Competency or Chaos

“These men ask for just the same thing, fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as in my power, they, and all others, shall have.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

“What is hateful to thyself do not do to another. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.” ~ Hillel

The rest is commentary because nothing is that simple. Forget the Torah. Nothing is that simple for Israel at the moment. Declan Walsh is the New York Times’ chief Africa correspondent, previously based in Egypt, covering the Middle East, and in Pakistan, so he knows things there too. And he sees what’s going on:

The Israeli missile that slammed into a Palestinian apartment exacted a shocking toll: eight children and two women, killed as they celebrated a major Muslim holiday, in one of the deadliest episodes of the war between Israel and Palestinian militants that has raged for nearly a week.

Israel said a senior Hamas commander was the target of the Friday attack. Graphic video footage showed Palestinian medics stepping over rubble that included children’s toys and a Monopoly board game as they evacuated the bloodied victims from the pulverized building. The only survivor was an infant boy.

“They weren’t holding weapons, they weren’t firing rockets and they weren’t harming anyone,” said the boy’s father, Mohammed al-Hadidi, who was later seen on television holding his son’s small hand in a hospital.

Yes, this shouldn’t happen, but it does, even if it is forbidden:

Civilians are paying an especially high price in the latest bout of violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, raising urgent questions about how the laws of war apply to the conflagration: which military actions are legal, what war crimes are being committed and who, if anyone, will ever be held to account.

Both sides appear to be violating those laws, experts said: Hamas has fired more than 3,000 rockets toward Israeli cities and towns, a clear war crime. And Israel, although it says it takes measures to avoid civilian casualties, has subjected Gaza to such an intense bombardment, killing families and flattening buildings, that it likely constitutes a disproportionate use of force – also a war crime.

That would be something like this:

In the deadliest attack yet, Israeli airstrikes on buildings in Gaza City on Sunday killed at least 42 people including 10 children, Palestinian officials said.

No legal adjudication is possible in the heat of battle. But some facts are clear. Israeli airstrikes and artillery barrages on Gaza, an impoverished and densely packed enclave of two million people, have killed at least 197 Palestinians, including 92 women and children, between last Monday and Sunday evening, producing stark images of destruction that have reverberated around the world.

Israel looked bad, even evil, for that, but there’s the other side of the story:

In the other direction, Hamas’ missiles have rained over Israeli towns and cities, sowing fear and killing at least 10 Israeli residents, including two children – a greater toll than during the last war, in 2014, which lasted more than seven weeks. The latest victim, a 55-year-old man, died on Saturday after missile shrapnel slammed through the door of his home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. One Israeli soldier has also been killed.

Who should be the more outraged party? Which party is the real victim here? It’s time for everyone elsewhere to choose sides:

With neither side apparently capable of outright victory, the conflict seems locked in an endless loop of bloodshed. So the focus on civilian casualties has become more intense than ever as a proxy for the moral high ground in a seemingly unwinnable war.

But perhaps there’s no moral high ground any longer:

Although Hamas fires unguided missiles at Israeli cities at a blistering rate, sometimes over 100 at once, the vast majority are either intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system or fall short inside Gaza, resulting in a relatively low death toll.

Israel sometimes warns Gaza residents to evacuate before an airstrike, and it says it has called off strikes to avoid civilian casualties. But its use of artillery and airstrikes to pound such a confined area, packed with poorly protected people, has led to a death toll 20 times as high as that caused by Hamas, and wounded 1,235 more.

Israeli warplanes have also destroyed four high-rise buildings in Gaza that it said were used by Hamas. But those buildings also contained homes and the offices of local and international news media organizations, inflicting enormous economic damage.

Nothing is simple, not even this:

The laws of war – a collection of international treaties and unwritten laws, also known as international humanitarian law – govern the behavior of combatants. The killing of civilians is not, of itself, illegal. But combatants must abide by widely accepted principles, Professor Akande said.

Most important, they must discriminate between civilian and military targets, he said. After that, they must weigh the military advantage gained from any potential strike against the damage to civilians that it will cause.

And when they attack, combatants must take all reasonable precautions to limit any civilian damage, he added.

But all of that somehow doesn’t pertain to Israel:

Israeli officials say they are forced to strike homes and offices because that is where Hamas’ militants live and fight, using civilians as human shields. Hamas is responsible for civilian casualties inflicted during those strikes, Israeli officials say, because it fires rockets close to schools, offices and homes.

In a statement about the attack on Friday that killed 10 family members, the Israel Defense Forces said it had “attacked a number of Hamas terror organization senior officials, in an apartment used as terror infrastructure in the area of the Al-Shati refugee camp.”

Neighbors of the family, though, said no Hamas official was present at the time of the attack.

Oops. That won’t do. But that’s our Israel:

Human rights groups say that Israel routinely pushes the boundaries of what might be considered proportionate military force, and that it has frequently breached the laws of war. “There’s been an utter disregard for civilian life that stems from the decades of impunity,” said Omar Shakir, Israel director for Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Shakir and others said Israel’s staunch alliance with the United States, which gives the country $3.8 billion in military aid every year and offers reflexive diplomatic support, has shielded its actions from serious international censure for decades, emboldening it to commit abuses against Palestinians.

