Tuesday, January 29, 2008


If it were to be accepted as legitimate for a country to punish the whole population of an opponent because of the behavior of extremist politicians, then it would be hard to find a population on the planet that would not be vulnerable. Israel, long a rogue state violating international law and defying the U.N., has received a warning message over the past week. If it has the maturity to put up with the embarrassment and learn the right lesson, Israel's future could as a result become much more secure.

When a whole population rises up and demands freedom, it is an historic event. When they do this peacefully—smashing down walls, perhaps, but not killing, then we tend to greet the results with glee and admiration. Glee because it demonstrates the eternal truth of our own democratic ideals; admiration because such revolutions somehow seem so much more honest and unhypocritical than our own everyday version of democracy.

Now that the population of Gaza has broken down its prison walls and demanded that most basic and inalienable human right—the right to buy food, are we applauding their restraint in doing it peacefully even though they are under constant military attack by their Israeli prison guards? Are we applauding their courage in walking into Egypt, with no way of knowing whether or not they would be shot on their way to the local grocery store? (For details, this article and this one.)

No, we punish Egypt for not forcing the Palestinian people back into their jail.

In contrast, 1000 Israelis brought contributions of food and medicine to Gaza and demonstrated against their government’s economic war against the Palestinian people.

Americans should contemplate the decency of these Israeli defenders of human rights and think deeply about the shameful rush to pass judgment by Washington politicians desperate to shove the Palestinians back into their jail.

In the words of the peace activist and journalist Uri Avnery, “For a moment, the Rafah crossing was the Brandenburg Gate.
He continued: "The brutal blockade was a war crime. And worse: it was a stupid blunder. "

This “stupid blunder” has now forced the Egyptian dictatorship to offer—horror of horrors—to negotiate with the Gaza government. Some would evidently have preferred that the Egyptians massacre the Palestinians as they went about their shopping. But there is now no returning to the past; the Mideast will never be the same. The Israeli government should listen to its own people before its recklessness sets in motion an unstoppable train of events.

So far, Israel has created a situation which:

  • Has put Egypt in the position of having in effect recognized the Hamas government of Gaza;

  • Has made Hamas, which has accepted the offer to negotiate and has called for a truce with Israel, appear the reasonable, rational, moderate actor while Israel appears the terrorist;

  • Has given Hamas nationalist credentials that seem likely to ensure its ability to win any democratic election in the near future.

Great events in a complex political context can emerge from small beginnings. It may be that as many as half the 1.5 million residents of Gaza crossed the border into Egypt this past week to do their shopping and vote with their feet for freedom. Can there be any doubt that Hamas will reap the reward of long-term popularity? That Hamas’ greatest political victory should have come through a rather peaceful effort may have interesting implications, though how Hamas leaders will see it remains uncertain. In any case, the implications of this week’s events for the hold of Hamas over Gaza are likely to be significant.

In addition, the bankruptcy—not just moral but practical—of Israel’s policy of victory through strength is now pretty clear: first the lesson of Lebanon 2006 and second the lesson of Gaza 2008. Once again, as in Lebanon in 2006, Arabs with bulldozers manage to look good in comparison to Israelis with tanks. Only in the U.S. will this be hard to see. The rightwing violence-prone regime running Israel should think carefully about the long-term implications of what it is doing before it permanently weakens Israeli security by strengthening both the moral authority and nationalist credentials of its most extreme opponents.

The current Israeli regime similarly seem likely to be discredited. The Israeli nation, in contrast, could well benefit. First, this may just possibly shock the Israeli political system into serious self-reflection and lead to a more viable long-term policy. Second, if Hamas derives the lesson that ingenuity rather than brute force is the most effective way of defending the rights of the Palestinian people, and if Israel also takes away a lesson in good neighborliness, then a route to solving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute may be found as a result. Third, by virtue of the Israeli Supreme Court consideration of the petition by human rights organizations to end the Israeli blockade, the continued health of the Israeli democracy has been demonstrated: the Israeli government will bow at least momentarily before the concept of human decency. An independent judiciary with the ability and courage to stand up for human rights in the face of administration policy is a rare achievement in today’s world. Because of that, if nothing else, Israel has already gained from this week’s momentous, albeit embarrassing, events.

Many questions remain:

  • Is the Israeli government taking this move only because it sees little choice for the moment or is this a sincere effort to move beyond the mindless brutality of the war on Gaza? (Israeli military attacks on the West Bank over the last two days hint at the answer.

  • Will Hamas learn anything positive from this week’s events and cooperate with the efforts of the human rights organizations and the Israeli Supreme Court and the suddenly cautious Egyptian government to return the situation to a position of reason?

  • Will Egypt, fearful of its own harshly suppressed democratic movement, take this opportunity to establish normal border processes with Gaza rather than going back to serving as assistant jailers to the Israeli regime?

  • Will both regional and other involved actors ultimately respond with professionalism and thoughtfulness, benefiting from this experience to move away from the viciousness of the last year by offering Hamas a real alternative to renewed fighting?

  • Will the illegal coup by Abbas, but engineered by Washington and Tel Aviv, against the democratically elected Hamas government of all Palestine be replaced by either new elections or a Palestine government of national consensus?

One way to get some clues about the answers is to graph the trend lines in behavior of each actor. To the degree that the lines go in the same direction, we may get some sense of the prospects. Two questions worth asking:

1) are the various actors flexible or rigid?

2) are they ready to compromise or ready for confrontation?

The main public acts this week of three key actors – Israel, Hamas, and Egypt – are portrayed in the graphic. Quadrant D is the worst, containing actions both confrontational and rigid. Quadrant A shows actions both flexible and prone to compromise. Quadrant B contains actions that are flexible, though still confrontational. Ingenious ways of being confrontational may lead to a breakthrough via some unexpected route but are still essentially hostile. Quadrant C contains actions that remain rigid, unoriginal despite actors’ willingness to compromise (if only they could figure out how).

So far, for a few short days, the graph clearly suggests a surprising degree of movement by all three actors away from the rigidity and confrontation of the past year toward something offering new possibilities.

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