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A local protest and some thoughts about Gaza

Submitted by Robin Messing on Mon, 11/19/2012 - 6:40pm

I attended a rally today at Cornell University to protest Israel's bombardment and threatened invasion of Gaza.  Or rather, I attended two rallies going on at the same time. . .  and in the same place.  The rally I intended to go to was being held by the Students For Justice In Palestine.  I don't agree with everything they have to say, nor do I think their strategy of trying to get Cornell to sunder its partnership with Israeli-based Technion is particularly wise.  Still, they have an important message worth hearing and it is urgent for leaders at Cornell as well as our national leaders to urge Israel to practice restraint for reasons I will outline below.

A couple of minutes after the Palestinian supporters started to speak, a larger group from the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee started their own rally not more than 20 yards away.  They too had an important message.  Israel should not be subjected to missiles being launched from Gaza (or Lebanon, or anywhere else for that matter.)  And Israel does have a right to defend itself.  But, I would argue, their right to self-defense is not absolute.  It has limits.  There must be some proportionality to their response--they shouldn't be using hand grenades to swat a mosquito, especially if the mosquito is located within inches of a child.  I think even the most hard-core Israeli supporter would concede that there must be some limits to the Israeli offensive... it would, for example, be one of the greatest crimes against humanity to use nuclear weapons as a response to Palestinian missile attacks.

Actually, check that.  I'm not so sure that everyone would agree that there are limits.  Israeli Deputy Prime Minister  Eli Yishai wrote that Israel intended   "to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages" to make Israel "calm"  He also said "“We must blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages, destroying all the infrastructure including roads and water.” (See 7:43 PM update for Nov. 17, 2012).  And Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wrote:

"We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too."  (See 5:22 PM update for Nov. 18, 2012; Former Israeli Prime Minister's Son: 'A Decisive Conclusion Is Necessary'

I'd imagine these two fine fellows would be happy to unleash Israel's nuclear weapons over Gaza if they could figure out a way to do so without the fallout drifting back into Israel.  I shall return to them in a minute.  But first, back to the rallies at Cornell.

Both groups had competing rallies, with leaders of each side yelling through megaphones just yards apart in an attempt to get their side heard, and perhaps to drown out the other side. The crowds on both sides were peaceful, but it was hard to hear either side fully as they attempted to shout over each other. It's a shame they didn't agree to listen to each other and hold a joint rally and alternate speakers.  I don't find myself in either camp.  The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is complex and there are many shades of gray.  Neither side is totally in the right, and neither side is totally in the wrong.  There is plenty of blame to go around and pointing fingers at each other only consumes energy that could be used in finding creative solutions.

And creativity is needed on both sides.  The Palestinian supporters want Cornell to denounce Israeli aggression in Gaza and to "divest its portfolio from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation or otherwise directly complicit in the violation of international humanitarian law in the Occupied Territories."  Many of them also want the University to break off its partnership with Technion because some of Technion's technology is used in weapons systems used to suppress Palestinians. They should give up on that approach.  It just ain't gonna fly.  Cornell's partnership with Technion is the foundation of a major new campus in New York City.  This is a big deal... we're talking about a $100 million dollar deal, and nothing they do will derail it.  Instead, they should accept it and emphasize that with the benefits of Cornell's partnership with Technion comes the moral burden of speaking out when Israel reacts overagressivly  and the moral obligation for Cornell to do what it can to relieve Palestinian suffering.  Companies that release excessive greenhouse gasses have a moral obligation to compensate for their pollution by planting trees or buying carbon offsets (and in California, they have a legal obligation to buy greenhouse gas credits.) Similarly, those who seek justice for Palestine should argue that the University has a moral obligation to buy offsets to compensate for any harm their partnership is doing to the Palestinians.  They are not going to get Cornell to sabotage its new campus by breaking with Technion, but they might be able to get the University to sponsor scholarships for Palestinian students, or open up an outpost for education in the West Bank, or lobby to get a desalination plant built on the Gaza strip.  At the very least they should use acceptance of Technion as a bargaining chip to ask Cornell's upper administration to attend a showing of Five Broken Cameras and to ask them to recommend the film to all Cornellians.  Perhaps Cornell and other institutions could start a fund to raise enough money to entice the copyright owners of Five Broken Cameras to put their film online so that it becomes easily and freely accessible.


Those who support the Palestinians would also have more success in getting their side heard if they LOUDLY condemned missile attacks on Israel and said:

We call on the U.S. to drastically slash military aid for Israel.  We are not asking for aid to be cut entirely.  Programs supporting systems for missile defense like Iron Dome are legitimate and should be continued because they are useful to protect innocent Israeli citizens.  All other aid, aid that can be used to harm Palestinians, should be cut.

By loudly acknowledging Israel's right to self-defense, the Palestinians are more likely to be heard when they rightfully insist that the right to self defense has its limits.  They are more likely to be heard when they ask the United States to take a more balanced approach towards the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  And they are more likely to be heard when they claim that Israel is at least partially responsible for the problems in the Middle East.