On Saturday President Biden again asserted his “strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Fine. But how should they do that? People are watching:

The top prosecutor with the International Criminal Court, which in February announced an investigation into possible war crimes by both Hamas and Israeli soldiers, warned on Friday that both sides in the current conflict could be subjects of future prosecutions.

“These are events that we are looking at very seriously,” the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, told the Reuters news agency.

But the criminal court, which Israel and the United States do not recognize, faces a host of political and logistical obstacles, and it could be years before any Israeli or Palestinian is put on trial – if ever.

Israel and the United States do not recognize that court at all. That sends a message, even if there are other voices:

Other bodies have adjudicated on previous rounds of fighting. In a report published last year, Human Rights Watch said Israel appeared to violate the laws of war when it killed 11 civilians during a flare-up in Gaza in November 2019. Palestinian militants, who fired hundreds of rockets into Israel at that time, also violated the laws of war, the report said.

A spokesman for the Israeli armed forces, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, did not respond to several requests for comment for this article. But Lior Haiat, a spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, said that his country did everything possible to minimize civilian casualties, and that the true culprit was Hamas.

“Every one of those missiles that are being launched from the Gaza Strip to Israel is actually a terror attack,” Mr. Haiat said. “But not only that – every one of those missiles is also a war crime.”

Maybe so, but some older Israeli soldiers disagree:

A scathing report by Breaking the Silence, an organization of leftist combat veterans, into the conduct of Israel’s army during its last major war against Hamas in 2014, accused the military of operating a “lenient open-fire policy” in Gaza. It said Israeli commanders had called for “brutal and unethical” actions there and encouraged soldiers to behave aggressively toward Palestinian civilians.

The group’s executive director, Avner Gvaryahu, said that the Israeli military did not intentionally set out to kill civilians but that it routinely uses disproportionate force. He pointed to the use of artillery in recent days to hit targets with munitions that can kill anyone in a radius of up to 150 meters, or almost 500 feet.

“It speaks volumes to the fact that we are not doing everything in our power to prevent civilian casualties,” Mr. Gvaryahu said.

And then there’s this:

Others push back on Israel’s insistence that Hamas is to blame for the civilian casualties because it operates from residential areas. In a densely populated place like Gaza, “there is almost no way to fight from it without exposing civilians to danger,” said Nathan Thrall, author of a book on Israel and the Palestinians.

Mr. Thrall noted that the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces was in a residential part of Tel Aviv, beside a hospital and an art museum.

Oops. Again. But really, Hamas isn’t helping with much of anything;

Human rights researchers say Hamas strictly controls information about civilian deaths in Gaza to hide its losses and failures.

Although the casualty list provided by the local Ministry of Health — the source for the figure of 197 deaths over the past six days — is generally accurate, they say, Hamas will not say how many of the dead are militants, or were killed by Hamas missiles that fell short and exploded inside Gaza.

So, no one knows much of anything now, and that fixes everyone in place:

Perhaps the greatest tragedy about civilian deaths, said Adil Haque, a professor at Rutgers Law School specializing in international law and armed conflict, is that they have become a way for belligerents to show their strength before inevitably agreeing to yet another cease-fire.

“Civilians are trapped between two sides,” he said. “Hamas wants to show it can survive the Israeli onslaught, and Israel wants to show that it is the stronger party.”

“Both sides are able to stop if they want,” he added. “But neither is willing to stop first.”

And that leads to this sort of thing:

France’s interior minister on Thursday asked police to ban a pro-Palestinian protest in Paris this weekend over the conflict with Israel fearing a repeat of clashes during a similar situation in 2014.

Activists had called the protest in the Barbès district of northern Paris to demonstrate against Israel’s use of force in the Gaza Strip in response to the rocket fire by militant group Hamas at the Jewish state.

“I have asked the Paris police chief to ban the protests on Saturday linked to the recent tensions in the Middle East,” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin wrote on Twitter.

“Serious disturbances to public order were seen in 2014,” he added, urging police chiefs elsewhere in France to also remain vigilant over demonstrations…

Several demonstrations took place in France during July 2014 to denounce an Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip.

On July 19, 2014, several thousand protesters defied a ban on a demonstration at Barbes and the rally rapidly degenerated into violent clashes that lasted for hours.

And out here in Los Angeles:

Thousands of protesters gathered in Westwood on Saturday to demonstrate support for Palestinians amid violence that has claimed a spiraling casualty toll in Gaza.

The march started around noon outside the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard and wound its way through area streets, clogging traffic.

A handful of pro-Israel counterprotesters also gathered, and police officers kept the groups separated.

No injuries were reported, and no arrests were made, said Officer Norma Eisenman of the Los Angeles Police Department.

The protest led to some traffic congestion, with the Police Department tweeting that people should avoid the area of Wilshire Boulevard near the 405 Freeway due to street closures.

There’s a lot of this going around:

The event was one of dozens staged across the country to mark the 73rd anniversary of what has come to be known as the “nakba,” or catastrophe, a reference to Palestinians’ displacement in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, organizers said in a statement.

