Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tom Friedman's Geography Disability

Tom Friedman has been getting better on the Middle East lately, though he still has a long way to go before he can be taken seriously, at least in terms of his analytical acuity as opposed to his unfortunate influence.  For example, consider today's column on Obama and Chuck Hagel: not bad at all (though certainly not up to Steve Walt on the same topic, at, with the rather large exception of his remarkable contention that Israel "is surrounded by more implacable enemies than ever."

Well, let's see about that.  To the west of Israel is Egypt--ok, probably not as "friendly" to Israel as in the Mubarak days, but with no indication that the new regime intends to abandon its peace treaty with Israel.  To the north is Lebanon, too weak to threaten anyone but itself and with no intention--that includes Hezbollah--of embarking on an unprovoked attack (maybe not even a provoked one) against Israel.  To the northeast lies Syria, which under the Assads, father and son, has not only rigorously prevented any attacks on Israel from its soil but has been willing to sign a peace treaty with it, if only Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights.

To the east is Jordan, if anything a de facto ally of Israel.  Finally, close by lies Saudi Arabia--the same Saudi Arabia that for thirty years has been the leader of the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel not only a peace treaty but full normalization of diplomatic and economic relations, provided that Israel ends its occupation and agrees to a two-state settlement with the Palestinians.

Who's left?  Well, Iraq is over 500 miles away, possibly a threat to Israel under Saddam Hussein, at least in theory, but obviously not today.  Ok, Iran, the single implacable enemy of Israel, but at 1000 miles away, hardly "surrounding" Israel, and in any case lacking all capability or any apparent intention of attacking Israel--as opposed to the other way around.

Perhaps Friedman was sick during the week when they taught world geography in the third grade.  Even so, that hardly explains why the Times would allow such mind-boggling absurdity to be published.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Human Rights Watch and Israeli War Crimes

On December 7, Human Rights Watch issued a highly critical report on the Israeli bombing of a private home during its most recent attack on Gaza. The attack, which killed ten members of the Dalu family as well as two other civilians in other nearby homes, “was a clear violation of the laws of war,” the report concluded. Moreover, “anyone responsible for deliberately or recklessly committing a serious violation of the laws of war should be prosecuted for war crimes.”

In response to an HRW request that they explain the attack, Israeli military officials first said it was “an accident that it was investigating,” then that the target was “a senior member of Hamas’s armed wing,” and finally that the target was a “terror operative” who was “in charge of rocket launching.” The HRW report noted that Israel had provided no information that supported any of these “explanations” and failed to respond to subsequent HRW requests that it do so.

The HRW investigation found that the probable target was Mohamed al-Dalu, one of the ten family members killed in the attack, a “low-ranking police officer” who (according to Gazan officials, whose account is not challenged by HRW) was in charge of a unit that provided security to Gazan officials and visiting dignitaries. “Police are presumed to be civilian, and thus immune from attack, unless they are formally incorporated into the armed forces of a party to the conflict or are directly participating in the hostilities,” the HRW report observed, but “even if al-Dalu was a legitimate military target under the laws of war, the likelihood that the attack on a civilian home would have killed large numbers of civilians made it unlawfully disproportionate.” Disproportionate attacks, defined in the report as “attacks in which the expected civilian loss exceeds the anticipated military gain,” are “serious violations of the laws of war.”

To my knowledge, so far no other human rights organization of international body, like the UN, has issued similar critical reports, though it is possible more may be forthcoming. So we should be grateful to HRW. Even so, and despite its strong language on war crimes and the need to prosecute them, in two respects the HRW report is misleading.

First, the report quotes Fred Abrahams, an HRW official who conducted the research in Gaza: “The Israeli claim that the attack on the Dalu home was justified is unsupported by the facts….The onus is on Israel to explain why it bombed a home full of civilians killing 12 people.” The problem is that Abrahams’ comment could be read (whether or not that was his intention) as implying that Israel might have had a legitimate reason to attack the home, it’s just that it hasn’t provided one yet.

