Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Why IDF Restraint Matters

The arrest of Ahed Tamimi and her mother for assault and incitement have made international news. Supporters of Palestinian rights have turned Ahed into an overnight heroine while opponents decry her use of violence and physical force against two IDF soldiers. Ultimately the ensuing debate is one about restraint - the extent and purpose of it, and whether it ought to be used.

These kinds of incidents - and arrests - are part and parcel of Israel's military presence in the West Bank. But a couple of elements make this particular one different. First, a video of the initial event was posted online by activists on both sides of the conflict, which led to it being circulated widely. Palestinian supporters pointed out the entrance of IDF soldiers onto a private driveway, while Israel supporters emphasized the restraint shown by these soldiers as they are kicked repeatedly. Second, the video shows face-to-face full contact violence. The video evokes visceral responses because it shows two humans in physical conflict with each other rather than faceless demonstrators, tanks, or soldiers with their faces covered. 

While the soldiers' professionalism and restraint is commendable, it would hardly have been becoming of a liberal democracy to have acted otherwise. Reactions in Israel and in the pro-Israel community simultaneously laud the soldiers' restraint as typical of the IDF on the one hand and imply that they could or should have used force on the other. As if using force against an unarmed Palestinian civilian teenage girl would have been either consistent with liberal norms or productive.

Ahed Tamimi's arrest happened not right after the incident but at 4:00 the following morning, with Amira Haas reporting the use of teargas as part of the extraction. These tactics hardly qualify as "restraint." The IDF then posted a video of the arrest on one of its Twitter accounts - not a usual practice by any means. This self-congratulatory posting also does not qualify as restraint. It was intended to intimidate Palestinians and hold Tamimi as a trophy. Its message was straightforward: "She challenged us and got what she deserved. We won in the end."

Tactical restraint is commendable and violence against IDF soldiers condemnable. But restraint in a truly liberal country cannot be begrudging or supported only by the IDF and its soldiers. It must be tired directly to respect for human dignity and rights, and upheld by politicians and supporters of the state.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

US Recognition of Jerusalem Fine in Theory, Flawed in Practice

Firstly - Yes, this blog is still live. Welcome back.

Today's announcement that the US will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has raised frantic speculation over the future of America's role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader Middle East. Ultimately, the speech acknowleged some realities that needed to be recognized, but did so in an unproductive and careless way.

First, the President's speech today made no mention of any of the historic and religious claims Palestinians have to Jerusalem. Arab Muslims have lived in Jerusalem for hundreds and hundreds of years. Al-Aqsa Mosque is an important Palestinian national symbol and the third holiest site in Islam. While we can argue for eternity as to whose claims are more legitimate, the reality is that neither side will give them up. While the President should be applauded for using the ambiguous phrase "Jerusalem" versus "united/undivided Jerusalem," his omission of the "East/West" division is being read across the Arab world, predictably, as an erasure of Palestinian claims to the city and a lack of recognition of centuries of history. His caveats about mutual negotiation of borders at the end of the speech came across to Arab audiences as an afterthought. This was an avoidable mistake and the speech could have easily been written to address these concerns.

Second, the Knesset, Prime Minister and President's residences, Israel's Supreme Court, and its ministries are in Jerusalem. By any reasonable definition this makes Jerusalem a capital city. It is accurate that today's statement by President Trump recognizes a reality on the ground - one that many people have taken absurd steps to deny. However, other realities exist as well that ought to be recognized. For example, Jerusalem is already divided de facto. Palestinians often face hardship traveling in and out of Jerusalem. City planning decisions often favor Jewish Israelis over Palestinians. Acknowledging realities on the ground is good, but acknowledging all realities on the ground is better for negotiating a final status agreement.

Finally, the argument "Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel because it's the capital of Palestine," is invalid. To claim on the one hand that Palestinian claims are being erased and on the other hand that Tel Aviv is Israel's capital and Jews have no claim to Jerusalem is rank hypocrisy and deeply offensive given the significance of Jerusalem to Judaism. Jerusalem is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah, it contains the holiest site in Judaism, and is a religious and cultural heart of the Jewish people. These statements can be true without denying that the city has deep and meaningful significance for other religions too. The weaponization of recognizing the significance of Jerusalem - on both sides - perpetuates our broken status quo and ultimately sets back both the Israeli and Palestinian aspiration for a state with Jerusalem as the capital.

Nobody wants a divided Jerusalem. Unfortuantely, it is the most sustainable and realistic option. An Israeli capital in the West, a Palestinian capital in the East, and a close to status quo agreement over the Temple Mount that assures access to holy sites is the least bad choice. Today's announcement could have moved the parties in that direction by offering carefully-worded assurances and forcing parties to engage rather than talk about talking about engaging. Instead, it carelesly affirmed suspicions about the United States and its leadership that will ultimately constrain even further America's ability to conduct foreign policy in the Middle East.