“To this day, colonization and dispossession remain ongoing processes, where Palestinians continue to endure land theft and encroachments on their basic rights,” said the statement signed by dozens of groups, including the Palestinian Youth Movement, the Palestine Right to Return Coalition and the Free Democratic Palestine Movement.

The groups are calling on the U.S. government to stop providing military aid to Israel, remove the U.S. Embassy from Jerusalem and reverse former President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the statement said.

Okay. How will Biden handle this? Can he handle this? No one can agree on that. The Washington Post’s Matt Viser and Sean Sullivan explain that:

President Biden’s administration by the middle of last week was confronted with images of long lines at gas pumps. The Middle East had erupted in violence. Headlines were warning that fears of inflation could threaten a fragile economy.

“Don’t panic,” Biden urged on Thursday afternoon. He meant it as a plea to drivers worried about filling their tanks, but it captured his message on the flurry of crises he is suddenly facing.

A president who prides himself on choreography and planning has seen in recent days a burst of unexpected events that showcase the need for political agility. The White House is approaching the problems – all politically sensitive – with a degree of calm and caution, even as some allies want Biden to be more forceful before events spiral further.

As Biden and his aides seek to project steadiness, many Republicans are offering an alternative interpretation: The world is increasingly engulfed in chaos on Biden’s watch as gas prices surge, crime rates rise, border crossings grow and the costs of consumer goods threaten to spike.

Biden? This is competence, not chaos:

Biden’s aides do not deny the problems cropping up on his watch, but they say his response demonstrates his effective leadership and his ability to marshal resources, summon experts and tackle multiple crises.

“If the start of the week was supposed chaos, look where the week ended up,” said Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director. “By the end of the week, he’s saying the pipeline is online and gas is going to be back up to capacity soon, and we’ve gotten so many vaccines in arms that you don’t have to wear a mask in most instances anymore.”

“We’re not interested in a debate about competency versus chaos,” she added of the Republican criticism. “President Biden is doing the work, and the American people can judge for themselves.”

Cool, but don’t be so sure about any of this:

“The Oval Office is the land of unforeseen and unexpected,” said Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor who served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama. “It’s an opportunity to prove you can handle it.”

Much of last week was initially planned around bipartisan meetings to explore whether Biden could find common ground with Republicans on his proposals for roughly $4 trillion in new spending.

But the administration soon found itself scrambling to address an entirely different set of problems.

Biden was briefed Saturday morning at Camp David by several top officials – including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, National Security Council Chief of Staff Yohannes Abraham and presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti – on a threat to the nation’s gas supply. Colonial Pipeline had just reported that a ransomware attack was forcing it to shut down its systems, halting the flow of gasoline through a large swath of the country.

And then there was Israel:

Around that same time, violence was erupting in East Jerusalem. It was a familiar conflict for Biden, who, as vice president, had tried to help broker an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. But the political ground has shifted since then, and some Democrats pressed Biden to be more understanding of the Palestinian cause.

“This is not a moment for tepid statements,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) wrote on Twitter. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) asked bluntly, “Where’s the outrage?”

The context was very different, but Biden’s message again involved calm and restraint.

“Our approach is to work with leaders in the region – whether they’re the Israelis or the Palestinians or leaders from other countries who can play an integral role in influencing Hamas – to de-escalate and move toward a more stable peace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.

Is that competency or creating more chaos:

Republicans are not waiting that long to cast judgment. On cable channels, in the hallways of Congress and in battleground states, they are increasingly gravitating toward one word – chaos – to sum up the early days of Biden’s presidency, suggesting he is failing to rise to the occasion.

“The border is in chaos, there’s a gas crisis, inflation crisis, our allies have been undermined, and trillions in new taxes have been proposed,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted on Friday.

“It is a crisis. It’s chaos. It is a catastrophe,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said at a news conference about the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Biden Administration Creates Country of Chaos,” read an email sent out by the Iowa Republican Party.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former chair of the House GOP campaign arm, urged Republicans to fine-tune their message and focus sharply on Biden’s policies, rather than generally pointing out the chaos in the world. “If there’s chaos, it’s because of their policy,” Cole said, speaking of the Biden administration.

That’s the only tool they have left:

Republicans may be turning to the chaos message against Biden because other efforts to go after the president – accusing him of being a radical socialist or seizing on cultural issues, for example – have had a limited effect…

Republicans have regularly tried to portray Biden as beholden to left-wing figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — an implicit acknowledgment that it has been hard to pierce Biden’s less polarizing brand.

It’s not yet clear whether the chaos mantra will be enough for Republicans in next year’s midterm elections, and strategists say much will depend on which issues are motivating voters at the time.

Biden’s approval ratings at the 100-day mark of his administration were positive, if less so than other recent presidents. Republicans hope to change that by arguing that Biden is simply not equipped to deal with the current moment and all the crises that are erupting in the United States and abroad.

“What you’re seeing right here with the Biden administration is a group of people that are way in over their heads,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) told Fox News recently. “I mean, look all around the world. It’s on fire.”

Of course it is. It always is. And which war criminals do we side with now? What is hateful to thyself do not do to another. That’s it. The rest is commentary. The rest is impossible.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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