Put differently, because the HRW report does not challenge the Israeli claim that its attack was necessitated by its right to defend itself against Gazan rocket attacks, by implication the report appears to be conceding that Israel might have had “legitimate military targets” in Gaza, even though the Dalu home wasn’t one of them.

However, Israel had no just cause to attack Gaza in the first place, because the attack--like the much larger “Operation Cast Lead” four years earlier--was not one of “self-defense” but was designed to suppress all resistance to the continuing Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinian people. Consequently, not only was the Dalu home an illegitimate target, but in the present circumstances Israel has no right to attack any targets in Gaza.

Second, the report’s emphasis on “proportionality” is misleading. The principle of proportionality means that even legitimate targets in a legitimate war may be attacked only if the foreseeable civilian casualties (“collateral damage”) are both unintended and in some sense not disproportionate to the military gain. Thus, the proportionality principle does not apply to the attack on the Dalu home, both because Israel lacked a just cause even for “proportional” attacks on Gaza as well as because policemen engaged in essentially civilian activities are not legitimate military targets.

The operative moral and legal principle, then, is that of noncombatant immunity, perhaps the most important principle that governs and restrains the conduct of war. Throughout its entire history, Israel has attacked private homes and even apartment houses known to contain many civilians. For example in 1982 Israel bombed several apartment houses in Beirut in order to kill Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders believed to be in them, killing hundreds of civilians (but none of the intended targets); as well, during in its attack on Gaza in 2008-09 Israel deliberately destroyed a home containing a large extended family, killing some twenty-five of them. (For the full evidence on these and similar attacks, see my current article in International Security, “Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008-09 Israeli Campaign in Gaza”

In short, so long as the occupation and repression of the Palestinians continues, Israel doesn't have any "legitimate military targets" in Gaza--even if its attacks on such "targets" were not so obviously indiscriminate and heedless of the noncombatant immunity laws. Attacks on civilian targets are the Israeli way of war, usually failing the legal and moral principle of just cause and always failing the principle of just methods. Thus, the HRW report could have been even stronger, for no Israeli “explanation” of its attack on the Dalu home can change the fact that it was criminal in both law and morality—and not merely in just war moral philosophy, but in the common moral sense of nearly every human culture.

Monday, December 10, 2012

What to Make of Khaled Meshal?

On his triumphant return to Gaza several days ago, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal proclaimed that Hamas would never recognize Israel or abandon its claim to all Israeli territory: "Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land.” There can be no doubt that Meshal’s demagogic but empty rhetoric was shocking, irresponsible, and profoundly stupid. Nor can there be any doubt that he has handed Netanyahu and the Israeli right precisely the excuse they want to continue the policy of no negotiations with Hamas—or even, in quite imaginable circumstances, to launch a massive attack on Gaza to destroy Hamas.

Nonetheless, for a number of reasons Meshal’s buffoonery does not justify Israel’s refusal to explore the possibility of a negotiated two-state negotiated settlement with Hamas—or perhaps even with Meshal himself. First, some of what Meshal said was ambiguous, and probably deliberately so: “We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take." That is, Meshal could be read as saying that Hamas would never recognize the legitimacy of Israel as long as the occupation continues, in which case he was still leaving open the possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict if Israel agrees to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

In fact, there are a number of strong indications that Meshal has been steadily moving, however inconsistently, towards a negotiated settlement. I provide the evidence for this in my extended discussion of the evolution of Hamas in general and Meshal in particular in my recent International Security article on the 2008-09 Israeli attack on Gaza (

Here I can only summarize:

* According to ex-Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, as early as 1997 King Hussein of Jordan conveyed to Israel an offer from Khaled Meshal, then the chief Hamas leader, to reach an understanding on a ceasefire to last 30 years. Israel not only ignored the offer, but a few days later, Israeli operatives tried to assassinate Meshal in Jordan.

