Wednesday, January 21, 2009
SDSU Hosts Teach-In on Israel and Gaza
Panel Tries to Be Fair, Draws Militant Israel Supporters
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Photo, L to R: Jonathan Graubart, Gershon Shafir, Farid Abdel Nour
Maybe it was just an act — after all, calling together a meeting about the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza while Israeli troops were still on the ground was about as safe and non-controversial as diving head-first into a barrel of rattlesnakes — but Ron King, chair of the political science department at San Diego State University (SDSU), sounded genuinely surprised at the reaction he’d got even before his meeting opened on January 15. “I have received a good number of calls and e-mails about this teach-in, and many are complaints,” he said in his introduction. “This is not a debate, it’s not tag-team wrestling and it’s not designed to blame one side or the other. Nor is this a panel discussion in which people are expected to represent views.”
King had selected three panelists — two from his own political science department at SDSU, Farid Abdel Nour and Jonathan Graubart; and UCSD sociology professor Gershon Shafir — whom he said would provide “scholarly understanding to help us interpret what’s going on” rather than advocacy for either the Israeli or Palestinian side of the conflict. Though some of the differences between the speakers could be predicted from their national origins — notably when former Israel resident and Peace Now activist Shafir said that under no circumstances could Hamas be a responsible participant in peace talks between Israel and Palestine, while Nour said Hamas would have to be part of a solution since they are the elected representatives of the Palestinian people — they had some surprising commonalities, especially when Nour joined Graubart and Shafir in condemning Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israeli civilians as war crimes.
Graubart, who spoke first, focused on accepted standards of international law and how they applied to the conflict in Gaza. “International law is designed to restrict the resort to war and to regulate the impact of war on civilians,” he said. “The Geneva Convention deals with the responsibilities of an occupying power — which Israel is because, even after they ‘withdrew’ from Gaza, they still controlled the borders. There have been 6,000 rockets and mortars fired into Israel from Gaza since 2005, and they have killed 15 Israelis. From September 2006 to September 2008 Israel killed 6,000 Palestinians and injured many more.”
Though Graubart conceded that the rocket attacks had a “significant” impact on Israel, he said most international-law experts believed Israel’s air attack and ground invasion were unjustified. The reasons were, first, Israel continued its siege of Gaza and closed the borders to almost every form of trade, including the international relief shipments of food and medical supplies on which Gazans depend for survival; and, second, Israel had not sufficiently pursued a diplomatic solution before resorting to war. But he also faulted Hamas, stating that before Israel’s attack on December 27 there was no justification for their rocket attacks on Israel, and even afterwards the rockets were not a legitimate weapon for self-defense because they are so crudely designed “they can’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.”
Graubart dealt with some of the Israeli justifications for the attacks, including the so-called “law of reprisal” and the accusation made by Israelis that Hamas has used civilians to conceal their rocket launchers and other military targets, and thereby the traditional distinction between civilian and military targets no longer applies. Graubart called Israel’s attack “not reprisal but massive retaliation” and said that, while Israel had a right to target the rocket launchers and the tunnels by which the rockets are brought into Gaza, they didn’t have a right to attack “civilian infrastructure and government agencies.”
Addressing the claim that Hamas has concealed its rocket launchers inside civilian homes and mosques, Graubart said that targeting “a mosque whose inhabitants are mostly militants is probably acceptable, but attacking residential areas and schools in the hope of killing a few militants is not.” He added that, even if the Israeli claim that “Hamas is hiding behind civilians” is true, that “does not give you the right to fire away” at civilian targets willy-nilly.
Graubart also dealt with the claim made by Israel — and also by the U.S. in its so-called “war on terror” — that its enemies are “terrorists” who don’t respect international law themselves, and therefore should not be able to invoke its protection. “I’m not defending Hamas,” he insisted, “but as an international relations professor I have a pretty good idea of how the world works. We deal with a lot of regimes, and Hamas is the chosen representative of the people of Gaza. Their popularity has gone up [since Israel’s attack], and having a cease-fire means that Israel and Hamas deal with each other. If leaders ask us to ‘trust us’ because the enemy is ‘evil,’ how do you deal with every side making that claim?”
“Among the many casualties of war is the sense of empathy for the other side,” said Shafir, who spoke next. “When we are willing to justify anything done by our own tribe, we lose the ability to walk in the shoes of the other side.” Shafir noted that the conflict between Israel and Hamas is the ninth war between Israel and its Arab neighbors since it was founded in 1948 — and an indication of the growing hostility between the sides is that the time lag between Israeli-Arab wars is getting shorter; while the earliest ones occurred nearly a decade apart (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973), the war with Gaza occurred less than two and one-half years after Israel’s assault on the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon in summer 2006.
