07 January 2009
Examining the conflict in Gaza and the blowback that it will create for both Israel and the U.S.
The recent Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip has drawn worldwide attention, condemnation by many, and unyielding support from America’s political elite. Much of the criticism seen in the media toward Israeli actions has focused on the idea of proportionality. Proportionality is a key a tenet of Just War Theory, but proportionality is more of a moral concern than a strategic one. The bombardment of the Gaza - one of the most densely populated areas in the world, housing 1.5 million Palestinians - was disproportionate, despite what Alan Dershowitz or Charles Krauthammer may claim. The Qassam rockets launched by Hamas militants from Gaza had, up to the point of the Israeli bombing campaign, not killed a single Israeli. Does this necessarily make Israel wrong for taking the actions they have? To some the answer is undoubtedly yes, but to those living in Southern Israel the answer is not nearly as unequivocal - nor should it be. The question does not stop, though, at the notion of proportionality, but instead must turn now to what the consequences will be.
What are the Palestinians to do?
The question often asked by many supporters of Israeli actions vis-a-vis the Palestinian rocket attacks aimed at the Southern Israeli City of Sderot is “What are the Israelis supposed to do?” or “Should Israel allow Hamas to fire rockets at civilians?” The answer to the latter question is an obvious and resounding NO! No state on earth should allow its citizens to be put in danger the way those in Sderot have been by Hamas’ rockets - despite the fact that no Israeli civilians were killed by those rockets before the attack on Gaza and only ten have been killed since the number of rockets fired has increased since the Israeli operations began (as compared to well over 500 Palestinians killed in Gaza at the time of this writing).
The questions above, though, can be reversed and asked “What are the Palestinians to do?” Like it or not Hamas is the elected representatives of the Palestinian people based on the 2006 elections - certified by international observers and - pushed for by the Bush Administration despite warnings from experts that Hamas was likely to win because of humanitarian efforts undertaken on behalf of those same Palestinian people. Having consolidated control in the Gaza Strip after a 2007 conflict with its political rival Fatah, Hamas is the only political group in position to defend the civilians of Gaza who have been suffering under a devastating blockade imposed by the Israeli military. Criticism of Hamas’ actions are justified but hollow if not put in the context of the overall situation in Gaza - a situation that includes malnourished children because of inability to bring in food, a lack of medical supplies, and an Israeli policy of targeted assassination against Hamas’ leaders.
In its claims that avoiding civilian casualties is its utmost priority, Israel has taken to mirroring a tactic used by the Bush Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whereas President Bush has claimed that the American military is killing Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan; Al Qaeda and Iranian “Special Groups” in Iraq; or “Enemies of Freedom” and “Evildoers” in general; Israel has claimed to only targeting Hamas. The question that must be asked of all of these claims is: How do you know? Fighting against non-state actors such as Al Qaeda or Hamas is one of the most difficult tactical enterprises a military will ever undertake. And while it is believable that both the American and Israeli militaries take care to avoid civilian casualties, to claim that they are only targeting these groups defies logical reasoning. None of these fighters wears a uniform signifying which belligerent camp they belong to. So, how does one differentiate between a member of Al Qaeda or Hamas and any other person who was willing to pick up a weapon because their country was invaded? Even with the greatest care civilian casualties are unavoidable, and while Israel undoubtedly has a right to defend itself so too do the Palestinians. It needs to be determined by both sides whether their actions will gain the desired result or perpetuate an unending cycle of violence.
The blowback that is yet to be seen
The question of proportionality becomes rather moot since Israel holds a far greater tactical and technological advantage than Hamas or any other Palestinian could imagine possessing. The problem this presents, though, is that there are few people in the Middle East, let alone the rest of the world, who do not know that each of those missiles - as well as the F-16s and Apache attack helicopters they are fired from - are stamped MADE IN THE U.S.A. Israel’s military advantage over any adversary in the region is largely a result of the largesse supplied by the U.S. government. American taxpayers (as well as loans from the Chinese to the U.S.) give $3 billion a year in aid - making it the largest single recipient of American foreign aid. This $3 billion does not include the loans that are given to the Israeli government to buy military equipment from American arms manufacturers.
