Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Cool Arab Autumn

Cartoon about Lebanon's Hezbollah (Party of God) that has been
repurposed for the most recent conflict and widely circulated.
Fighting recently erupted between Hamas in Gaza and Israeli security forces. The fighting took the form of each side firing rockets at the other, though Israel did mobilize tens of thousands of troops for a possible ground invasion of the small area held by Hamas. As always, civilians on both sides were the main victims, and as usual, the ratio of Palestinian victims to Israeli victims was quite high, about 30 to 1.

The cartoon is intended to disparage Hamas and excuse Israel for the casualties on both sides. It can also be seen as simply portraying the geography of this particular instance of asymmetric warfare. In other words, the occupying power by definition has better control of territory and is better able to protect its civilians than does the insurgent force. This is something understood by both sides, leaving nobody blameless for the civilian casualties.

Another interesting aspect of the geography of this conflict is the role that Israel's Iron Dome played; she argues that it provided tactical advantages to both sides. She also warns against the temptation to scale such a system up to cover an entire region such as the Northeastern United States. Iron Dome is essentially the fish-in-a-barrel version of Reagan's Star Wars. In this case, scale really matters.

One reason that the recent conflict got so much attention is that it penetrated the "bubble" of Tel-Aviv, whose coffee shops are a world away from Gaza. They are among the places where NPR journalist interviewed ordinary Jews and Palestinians for a story on prospects for peace in December 2010. The shops are also the setting for a very compelling film about the political geography of the occupation.

The conflict ended after significant loss of life but still relatively quickly compared to previous conflicts. Among several reasons was the success of diplomatic efforts, particularly on the part of the United States and Egypt. Both the Obama administration and that of Mohamed Mursi were able to work productively with combatants on each side. This positive involvement of Egypt in an internal dispute in Israel would have been unthinkable prior to the Arab Spring, and was taken as a sign of yet another benefit to emerge from the social movement that began in Cairo coffee houses less than two years ago.

It is very discouraging, however, that President Mursi announced a rapid and undemocratic expansion of his own powers just one day after this diplomatic success. The consequences have been serious -- bordering on dire -- and have set in motion a complex set of challenges within Egypt itself. The New York Times maintains a comprehensive page on political developments in Egypt, where the latest news and various views can be found.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Mohamed Mursi
relax in the presidential palace in Cairo.

Shortly after the cease-fire began, France announced support for Palestine to gain elevated status in the United Nations. This shift by one key European country led to the overwhelming passage of a resolution making Palestine a Non-Member Observer State within the world body. The United States and Israel voted against the move, but since it was in the General Assembly rather than the Security Council, a majority ruled. A number of small states highly dependent on U.S. aid voted against the measure, and several larger U.S. allies -- such as the United Kingdom -- abstained.

A momentous furniture delivery. When Palestine got a seat at the UN,
it was a literal seat. Friends from Brazil shared this photo,
reflecting keen interest in the story throughout the post-
colonial world.

Following the vote, Israel announced plans to build 3,000 additional settlements in the West Bank, further dividing the already fragmented territory and threatening the fragile truce. Although the United States sided with Israel against Palestinian statehood, it joined other European allies in condemning the provocative expansion of settlements.

Dalia & Bashir
All of this news has unfolded just as I had the privilege of meeting journalist Sandy Tolan, who spoke on our campus while the fighting was still under way. He has spent a great deal of time with Bashir and Dalia, a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman who are both ordinary in their daily lives and extraordinary in their willingness to listen to each other. They are connected through a house that one lost and the other gained. Tolan's book about the history of that house and what he has learned from dialog with its occupants is named for the Lemon Tree that connected two families that were separated by politics.

On one level, the story is heartening, but it is also discouraging to see the speed with which Israel and Palestine are moving away from any real prospect of coexisting as two, viable states. Despite the movement toward de jure recognition of two states, the proliferation of settlements, checkpoints, and walls implies a de facto movement toward a single, deeply divided state, more akin to Apartheid-era South Africa than anything else.

The key question today is where greater peace and justice will be found -- in a single state with democratic legitimacy or in separate states whose viability is ensured.

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