“The Israel/Palestine conflict has assumed the character of a Greek tragedy,” Shafir said. “The Jews cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a refugee camp of 75,000, vulnerable to Israeli attacks and with no place to hide. The Palestinians can’t understand what it’s like to be the inhabitants of an Israeli village, wondering when it’s a safe time to leave home and go shopping. … Gaza is a hell-hole, a piece of real estate no one wants. Seventy-five percent of the population is refugees, and many of the rockets are aimed at their ancestral homes which now have Hebrew names.”
Like Graubart, Shafir said both sides are violating international law. “Israel’s actions border on war crimes,” he said, “and Hamas’s strategy aims not at military targets but civilians. Hamas has been firing rockets since 2001, and Hamas only agreed to a six-month cease-fire [in the summer of 2008], during which they got more sophisticated rockets with a 30-mile range” — more than twice as long as the weapons they’d had before. Shafir said Israel should have air-dropped supplies to the Palestinians during the attack so they wouldn’t be violating the international law against starving a civilian population, avoided targeting the humanitarian aid operations of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), and opened the borders so people wishing to flee Gaza could do so.
Shafir also discussed the background of Hamas, noting that it wasn’t founded until 1987 and therefore wasn’t part of the wave of secular nationalism in the Arab world in the 1950’s and 1960’s that produced Gamal Abdel Nasser’s party in Egypt, the Ba’ath party in Syria (where it still rules) and Iraq, and the Fatah movement in Palestine which Yasir Arafat headed until his death in 2004. Instead, from the get-go Hamas has been part of the radical Islamist movement that has gone on the ascendancy throughout the Muslim world since the 1980’s. “All the Arab world is divided between moderates and radicals,” Shafir said, “and Islamism is seen as in ascendance” — which, he added, is why moderate Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states actually supported Israel’s invasion of Gaza, and Egypt assisted Israel by closing its own border with Gaza and thereby helping prevent Gazans ffrom fleeing.
Because of Hamas’s Islamist roots, and the specific clauses in its founding charter calling for the destruction of Israel, Shafir said that Hamas is not a legitimate partner with which Israel should negotiate for peace. “I do not believe there is a radical Islamist solution to the conflict,” he explained. “Two things make Hamas different from a secular movement like Fatah. Hamas fights not only for the 1967 territory [the West Bank and Gaza] but for all of historic Palestine, and its constitution says that all Palestine is consecrated to Muslims until Judgment Day. Since 2004, Hamas has not only targeted the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza but all of Israeli territory.”
What’s more, Shafir added, Hamas’s militancy and refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish-majority state has led Israelis to take a more militant position and abandon support for a peace process with the Palestinians. He said that, largely because of Hamas’s influence and the resulting discrediting of the peace process, Israelis are expected to return hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime ministership in their upcoming elections. He said that Hamas doesn’t distinguish between its political and military wings, and isn’t pursuing a political solution; indeed, he claimed that Hamas had deliberately timed its attacks to undermine and sabotage progress in peace negotiations between Israel and Fatah.
“Hamas seems to be opposed to peace,” Shafir said bluntly. “Their charter refers to the ‘so-called peace proposals.’” At the same time, he said, Israel as well “shows no interest in political solutions, only in the military one.” Shafir said he would exclude Hamas from negotiations because “Hamas cannot be a peace partner,” but Israel should negotiate with the Palestinian Authority (dominated by Fatah) on three points. “The first principle is that Palestinians are entitled to their own state in the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Second, the issue in dispute is the West Bank and Gaza, not Israel’s right to exist. Third, attacks on civilians are not part of the solution, and any government or movement [that condones them] cannot be part of the solution.”
“My presentation is a little more pessimistic,” said Nour. While much of Shafir’s talk had been aimed at re-starting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Nour made it clear that as far as he was concerned the peace process was dead — and has been since 2001. “Its enemies on both sides did everything they could to undermine it,” he said, “but its greatest flaw was based on self-deception. The people who negotiated it knew they could not agree on anything of substance, so they left everything serious to a magical future time they called ‘final status negotiations.’ Palestinians expected a full withdrawal from all the lands Israel conquered in 1967. Israelis expected ‘adjustments.’”
