Sunday, 23 September 2012

Israeli Palestinian Conflict Primer, Part I

This piece originally started with the following question I was presented by a friend a while back - 
"Explain the conflict to me".

Knowing me for the verbal guy that I am, he challenged me further -  "... in 60 seconds or less".

This is not the 60 second version, but it is nevertheless an undeservedly short one. I will make some generalizations of which I am aware, and for which I apologize in advance. I have avoided making the ones I know are dead-pan wrong.

I will try to give a birds-eye view of the problem, provoke interest and curiosity. I subtly recommend not to buy into any view that makes it sound either too simple, too easy, too biased or too black&white.

Here goes:

1. How many sides are there to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Two. But it's a team sport and each side has several team members.

2. Israelis and Palestinians?

They are the two peoples involved.
They are not, however, the two sides of the conflict.

Here are the real sides of this conflict, a subtlety your favourite news channel will not make clear:

Side 1: Normal people who wish to live a normal, dignified life - have a family, a dog, education for themselves and their kids, career opportunity, and more recently, access to the globalization party.

Side 2: Radicals, who would sacrifice all that for the belief in their gut.

3. And the Palestinians are in...?

4. And the Israelis are in...?

5. So the war is between...?
Those two sides. The radicals and the normal people.

6. Who do you define as radical?

I define radically-motivated people as people who
a. Justify violence today with their "historic rights".
b. Do not propose real, holistic solutions to the full, combined set of problems.
c. Ignore the right to exist or the need for human dignity of the other people.
d. Set technically impossible "win conditions" (a-la "pack up the skyscrapers in Tel Aviv and send the Jews back to Europe" or "pack the Palestinians onto trucks and transfer them to some Arab country")
e. Lump other people's entire political spectrum into one big "them", then accuse the lot of wrongdoing perpetrated by just a slice of that spectrum.  ("All Muslims are Terrorists!", "All the Jews/Israelis are imperialist bullies!").
f. Would put their own children in the way of physical harm to make a political point.

7. So... which of them are right? (historical right over the land, that sort of thing)
Both are.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have an argument to back what they believe to be a legitimate claim, and firmly believe in the validity of their argument.
Both peoples lived on this land at some point in the past.

Weighing their arguments against one another is a dead end that has burned millions (possibly billions) of man-hours of argument and debate, only to leave everyone exactly where they started.

My empiric observation is that each one of us needs to make a choice.

One can choose to walk down the road of immersion in historic rights, get a lot of warm fuzzies, but do it knowing he will contribute absolutely zero to improving the situation.

Or one can detach from that debate without either losing or winning it, and focus on solving the problems of the present, for the sake of the future of those who live there.

Everyone is right.

8. Then who is wrong? Who is doing the really bad immoral things I see on the news?
Both peoples are.

Some of the bad things both peoples do can be morally justified given their situation.
Some of the bad things both peoples do cannot.

It's not clear-cut.
In every situation claimed immoral, you need to understand what happened from the perspective of both sides, think what you would do have you yourself been born and raised to that side and placed in the shoes of those there, then make up your own mind if the action in question can or cannot be justified.

Some of the bad things both peoples do can be morally justified given their situation.
Some of the bad things both peoples do cannot.

Doing this is hard.
Taking the easy out (blaming whoever it's easiest to) entrenches bias and prolongs the problem.

9. Ok. No easy answers, I get it. Who are the players on the "radical" side?

Israeli "Ideological" settlers in the West Bank.
The Israeli extreme right.
The "Israeli" extreme left (quotes because they are often openly anti-Israeli)
The Hamas and those who willingly follow them.
The current regime in Iran.
Other Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah or what's left of Assad's regime in Syria.

10. Hamas and the Israeli settlers are on the same side?! what?!

Yes, very. Though they'd never verbalise it, each one MUST have the radicals of the other people to justify its own extremist ideology to the (non-radical) rest of its own people.
The need to survive - as a radical organisation and/or a radical ideology - makes for some very strange bedfellows.

11. Are you suggesting the Hamas and the extremist Israeli settlers have beers together?

No. But their actions and provocations have for decades been squarely aimed at sustaining the other in its radical form.

12. I'll need to marinate on that strange bedfellows bit. Ok, who are the players on the non-radical side?

Israelis who don't ignore either people's problem and treat both peoples with dignity.
Palestinians who don't ignore either people's problem and treat both peoples with dignity.
Most Israeli governments (keep in mind being on this side doesn't imply being either smart or motivated to lift a finger to solve the problem).
The Palestinian Authority (Fatah) of today.
Virtually all developed countries.
A very large part of the Palestinian Street, who was seen protesting recently against the dysfunction of their own government, and have recently started visibly caring more about welfare and day-to-day living conditions than about the conflict.

Also, looking beyond the populistic "show" some put up, about half the Arab countries in the middle east. Namely the pragmatic ones concerned with their own economic prosperity.

13. The Palestinian war for self-definition is justified. Everyone deserves self-definition. Since that's a no-brainer, how can you defend the Israeli stance?

Good observation. Yes, it is very justified. What defines this war is the "win condition" - establishment of a Palestinian state on a subset of the land, the whole of which must ultimately accommodate two peoples with some serious baggage.
This is the war the non-radical palestinians are in for.
It's no less just than the war the Jews fought in 1948 to re-establish their state.
We'll call the war for self-definition "War #1".
The main obstacle in this war are the combined radicals of both sides.

The radicals are in for a different war.
"War #2".

