A policeman's nightmare is the prospective suicide who forces the constable to
shoot in self-defense. No matter how justified the killing, others always will
wonder whether the shooter had an opportunity to avoid a fatal outcome.
Peoples commit suicide as much as do individuals. The geopolitical cognate of
"suicide by policeman" is Hamas' attempted suicide by Israel. Israel's
objective is to eliminate Hamas rule. There are only two ways to do that:
destroy Hamas' international support, or make its rule in Gaza insupportable.
I hate to be the one to bring up the unpleasant things that no one else wants
to talk about, but just what do you do when a substantial group of people would
rather die on their feet than live on their knees? For Hamas, to live on one's
knees would be to
accept a permanent Jewish presence in the historic land of Israel, an outcome
which Hamas was formed to prevent in the first place.
One answer is that a slow-motion humanitarian disaster will gradually erode the
fighting capacity and morale of Hamas and its popular base in Gaza, presuming
that external sources of support can be throttled. What the International Red
Cross calls "a full-blown humanitarian crisis" in Gaza is, in a certain sense,
part of the solution, not part of the problem. A million and a half people have
no way to live in Gaza except on the dole of the international community, in a
Petrie dish for Islamist extremism.
As the pro-Israeli analyst Martin Kramer observes in his blog, economic
sanctions against Gaza - that is, pressure on the civilian population - are an
integral and entirely legitimate aim of Israeli policy. "Were Israel to lift
the economic sanctions," Kramer writes, "It would transform Hamas control of
Gaza into a permanent fact, solidify the division of the West Bank and Gaza,
and undermine both Israel and Abbas by showing that violent 'resistance' to
Israel produces better results than peaceful compromise and cooperation.
Rewarding 'resistance' just produces more of it. So Israel's war aim is very
straightforward, and it is not simply a total ceasefire. At the very least, it
is a total ceasefire that also leaves the sanctions against Hamas in place.
This would place Israel in an advantageous position to bring about the collapse
of Hamas rule some time in the future - its long-term objective."
Israel's alternative would be to ignore Hamas, and instead attack Iran or
Syria, Hamas' main supporters in the Muslim world. A humiliating blow against
the state sponsors of Hamas would make it harder for an organization that
represents itself as a non-state player to continue fighting. Last April,
Israel had the opportunity to deal such a blow to Syria, and had it taken
pre-emptive action against Syria at the time, it is unlikely that the present
attack on Gaza would have been necessary. (Please see
Ehud Olmert on the Damascus road Asia Times Online, April 15, 2009.)
War with Syria or Iran, to be sure, entails far more risk for the Jewish state.
As Barak Ravid wrote in Ha'aretz: "Defense Minister Ehud Barak told [a December
20 conference in Tel Aviv] that Israel is strong enough to take down the Assad
regime in case of war with Syria ... However, even if Israel strikes a severe
blow, he told the conference, Syria 'even when battered and weak has a
significant ability to inflict damage, as a result of the weapons it has and
its capacity to use Hezbollah'. Barak emphasized that in the case of a
confrontation with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah would also likely join the
fighting, and that it is exceedingly difficult to forecast how another war in
the Middle East would play out."
It is hard to fault Israel for not taking the risk of war with numerically
larger, if technologically inferior, opponents, when those risks are very
difficult to assess from the outside. Nonetheless, it seems clear that Israel
chose to attack Gaza as a low-risk alternative. Hamas is a far softer opponent
than Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War. Hezbollah had received massive
military support from Iran in building tunnel defenses and deploying
sophisticated weapons. Hamas does not even appear to have night-vision
equipment. A risk-averse strategic posture does not show Israel in a
particularly strong light, whatever the merits or demerits of its present
If the world had wanted Israel to adopt an alternative defense strategy, it
should have encouraged an Israeli attack on Iran, or Syria, or both. Both the
Bush administration as well as the Barack Obama transition team (via Obama's
Middle East advisor Robert Malley) favored "engaging Syria", as did Israeli
Prime Minister Olmert. That idea may have reached its best-used-by-date. As Lee
Smith wrote December 24 on the Hudson Institute
website, "The goal of trying to wedge Syria away from Iran is to return
it to the so-called 'Sunni fold,' which includes, most importantly, Egypt and
Saudi Arabia. The problem, however, is that over the last several years
Damascus has alienated the Sunni powers, especially Saudi, whose King Abdullah
has suffered multiple insults at the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
When enmity becomes personal, as it often does in the Middle East, there is no
telling how or when it is likely to be resolved. In other words, there is no
Sunni fold for the Syrians to return to: the Sunnis are hardly eager to embrace
an Arab regime that over the last four years has served as the Persians'
For the moment, Israel is treating Hamas as a state rather than as a state
actor. As in any war, economic pressure on the civilian population, as well as
military operations that kill civilians as collateral damage to the pursuit of
military objectives, are legitimate instruments of warfare. It is hypocrisy to
To insist that Israel desist entirely from military activities that have a high
probability of causing civilian casualties is doubly hypocritical. That would
demand, in effect, that Israel value the lives of Palestinian civilians more
than those of its own civilians, who are subject to rocket bombardment. That is
something no state in the world can do, and it is silly to ask it. Israel has
less reason than any other on Earth to heed such a demand. Never has the state
of Israel been offered mercy by its enemies, nor has it any reason to expect
it. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by following the
almost-golden rule: "Do unto others before they do unto you."
Israel is in the unenviable position of mopping up a problem created by the
inertia of the international community. Fourth-generation "refugees" living in
towns officially designated as "camps" never have existed under international
law until the world community found it expedient to defer the "Palestinian
problem" into the indefinite future. The Gazans cannot be economically viable
on their 139 square miles of sand, and the humiliation of perpetual dependency
and poverty makes a political solution unattainable.
The international community could help most by finding better homes for a few
hundred thousand Gazans. The best-case scenario would be a parallel to
Hurricane Katrina, which forced the mass evacuation of the city of New Orleans
during 2005. Displaced to Atlanta, Georgia, Houston, Texas, and other cities
with a strong black middle class, the poor African-American refugees soon were
earning more and living better than they had in corrupt, backward New Orleans.
I reviewed the good fortune of the New Orleans refugees here (See
Katrina and China's whirlwind growth Asia Times Online, April 25, 2006)
and observed that the best way to help poor people is to move them out of poor
regions into rich ones. The late Sam Kinison's stand-up comedy routine about
world hunger applies doubly to Gaza. "You want to help world hunger? Stop
sending them food. Don't send them another bite, send them U-Hauls ... we've
been coming here giving you food for about 35 years now and we were driving
through the desert, and we realized there wouldn't BE world hunger if you
people would live where the FOOD IS!"
Otherwise, the default recommendation is what I offered five years ago, (See
see More killing,
please! Asia Times Online, June 12, 2003). As I observed at the time,
recurring theme in the history of war is that most of the killing typically
occurs long after rational calculation would call for the surrender of the
losing side. Think of the Japanese after Okinawa, the Germans after the Battle
of the Bulge, or the final phase of the Peloponnesian War, the Thirty Years
War, or the Hundred Years War. Across epochs and cultures, blood has flown in
proportion inverse to the hope of victory. Perhaps what the Middle East
requires in order to achieve a peace settlement is not less killing, but more.
That is horrifying, but nonetheless true, and the international community
simply may have to raise its threshold of horror.