What’s more, Nour added, though Israel allowed Palestine to set up a political system between 1993 and 2000, “the West Bank was broken into 200 pieces and Gaza into four. Every time there was an attack, Israel closed down all communications between these areas and put the entire Palestinian population under siege. By 2000, the fruits of the peace process for Israelis were fear, and for the Palestinians were fear and utter despair. The failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 led to a spontaneous Palestinian rebellion that gave expression to all the frustrations with the conditions under which they have to live. For the Israeli peace camp, the failure and the rebellion convinced them that Palestinians are no longer to be trusted. This state of affairs has continued from 2000 to today. The history is chock full of actions that prove to Palestinians that Israel will never let them live in peace and dignity, and to Israelis that Palestinians will never let them live in peace and safety.”
Owing to this mutual distrust, Nour said, “Palestinian life has become cheap to Israelis and Israeli life has become cheap to Palestinians. Nothing the Israeli public relations machine can do can change this perception, and Palestinians who excuse, justify and rationalize the launching of rockets that kill innocent Israelis show their own dehumanization.” Nour also argued that the much-ballyhooed Israeli “withdrawal” from Gaza was simply another expression of this distrust, since they simply “dumped” the territory without coordinating humanitarian aid to make sure the people of Gaza still had food and other necessities. As a result, the Israelis discredited Mohammed Abbas, Arafat’s successor and presumably their preferred Palestinian negotiating partner.
“Gaza is the most densely populated area on earth,” Nour said — a claim that was stridently attacked by a pro-Israeli audience member in the question-and-answer period. “Seventy-five percent of the population are refugees, and they live in a place that dies without access to the outside world. It cannot grow enough calories to feed itself. Yet Israel made no arrangements to sustain life in Gaza until 2008. This sent Palestinians a message that Abbas’s negotiating style has not produced results” — and it was that, along with the endemic corruption within Fatah, that led Palestinians to elect an overwhelming Hamas majority to their parliament in January 2006.
According to Nour, the reason Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist is that they regard that as the only negotiating card they have to play against a country with a state-of-the-art military and an alliance with the greatest military superpower in world history, the United States. He argued that the Fatah government of Palestine gained nothing from recognizing Israel in 1993 except “the hope of Palestinian independence that was never realized,” and as a result Palestinian voters elected Hamas “ to retract the recognition of Israel and re-give it for future reward.” This, he said, is why Hamas so adamantly refuses to concede Israel’s “right to exist.” They don’t want to make the same mistake they believe Arafat, Abbas and Fatah made in 1993: giving up their hole card and getting nothing in return.
That, Nour argued, is why Hamas hasn’t gone through the usual evolution of a resistance movement that joins the political process and wins. Ordinarily, such groups become more moderate and more pragmatic as they realize they have to work the system in order to deliver for the people that elected them. That might or might not have happened to Hamas, Nour said, but “we will never know because the U.S. and Israel immediately started to punish the Palestinians for electing Hamas. The U.S. and Israel started giving money directly to Abbas to set up a parallel government — and Hamas cracked. In June 2006, the extreme Hamas cadres staged an operation to attack an Israeli military base and took one prisoner. Israel started a war and arrested 14 members of the Palestinian parliament, including the speaker, who remain in custody today” — which, he added, has prevented the Palestinian parliament from functioning because there aren’t enough members who aren’t in Israeli custody to form a quorum.
“Jordan and the U.S. trained Fatah cadres to prepare for a Palestinian civil war, which started in June 2006 and ended in the split between the West Bank and Gaza,” Nour added. “The Gaza border had already been tightly controlled by Israel since 2005. When Gaza came under complete Hamas control, the siege tightened even further. In 2008 Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire and the siege was eased enough that by August 2008 Israel allowed fruit juice and clothes into Gaza” — a policy they have since reversed. Nour said that Israel has been waging continuous violence against the people of Gaza, “an insidious violence that kills more slowly [than outright military force] and destroys entire generations.”
The meeting organizers decided to take questions by asking people to step up to a microphone and address the professors directly — and when the question-and-answer period opened it was clear the hard-line supporters of Israel in the audience had “packed” the process by stepping up to the mike before the speakers were finished to make sure they were the first in line. The first questioner not only attacked Nour’s assertion that Gaza is the most densely populated area on earth (he cited other examples and Nour conceded the point) but also cast the war in terms of religious bigotry. “The Islamic sheikhs and mullahs call Jews ‘monkeys’ and ‘apes,’” the questioner said. He also argued that the Israelis were more humane because their media don’t show civilians wounded in Hamas attacks, “while the Muslims revel in showing blood.” He asked Graubart if there were any plans in the works to prosecute Hamas for war crimes.