Creativity, flexibility and self-criticism is also needed by those who support Israel.  Before criticizing the Israeli side I must admit to a short-coming of my own.  I could not hear everything that they said because I was trying to listen to both rallies.  And I had to leave soon after the pro-Palestinian side cut short their rally at the insistance of the Cornell police.  So it is possible that some of the pro-Israeli speakers voiced some self-criticism or offered innovative solutions.  But I didn't hear that.  What I heard was concern for the deaths of innocents on both sides mixed with a heavy justification for Israel to exercise its right of self-defense and pleas for Israel's allies to stand by Israel in its time of need.   I did not hear calls for Israel to practice self-restraint and  I PRESUME that a fair number of them would like to see America dragged into a war to protect Israel if Israeli and Palestinian action leads to a nightmare scenario that threatens Israel's existence.  I must apologize to the supporters of Israel if this characterization does not reflect their views, but this was my impression after listening to a portion of the rally.

And unfortunately, as Bernard Avishai, Adjunct Professor of Business at Hebrew University points out, Israeli overreaction... particularly an invasion of Gaza, could lead to a nightmare scenario.

So imagine an invasion, which cannot but evolve into a bloodbath like the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Mubarak is gone. Morsi will not tolerate the slaughter of civilians projected all over YouTube and from there to Al-Jazeera. Meanwhile, the Jordanian throne could fall. Assad could try to save his skin by entering the war; Syria might prod Hezbollah to launch missiles of its own. An Intifada could then take hold in the West Bank. Israeli Arab citizens begin mass demonstrations. What chance will there be for turning back from a fight to the finish? What general has a PowerPoint slide with an answer?

Unfortunately,  Professor Avishai has not described the worst case scenario. He envisions Israel coming under attack by Egypt and Hezbollah while being bogged down in Gaza and fighting back a third Intifada in the West Bank.  But how will a bloodbath in Gaza play out in Saudi Arabia?   Israeli loyalists might protest my use of the word "bloodbath".  They will undoubtedly point out that Israel is doing everything in its power to minimize civilian casualties.  They will make a big deal of how Israel drops leaflets into neighborhoods warning residents to clear out before they bomb Hamas targets and point out how much more civilized their tactics are than those of the Hamas soldiers who shoot their missiles at Israeli cities with the intent of maximizing civilian casualties.  They will also claim that by using Gazans as human shields, Hamas is largely responsible for civilian casualties in Gaza.  Whether or not these claims are true, they are completely irrelevant when it comes to predicting a worst-case scenario.  What is important is how Israeli actions will be perceived by the Arab Street and the rest of the world.  And make no mistake about it.  Israeli actions will be perceived as nothing short of a bloodbath.  Will continued Israeli bombardment or an occupation of Gaza cause an outcry on the Saudi street that could jeopardize the monarchy should it not be more supportive of the Palestinians?  Will it provide Iran an excuse to attack Israel while Israel is bogged down on multiple fronts?  Many of those who want us to bomb Iran to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons argue that Iranian leaders are irrational religious fanatics willing to risk Armageddon in order to destroy Israel.  I don't buy this premise, but if they are right then why wouldn't Iran use this golden opportunity to attack Israel?

These are just "what if... worst-case-scenario" type of questions that will hopefully never come to pass.  Optimistic supporters of Israel may dismiss them and urge the U.S. to stand by Israel no matter what.  But here is a dose of reality that even the optimists can't dismiss: Turkey's Prime Minister has already declared that Israel is a terrorist state. (See entry for 11/19/12 7:30 a.m.; Turkish PM: 'Israel Is A Terrorist State, And Its Acts Are Terrorist Acts')  And Ebaa Rezeq, a Palestinian Feminist who criticizes Hamas, points out that Israel's war against Gaza is counterproductive and causes Gazans, even Gazans who despise Hamas, to rally in support of Hamas in the face of Israeli repression.  (See entry for 11/19/12  1:22 PM;  Palestinian Anti-Hamas Activist Explains Why War Brings The Militant Group More Support, Not Less)  And Former IDF General, Giora Eiland said that Israel should lift the blockade of Gaza and recognize Hamas' government in order to reach a security arrangement that would end the rocket fire. (See entry for 11/18/12 11:46 PM; Former IDF General: Israel Should End Gaza Blockade In Return For Cessation Of Rocket Fire)

So what should Israel's supporters do?  How can they creatively contribute to a solution?

