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.