Kuwaiti MPs spoke out strongly against the visit of Palestinian Authority official Faisal Husseini to a conference in Kuwait against normalizing relations with Israel.

Relations began to mend in 2004, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas apologized for the PLO's support of Iraq during a visit to Kuwait. A Palestinian embassy opened in Kuwait last year. Currently, Kuwait chairs the Arab Peace Initiative of the Arab Summit. In the wake of the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to withdraw from the initiative. However, in comments at the Arab Summit meeting held in Kuwait last March, Kuwait's Amir expressed support for the initiative.

Given Kuwait's status as a close US ally, the development of stronger relations between Kuwait and the Palestinian leadership is a positive development. At the same time, the sensitive history of Kuwait-Palestinian relations is an issue in which the US should avoid becoming entangled.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Israel's "Western" Public Diplomacy Paradox

Israeli public diplomacy strategy is often based on an affiliation with the West. Its latest round of public diplomacy during Operation Protective Edge is no exception. The campaign put Israel's security challenges in Western terms and used graphics and fonts that are trendy in Western communication. Here are some examples:

The IDF also issued releases with English plays on words, such as this commentary on Hamas' breaking a ceasefire:

Israeli public affairs doesn't just look Western. Many of its spokespeople are in fact English-speaking Westerners (Anglos). The IDF's International Media spokesman, LTC Peter Lerner, is British by birth. Mark Regev, the Prime Minister's spokesman, hails from Australia. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself spent time in the US and speaks perfect English, as does haBayit haYehudi party leader Naftali Bennett and prominent Likud leader Danny Danon.

Israel's extensive Anglo outreach is helpful in reaching and resonating with many supporters in the West. It is so effective, in fact, that Palestinian activists have criticized media outlets for hosting Israelis fluent in English while hosting Arabic speaking Palestinians. But there is an important tradeoff: In affiliating with the West, Israel is no longer seen as an "other." 

In general, not being seen as the "other" is a good strategy. People are more likely to associate with those like them, and to support Israelis who look and speak like they do. At the same time, Israel's close affiliation with the West entrenches perceptions of the country as the "fifty-first state" of the United States. When people who sound and look like Westerners make statements Westerners disagree with, it creates cognitive dissonance. It generates a feeling that Israel is misrepresenting the West's values. It entrenches the perception that Israelis are immigrants and settlers on indigenous Palestinian land. It also broods frustration that Israel "ought to know better" than to take action some in the West find questionable. 

In reality, Israel's security challenges are unique among Western states. No Western country faces constant barrages of rocket attacks, an ever-existent threat of an intifada, and close international scrutiny (though not always consequences) for any security action it takes. One would be hard pressed to find a Western state that, if in Israel's situation, would react with the same level of caution. Of course, this level of caution did not stop the deaths of over 2,000 Palestinians and the injury of thousands more in Gaza. It has not, to date, resulted in the end of severe restrictions on freedom of movement or the daily humiliation of checkpoints. However, the terms under which Israel conducts security policy are very different from those of the West and need to be understood in that context.

Given that this is the case, Israel must to walk a fine line between portraying itself as Western, and affiliating so much with the West that people forget that its circumstances are different. This shift does not requires a sea change, rather a calculated adjustment in strategy. The interview below with an soldier from the IDF's Youtube channel does a good job of finding that balance. The soldier is not an Anglo but rather a Hebrew-speaking Israeli. His basic respect for civilians as a soldier sounds more genuine in Hebrew than coming from a polished Anglo spokesperson. His testimony (translated with some liberty, and including some obvious IDF talking points) evokes that of Western soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and his testimony humanizes the IDF.

Most importantly, the video invites the viewer to empathize with the soldier while recognizing the existence of a cultural and national difference. This recognition likely makes the viewer more willing to entertain, if not accept, points of view not perfectly resonant with her own.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gaza Shock Talk Isn't Engaging People, It's Scaring Them Away

Tal Abbady's editorial in the LA Times today argues that posting polarizing content on Facebook is a bad way to conduct political debates and a good way to lose friends. Abbady's point speaks to a broader irony of posting such content. Activists pushing polarizing content do so in order to engage new supporters. Yet those standing outside the cacophony of Middle East politics are often pushed away rather than pulled in by such posts.