The potential for blowback from Israel’s actions in Gaza go beyond just the aid - both financial and political - given to the Israeli government. Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, has written a series of articles for the Jamestown Foundation documenting a particularly dangerous side effect of the invasion of Iraq: the infusion of Salafi Muslims into the area of the Near East that includes Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. According to Scheuer, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had represented a “cork in the bottle” that kept Salafi Muslims, such as those in Al Qaeda, “trapped” in South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula as there movement out of those areas would have threatened his power base.
Scheuer contends that Osama bin Laden had long sought access to the Levant - and moreover, Israel, but his efforts were often thwarted Saddam’s brutal security forces. With Saddam out of the way, and Iraq in chaos, Salafi Muslims have been able to establish a foothold that threatens the regimes in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and even the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza. The Salafis have begun to radicalize the population of Gaza which has suffered under the Israeli blockade - turning it into one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes. These Al Qaeda elements have attempted, and may be succeeding in, turning the Palestinians in Gaza against the elected Hamas government by criticizing its ceasefire with Israel as a betrayal of both the Palestinian people and Islam itself. The Israeli attack on Gaza, and the U.S. government’s support for it, will only serve to aid in this process. While Hamas posed a significant threat to Israeli, it was, for the most part, a localized phenomenon. With the infusion of Al Qaeda militants into the mix, and much blame being focused beyond Israel to the United States, the odds of the problem becoming global in nature have increased dramatically.
A better role for America
America needs to find a better role, in the Middle East at large and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict specifically. The political establishment has pledged its undying support and allegiance to the security of Israel - despite the fact that no alliance, military or otherwise, has ever been established between the U.S. and the Jewish State. The hypocritical response from American politicians on these issues has been well-documented by liberal blogger Glenn Greenwald, who asks,
“Is there any other significant issue in American political life, besides Israel, where (a) citizens split almost evenly in their views, yet (b) the leaders of both parties adopt identical lockstep positions which leave half of the citizenry with no real voice? More notably still, is there any other position, besides Israel, where (a) a party's voters overwhelmingly embrace one position (Israel should not have attacked Gaza) but (b) that party's leadership unanimously embraces the exact opposite position (Israel was absolutely right to attack Gaza and the U.S. must support Israel unequivocally)? Does that happen with any other issue?”
If there are those still out there who believe that the Obama Administration will “Change” America’s policies in regard to this intractable situation then more attention should be paid to the President-Elect’s national security team. Secretary of State-Designate Hillary Clinton, during the Democratic primary campaign, pledged to “obliterate” Iran if it were to attack to Israel - this pledge was made despite the fact that Israel maintains an arsenal of 200 to 300 nuclear weapons as compared to Iran’s hypothetical nuclear weapons program. Clinton, though, will be a cabinet member who must be accountable to the U.S. Congress (or as accountable as Congress is willing to hold her). The president’s national security staff, though, will include many unaccountable officials. These officials will include Dennis Ross - a foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign who holds many neoconservative views and is a strong supporter of Israel. Ross played a leading role in the Clinton Administration’s attempts to broker a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. It has been reported by many with inside knowledge that Ross was known for running each new item in the agreement past the Israeli representatives to be sure it met with their approval before formalizing it to present to the Palestinians. This one-sided favoritism destroys the image America has attempted to portray of an evenhanded arbiter.
America’s political leadership needs to remember the lessons provided by its Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and even George Washington, who warned against “foreign entanglements” and “entangling alliances” that would not be in the interest of American people. The “Special Relationship” between the U.S. and Israel is the living manifestation of George Washington’s belief that “...a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils.”
As a world leader it is possible, but not necessary, that United States would have a role in the various conflicts of the Middle East - or even elsewhere in the world. It is most important that the role played by the U.S. is not one of favoritism to either side in a conflict where there is no true American interest at play. Congressman Ron Paul has long advocated a U.S. policy that is neither “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” nor “pro-Arab” or “anti-Arab” but instead “pro-American”. That of evenhanded and fair broker would be a noble role for America to play in a bloody and devastating conflict that has gone on far longer that it has needed. As long as the U.S. continues to back one side to the detriment of the other the long-sought peace that all sides in this issue have claimed to desire will never be achieved. And the security of the Palestinians, Israel, and America will never be assured.