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.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

6 Academics Who Can Help Explain The Violence In Israel

Here are six academics whose work can help policy analysts make sense of this month's violence in Israel and the West Bank. Obviously there are more than six relevant academics, and every academic has their own go-to books. For example, a non-Western scholar may list a completely different set of authors than these. Nonetheless, such lists can help scholars and policy makers bridge the gap between them and hopefully do some good.


Jessica Stern's 2003 book Terror in the Name of God is based on interviews with militants and includes a chapter on Jewish extremists. Catapulted to fame as one of the first post 9/11 works on why terrorists commit attacks, the book is a bit dated and was controversial at the time, but brings the reader face-to-face with the ideology of extremists on both sides of the conflict.

Aviad Ruben's work between 2009 and 2012 on religion and state formation includes concise but detailed explanations of Zionism's interaction with the Israeli state. The points of conflict are important for understanding the resurgence of religious Zionism over the past decade or so.

Wendy Pearlman's 2011 book Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement explains why Palestinian resistance is sometimes violent and sometimes not. Based on extensive field work in the West Bank, Pearlman explains the importance of institutional cohesion in restraining violent actors. The book also has a clear account of Palestinian nationalism since the early 1900s.

Nadav Shelef's 2010 book Evolving Nationalism is an historical account of the Zionist movements, including religious Zionism. The book is based on field work in Israel and explains that Israeli nationalist claims have evolved over time rather than remaining constant.

Paul Brass' 1997 book Theft of an Idol is a book about India. However, it explains clearly how "ideal entrepreneurs" use violent incidents as an opportunity to mobilize larger-scale ethnic violence. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't only ethnic but Brass' description of entrepreneurs is a helpful framework to think about this week's revenge killings.

Lee Ann Fujii's 2011 book Killing Neighbors is based on field interviews with perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide. Fujii shows how perpetrators followed "scripts" in carrying out their gruesome killings. Genocide is an extreme form of political violence, far far more extreme that what is happening in Israel at the moment. However, the book's theoretical model is useful in explaining how regular people can commit gruesome attacks. Given that a 16 year-old Palestinian was likely burned to death this week, this explanation is a particularly relevant insight.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Enough With The Vitriol

Twitter is a place for vitriol. To expect otherwise would be naive. Yet over the past week, vitriol over in the Middle East corner of the Twitterverse (yes it really is just one teeny corner) has reached new lows. Participants in the debate on all sides have shown a lack of respect for each other and the complexity that characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Justifying their rage on exactly one-half of the relevant facts, each side paints the other as violent, untrustworthy, and evil. Such constructions create a conflict that is in reality a fight against an imaginary version of the other, rather than the other itself.

The script is old - all that changes are the events, each more harmful than the last: Rockets shot at civilians, hundreds of civilians arrested, teenagers killed, revenge murders, attacks on civilian infrastructure. But the tired melodrama of the past week has been exacerbated by each side scrambling to claim tragedy and victimhood as its exclusive purview. As if those in the public sphere keep a scorecard of who suffers more or less based on how many shares, likes, or re-tweets a certain statement (verified or otherwise) gets.

This vitriol is motivated by legitimate grievances, based on fear, and driven by pain. Behind the exclamation points, poor spelling, and capital letters, people are hurting. This speech is harmful, but it is also understandable. At the same time, the understanding of this pain must be mutual for either side to have any semblance of progress.

While vitriolic nasty speech may have genuine motivations, its effects are actively harming both Israelis and Palestinians. Fights with strangers on the internet do not make Israelis safer or Palestinians freer. Rather, they disrespect the human suffering - to different extents and degrees - on both sides of the conflict, and the resident of the Middle East whose engagement doesn't end by signing out of a website.

Back home, this vitriolic discourse is driving smart, humane, caring people away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turf wars (in which this blogger is guilty of participation) and nastiness are alienating the very people we accuse of negligent apathy when something terrible happens in the region. When the very act of asking a question draws spurious accusations of bias, racism, Orientalism, or anti-Semitism, good people become jaded and complacent. This abandonment is a strategic loss for everyone in the region. People will not support a side with whom they cannot honestly engage.

To make real progress - a safe Israel and a free, independent Palestine - we must collectively make an appeal to our commonalities rather than further exacerbate our differences. The status quo is broken, and that includes our status quo mud-slinging in the place of real and painful dialogue. Genuine engagement is harder, less fun and it doesn't get you a ton of Twitter followers. However, we owe it to ourselves and to the people of the region to act like adults and stop bickering like children.


Monday, June 30, 2014

US Should Act In Response To Killing Of Israeli Teens

At 10 this morning, Washington time, Israeli security forces discovered the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gil-ad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, the three Israeli teens abducted near Hebron in the West Bank on June 12, 2014. The discovery prompted meetings of the Israeli and Palestinian security cabinets. Several Israeli Ministers of Knesset made statements urging revenge and Israel's Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said that "Hamas will pay" for the senseless deaths.

Highly emotional moments invite strong policy reactions. In 2006, Israel's security cabinet decided to launch a war in Lebanon after Hizbullah launched rockets at Haifa. The decision was made after only two hours. While Netanyahu has proven savvy in his military policy, the pressure he faces from Israel's right (and center) is enormous. While Netanyahu is unlikely to re-invade the Gaza Strip a la Operation Cast Lead, some military response to the killing is almost a given. The danger is that an over-reaction could end up hurting Israel's security more than helping it.

As the situation unfolds overnight, the United States should act decisively. President Obama's statement condemns in the strongest terms the cold-blooded killing of innocent teens - one of whom is an American citizen. However, America's interest in stability, weakening Hamas, and returning to negotiations would be well-served in the long-run by acting on these sentiments. Specifically, the Obama administration should reassure the Government of Israel and reassure PM Netanyahu that, generally speaking, he has US support. Israel's reaction to the news has been motivated by a sense of isolation and vulnerability. Reassuring the Israeli government now can help reduce fear and the desire for revenge. This in turn can enhance prospects later for targeted actions against relevant Hamas operatives rather than an expanded operation that will only perpetuate suffering on both sides.

On the flip side, the Administration should urge Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to condemn the killings, break the unity pact with Hamas, and make overtures for a return to the negotiating table. The efforts, however, should be quiet so as not to appear that PM Abbas is motivated only by US pressure. Genuine attempts by the Palestinian Prime Minister to end the unity agreement would also be an important point of leverage for the US in the coming weeks. They could moderate any further Israeli actions that would negatively impact innocent Palestinian civilians.

All parties, American, Israeli, and Palestinian, should mourn the loss of the three Israeli teens, as well as the nine Palestinians killed since Operation Brother's Keeper. The outrage and anger in the media are, at their core, a reaction to the deep pain which has become part-and-parcel of life in the Middle East.