During Operation Protective Edge, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists have engaged in a rhetorical "Shock and Awe" campaign. Pictures of death and destruction, appeals to save women and babies, and "what would you do if it were you?" questions are the more innocuous elements of these campaigns. More notoriously, some in the conflict have misappropriated words that have no place in analysis of the ongoing conflict: Genocide. Extermination. Pogrom. Holocaust. As political scientists Evgeny Finkel and Sarah Parkinson point out, this language has been particularly present in the current conflict. 

Radical (or just ignorant) activists justify using these rhetorical trump cards by noting what they see as a desperate situation in the region. Appealing to desperation, they argue, engages people. But the problem with desperation as an engagement strategy is that it is based on radical constructs of how the world works. And these constructs are usually completely out of touch with reality. They state that the public is not in support of a given side because of propaganda or intimidation from the enemy, or else is too stupid to be aware of the conflict or care about it. Shock language is necessary, therefore, to "wake up" these complacent dullards or cause great moral reckoning among those who have thrown in their lot with the other side.

These ideas are easy to understand and compelling. They are also complete nonsense. The public is not "asleep" or "ignoring" Gaza. As of August 5, 2014,  81% of the American public has seen at least "a little" coverage of Gaza on television, 79% have seen something online, 79% have seen something in newspapers, and 80% have seen something on social media. 

The idea that support for the "other side" is based only on baseless propaganda is also out of touch with reality. Smart, educated, experienced, and highly informed analysts from across the political spectrum concur that the causes and effects of the current violence in Gaza are not black and white. While there are clear cases on both sides of wrongdoing, both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate and unaddressed claims too. Those who support the "other side" do so because the conflict is complicated, not because of evil schemes. More importantly, the use of shock language does not create a moral reckoning among supporters of the "other side." Rather, it causes anger, resentment, and fear - the exact drivers of the conflict in the first place.

More concerning, earnestly interested people turn away from discussions of the conflict when it becomes a rhetorical minefield. Rather than engagement, shock activism is breeding reluctant complacency from people who want to help but do not want to offend. This attention drain harms both Israeli and Palestinian civilians who so desperately need and deserve care. While those who use shock language might have good intentions, they are actively harming the chance for all people in the region to obtain safety, freedom, and empowerment.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Why You Shouldn't Boycott Israeli Academics

The Middle East website Jadiliyya published a call today by 100 US academics to boycott Israeli academics. The list is formidable - many scholars included are first-rate and conduct excellent Middle East research. As a website, Jadiliyya has many informative pieces and is a positive force for reason in a convoluted region. However, this call to boycott is poorly substantiated and does not represent the best tools we as an academy have to offer suffering people in the Middle East. Signing it would be a mistake.

For starters, the text of the petition relies on questionable assessments of the situation on the ground. It accuses the international community of silence with regards to Gaza. This claim is demonstrably false. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, British MP Ed Miliband, and French President Hollande, among many others, have raised questions about Israel's use of force in Gaza. Any "silence" is not due to a lack of speaking - it's because those who perceive silence aren't listening.

The petition then lists the Israeli actions which warrant a boycott. Many of these actions, as discussed in previous posts on this blog, are quite disturbing and merit investigation. But the statement omits any mention of Hamas' rockets, tunnels, or kidnappings. It omits any consideration that Hamas could bear some responsibility for shooting rockets from civilian areas. While criticizing Israel's disruption of Palestinian academic environments, it says nothing about Israeli universities which in the past have had to shut down or disrupt classes as a result of rocket fire. Such considerations do not reduce the severity of Israeli actions, but if the goal is "morality" why be partial?

In fact, partiality is the defining element of the petition. The signatories have nothing to say about Qatari academics whose work is supported by a government that funded Hamas' rockets. They have nothing to say about Iranian academics who designed the rockets that Iran admitted to giving Hamas. Again, if the basis of the boycott is supporting moral academic work, why not include these actions as well?

The most disappointing part of the petition, however, is where it tries to establish a link between Israeli academics and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This evidence is disappointingly shoddy and would certainly not pass peer review. The claim that Israel's universities have offered "unconditional support" for the Israeli military is substantiated in footnotes 6 and 7 with the following:

1. An article about Tel Aviv University which describes its role in IDF technologies like smart bandages, tunnel detection systems, and the Iron Dome system (designed by an alum of the university).

2. A Facebook post in Hebrew, which most of the signatories don't read, that shows pictures of Haifa University students packing Bamba into boxes.

