This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful that two groups that don’t understand each other have stopped lobbing shoddily constructed, inaccurate explosives at each other. I’m not just talking about Hamas and the IDF; I’m also talking about their uninformed partisans on the internet. Vapid tweets about Israel’s right to defend itself or Palestine’s right to resist occupation are worse than unhelpful. They contribute to a cyberwar of attrition, and exacerbate mutual incomprehension by further convincing people that their opponents are clueless and will never understand them.
I’m not going to try, in this post, to assign blame or make grand pronouncements about “the only way” to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict (which almost always turns out to be something totally unfeasible and one-sided). Instead, I’m trying only to intercept some of the shoddiest and least accurate weapons launched by the two sides. I realize I’m dividing the political cyber-spectrum rather crudely, but that’s because I’m addressing those who are crude. Subtle thinkers need not read on.
Stop abusing the idea of proportionality. It seems that many of us think that the only fair way for Israel to respond to flurries of Katyusha and Grad rockets from Gaza is to assemble equally crappy rockets themselves and fire them aimlessly back. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of proportionality.
Proportionality, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, is achieved when “loss of civilian life” and/or “damage to civilian objects” is proportional to the “concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” It’s about the damage you inflict relative to your aims. It has nothing to do with the difference in losses between the two sides.
This means that, legally speaking, Israel’s campaign could be disproportionate without killing anyone, or that it could be proportionate even while killing 2,000 people, depending on the military gains involved. It could also mean that Hamas’ rocket attacks are themselves “disproportionate.” Israel’s campaign may indeed have been disproportionate, but that can’t be proven simply through lopsided death tolls.
Stop scoffing when Israeli security concerns are raised. First of all, minimizing Israeli casualties shows a failure to understand how states work. No Israeli politician can say, “The 500 rockets only killed five people. Everyone calm down.” Nor should they. A state’s most basic duty is to provide security to its people. A serious solution to the conflict cannot dismiss the threat of rocket attacks. But it’s not just the rockets; rhetoric matters too. Hamas has powerful allies and the capacity to inflict damage and, more importantly, terror on Israel. Right now, most Israelis believe that Hamas will kill as many Israeli civilians as its capabilities allow. Given the kinds of things Hamas leaders say about Israel, this is understandable. Ridicule these concerns if you like, but they will affect Israel’s future behavior and, by extension, the fate of Palestine. The more seriously Israel’s concerns are taken, the sooner the conflict will end.
Stop describing “them” as utterly implacable. It’s tempting to paint Hamas, or the Arab public in general, as unanimously rejectionist or even genocidal toward Israel. It’s also easy, because there are plenty of wackos out there who will furnish unambiguous quotations that seem to confirm this. It’s true, for example, that the Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel (“Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims”).
But don’t let Hamas stifle your imagination. If the past two years have taught us anything about the Middle East, it’s that ideologies are dynamic and people are complex. Norms can break or bend (until 2011 Libya, did you ever expect to see Arab protests calling for Western military intervention?). Israel should be creative, engage with Palestinians much more aggressively, and think of Gazans as potential partners instead of writing them off as lost to Hamas (unfortunately, it seems like Ahmed al-Jabari, whose assassination helped catalyze this latest bout, might have been one such partner). As for negotiating with Hamas: many bristle at the notion of talking to violent religious fundamentalists but, as the U.S. is learning in Afghanistan, sometimes there is no other choice.
Stop touting Israel’s irrelevant virtues. Israel is the Middle East’s only true democracy. Israel invented the cell phone. Israel respects the rights of gays, minorities, and women. No matter how impressive the distinction, a war between Israel and Gaza isn’t the time to highlight it. Doing so sounds evasive and suggests that more successful polities have earned the right to dominate less successful ones.
Do us all a favor and at least address arguments or facts inconvenient to your point of view. The pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli internet spaces have constructed two utterly divorced realities. Those whose timeline of the most recent round of violence begins on November 14, with Israel’s killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jaabari, should look back to November 12, to when Hamas launched over 100 rockets at Israel in a single day. On the other hand, those who use that escalation as the starting point should consider the effects of Israel’s military and economic blockade of Gaza. And so on.
Warning: This may involve learning some history.