“I am not excusing anti-Semitism or atrocities,” Graubart replied. “I see some value in international law in terms of holding all sides accountable. I condemned Hamas for hiding behind civilians, but there are plenty of atrocities and war crimes being committed by Israel as well, and it would be nice to see prosecutions for war crimes on both sides.”
The next questioner identified himself as J. V. Serbek and said he had worked on the International Committee of the Red Cross that had negotiated the most recent amendments to the Geneva Conventions in the 1980’s — amendments Graubart had cited during his presentation to argue that Israel as well as Hamas had committed war crimes in the current conflict. Serbek quoted the Geneva Conventions as saying that “the mere presence of civilians does not shield military areas from attack,” and argued that Hamas’s rocket attacks directly target civilians and are therefore far worse than anything Israel has done. He also denounced Nour’s presentation, saying that while his facts were accurate he had cherry-picked the historical record to deliver “a series of excuses for the Palestinians.”
Graubart’s response indicated that this was just one skirmish in an ongoing intellectual conflict between him and Serbek; when Graubart had published an op-ed in the January 8 San Diego Union-Tribune, Serbek had written a letter in response to it arguing that Hamas’s rocket attacks were so despicable and unjust that Israel had a legitimate right to do anything in response. Referencing Serbek’s published letter as well as his live comments, Graubart said, “I don’t know why it’s a ‘canard’ to demand that Israel’s response be ‘proportionate.’ I have said over and over again that Hamas is wrong in launching rockets and hiding behind civilians, but that does not give carte blanche to Israel.
Responding to an audience member who asked what Hamas’s strategy is and how it helps the Palestinians, Nour said, “This is the really sad thing about this situation. We don’t know. I don’t think the Hamas that has been put under siege and cornered can have an end-game strategy. All we can hope for from Hamas is a cease-fire that allows them to rethink their strategy. This is not the time to advocate solutions that would be lasting. My hope is that Hamas would not be the main movement in Palestinian politics — but that’s not my choice. That’s the Palestinians’ choice.”
“According to Hamas’s charter, it is one side or the other,” said Shafir. “The most they could do, according to their charter, is a ‘truce,’ which is only a lull in the fighting. Some people would like to present this as a peace agreement, but a truce can be terminated at any moment. Hamas essentially wants a rental agreement with Israel, and in exchange they want Israel to return to the pre-1967 borders and a right of return” — one of the stickiest demands in the whole situation. The “right of return” means that Palestinians would have the right to go back to their ancestral homelands in Israel and have full citizenship — which in a generation or two would create a Palestinian majority in Israel and end its character as a “Jewish state.”
Not all the questioners were militant pro-Israel supporters. Local alternative health activist Elliot Fox called himself a “recovering Jew” who said he’d have to overcome the rose-colored view of Israel he’d been taught growing up. Fox questioned the pro-Israel propaganda of America’s political system and mainstream media, particularly in labeling the Palestinians as “terrorists.” “Can people who are being annihilated, victimized and exiled honestly be called ‘terrorists’ when they try to resist,” Fox asked, “and shouldn’t 61 years of Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestinians be called ‘terrorism’?”
“This is a question of how the two peoples and their supporters see the situation,” Nour replied. “People have spoken in good faith. Sometimes they’re ignorant; sometimes they’re knowledgeable. National narratives and elaborate mythologies have shaped the understanding of this situation to a dangerous degree.”
“A lot of times, terms like ‘terrorism,’ ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ are used to end conversation,” Graubart added.
A woman named Tina Marie introduced herself as “the great-granddaughter of a Nazi who converted to Judaism” and asked a rhetorical question that indicated her pro-Israel sympathies. “When you have soldiers fighting, and one uses a child as a body shield, who’s responsible for the death of that child?” she asked. “When do we hold up the mirror to those who treat humans — their own kind — as body shields?”
“I worry about these stories that focus on one end without thinking that any injustices could be committed by Israelis,” Graubart replied. “I am appalled by all injustices, but I apply particular pressure to my own side because they’re acting in my name.”
“Both sides are guilty of something,” Nour conceded. “It is not the case that one side is innocent. That question was presented, I believe, in good faith, but as part of a dehumanizing impulse. If I came across a YouTube video of a Jewish soldier using a child as a shield, I would not regard that as representative of the Israelis. You are viewing that on the assumption that the other side is willing to do inhuman things, and your side is not. That is the beginning of dehumanization.”