3. A Facebook post from the Technion, again in Hebrew, that wishes for the safe return of students who were called up to fight in Operation Protective Edge.

4. An English statement from Bar Ilan University expressing "support and encouragement" for the IDF and security forces and wishing them a safe return.

5.  A book chapter, by an Israeli, with a BA and an MA from Tel Aviv University.

6. A broken link to the radical anti-Israel site Electronic Intifada. 

This was the best evidence one hundred academics, many of them world class, could come up with to support a boycott. Of course, these questionable links are only half the evidence. They say nothing of Israeli academics like Oren Yiftachel whose book Ethnocracy is foundational in academic criticism of Israel. They say nothing of Neve Gordon who published a book literally called Israel's Occupation in 2008There are even Israeli academics who support boycotting Israeli goods - Anat Matar and David Newman among them. These examples roundly refute the petition's claim that "our colleagues in the Israeli academy have been silent."

This call to boycott is both prejudicial and poorly substantiated. It disregards the inherent complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also fails to show how a boycott of Israeli academics would have any effect whatsoever. Rather than gloss over complexity, academic supporters of Palestinians would do better to leverage their understanding of this complexity in Mideast politics. They could exert pressure through existing channels with Israeli counterparts. They could study the phenomenon of asymmetric warfare and make recommendations of how Israel could reduce casualties while achieving legitimate ends of self-defense. Ultimately, it is engagement rather than disengagement that will give academics the best chance to make a positive difference in the region they so deeply care about.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

In Gaza, Success Is Also A Failure

Israel has come to a strategic turning point in the Gaza conflict. It has been faced over the past 72 hours with increasing pressure from President Obama and Secretary Kerry. It also faces international frustration over the failure of several attempts to reach a cease-fire. Jeffrey Goldberg's assessment this morning makes several points about Israel's losing long-term strategy that merit serious consideration. 

However, in the short term, the operation is achieving Israel's mission of denying Hamas the capacity to use both rockets and tunnels. Israel also has already invested the time and effort to move assets into Gaza. The marginal cost of continuing the operation is low compared to the cost of re-mobilizing these assets for a future conflict. Additionally, with 86.5% of a sample of 504 Hebrew-speaking Israelis against a cease-fire, there are clear domestic incentives to continue Operation Protective Edge.

Internationally, Israel's political capital has probably taken the brunt of the hit it is going to take from the operation. True, if there is another strike on a school or hospital, that will incur additional harm for Israel. The coming days are likely to see further protests in Western capitals and polemic anti-Israeli articles circulated online. However, fatigue over the operation means that unless the death toll in Gaza increases dramatically, Israel will not suffer significantly more than it already has in the realm of public outcry. Prolonging the conflict is also a show of Israeli resolve which signals both Hamas and international parties in a way that favors Israeli deterrence.

Israel can, strategically, continue the Gaza operation and have the benefits outweigh the costs. But hidden in this assessment is a painful tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and perhaps conflict in general. 

If Israel continues Operation Protective Edge, hundreds more Palestinians will die. Israelis too will be injured, and more IDF soldiers may fall in the line of duty. But hundreds of Palestinians - most of them with no connection to terrorism or to Hamas - will die. And perhaps the greater tragedy is that this will make so little difference to the outcome of the conflict. The party responsible for this tragedy is not uniquely Israel, which has demonstrated some concern for civilians and has been criticized heavily for specific failures to sufficiently do so. Rather, it is a an international system in which people are statistics rather than human beings. Perhaps the reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so uniquely painful is way it reminds us of how little a life, Israeli or Palestinian, really matters in war.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Face Of Evil: How Israel and Hamas Construct Each Others' "True Nature"

Anyone with the misfortune of having a social media account over the past month has been inundated with articles, pictures, and sound bites on the Israel-Gaza conflict. Day after day, articles make their way across social networks supporting this side or that. This sharing is often more than an attempt to spread information. It is, additionally, a form of discursive warfare. It is a battle to convince others of the enemy's "true nature."

"True nature" is a concept reflected in pieces from both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian perspective. Retweets of Israeli teenage girls' racist instagram pictures, or descriptions of the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Terrorists" are intended to "unmask the true face of evil." These pieces - based on evidence but often highly one-sided - are intended to show the "real" way the enemy thinks, feels, and behaves. This unmasking then becomes a pretext for the actions of a given side. If that side can "awaken" enough people to the enemy's "true nature" then it can justify its actions in terms of moral absolutes.