  1. Recognize that though Americans are Israel's biggest (and perhaps only) supporters, nearly all Americans are war-weary.  We have fought two major wars and will be reluctant to join in World War III on Israel's behalf, especially if Israel is seen by some  as overreaching.  Respect the fact that without past U.S. aid, Israel would probably not exist today and avoid dragging us into a war if at all possible.
  2. Recognize that there are shades of gray and that Israel is at least partly responsible for the mess its in.  As Peter Beinart points out in The Crisis of Zionism, expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is one of the primary obstacles to reaching a comprehensive peace deal based on a two state solution.  Even if Israel has the legal right to build as much as it wants in the West Bank (and I'm not saying they do have that legal right), exercising that right is counterproductive and endangers Israel in the long run.  Suppose the owner of a candy store recklessly attacks me in his store without reason.  I may sue him and the court may award me ownership of the store if that is his only asset.  I may have the right to eat all the candy in the store, but that doesn't make it the smart thing to do.
  3. Listen carefully to the voices of the Palestinians and watch the movie Five Broken Cameras.  Recognize that there are innocent victims who are hurt by Israeli expansion into the West Bank.  Recognize that there are Palestinians who have been trying to peacefully resist Israeli encroachment for years and that Israel has rewarded their peaceful approach with crushing blow after crushing blow.  Recognize that when you stomp on the rights of peaceful protestors, you create an environment for the rise of militants who see no other way to address the situation.
  4. Start an international fund to encourage the Palestinians to give up the right of return.  This will have to be an international effort since hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed to entice the Palestinians to give up that right--far more than Israel could possibly raise on its own.
  5. Kill two birds with one stone by viewing the Palestinian conflict in conjunction with the Iranian nuclear weapons problem.  An international fund to raise money for the Palestinians can be used as part of the basis for persuading the Iranians to be more flexible in their approach to the nuclear issue.  I discuss this counterintuitive idea in detail here.
  6. Recognize that no permanent peace deal will ever be implemented without the blessings of Hamas.  Hamas can always torpedo a deal by launching rockets at Israel or by sabotaging Israel through some other mischief.  Israel may try to get around this by assassinating as many of Hamas's leaders as it can.  But there will always be someone else to take their place, and even if Israel were to eliminate Hamas entirely, then an even more virulent group like Islamic Jihad will take its place.  This is not a problem that Israel can kill its way out of.  Whether they like it or not, Israel must include Hamas in negotiations if they want to achieve a lasting peace.  And one of the first things Israel needs to do during the negotiations is get Hamas to give up the idea that land that is now Israel is part of an Islamic waqf set aside for the benefit of the Palestinian people.

I may be guilty of slightly oversimplifying Hamas's idea of a waqf, but here are the basics.  Hamas believes that the entire land of Palestine, including Israel within the Green Line, is part of a sacred trust that Allah wants them to guard for the benefit of Muslims.  Article 11 of the Hamas Charter states:


The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it. No Arab country nor the aggregate of all Arab countries, and no Arab King or President nor all of them in the aggregate, have that right, nor has that right any organization or the aggregate of all organizations, be they Palestinian or Arab, because Palestine is an Islamic Waqf throughout all generations and to the Day of Resurrection. Who can presume to speak for all Islamic Generations to the Day of Resurrection? This is the status [of the land] in Islamic Shari’a, and it is similar to all lands conquered by Islam by force, and made thereby Waqf lands upon their conquest, for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection.

And Article 13 states:

[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. For renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion.

And Article 7 states:

The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! This will not apply to the Gharqad, which is a Jewish tree (cited by Bukhari and Muslim).

Israel should counter this ideology vigorously... both publicly and in private negotiations with Hamas.  Israeli leaders could poke fun, for example, at the notion of a Jewish tree.  Exactly what is a Jewish tree.... one that has had a Bark Mitzvah? (OK, that joke might lose something in translation.)  But more seriously, they can point to a scholarly paper  written by Yitzhak Reiter entitled "All of Palestine Is Holy Muslim Waqf Land": A Myth And Its Roots.  This paper deconstructs Hamas's foundational myth and should be used as the basis for a campaign to convince Gazans that it is time to give it up.  Instead of dropping bombs on Gaza, Israelis should be dropping leaflets containing bullet points summarizing the highlights of this essay.  Instead of refusing to engage Hamas, Israeli leaders should hold a joint press conference with Hamas leadership in order to tell them publicly to their face that their foundational myth is false.  Of course, they will have to listen to Hamas air its grievances against Israel, but most of the world outside of the U.S. is at least vaguely familiar with those grievances anyway.  And instead of invading Gaza with soldiers, Israel should be invading Gaza with radio waves carrying broadcasts by Israeli leaders explaining why the Hamas vision of Israel as part of an Islamic waqf is based on a misreading of history and ideology.

I don't expect Hamas to be immediately convinced by these arguments.  After all, this essay was written by an Israeli Jew.  But a continuous barrage of information, coupled with a pledge to raise hundreds of billions of dollars for the benefit of the Palestinians  may force Hamas to modify its beliefs or risk losing support of the population.

Most importantly, Israel's supporters should be calling on Israel to practice restraint and wisdom to counter the attacks against it.  A limitted response is necessary when Israel comes under rocket fire.  This limited response should be followed by a cease-fire combined with an offer to enter serious peace negotiations, backed by a threat of further proportional responses should rocket fire continue from Gaza.  They should denounce the likes of Eli Yishai and Gilad Sharon, extremists who are willing to throw gas on the fire and risk pulling the U.S.--Israel's only benefactor--into a war which we cannot afford.

After reading this you might ask me "Robin, whose side are you on?"  I am on neither side and on both sides.  Primarily, I'm on the side of Americans who want to avoid being drawn into a war caused by the bloody idiocy of both sides.