13 January 2009

The Gaza Conflict

According to one estimate of casualties in the military conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza since December 27 last year, there have been about 4,000 casualties so far, about 98% Arab (i.e. fewer than 100 Israeli casualties, and considerably fewer Israeli deaths), including about 900 Arab deaths. The source estimates these 900 Arab deaths involve about 450 Hamas deaths, 225 deaths from other militant groups, and about 225 deaths of Arabs who are not militants, and further estimates that:

Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel are declining, to about ten a day. . . . Hamas has boated of having up to 20,000 armed fighters, but few of these have shown up so far. There appear to be less than a thousand armed Palestinians fighting more than ten times that number of Israeli troops.

Prior to the latest clash, the same source reported in late December that "Violence along the Gaza border fence continues, with several Israeli troops injured each week by rocks, explosions or bullets. . . . A dozen or more [Kassam] rockets are still being fired each week. For every 40 or so rockets fired, an Israeli is killed or wounded." Egyptian border guards have also apparently suffered casualties.

I could source media sources for confirmation or more accurate data, but I'm not sure that those details matter much for the big issues.

It is entirely possible that the numbers quoted above are propaganda numbers that overstate the extent to which Israeli military action has limited itself to militants. It is also entirely possible that the total number of casualties are somewhat higher or somewhat lower. And, it would not be shocked if some of the strikes were directed at innocent civilians as a form of collective punishment without a valid military purpose.

But, I also strongly suspect that the numbers are accurate within an order of magnitude, that the casualties are overwhelmingly Arab, and that the Israeli military is primarily and predominantly trying to hit militant targets, even if its motives are not always pure and even if it is not always successful in meeting this objective.

A couple of the big barriers to the two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that seems the obvious solution and has been touted by the international community for decades, are that (1) it doesn't work for Israel to have a sovereign neighbor that organized groups not controlled by the local government that shoots rockets at you, and (2) neither the West Bank, nor Gaza, nor both territories combined, are ready to immediately transition to sovereign democratic economically autonomous self-government without a huge amount of outside assistance. The two problems are interrelated. An ineffective civilian government, even if it is well intentioned, may be incapable of preventing attacks against Israel by organized groups from its soil. Northern Ireland faced similar difficulties when no one had the authority and practical ability to reign in militants in that fight.

Israel is also, justifiably, terrified that the casualties among its own citizens, while modest so far, could dramatically escalate if the Palestinians gained access to more modern and accurate missiles that could return Israeli carnage to the levels experienced when suicide bombings within Israel proper were common. The fact that those domestic suicide bombings have virtually ended with the erection of the wall between Israeli and Palestinian areas, despite the controversies involved, make it highly unlikely that the Israelis will go back on the decision to build the wall and partially explains why Gaza tunnels have such powerful psychological force as a threat to the Israelis.

There is also a deeper problem that crops up repeatedly around the world. Humanitarian aid arguably prolongs wars by preventing any side from being so utterly defeated that they give up. Palestine there are parents and children who have lived their entire lives in "refugee camps," and the international aid has been a core part of the Palestinian economy for decades. The world has, again and again, probably morally correctly, decided the preventing civilians from suffering immediate extreme harm is more important than the possibility that allowing hundreds of thousands of people to starve and die and waste away from illness without aid might end a conflict once and for all, ending suffering more in the long run. But, international involvement in sustaining the status quo creates international responsibility for ending the highly problematic status quo.

The latest editorial cartoons have blamed rocket attacks on Israel from both the North and the South on Iranian proxy forces. This isn't the easiest point to prove. But, certainly there is no love lost between Israel and Iran, or for that matter much of the rest of the Islamic world. And, there is no doubt that covert military aid for militant groups from the rest of the Islamic world has been an important fact in sustaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Likewise, it is no secret that the U.S. has provided significant military aid to Israel from the beginning, and that the U.S. has been pretty much unwavering in its support for Israel, as have many other Western nations to a lesser extent. The impact this support has had on the strength of the Israeli military is an important reason that Israel still exists.