Ironically, "true nature" is not actually true. It is a schema, or a set of beliefs, which prioritizes information confirming a preexisting belief. The information on which schema are based may very well be factual and evidence-based. However, it prioritizes confirming information over contradicting information. For example, when pro-Palestinian activists are presented with evidence of Israeli respect for civilians, such evidence is given less normative weight than evidence Israel is not respecting civilians. When pro-Israel activists are presented with evidence that Palestinians are suffering at the hands of the IDF, it is given less normative weight than evidence Israel is acting in self-defense from indiscriminate rocket fire against Israeli civilians. Terms like "Yes but" or "while X, Y" are indicative of this weighing process.

The unfortunate outcome of schema building is that each side is fighting what is essentially a constructed enemy. Again, the evidence on which this construction is based is usually factual. But they are not all the facts. Particularly difficult is the fact that schema are human nature - every person has constructions to help make sense of a chaotic world. However, when the consequences of our schema are human suffering, we must do the hard but necessary work of weighing evidence deliberately. It may not change our position on the Israel-Gaza conflict. However, it will make all of us more responsible participants in a discourse whose outcome matters for millions of innocent people.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Every Gaza Editorial Ever

The X-Y conflict is very complicated. At least, we like to say that. Saying the X-Y conflict is complicated makes you, the reader, doubt your own understanding of the conflict. This piece will manipulate your uncertainty by over-simplifying a conflict it already has admitted is complicated. Don't ask questions. I have experience with the X-Y conflict, whereas you don't know what you're talking about.

It comes down to this: Since their founding, X's goal has been the elimination of the Y people. It's very foundational documents prove that X believes Y cannot exist alongside them in any final arrangement.

Do not accept claims of moral relativism. There can be no justification for X's heinous crimes against innocent members of Y. So often seen as the "victim" X's society is in fact deeply racist. Despite this, it has been the recipient of substantial sums of money. This society is fundamentally opposed to progress. In fact, the sheer misanthropy of X leads one to question whether its leadership are human, or monsters.

In fact, from a young age, members of X are brainwashed to hate Y. Using schools, government propaganda, and the media, X imposes something between half-truths and lies on its own children. These children first experience contact with Y at a young age, but their society teaches them to hate Y. Thus, when they come of age, this hatred is perpetuated.

X is not just a participant in a tragic "cycle of violence." Y is merely responding to X's aggression which has claimed lives and injured many members of Y. "If Y were only to stop," X says, "These problems would go away." Yet X is the instigator. X started it.

The media, however, is blind to this obvious truth. In countless headlines, articles, and interviews, the media constantly make X look good while completely ignoring Y's claims. This clear bias is the result of a mix of powerful interests and willful ignorance. X is more telegenic. Nobody cares about Y's suffering. They don't matter in the eyes of the media.

Thus Y is forced to defend itself in the face of this bias and constant attack from X. No group in a similar position would do anything different. Yet the world is blind to Y's plight. Decent people ought to be outraged at this unfair treatment of Y, and put their full support behind its mere struggle to survive in the face of such pure evil.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Part II: Is Israel Exercising "Restraint" In Gaza?

Yesterday's post left out an important point about body counts as a proxy for proportionality. Clearly it was short sighted not to expect a sharp reader like my grad school friend Naseema to point out that:

"What people actually mean is to kill fewer civilians on the other side. That too would be proportional, and would have the benefit of lowering body counts."

This important point introduces a concept closely related to proportionality: that of restraint (expressed here as the moral good of lowering body counts). The issue of restraint raises an important set of questions. Since both proportionality and restraint are liberal concepts, there is a complex overlap between them that needs to be clarified. What is the difference between the proportionality and restraint? How can analysts make sense of claims from both Israelis and Palestinians about Israel's restraint - or lack thereof - in Gaza?

Proportionality is hard to disentangle from restraint because it's often used to mean essentially the same thing. But perhaps a working definition is that restraint is a focus on using the least amount of force necessary in general, while proportionality calls for the least amount of force necessary for achieving defeat/surrender. Proportionality takes the political ends of force into account, whereas restraint tends to operate as as universal norm on the use of force itself.

