Essays

Reflections on Critical Responses to the Tragedy of Gaza

Israeli and Palestinian flags © Justass | Wikimedia Commons

As the years progress, I am becoming convinced that most people can’t walk, chew gum, and think at the same time.* Why did people who were highly critical of American capitalism feel compelled to overlook the atrocities associated with Stalinism? Why did other people critical of Soviet power look favorably upon the “authoritarian” but reliably anti-communist Latin American dictatorships as part of the free world? And to get to my present discomfort, why do those who are highly critical of Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank, ignore the terrorist tactics of Hamas? And why is it that those who are concerned with Palestinian terrorism ignore deeply problematic qualities of the order of things in Israel today?

As editor of Public Seminar, I’m thinking about this having received private correspondence from colleagues who worry about the series of highly critical pieces we have published on Israel: Yossi Gurvitz’s scathing criticisms of Israeli propaganda, analyzing Netanyahu’s support of terrorism and that the IDF is the largest terrorist organization in the Middle East, and Omri Boehm’s demonstration how the words of Benjamin Netanyahu reveal the logic of a terrorist regime. I have reservations about some of the implications of Gurvitz and Boehm, but I think they do reveal a crucial point. Israel’s policies toward Palestinians are deeply problematic, on both sides of the Green Line, in the Gaza strip, with greater brutality in the occupied territories than in Israel proper, yielding the greatest suffering in Gaza today as I write. This is underscored even more directly in  Nahed Habibabah’s telling le cri du Coeu.

Yet, I worry as I read about the tragic events and as I have suggested in my replies to Boehm’s piece. While I think it is important to both recognize and thoroughly analyze the deeply problematic qualities of Israeli policies and practices, especially as the war in Gaza escalates, I think it is also important to recognize that both the ruling coalition in Israel and Hamas present military solutions to problems that ultimately must be addressed politically, and because of this, they share responsibility for the escalating inhumane death and destruction. They are collaborators.

Flag of Hamas © Orthuberra | Wikimedia Commons

Netanyahu needs Hamas to rationalize systematic domination of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, and to exclude the Palestinian citizens of Israel proper. Hamas, depends on Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces to work to counteract its waning popularity in Gaza, as support from Egypt disappears and turmoil spreads in Syria, Iraq and beyond. Those who continue to shoot rockets, ineffective as they have been, from Gaza into Israel, and those who systematically work to eradicate the capacity to launch these rockets are allies in their terrorism. Instead of addressing the enduring political challenges, the pursuit of justice, dignity and decency for the people of Israel–Palestine, Hamas launches rockets and Israel shoots back with great force and sends in the troops.

Thus, while basically I agree with the arguments of Boehm and Gurvitz, and find Habiballah’s perspective compelling, I think something substantial is missing, a more critical understanding of the meaning of Hamas’ military actions. We should critically consider the united terrorist front. When we don’t do this, criticism of one party of terror, can and often does become apology for the other. We need to chew gum, walk and think at the same time.

Thus, while I don’t generally agree with J. Goldberg on the conflict, I think he raised an important issue when he asked “Is Hamas trying to get Gazans killed?” But when that question is opened, it is also important, indeed crucial, to pay close attention to how the killing of Gazans and the mass arrests and harassment of Palestinians on the West Bank have been based upon deliberate lies of Israeli officials. This has led to escalating collective outrage and a pointless search for kidnapped hitchhiking Israeli teenagers, long after the authorities knew the boys had been killed, as J.J. Goldberg has demonstrated.

Flag of Iraq under the Qassem regime, 1959-1963, which is the preferred flag of the Iraqi Kurds, because of its Kurdish-Arab peace sun. © AnonMoos | Wikimedia Commons

J. Goldberg notes that the Hamas rocket attacks assured Israeli counterattacks, leading to the deaths of many Gazans, militants along with innocent civilians. The cynicism involved in this maneuver is lamentable to say the least. J. Goldberg, further, ponders what would have happened if the Palestinians years ago used the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, not as a base for rocket attacks, but as an opportunity to carve out a zone of self rule and economic development in the fashion of the Kurds in Iraq. They could have established state structures and constituted civil society institutions for the Palestinian public good and against the Israeli adversary. As someone who has observed how “acting as if one lived in a free society” worked to foster a fundamental and radical transformation in Central Europe, this makes sense to me. There is the very real power of the powerless, the power of what I call the politics of small things.

