Another year begins, but not much is new – the Israelis and the Palestinians are at it again, on the first day of the year:
Israel continued to bomb Gaza early on Friday after killing a top Hamas commander in the biggest blow yet to the Islamist’s leadership, as the death toll in the now seven-day blitz reached at least 420.
With tanks and troops massed for a threatened ground offensive and with no ceasefire in sight, Israeli planes and naval guns staged more than 50 attacks on Thursday and Hamas sent more rockets deep into Israel.
The details are what they are:
On Thursday, Israeli jets fired missiles on the home of Nizar Rayan in the Jabaliya refugee camp, killing the hardline leader, his four wives, 10 of his children and two neighbors, witnesses and medical sources said.
Rayan’s headless body was hurled into the street by the force of the blast, which also destroyed or damaged 12 nearby houses.
Considered to be among the most hawkish of Hamas leaders, Rayan was the most senior figure to be killed by Israel since Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi in 2004.
It’s almost biblical in nature – more Old Testament than New, of course.
There was that school of thought that our Iraq War was going to fix all this – no need to work on any sort of Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as once we had slapped around a major Arab nation, removing the government we didn’t like and shoehorning in one we did, one that would be secular, democratic and fine with Israel being there in the neighborhood, Hamas and all the other bad guys would realize they were on the wrong side of history and pack it in (see The Road to Jerusalem Goes Through Baghdad). So everyone from Jimmy Carter on just had it all wrong – take care of Baghdad, and perhaps Tehran too, and all else would naturally sort itself out. That hypothetical man on the street in the Arab world would see the new, prosperous democracies popping up all over the region and think they were mighty fine – and want the same everywhere. And no one would have any problem with Israel being there in the middle of everything. That was the plan – that still is the plan, actually.
That hasn’t worked out so well thus far. Now we have this.
But Israel is a powerful nation – they have the best of modern military technology and a superb air force, and they have nukes. No one should mess with them. But of course they do, lobbing in rockets all the time.
So we have this new war in Gaza, or a new instance of an old war that has been going on for centuries.
Israel should know better. Gaza has always been trouble, especially for the powerful. And when these things explode again it is easy enough to think of the amazingly powerful strongman, Samson, held captive by the bad guys in Gaza, blinded and in chains, after his haircut, bitter as hell, like the Israelis. John Milton, the seventeenth-century British poet, covered it well in Samson Agonistes:
Why was my breeding ordered and prescribed
As of a person separate to God,
Designed for great exploits, if I must die
Betrayed, captived, and both my eyes put out,
Made of my enemies the scorn and gaze,
To grind in brazen fetters under task
With this heaven-gifted strength? O glorious strength,
Put to the labour of a beast, debased
Lower than bond-slave! Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver!
Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke.
There you go – trying to deliver Israel and finding yourself powerless and flying blind, and trapped in Gaza. The Philistines are long gone – it’s the Palestinians now – but as with Samson, so with modern Israel. It’s hard to see a way out of this. You’re struggling to make things right, but you’re eyeless in Gaza.
Yes, Milton was blind, but he wasn’t really writing about himself here – that’s a modern pop psychology reading of the text. The passage is about frustration. See Aldous Huxley’s 1936 novel Eyeless in Gaza – not about Gaza at all, simply about the passage of time and the frustration of not seeing your way out of a trap, of not being able to do what you know you’re supposed to do. Huxley ended up here in Hollywood, living his last years up in Beachwood Canyon not far from the Hollywood Sign (don’t go looking for the house as it burned down long ago), and he might have muttered those same words every day – eyeless in Gaza, eyeless in Gaza. That happens a lot out here.
But what can be done with Gaza now, as removing Saddam Hussein a few hundred miles to the east didn’t do a damned bit of good? What can Samson do?
In a much discussed item in the New Republic, Jonathan Chait has a few things to say regarding Israel and Palestine. He says if you want to understand what this is all about you have to get down to the basics. Call it intentionality if you wish, but it comes down to this:
Hamas has a problem with Israel because Hamas believes Israel has no right to exist. Israel has a problem with Hamas because Hamas believes Israel has no right to exist. If Hamas lay down all its weapons, Israel would lift its blockade. If Israel lay down all its weapons, Hamas would kill as many Israelis as it could.
One side has bad intentions. The other side doesn’t.
At American Prospect, Ezra Klein sees some truth in this, but says that reduction obscures more than it can reveal:
One important disconnect in Israel/Palestine debate is that Israel’s supporters tend to focus on what the Palestinians want while Palestine’s supporters tend to focus on what the Israelis do. Israel’s defenders, for instance, make a lot of Hamas’s willingness to kill large numbers of civilians. Palestine’s defenders make a lot of the fact that Israel actually kills large numbers of Palestinian civilians.