Restraint quickly becomes a tricky concept because it is a liberal ideal. In other words, it can never be truly achieved in the context of warfare. A perfectly restrained response would be no response at all. However, every theory of international relations assumes that states use force - a contradiction in liberalism that scholars have pointed out. Israel's current security situation exposes the difficulty of being a liberal state that exercises restraint. And while politicians in Western capitals can talk about restraint in the abstract, Israel's geopolitical posture does not give it a similar luxury. Another important qualification about restraint is that Hamas and its supporters are not under similar normative pressure to exercise it. The norm applies to states, and liberal states in particular.

In some ways, Israel is clearly exercising restraint. Examples from yesterday's post apply here: Text message warnings that sacrifice the element of surprise to protect civilians, targeting specific Hamas infrastructure versus indiscriminate carpet-bombing, calling off airstrikes that will kill civilians, allowing humanitarian cease fires, and engaging in political mediation all support the idea that Israel is acting with restraint. 650 Palestinian deaths are a horrific tragedy, but many states in similar situations would have incurred even more because they would not employ similar measures.

But importantly, every one of these examples has qualifications. Texts are only as effective as the receiver's ability to actually find a safe space. Targeting Hamas infrastructure is impossible in Gaza without incurring casualties - 20% of which have been children so far. It's alleged use of flechettes in populated areas exacerbate the danger to civilians. While Israel called off one airstrike where civilians were threatened, it also went ahead with one that killed four boys playing at a Gaza beach. Its humanitarian cease fires are only necessary in the first place because of a) Israeli operations themselves and b) the severe restriction on imported goods imposed by Israel on residents of the Gaza Strip.

Ultimately, while Israel is acting with considerable restraint, there are specific ways in which it could act with more restraint without jeopardizing its mission to degrade Hamas' capability to harm Israeli civilians. Rather than relying on body counts to bolster claims about restraint, analysts should give Israel some credit for the restraint it has shown while identifying specific ways to exercise more restraint without risking mission success. 

*Edit: An earlier version of this post used a list of prohibited items in Gaza from May 2010. The link has been updated with a 2013 list whose items are much less arbitrary.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Is Israel's Invasion "Proportionate?"

One clear media victory of the pro-Palestinian camp has been to paint Operation Protective Edge as "disproportionate." The daily body counts reported in major newspapers bear out this idea. To date, over 600 Palestinians have been killed versus 29 Israelis. Activists use these numbers to claim Israel's operation in Gaza constitutes a "disproportionate" response.

While these assertions have gained traction, there has been little serious discussion of what a "proportionate" response actually looks like. The virtues of a proportionate response have been extolled by everyone up to and including characters on The West Wing. However, measuring whether a response is proportionate is much more tricky than the pure moral outrage over Israel's actions might lead us to believe.

Using body counts is perhaps a reasonable starting point to measure proportionality. However, this strategy runs into problems. Were Israel to allow more of its civilians to die, would it's response in Gaza then be "proportionate?" Would disarming Iron Dome batteries and letting Hamas get in a few good shots be the morally superior outcome? Few decent people would argue so.

Body counts are really only useful as a rough proxy for the extent of force. In theory, a more forceful response should incur heavier civilian casualties and vice versa. But is a proportionate response one in which both sides use an equal amount of force? In an asymmetric conflict like Operation Protective Edge, this framework also runs into problems. As Israel's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has pointed out: If Hamas rockets land on a school, should Israel's response be to fire rockets back at a Palestinian school? The amount of force would be perfectly proportionate. However, it would hardly be just. In fact, Israel has been rightly criticized for targeting civil targets such as hospitals (though they are often used as a base of operations by Hamas). Israel is expected, as a liberal state, to adhere to higher standards of civilian protection than Hamas, not proportionate standards. Given that Hamas is a State Department designated terrorist organization, this makes sense. A perfect tit-for-tat strategy between Israel and Hamas would still generate legitimate moral objection given Israel's status as a liberal state.

One potentially better way to define proportionality is as follows: A proportional response is one which achieves the defeat/surrender of the enemy with no more force than necessary. One important consideration is whether the actor is defensive or offensive - states understood to be acting defensively often get more leeway in the use of force than do offending states.

So, is Israel's response proportionate according to these criteria? Short answer: It's complicated.