*In the past decade Hamas has repeatedly proposed extended ceasefires with Israel, and in fact several of them have gone into effect; it has been Israel rather than Hamas that has broken these truces. In particular, in June 2008 Hamas and the Israeli government agreed to a six month ceasefire, following which—as was the case in previous ceasefires-- Hamas ended its rocket attacks on Israel. Moreover, even though Israel continued its economic blockade of Gaza and its assassinations of Islamic Jihad activists, Hamas not only maintained the ceasefire but successfully prevented most attempts by Islamic Jihad to retaliate against Israel.

*Israel broke the ceasefire on November 4 2008, attacking a Gazan tunnel and killing six Hamas men. This time Hamas retaliated, firing rockets into southern Israel; even so, according to Israeli newspapers, on December 23 the head of Shin Bet told the Israeli cabinet that Hamas was prepared to continue an indefinite truce if Israel ended the blockade and the assassinations. Israel refused these terms, and on December 27 it launched Operation Cast Lead.

Beyond the ceasefires, for a number of years there have been solid indications that Hamas, including Khalid Meshal, has been gradually moving towards—in fits and starts, to be sure-- abandoning its extremist positions and accepting the two state principle. The evidence is considerable; here I will mention only some of it.

In January 2006, shortly after Hamas won the parliamentary elections in Gaza, it sought to convey a message to Israel, through the U.S. government, offering Israel a truce for many years in exchange for a compromise political settlement; neither Israel nor the Bush administration replied to this and additional overtures. Later in 2006 Hamas began to go public with its new position. For example, in May Gazan prime minister Haniyeh told Haaretz that the Hamas government would agree to agree to a long-term truce with Israel if it withdrew to the 1967 lines; a few months later Haniyeh said that “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm.”

Meshal did not take a harder line than Haniyeh or other Hamas leaders. In late 2006 he said that Hamas could not oppose the unified Arab stance expressed in an Arab League summit conference, which offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations in exchange for a full Israel withdrawal from the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem. In April 2008 Meshal went further, stating that Hamas would end its resistance activities if Israel ended the occupation and accepted a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 border.

Thus, until the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, the general direction of both Hamas in general and Meshal in particular was to abandon--in practice, though not in some of its rhetoric--its goal of “regaining all of Palestine.” Consequently, a number of prominent members of the Israeli security establishment, including Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad and the national security adviser in Ariel Sharon’s 2002-03 government and Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet, and, argued strongly for negotiations with Hamas. In particular, Halevy wrote that even Hamas militants had recognized that their “ideological goal is not attainable and…. are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967.…They know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their cooperation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: they will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals.”

What conclusions, then, can be drawn from the latest Meshal rhetoric? In fact, there are a number of reasonable possibilities. First, Meshal has often said different things to different audiences, so there is no reason to assume that his impassioned speech to his Gazan followers and militants represents the “real” Meshal, as opposed to his past statements—public and private—indicating that in practice he will accept a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Of course, a second possibility is simply that Meshal has again changed his mind--especially in light of the latest Israeli attack on Gaza--from fiery and uncompromising militant, to a much realistic position, and now back again to fanaticism. If so, though, then his position could change yet again--especially, of course, in response to an Israeli offer to negotiate with Hamas.

Third, even if the latest Meshal posture is the real one and will never change, it doesn’t follow that there is no one in Hamas for Israel to talk to. There are other Hamas political and military leaders, some of whom might be more moderate than Meshal, if only they had a moderate Israel that was willing to negotiate with them.

In short, there is no basis to the claim that the Meshal speech proves that negotiations with Hamas are impossible. If anything, precisely the opposite is the case: it is only by an Israeli offer to negotiate on the basis of a two-state settlement that the Hamas position can be tested. Of course, the real reason for Israel’s refusal to negotiate even with the Palestinian government in the West Bank, let alone with Hamas, is that it is the Israelis rather than most Palestinians who are opposed to a genuine compromise settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.