Yet, one must face hard facts. J.J. Goldberg reveals how the Israeli officialdom cultivated and heightened a broad public alarm, fostering hatred, providing a shield for mass arrests in the West Bank, and preparing Israelis for war in Gaza. Here too the cynicism is outstanding. Instead of seeking to quiet hatred and conflict, they were stoked. It is a policy of acting as if there is a commitment to peace and reconciliation, covering a policy of overwhelming military action, as we are now observing. J. and J.J. illuminate a significant problem and as a result, there seems to be no exit.

But only seems so. They, we, can begin anew.

There are glimmers of hope against hopelessness. This is how I read Benoit Challand’s analysis of a shift in Hamas’ wording, which suggests constructive moves towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and how I understand our Israeli colleagues’ protest petition, which in no uncertain terms say no to the destructive military action in Gaza. There are people who are addressing the pressing political problems through politics and not the barrel of the gun.

This leads me to want to act. I think a letter of solidarity should be circulated around the world, in solidarity with the Israeli protesters, and the politicians on both sides of the conflict, when they can be found, committed to the power and importance of words working towards peace. More about this very soon, I hope.

*Original phrase was how the press reported the then President Lyndon Johnson’s evaluation of the intellectual capacities of  future President Gerald Ford. For more on this, read Gerald Ford’s obit in The Guardian.

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Jeffrey Goldfarb

Jeffrey Goldfarb

  • chiara bottici

    i also think that the solution (or at least the way out the escalation of violence) can only be political. besides expressing our solidarity with israeli protesters, we should also stop buying israeli weapons “tested on the ground”. petitions of solidarity, international pressure, boycott are all means that may work (as they did in some cases) or may not (as it happened in many others). but at least they do not cost any human life.

  • Omri Boehm

    Jeff, there’s much I could and would like to say in relation to your article, and perhaps I will do so soon. For the moment, one long comment.

    I think that you misinterpret me when you suggest that I’m yopposed to the thesis — one of your main points — that Netanyahu and Hamas are collaborators. Quite the contrary: the fact that Netanyahu’s Israel assumes terrorists methods, for which I argue in my piece, is perfectly compatible with and complimentary to the claim that Netanyahu and Hamas are partners. In fact, I think that more needs to be said about this partnership than you mention. It is
    (a) based on the same goal: negatively, preventing a two state solution; positively: aspiring for a (messianic) day in which a one state Jewish/Islamic solution will be possible.
    (b) it is a partnership of ideology: not just religious fundamentalism but religious fundamentalism combined with extreme-nationalism. accordingly,
    (c) it is a partnership of methods: both (as I argue in that comment that you criticize) it is a partnership of the terrorist method.
    (d) it is a partnership with a long history. For example, Hamas was at first promoted by the Israeli right and the IDF (e.g. Ariel Sharon) — beginning in the seventies or so — in order to be the alternative to PLO. In the nineties, it deliberately saved Netanyahu’s day in the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination. People tend to forget, but in response to Rabin’s killing, the left and the Oslo Process suddenly enjoyed in Israel an unprecedented support. The right became less-than-legitimate, and Netanyahu – Rabin’s competition – was crushing on all fronts. It really seemed like the two state solution might work. When Netanyahu was 6 months later elected to replace Rabin, this was thanks to Hamas’ conscious efforts to prevent the left from having too much power and accomplishing a two state solution. They succeeded in bringing Netanyahu to power by executing one of the deadliest terrorist campaigns ever within Israel. Similar politics of collaboration were in place when Ariel Sharon went out of Gaza: he was happy to see Hamas take over, and they were of course happy to take over — thereby taking the final step in the termination of a foreseeable two state solution.

    Now, while I find it _extremely_ important to listen to the possibility that Hamas has radically changed and is now willing to consider a compromise with Israel — we really shouldn’t close our eyes to this — I also find this possibility _very_ optimistic. But again: radical changes have occurred in the past (e.g.,with Egypt, and with Begin), and the failure to see them on time or the reluctence to respond to them has cost some serious wars (eg., Yom Kippur). So we should listen, and with some measure of optimism indeed. (James’ “The Will to Believe” guides me here–)

    Still, for the reasons above I’m still suspicious of those who show understanding for Hamas – or, like a recent article in Jacobin, present Abu Mazen as a collaborator of Netanyahu and Hamas as the true Palestinian resistance. While Abu Mazen should have been much more active and aggressive in resisting the occupation, he is still the only one struggling against Netanyahu’s and Hamas’ collaboration.