What's the difference?
The "win condition".
Iran's/Hamas's "win condition" for this other war involves being in control of the land graphically outlined at the top of its logo. Yes, that shape is 100% of Israel. The Israeli radicals set the exact same impossible win condition, only with them in control. This "War #2" can neither be rationally justified using any moral code I'm aware of without diving to the depths of hypocrisy, nor can it be won without magically willing away four million Palestinian voters, or several metropolises, an entire first-world economy, a fully-functional state, backed by one of the world's toughest, most experienced armies.
The claim Hamas has to the entire land is right out there with shipping the Australians back to Britain and giving the land back to Aboriginals, or shipping L.A. and New York back to Europe and giving the land back to the Native Americans.

"War #2" cannot be won.

And when radicals don't have enough of it to go on, a proportion of both sides incite new flames through provocation, and the Palestinian radicals take it a step further and fake it for your favorite news channel's appetite for a palywood newsbyte. Radicals need, and will forever need, the war.

14. Doesn't the Hamas know their win condition is not achievable?

Of course they do. The Hamas are not motivated by evil. They're more akin to a drug mafia - a group of people earning top dollar (in this case, coming from serving foreign Iranian interests rather than drugs), who have guns, and are unwilling to relinquish this power.
They cling to power by labeling themselves neccesary to fight a war that can never be won, and brutally suppressing any discussion of national priorities.
They do some of the bad kind of things you'd expect a drug mafia to do, but they are in it for the money and power, not the massacre of Israelis or Jews.
Sadly, clinging to power is... just human.

15. Just how much leeway do the big players have to maneuver to get something fixed?

Like in chess, different movement rules apply to different parties.

Israel is a democracy that lives in a perpetual hung parliament, with small minority parties made kingmakers, holding entire administrations to ransom, else they topple the government and early elections are called. I call this a "minoritocracy", where the minority calls the shots, by design. The big parties have all sworn to fix this broken system. The little parties will topple any government that tries.
This leads to administrations that cannot function for their given term without a small, often extremist, minority party that refuses to change anything.
Sadly, clinging to power is... just human.

Unlike in Turkey and Mubarak-era Egypt, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is not, and never was, a political player itself. It is an accountable, obedient instrument of the Israeli State devoid of political agenda - other than bigger budgets of course.

Like any accountable army made up of humans in any war on record, they mostly do their job, and occasionally make bad decisions that hurt the wrong people which they later regret (homework: listen to Dr Abuelaish from the link above and see if his remarkable perspective - from the Palestinian side - resonates with this article). Like any accountable army, the IDF have an internal prosecutor unit with teeth tasked with maintaining a razor-sharp balance between personal accountability, media exposure thereof and troop morale. I would not like to have their job, because it is hard.

Like any army involved in any conflict ever, the IDF takes pride in achieving their mission, not always in what they had to do to achieve it. War is never pretty.

There have been multiple instances of ultra-leftists (Israeli, Palestinian and foreigners) provoking IDF soldiers whose job was to guard a line in the sand, while blaming the soldiers personally for the mission their government sent them to do. These ultra-leftists sometimes get hurt.
I hold the perpetrators belong squarely in the radical camp - they offer no holistic solutions, they bias themselves to one side, thereby ignoring 50% of the problem. They have no sound advice to offer to make the situation better. And the behavior they display is no different to abusing a parking inspector or harassing a policeman for doing his job.

The best way to explain a soldier's job is to think of, say, Australian troops in, say, Afghanistan. I may not agree with sending troops there. And there are ways to voice that disagreement on a platform of national priority debate. But if I choose to voice that disagreement by trying to march across a red line troops actively get tasked to guard, say a gate to a military base in Afghanistan, I will get hurt.
Israeli courts uphold that the military is a legitimate arm of the government, does not indict them for doing what they were asked to do (morality of the task itself - say, guard an illegal settlement, being largely irrelevant), and holds protesters responsible for the harm they incur upon themselves.

Moving on, in the West Bank, the Fatah runs the Palestinian Authority and manages a collection of pockets of land, where they are attempting to build a democracy.
The Fatah has earned a notorious reputation for being corrupt, but allowed reasonable freedoms and has been setting up somewhat functional institutions and cooperating on security with Israel.
Its ability to change stuff is limited in part by the mandate given to it by the Palestinian street, in part by terms set by its financiers (the PA is not economically self-sufficient and relies heavily on funding by the US, Europe and Arab patrons), and in part by its own corruption and inability to get stuff done.

In Gaza, the Hamas have created a very efficient oppressive police state where voicing an opinion not aligned with Hamas places the life of you and your family at risk. People critical of Hamas policies have plain-clothes thugs come to their homes, they can be jailed, beaten, in some cases killed.

The US State Department calls Hamas a terrorist organisation, and their direct involvement in numerous terrorist attacks on civilians is well established. But they are not merely that. Hamas now run a state and all manner of institutions - education, healthcare, a judicial systems, etc.  They've been building up these institutions for decades, since long before they came to power.

Their take on "serving Palestinian interests" involves taking Iranian money and using it to build and run these institutions. This money, however, comes with strings attached. These institutions must subsequently be used to promote an Iranian-sanctioned curriculum, and teach children from infancy to think like a victim and blame and hate the west.

While the Hamas is arguably at liberty to pursue any policy it chooses, pursuing one that will upset its Iranian patron may:
a. Cut Iranian funding
b. Cut the ideological "need" of the Gazans for such a radical organisation,
c. It will mean they must at some point cede their guns and ability to operate a private army (and plain-clothes secret police) to an accountable Palestinian defense force.
d. It will mean 1.5 million Gazans will judge Hamas on the merits of what Hamas has done for them in the time it has been in power. Which is not an awful lot.

So far, the Hamas have not seen this as a particularly attractive proposition. Go figure.

Continued in Part II...

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