The question of whether Israel's actions are offensive or defensive is hopelessly entangled. Israelis and their supporters will point to the 13 years of rocket fire on innocent civilians, terror attacks, suicide bombings, kidnappings, and murders that preceded the current operation as evidence Israel is on the defense. Palestinians will point to the harsh restriction of their freedoms, removal (by various actors) from their historic lands, and systematic denial of their basic humanity as evidence that Israel is on the offense. Both sides have enough rhetoric, ammunition, bloody photos, and pain to last millennia of intractable bickering.

But the offense/defense question is secondary to the core issue: Whether Israel uses the minimum required force to achieve its goals. This issue is also complicated. Text warnings, precision munitions, calling off strikes when civilians are present, agreeing to humanitarian cease fires, and agreeing to Egyptian political mediation are evidence in support of the claim that Israel is not using an abundance of force. However, its targeting of hospitals, (alleged) use of flechettes in populated areas, and airstrikes that have resulted in the deaths of children are important pieces of evidence that call this claim of proportionality into serious question.

Rather than argue intractably about which evidence matters more, perhaps it makes more sense to consider how much each piece of evidence matters. Proportionality need not be a binary. A response can be more or less proportionate. It is this framework that allows analysts to account for the inherent complexity of the conflict rather than ignoring it. It also gives us a stronger, less polemic basis to push for recognizing the human dignity of civilians so often denied in the Middle East.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Sderot Cinema" And The Politics Of Victimhood

The current Israel-Gaza conflict is a flashpoint of the politics of victimhood. Both sides are struggling to present themselves as the victim and the other as the aggressor. Every civilian caught up in war is to some extent a victim. However, competing discourses pick and choose which victims matter politically, and whose sense of victimhood is legitimized. 

It is ironic that despite being among the more victimized groups in the conflict, the citizens of Sderot have been treated during the current conflict as anything but. At the core of this discourse is the picture by Danish journalist Alan Sørenson showing the “Sderot Cinema,” - citizens watching the Israeli Air Force strike targets in Gaza. 

Sørenson posted the picture on July 9, 2014. To date, it has been retweeted 12,380 times and has become emblematic of Israeli indifference to Palestinian suffering. Antagonism towards citizens of Sderot popped up again this week when CNN’s Diana Magnay was pulled from covering the conflict. After citizens of Sderot threatened to destroy her car if she issued a biased report, she referred to them as “scum” in a tweet that has now been removed.

Any case of some people dehumanizing other people is disturbing. But the discourse of the conflict has had little interest in contextualizing the dehumanization of the "Sderot Cinema." The completely divergent narratives which have emerged between Israelis and Palestinians are a result of this broader hesitance to contextualize. But contextualizing doesn't mean approval or agreement. Rather it means taking seriously the full story rather than jumping to the worst possible conclusion.

The 24,000 citizens of Sderot so freely lambasted over the past few weeks are on the periphery, and not just in the geographic sense. They have lived under constant rocket fire from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups in the Gaza Strip since 2001. 11 citizens of Sderot, including three children under the age of 4, have been killed in rocket attacks. In 2008, 30% of residents suffered from PTSD, and a 2013 study linked rocket fire to increased miscarriages in women living in Sderot. 

Sderot is also not an affluent area. The municipality was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2010, and many Sderotis face serious financial trouble. In particular, some citizens have moved to apartments outside the city but are still paying mortgages on their house, leading to financial distress. Throughout the thirteen years that Sderot has been under rocket fire, the Israeli government has taken steps only occasionally in Gaza. Citizens of Sderot have protested at the Knesset and at major intersections on Israeli highways to try to build pressure on the government to protect them. While rockets over Tel Aviv and other central areas of Israel generate big headlines, 90% of Sderotis live on a street, or next to a street, that has been hit by a rocket. 

Understandably, these citizens feel as if they are not being protected by their government. Thus, they understand Operation Protective Edge as a set of strikes targeting the Hamas infrastructure responsible for the constant attacks on their town. That this relief comes at the high price of Palestinian lives, including almost 100 in the past 24 hours, remains very concerning. At the same time, that Israelis under constant attack want to watch the IAF bomb Hamas targets should not prompt accusations that Sderotis are psychopaths or savages. Rather, it should prompt both sides to question which victims their narrative picks at the expense of others.

In the fever pitch of rhetoric in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is easy to paint the other as savage, evil, or inhuman by nature. It is harder to try to understand the point of view of the other as a basis for progress. The "Sderot Cinema" is not the only example of dehumanization. However, it is a strong example of how easy it can be to jump to conclusions rather than take the time to understand that at the end of the day, all civilians who suffer are victims. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What The IDF Incursion Into Gaza Means

The Israel Defense Forces launched a ground incursion in the Gaza Strip today just before 4:00 pm Washington time. Its stated purpose is to target tunnels that run between Gaza and Israel, one of which was used this morning by thirteen Palestinian militants.