    One last point: there may be an illusion here that I am assuming in my answer the desirability of a two state solution. This illusion is false. I’m assuming that a one Islamic/Jewish state solution is illegitimate. Also, I’m assuming that a two state solution – both democratic as much as possible, and living more or less peacefully next to each other – is superior to the current situation or to a one Islamic/Jewish state solution.

    My personal position, which is not directly related to what I wrote above, is that such a two state solution would be a good step in improving Palestinians’ lives and in advancing to a one state solution, democratic for all.

  • michael

    It’s well past time that academic/intellectual debates of this issue confronted the reality of cooperation between enemies. I’ve been beating that drum for years with my friends and colleagues, but what always returns is moralizing recrimination of one sort or another.

    But I also reject the thesis that either partner is ultimately interested in some sort of theocratic future or even ethnic purity. Each is quite clearly interested in maintaining and enhancing its own political prestige, for as long as possible. A state of semi-permanent war serves this end (until it doesn’t). Terror seems to me exactly the wrong word for this state of affairs, if only because using it here unhelpfully alters the received meaning of the word, which still has utility in other contexts.

    If a two-state solution is unacceptable to the partners in war, it is less for ideological than for pragmatic reasons: such an outcome would deplete their political constituencies and erode their material infrastructures.

    Ironically, radical Left criticism of Israel tacitly collaborates with the Israeli Right (not to mention Hamas) by insisting that the central issue is in fact race, nation and/or religion (“messianism”). Not only is this a projection of our own preoccupations (critique of colonialism, etc.) onto an Orientalized “other-supposed-to-believe” in ideologies “we” have long since refuted, but it is a screen obscuring the rather mundane strategic concerns for which such ideologies are the most convenient vehicles available.

    • http://www.deliberatelyconsidered.com Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

      Important points here. I don’t know as certainly as you, Michael, that each side is ultimately just cynically clinging to power, but that is clearly part of what motivates them and keeps them going. I share your worry about the synergy of left criticisms and the rationale of the Israeli right.

  • Omri

    I am not sure whether michael’s comment below is supposed to
    address my comment. If so, apologies Michael for skipping. I’ll read your comment again tomorrow.

    Jeff: I wish to emphasis one point of disagreement between us – or is it? – which perhaps wasn’t clear enough from my comment below. While I think that Netanyahu and Hamas are collaborators, and think that they share illegitimate goals (one Jewish/Islamic state) and illegitimate means (terrorism), your piece is speaking about ‘military’ vs ‘political’ solutions. I would have agreed much more if it had spoken about ‘terrorist’ vs ‘political’ solutions. While I’m all
    against violence and hope for peaceful political solutions, and believe that a long term solution indeed cannot be a military one, as things now stand it seems that an article like yours should have emphasized that the Palestinians have the right to a violent military struggle against Israel in non-terrorist methods. Siege and occupation -the list is much longer – are grounds for opening a just war. So while terrorism is absolutely always false, and in the first place harms the soul of the one who uses it; and while this crisis has to be solved politically, not militarily, a war can be just – a people can have the right to a violent armed struggle – and the Palestinians cannot be denied their obvious claim to it. Especially in an atmosphere in which everybody is talking about Israel’s right to “defend itself”- killing by now over 1000 Palestinians in “self defense” – and suffering basically 0 civilian casualties – one should not slip from speaking of a solution that has to be political to thinking that an armed Palestinian struggle isn’t just.
    You were not making that slip in such words, as far as I can see, but this seemed to be a possible conclusion of your piece; and perhaps one you actually endorse (?)

    To be sure nothing in what I’m saying implies anything about the technical question whether fighting such a war is conducive to liberating the Palestinians (I’m really not sure what I think). And even less do I intend to support Hamas: it is exactly as a pro Palestinian that I oppose Hamas, it’s goals and it’s methods. Hamas is now fighting the IDF in Gaza, which isn’t terrorism. But it’s only because the IDF entered Gaza. Normally, Hamas mostly shoots rockets on Israeli civilians, which is never legitimate. Very little does it engage in confronting the Israeli military on the border. I find very little – ok, less than nothing – in them to support.

