Israel-Gaza: six current fallacies
It’s perfectly possible to be sickened by the dreadful atrocities reportedly accompanying the current Israeli action against Hamas in Gaza, and at the same time to be disheartened by the widespread victories of hearts over heads in the clamour — from which almost no political leader feels strong enough to distance himself or herself — for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire. Even if such a thing were to happen, the consequences in the medium term would almost certainly entail more suffering and loss of life on both sides than if the Security Council were to concentrate instead on an institutional framework to give both sides an alternative to violence for achieving their principal aims. Practical institutional arrangements could reduce the likelihood of the tragedy repeating itself, and hold out some hope of ending the violence on a reasonably durable basis. Unfortunately such a practical approach is hampered by widespread attachment to several fallacies:
Fallacy #1: The most urgent need is for an immediate, unconditional end to the fighting by both sides.
Wrong. The immediate need is for the establishment of an international monitoring and peace-keeping force to monitor observance of a cease-fire by both sides, to supervise the reopening of the legal crossing-points into and out of Gaza and the closing of the tunnels into Egypt, to enforce the UN arms embargo, and to hold the ring while a UN good offices group tries to help Hamas and Fatah in both Gaza and the West Bank to heal the rift between them and find a way to share power. An Egyptian initiative on these lines, supported by France, is still being negotiated and has reasonable prospects of success; it has been widely commended by a number of relevant governments and is explicitly welcomed in yesterday’s Security Council resolution 1860 (2009). It’s a conditional, not an unconditional, cease-fire that’s urgently needed.
Fallacy #2: International pressure expressed in UN Security Council Resolutions, EU and other governmental declarations, articles and letters in the western media, demonstrations and marches on the Israeli Embassy, needs to be exerted on Israel to force it to stop fighting at once and withdraw from Gaza.
Such action may make people who are very naturally outraged and distressed by the daily horrors of the conflict feel better, but on its own it will achieve nothing but (1) feed Israel’s far-from-irrational paranoia and intensify its excessive dependence on the Americans, and (2) encourage Hamas to continue its rocket attacks on Israel in the vain hope that Israel will be forced to bow to international pressure and withdraw from Gaza with none of its objectives achieved.
Fallacy #3: If there’s enough international pressure for a cease-fire, Israel and Hamas will be forced to stop fighting.
Both sides have certain legitimate objectives for their resort to violence (as well as some less legitimate aims): Hamas seeks an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza; Israel seeks an end to both Hamas rocket attacks and illegal arms smuggling into Gaza. International action is perfectly possible to help both sides to achieve these aims — provided that they stop using violence to achieve them. Neither side will stop the use of violence against the other unless given a political motive for doing so.
Yesterday the Security Council adopted a resolution — not under Chapter VII of the Charter, and so not binding — calling for an immediate cease-fire. Both sides in the conflict explicitly rejected the resolution. The next day The Independent reported that:
Israel and Hamas responded to a UN peace demand by hammering away at each other with bombs, shells and rockets today. [Independent, 9/i/09]
It’s difficult to see what has been achieved by what is hardly more than a futile gesture instead and in advance of concrete measures to provide a motive for ending violence and to set up a new internationally supervised arrangement to maximise the chances of an eventual cease-fire being reasonably durable — as indeed the UNSC Resolution itself requires, but without accompanying its impeccable sentiments by practical action.
The US abstained on the resolution for precisely this reason:
[Condoleezza Rice] said that the United States thought it important to see the outcomes of the Egyptian mediation efforts in order to “see what this resolution might have been supporting”, and that was why her delegation had abstained in the vote. Still, after a great deal of consideration, the United States had decided that the resolution, the text, goals and objectives of which it supported, should be allowed to go forward.
The French, although they voted in favour of the resolution, criticised it even more explicitly and on the same grounds:
BERNARD KOUCHNER, Minister for Foreign Affairs of France[and this month’s President of the Security Council], speaking in his national capacity, … expressed regret that it had not been possible to give a little more time to reconcile different views or to endorse the results of negotiations now under way. The message of hope needed to be heeded without delay and negotiation under way needed to achieve prompt results.
The Security Council has wasted several days agonising over the small print of a resolution which has achieved precisely nothing, instead of working on practical measures whose outline has been perfectly clear since the outset of the conflict. Why has the real work been left to the Egyptians and the French? It’s inexplicable, and inexcusable.