The U.S. is a natural ally for Israel. The vast majority of the world's Jews live in either Israel or the United States, and those numbers are roughly evenly split between the two nations. Many American Jewish communities have strong personal ties to Israelis, and Zionism, while not universal in the American Jewish community, is common there. Jews have been, for most of the history of the United States, the largest non-Christian religious minority in the U.S., although the number of American Muslims is growing.

Barack Obama's nomination of his Presidential primary opponent Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, was in part a way to emphasize the importance of U.S. foreign policy ties to Israel. Clinton was, rightly or wrongly, widely seen as a more staunch supporter of Israel than Obama during the Presidential election in 2008, and her appointment reassures those who were concerned about Obama on that score.

Of course, major military action in Gaza does little in the long run to promote a lasting peace with the Palestinians for Israel. Palestinians have been on the losing end of countless battles over the last half century and haven't given up. A wounded or killed family member or friend, whether or not that family member or friend is a militant, provides more than enough of a motive for a substantial core of militants to continue fighting as long as they live. A dramatic illustration that ultimately the Israelis are in control in Gaza City undermines the authority and credibility of the local government, and thereby undermines its capacity to make peace.

Excessive force, unnecessary casualties, and hardships for average people undermine the legitimacy of Israeli rule even as it emphasizes Israeli authority. The percentage of Palestinians who would never consider Israeli occupation to be legitimate will probably always be too high, as a result of all that has happened so far, for a one state unitary solution, that gives Arabs equal political rights to Israelis, or the current neo-colonial arrangement viable as a peaceful, long term arrangement. Any significant minority that fails to recognize the legitimacy of the state is a nearly guaranteed recipe for indefinite insurgency. A state can survive as few wackos who don't acknowledge its legitimacy, but significant minority percentages who feel uprising against it is justified (as opposed to merely disliking the current ruling regime) produce endless turmoil. Also, it is hard to pummel the Palestinians into submission with military force and economic sanctions when they already have almost nothing to lose.

I increasingly think that the best solution would be for Egypt to absorb the Gaza, and act as a guarantor of Israeli security on its Gazan border, and for Jordan to absorb the West Bank, and act as a guarantor of Israeli security on its West Bank border. Both nations have functional governments and a great deal to lose from international sanctions.

Obviously, this couldn't happen overnight. Egypt has no desire to take on the problem that is Gaza or devote its resources to protecting Israel. And, Jordan is even less inclined to take on the West Bank's radicalized Palestinian population. Previous efforts along these lines have failed. Major inducements, along the lines of the Camp David accords that brought grudging recognition of Israel from its neighbors, but sweeter, would be required. Israelis would have have to make major concessions by ceding all settlements now in place in the West Bank.

But, Jordan seems more capable of instituting competent government in the West Bank and honoring its international obligations, and Egypt seems more capable of doing so in Gaza, than any reasonably conceivable autonomous government in either territory. While a large share of West Bank Palestinians will never recognize Israel as legitimate, it is less obvious that widespread, albeit reluctant, recognition of Jordanian legitimacy is impossible. Also, judged by the crude measure of rocket attack frequency, the situation is less out of hand in the West Bank than it is in Gaza in the first place.

Egypt, moreover, is in a position from a practical perspective, to relocate much of the smaller population of the near wasteland that is Gaza, to its own interior urban centers where its one party government rules with an iron fist.

Both Egypt and Jordan would also have the benefit of being able to immediately provide a major boost to the economies of Gaza and the West Bank, respectively, by reopening these territories to reliable international trade.

The division of the territories into the possession of two different nation-states as a fait accompli, would also discourage efforts to revive a Palestinian national movement.


joe six-pack said...

Good article. Thanks for the hard work. I don't know if your solution will work in the long run, but it must certainly work better than the current arrangement.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...