The incursion, which comes after a failed Egyptian attempt to broker a cease fire (Hamas rejected it) is a significant escalation in the Gaza-Israel situation and the biggest military event during Prime Minister Netanyahu's tenure. The incursion will likely have three outcomes:

First, more Palestinians are going to die. Already, Operation Protective Edge has killed over 240 Palestinians, with indications that number has increased since the start of the incursion. While Hamas operatives will be included in the body count, many more are likely to be civilians, including children. International outrage at an airstrike killing four children on a Gaza beach - close to a hotel housing a number of international journalists - has damaged Israel's political capital and inflamed Palestinian suspicions that Israel is targeting civilians.

Second, the security benefits of the incursion will be limited and temporary. While in the short term Hamas is likely to see significant reductions in its supplies and capabilities to strike Israel, all of these losses can be overcome in the span of a few years. Mishandled donations from the international community and major donor states like Qatar will accelerate this recovery. At present, Hamas retains a significant number of rockets and attacks on Israeli civilian centers are likely to increase over the next 24 hours. Despite narratives to the contrary, these rockets are dangerous and they have injured and killed Israelis since before the start of Operation Protective Edge.

Third, the incursion will burn political capital Israel does not have. While there is almost nothing at this point that would turn international public opinion towards Israel, it must manage carefully the steady leakage of political capital. Contrary to what some may believe, Israel can become more unpopular if it continues to kill innocent civilians in airstrikes, no matter how virtuous its intentions may or may not be. In a world where the US Secretary of State is willing to use the word "apartheid," opinion does matter, no matter how much hawkish analysts wish it did not.

These concerns about the efficacy of Israeli tactics must be separate from the question of whether Israel is entitled to use military force to defend itself from rocket attacks. The primary purpose of any government is to defend its citizens, and Israelis have every right to expect their government to take action to stop rocket attacks. The question is whether Israel's leaders will take advantage of the short-term security created by a ground incursion to enhance the country's long-term security. If the past is any indication, both sides have little hope for a change of heart, and civilians will pay the heaviest price.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Israel And Hamas - Take The Deal

Egypt has floated a cease-fire agreement that could bring an end to violent hostilities between Israel and Hamas. The deal, which calls for a cease-fire followed by high-level talks in Cairo, is an important opportunity for both sides.

Operation Protective Edge has hurt Hamas' ability to strike Israel. One Israeli intelligence estimate (which may be exaggerated) says 55% of Hamas' rocket launchers and 40% of their rocket arsenal were destroyed. Its unity agreement with Fatah is fraying further as Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas condemns Hamas rocket attacks. Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh's comments tonight indicated there may also be some policy disagreements between himself and Hamas' leader Khaled Meshaal who has spent much of the conflict building connections in Qatar.

Israel has suffered some of the most intense rocket salvos in recent history. Daily life has been significantly disrupted across the country, including in major population centers. Some Israelis have sustained serious injuries including two Bedouin girls today, one of whom is in critical condition. Israelis remain fearful and bomb shelters remain open. Prime Minister Netanyahu is under pressure from the far right to start a ground operation that Israel will not win and that will further degrade Israel's already bad international standing. Israel is also under pressure from human rights groups and the international community to cease attacks which are killing and injuring innocent Palestinians along with Hamas operatives.

The United States should remain quiet in this period. Any appearance that the US supports the agreement will make it harder for Hamas to sign without looking like it is capitulating to Western interests. It will also complicate the US' ability to apply pressure on the Sisi government in Egypt during a critical period in the country's history. Upon concluding the agreement, however, the US would do well to express support for all parties and offer support to help maintain the agreement.

This cease-fire agreement is an opportunity for both sides to claim victory. Hamas can claim it forced Israel to sign an agreement after targeting its cities. Israel can argue it forces Hamas to a cease fire through the success of Operation Protective Edge. A cynic would argue that both sides have only worn each other down after weeks of fighting and over 170 people killed. However this opportunity is one that would halt violence and put policy options back on the table that would move both sides' interests forward. It's time for Israel and Hamas to take the deal and stop the fighting.