Friday, January 02, 2009

Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before

There are a few things that seem to characterize Israel's wars of late.

The first is that Israel describes its operations as defensive. In the summer of 2006, Israel responded to the kidnapping of two soldiers by bombing all of Lebanon. The ensuing conflict would claim the lives of over 1000 innocent Lebanese, and 43 Israelis. A popular slogan at the time, "Israel cannot afford to lose a single war" was offered up in response to international calls for a ceasefire. It was also claimed that Hezbollah's offensive arsenal (mostly Chinese-made, World War II-style Katyusha rockets) posed an "existential threat" to Israel, and could not be tolerated. Rather than negotiate with Hezbollah on a prisoner exchange, Israel decided to "defend" itself against this "existential threat" by opting for open warfare, thus ensuring that it would be on the receiving end of a barrage of Katyusha attacks.

A second element which characterizes recent Israeli military campaigns is that the official aims seem transparently implausible. Just as it was difficult to see how Israel would ever "defeat" Hezbollah without blowing up everyone in Lebanon, it is hard to understand how Israeli war planners expect to topple Hamas without killing most residents of Gaza in the process. To this end they are already enjoying success: in several days of bombardment, Israel has killed over 400 Palestinians; in constrast, 4 Israelis have died. But again, this has neither weakened Hamas nor slowed the rate of rocket fire into Israel -- in this case comprised of the rudimentary Qassam rocket. (Ending rocket fire into Israel is another stated goal of the offensive, though that is about as likely as banishing rock-throwing or the thinking of bad thoughts about Israel: as long as people have access to basic materials -- sugar propels the Qassam, for example -- and believe themselves to be in intolerable conditions, they will find means to attack Israel.)

For these reasons, it might be said that an additional feature of Israel's recent wars has been their tendency to undermine the credibility of official Israeli claims. It is hard to argue on behalf of a "defensive" war when one's capacity to inflict casualties is 100 times greater than that of one's adversary. It is also hard to make defensive claims when you are initiating open-ended warfare, and maintaining it single-handedly; in other words, when your preference is for military conflict, versus other alternatives. Also, one's ability to make sound evaluations on matters of "existence" must be called into question when "existence" is claimed to be threatened, the "threat" goes unaddressed, and one continues to "exist" with no greater difficulty than before.

My private view is that nothing is being accomplished in Israel's recent military campaigns, unless you consider the deaths of large numbers of people an "accomplishment." That is clearly the most significant achievement of Israel's methods thus far. In addition to this, the ruling Kadima party is enjoying a boost in the polls prior to election day.

In the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel killed and wounded thousands of Lebanese; it strengthened Hezbollah within the society; it left Hezbollah's rocket-launching capacity intact; and it ultimately agreed to negotiate a prisoner swap -- something it could have done from day one, precluding everything else that came after.

In the present case, Israel has attacked a much weaker, mostly defenseless, population. It will likely kill large numbers of people, a big percentage of these children -- normal when bombing urban areas. It is not likely to dislodge Hamas.

Because of the vulnerability of the people in Gaza, reaction in the Arab world promises to be acute. This has the potential of destabilizing corrupt Arab regimes allied with the West. In any event, it will doubtless supply the motivation for future attacks on Israel and allies of Israel. It will increase the attractiveness of radical Islam for many, at least to the degree that this is perceived as a viable way of attacking Israeli and other western targets.

A basic commitment to human life requires opposition to policies which put it at risk. In this case, pressuring Israel to end its campaign would reduce casualties in this conflict by 99%. That gives some indication of where the focus should be.

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