He offers this illustration:
To make it more concrete, in July, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem reported that 123 Israeli minors had been killed by Palestinians since the second intifada began in 2000, compared with 951 Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces. Israel’s supporters emphasize that the children were not killed purposefully, but were collateral damage of targeted operations. By contrast, Palestinian suicide bombers have targeted children directly. Israelis define their struggle in contrast to the intentions of Hamas. Palestinians define their struggle in terms of the actions of the Israelis.
Yep, those dead children for the greater good are a problem here. Saying that you have to understand the greater good – getting rid of the bad guys so you yourself can exist and this madness might end – is a hard sell.
Klein puts it this way:
Hamas survives because Palestinian society is radicalized against Israel. Palestinian society is radicalized against Israel because Israel’s operations have devastated their society. Be assured that when Palestinians look at the 1,000 or so children killed by the Israeli armed forces, they do not comfort themselves with the fact that those deaths were accidental. And, indeed, a case can be made that collateral damage from air strikes in dense urban areas are not accidental. They are expected.
And if those civilian losses are expected – just part of the calculation – it’s easy enough to understand the Palestinian fury. Samson really is blind, and mean as hell.
But Klein does concede that Chait is right about the other view – Israelis see little hope of negotiation with an enemy that denies their basic claim to existence:
They feel rightly threatened by the presence of Hamas, the oppressive reality of terrorism, and the hatred of their Arab neighbors. Israel is far stronger than Palestine, but it judges itself in constant danger.
And given that, there really is “no easy way to bridge the distance between these perspectives.” And Klein quotes Aaron David Miller saying “the prospects of reconciling the interests of an occupied nation with those of a threatened one are slim to none.”
So you actually have two blinded parties:
The Israelis see themselves as threatened innocents, not oppressors. They point to the public statements of Hamas, and they are right.
The Palestinians see themselves as an occupied people, not aggressors. They point to their death toll and the settlements, and they are right.
So Chait may choose sides by making a key distinction, but that’s so far from how Palestinians see matters as to be useless:
He says Hamas would kill more children if they could. The Palestinians say the Israelis kill more children. Which is why Israel’s attack on Gaza was so unwise. The Palestinians just watched the Israelis slaughter dozens of children, mothers, and other innocents. Protestations that they deserved it because Hamas threatens to kill Israeli innocents will not make sense to them.
And so the battle will continue, with Israel’s supporters comforting themselves by looking at Hamas’s stated intentions and Hamas’s supporters justifying themselves by pointing towards the fresh graves of their dead.
I don’t know how you reconcile the interests of a threatened nation with an occupied one. But you have to start by recognizing the lived experience on both sides, not just one.
Matthew Yglesias agrees:
… what’s been happening is that whatever Hamas’ ambitions may or may not have been, they were scattering short-range inaccurate rocket fire on Israel that was causing little damage. Israel struck back with actions that have killed hundreds of Palestinians and pushed over a million more closer to the brink of starvation. And in general this is an important aspect of the conflict – irrespective of intentions, over the years you have many more dead Palestinian civilians than Israeli civilians.
And Samson is still blind:
… another piece of the puzzle is that though American Jewish liberals tend to take a lot of comfort in the idea of Israel’s good intentions and good faith throughout this whole process, there’s a reason approximately no Arabs anywhere in the world see it that way. All throughout the “peace process” years – through the good ones and through the bad ones – Israel continued expanding both the geographical footprint of its settlements and the population living upon them. For most of this time, Israel has often appeared unwilling to enforce domestic Israeli law on the settler population, to say nothing of abiding by international law or agreements made. And while Israel has stated a desire to leave the Gaza Palestinians alone in their tiny, overcrowded, economically unviable enclave, the “disengagement” from Gaza has never entailed letting Palestinians control their borders or exercise meaningful sovereignty over the area. The proposal has basically been that if Palestinians cease violence against Israel, then the Gaza Strip will be treated like an Indian reservation. Israel’s policy objectives in the West Bank appear to be first seizing the choice bits of it, and then withdrawing behind a wall with the residual West Bank treated like post-“disengagement” Gaza.
So it’s a matter of being fair, or sighted:
I’m not a believer in violence, and so I certainly don’t think that Hamas’ rocket attacks have been an appropriate, morally defensible, or effective means of protesting this one-sided bargain. But it’s important to understand that it’s simply not the case that Hamas is the only party to this conflict that’s working toward unreasonable goals.
And thus everyone is eyeless in Gaza.
And now it’s Obama’s turn. The United States was instrumental in creating Israel, Israel is our key ally in the region, the ties are long and deep, it’s almost part of America – and it is clearly in our interest that, somehow, something be worked out so all of the Middle East doesn’t go up in flames. But what is that something?
Sometimes, when you try to be fair and see both sides of an issue, you see no way to work out any sort of agreement between parties – each side is right, each side is wrong, and both sides are blind.