At the beginning of July, I was out east visiting relatives and friends and took a break from the roundup. A few days before leaving, I was at Town Hall to see author Max Blumenthal speak about the latest war in Gaza. The next day, his latest book “51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza” was released and downloaded to my Kindle. The day after that, I had a 4.5 hour flight to start reading it.
Blumenthal’s book is maddening and depressing, but ultimately not all that surprising. Even following traditional news sources, the devastation and cruelty of that war was clear, and the hopelessness of the aftermath all too predictable. Civilians were deliberately targeted, even children. Entire apartment buildings were destroyed. Hospitals were blown up. Critical infrastructure left in ruins. And with promises for future retaliation, there’s little desire for the world to rebuild things that Israel will just blow up again in a few years.
The cynicism behind this military approach is clear, as Blumenthal writes in Alternet:
Behind the quasi-apocalyptic destruction exacted on Gaza by the Israeli military during Operation Protective Edge lies a sadistic strategy whose aim is to punish residents of the besieged coastal enclave into submission. The “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after a southern Beirut neighborhood the Israeli air force decimated in 2006, is focused on punishing the civilian populations of Gaza and southern Lebanon for supporting armed resistance movements like Hamas and Hezbollah. In “Disproportionate Force,” a 2008 paper published by the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank closely linked to the Israeli military, Colonel Gabi Siboni spelled out its punitive, civilian-oriented logic clearly: “With an outbreak of hostilities, the [Israeli army] will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses. Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.”
The level of death and destruction in this war was not an unavoidable aspect of urban warfare. It was a deliberate strategy of intimidation and terror. It was meant as a way to convince the population of Gaza to turn against its armed factions and stop resisting the occupation.
But this strategy is pure lunacy. Human beings don’t respond to having their homes blown up and their loved ones killed by agreeing to pledge their loyalty and respect to those dropping the bombs. It only solidifies the resistance behind the most radical elements of the resistance, and making compromises and mutual respect even more impossible. As a result, Gaza has transformed from a place where Hamas once challenged the Palestinian authority to be more militant into a place where Islamic State supporters now challenge Hamas to be more militant. It’s a strategy that continually backfires, but Israelis can no longer conjure up any alternatives.
Political outlooks tend to be defined by our fears. Progressives fear entrenched power limiting opportunity and progress. Conservatives fear societal change. Libertarians fear government abuses. Authoritarians fear criminality. Within different societies there can be differing levels of validity for each of these fears. But as long as the fears are rational, a democratic political process can arrive at a sensible compromise.
What’s broken in Israel is that their outlook is now dominated by fears that are largely irrational, and in a country where migrations to and from the rest of the world are common, it’s becoming self-reinforcing through those migrations. One of the striking things in Blumenthal’s recent work is how hostile Israeli society has become for those on the political left. Many are simply leaving. As Israel’s approach to the occupied territories becomes more extreme, its ability to moderate itself in a democratic process is slowly being washed away, not too differently than what happens in Gaza after weeks of bombing. The main difference is that in Gaza, the fears that work against political moderation are far more real.
In the aftermath of the nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Iran, the irrational fears that consume Israeli politics are being put on full display. Matthew Duss, one of the sharpest analysts on Israel and its place in the Middle East, explains it really well in this piece. Israel equates anti-semitic remarks by Iran’s theocratic rulers with a desire to use military force to destroy the entire state of Israel. That’s a huge logical leap, and entirely absurd. To demonstrate how crazy it is, he points out that Richard Nixon also once made a bunch of anti-semitic remarks, but had absolutely no desire to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.
But this has also historically been the mindset in Israel when it comes to the Palestinian population and their desire for self-determination. We’ve always been told that the real goal of the PLO, and then of Hamas, is not mere self-rule, but to destroy the state of Israel. And they’ve always been able to point to instances of anti-semitism and other extreme rhetoric to make this claim. To some extent, the history of the Holocaust makes these fears seem more rational, but they’re not. The next Holocaust isn’t around the corner, and neither the Palestinians nor the Iranians have any ability to threaten the existence of Israel, nor do the vast majority of people in those places want that to happen.
This is what drives the largely incoherent opposition to the Iran agreement and the completely devastating military approach in Gaza. It’s an irrational fear of democratic rule and self-determination throughout the Middle East and it goes well beyond Iran and Gaza. It also stifles democratic progress in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and it played a role in our disastrous invasion of Iraq. Obama deserves a lot of credit for getting this agreement done, but it’s only a small step towards where we need to be.
As an American Jew, it’s hard to come to the realization that our blindness to the Israeli leadership’s irrational fears is so central to the various crises in the Middle East, but that’s where I find myself today. Yet no one has become a bigger lightning rod over this conflict than Blumenthal. The Amazon reviews for his book are amazing to read through, nearly all either 5 or 1 star. But the perspective he’s providing is a necessary counterpoint to Israel’s increasingly authoritarian mindset in much the same way that the Black Lives Matter movement has been a necessary counterpoint to America’s authoritarian police culture. I don’t know what works best to fix a society that has seemingly gone off the rails, but telling hard truths and not backing down is a good place to start.
In the news from the last two weeks…