Israel and Hamas are not equals on the battlefield - not at all, clearly - and when the power to harm or control others is this uneven, it is meaningless to speak about moral symmetry. But as the current onslaught in Gaza unfolds, it is sadly evident that both sides are continuing to respond to real provocations in ways that are not morally right, or even politically smart.
If Hamas thought that lobbing missiles into Israeli civilian neighborhoods was a decent or proportionate response to the grim realities of the occupation, they were wrong. On the other hand, if Israel thinks it can bludgeon the Palestinians into political surrender, or get Hamas - or the Palestinian community at large, for that matter - to acquiesce to military occupation then it, too, is wrong.
There is no military solution to this conflict. Until both sides fully grasp this, the world can expect only continuing violence and vendetta, with civilians on both sides paying the price for leaders who - because of pressure, ambition or hubris - feel that they must do the most damage, fire the last shot or make the most credible threat. Indeed, it is sad, and repellent, to hear military correspondents speak of "teaching a lesson," "increasing pressure," "making a statement," achieving "deterrence," when those they are reporting on are really trying to control the news cycle, or win arguable (and in any case temporary) psychological advantage, by killing, or accepting the deaths of, people at random on the other side.
Operation Cast Lead - the heart-wrenching death and wanton destruction the Israeli army is inflicting on Gaza as we write - is the product of just such thinking. In the first week, Israeli air raids killed over 500 people, many of them non-combatants; invading ground forces have now killed 100 more. Israelis knew in advance that Hamas forces are not a regular army; they will not come out of hiding and be mowed down like soldiers in World War I. To go after them effectively, in, of all places, the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places on earth, the IDF would have to level its towns and cities, block by block, and intensify the nightmare of the Gazan population, more than half of which is children under the age of 15.
This cannot succeed in achieving Israel's stated aim of degrading Hamas' long-term capabilities and motivation. It will certainly not undermine Hamas' appeal, especially since the electricity and water infrastructures are also inevitably targeted. Now that Israeli soldiers have been killed in this tragic operation, there are the unavoidable cries that the IDF "go all the way," so their deaths would not have been in vain. But Israel cannot make Hamas surrender - it cannot "win." Meanwhile, the carnage will help Hamas, and other Palestinian military factions, make their case - not only in Gaza, but across the West Bank too. A glorious stand will even turn them into cultural heroes among Israel's Palestinian Arab citizens.
It should be clear by now that Hamas' appeal only grows when Israelis attacks Palestinians. It increased when Israel insisted that occupied territory was merely "disputed," ignoring its obligations under international law, and tried to dissociate its unilateral "disengagement" from Gaza from the continuing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Hamas appealed to circles upon circles of Palestinian youth, who, grieving for friends or relatives killed in clashes with occupation forces, or appalled by iron-fist policies, succumbed to rage or survivors' guilt. Its appeal increased in the absence of any concrete progress toward peace, indeed, when the peacemaking process seemed endlessly stalled.
Hamas' appeal spread, finally, when Palestinian economic life seemed futile, or inevitably corrupt - when a fight to the last martyr seemed the only chance at a meaningful life - or death. Give Gazans open borders, relief from grinding poverty, and business opportunities with West Bank and foreign partners and, over time, this will win over Hamas-controlled tunnels and smuggling every time. The Palestinian private sector, centered in Ramallah, has begged Israel and the international community for 18 months to allow it access to Gaza, to build new businesses. Israel refused. Tragically, many who have been killed this past week were not Hamas militants, but rather Palestinians who worked in Hamas-run ministries or institutions because they had no choice if they wanted to feed and clothe their children.
The critical point, surely, is that one cannot do in two weeks with force what you need to do over a generation with reciprocity. Even as it worked toward an overall solution to the conflict, Israel could have respected international law regarding occupation, observed the Geneva conventions, helped build Palestinian civil society, stopped settlement construction, invited international monitors, and allowed Palestinians to compete non-violently, politically, economically and socially. It could have, in short, allowed for unity and rationality in Palestinian politics. This is not, well, rocket science.
Bernard Avishai is an author and management consultant who lives in Jerusalem. He blogs at www.bernardavishai.com. Sam Bahour is a management consultant and entrepreneur living in Ramallah. He blogs at epalestine.blogspot.com.
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