Fallacy #4: The reaction of Israel to the periodic rocket attacks on it by Hamas has been ‘disproportionate’ and therefore illegal, since Israel has already killed far more Gaza civilians than the number of Israeli civilians killed by Hamas rockets.
This implies that Israel has some kind of duty under international law to wait until enough of its citizens have been killed by Hamas to justify an attack that would entail roughly the same number of casualties — presumably terminating the military action when the same number of Gaza civilians had been killed, whether or not the purpose of the action (ending the rocket attacks) had been achieved.
The concept of a proportional response also implies a sort of equivalence between Israel and Hamas. No such equivalence exists. Whatever one might think of Israeli excesses and lack of restraint, of its obstinate refusal to act to dismantle the illegal settlements in the West Bank and to stop its brutal treatment of the Palestinians, the fact remains that Israel is a recognised state with a right and duty to defend its citizens against attack. Hamas is not a legitimate government (it won the Palestine-wide elections of 2006 but then seized power from the legitimate institutions of Fatah in a coup accompanied by bitter factional fighting in the same year) and Gaza is not a state. Hamas’s formally proclaimed objectives — to eliminate the state of Israel by force — are manifestly contrary to international law, including the Charter, and in no way justify using violence, especially against innocent civilians, to achieve them. It is a non-state agent to which any definition of ‘terrorist’ , however mealy-mouthed, ineluctably applies. Israel, by contrast, has a strong case for arguing that it is acting in exercise of its “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security” — the words of Article 51 of the Charter. Regrettably, the Security Council has not yet taken any such measures. Yesterday’s innocuous but ineffectual resolution is absolutely no substitute for them.
Fallacy #5: The international community has an obligation to recognise the Hamas administration of Gaza and to respect its policies, including conducting negotiations to settle current disputes, because Hamas won the 2006 Palestine elections.
No such obligations flow, or can flow, from winning an election. Hitler and the Nazis won democratic elections in Germany but this conferred on them no entitlement to international respect for their policies. It may be (and probably is) convenient and desirable for (e.g.) the Americans, the Quartet and the Israelis, and other Arab governments, to enter into and maintain a discreet dialogue with Hamas leaders, but Hamas’s proclaimed objectives and policies don’t at present provide sufficient common ground or legitimacy to make formal relations, still less formal negotiations, possible or desirable.
Fallacy #6: Tony Blair is the ‘peace envoy’ of the Quartet (the US, Russia, the UN and the EU), charged with giving fresh impetus to the Arab-Israel peace process.
Mr Blair’s job is totally unconnected with the peace process, such as it is (or isn’t):
In his new role as envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair will be charged with shoring up Palestinian institutions, but not with trying to nail down a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians because Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, is handling that job herself, [US] administration officials said Wednesday. …
[T]he State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said in announcing the appointment… “Secretary Rice and President Bush are going to focus on the political negotiations, as they have, and Mr. Blair is going to focus his considerable talents and his efforts on building those Palestinian institutions.” Bush administration officials defined Blair‘s mandate as one in which he would mobilize international assistance to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, identify and secure financing for Palestinian institutions and governing tasks, and hash out [sic] plans to promote Palestinian economic development. [International Herald Tribune, 28 June 07 http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/06/28/america/28blair.php]
— and many other sources, such as:
Is Tony Blair going to solve the Middle East conflict then?
He might like to think so, but he’s actually constrained by the narrow job description as defined by the international Quartet which appointed him.
[Independent on Sunday, 15 July 2007, http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1P2-7510519.html]
While a conflict of this ferocity, inflicting such appalling suffering on so many helpless and guiltless people, continues to rage, it’s pure — or impure — self-indulgence to waste time on the blame game, however satisfying that might be. There’ll be ample opportunity to resume that later, helpfully or otherwise. The immediate task is to bring the violence to an end and to do it in a way that will reduce as far as possible the risk that it will start again as soon as the world has lost interest in it. Simply clamouring for an immediate cease-fire (and especially demanding that it be ‘unconditional’) on its own is not only pointless: it actually hampers and delays the hard work of hammering out practical new arrangements that might actually bring about an end to the fighting, and provide some hope of contributing to a longer-term settlement. It performs no useful service to the bereaved and dying of Gaza, or to the beleaguered citizens of Israel living within range of Hamas rockets, to pretend otherwise.
Turning a blind eye to the flaws in all these fallacies does potential harm to the prospects for peace; it certainly does them no good.