    The elephant in the room here is Marwan Barghouti. As most people in Israel recognize – somehow even military establishment on the right (!) – he is the real assertive, charismatic Fatach leader who could replace Abbas AND Hamas. He is the one who has lead the Tanzim’s military struggle against Israel (Tanzim is Fatach’s military brunch), but has always known to understand also the Israelis, and look for political solutions with them. (If I remember correctly, Sari Nusseibeh recalls in his memoir a nice story of Barghouti as a wonderful philosophy student, who then decided to leave class and become a military leader, but perhaps at my old age my memory plays tricks on me.–)

    Barghouti would have had every chance of devising a struggle that is just, and which has more or less just methods (‘more or less’ because I suppose war methods on the ground never really are very just). He would have strived, and known, to make his armed struggle against Israel a means to a solution — not just to aspiring to some Islamic state in the far future.

    By the way, this brings us back to were we started. Exactly for these reasons, Barghouti is still sitting in an Israeli prison. 1027 prisoners were released, and he wasn’t among them. Many more were supposed to be released for Fatach – of course this was called off — but Barghouti would not have been among them, too. Speaking of Israel’s collaboration with Hamas: it prefers to leave the struggle to them. God forbid, a struggle like Barghouti’s could have forced us to make concessions. Hamas’ struggle never would.

    • http://www.deliberatelyconsidered.com Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

      Omri, We don’t disagree here, and my comment about your earlier text was not meant to be critical of your diagnosis of the official state terror of Israel. I just wanted to place that critique in a broader context, showing how apparent adversaries are doing work for each other, as your first comment to this piece demonstrated better than I did or could.

      For rhetorically purposes, I may have used the word terrorism too loosely. And yes, I agree with you and recognize that there is a time for armed resistance. I would add that there is also in my judgment legitimate state violence, though it is much rarer than the guardians of states believe. In this way I think that Michael’s observation here is important.

      I understand and might even support armed resistance in Gaza if I thought it could be effective in ending the intolerable situation its citizens face on a daily basis, while ending the long term cycle of war with escalating horror, now in its third episode, and creating the condition for the just resolution of the conflict. This is a pragmatic problem and a question of political judgment.

      I agree with you that Barghouti has a record of distinction as a leader who can understand and engage his adversary, equally challenging to the continued occupation and Hamas.

      All that said, a point that I have perhaps not been completely clear on: When I criticize the confusion of military tactics for political engagement in this situation, I am highlighting my deep concern about Israeli dependency on military means to maintain its dominant position, but also my understanding that in resistance, sometimes, perhaps even most often, directly political non violent resistance is the most effective means to challenge a powerful adversary. While certainly there are limits to non violence, there limitations to armed resistance are striking in Israel Palestine.

      The dependency on violent means yields an intolerable present, but is transforming the goals of both sides of the conflict, leading to the final death of the chance for democracy , with little prospects for social justice and dignity.

  • Hilla Dayan

    Jeff i absolutely agree with your analysis of the convergence of interests to maintain the status quo of occupation-militant resistance between Hamas and Bibi. The fact they became intimate partners can be read between the lines of the conditions Hamas made public for a ceasefire. However, I was reminded today of all the rounds in which Hamas negotiated a long Hudna in exchange of ending the occupation before. Beginning in 1997 with Sheikh Yasin (offering 20 years) that Israel later assasinated, then 2006 Khaled Mashal (25 years), another long term proposal by Haniya in 2007, and now, two weeks before the ground invasion the conditions of Hamas – not even end to occupation but truce for 10 years in exchange for releasing political prisoners and lifting the siege on Gaza. Israel never responded to any of these clever diplomatic moves and reasonable pragmatic conditions that i believe could have been taken seriously and could have changed the rules of the game. The idea of Hudna is to let the next generation after a long period of non violence contemplate a more permanent settlement. mortal enemy as Hamas is to many Israelis it is also the only genuinely serious and pragmatic parter. But the foot soldier of the occupation, Abbas is what the Americans and international community still bank on

    • http://www.deliberatelyconsidered.com Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

      Each side has been overly dependent on militarized action in my judgement, leading to the present intolerable cycle of war for the people of Gaza. The fact that Israel has not responded to diplomatic moves from Hamas is part of this problem, I agree with you Hilla. I would add that as a student of and collaborator with Solidarity in Poland, seeing that sometimes non violent resistance, my “politics of small things,” sometimes works decisively, I hope that Israelis who criticize the occupation and the present aggressive actions in Gaza, and Palestinians who are pursuing active non violent resistance to the occupation learn to collaborate as well as Hamas and Bibi.