Monday, December 29, 2008

Gaza: Lessons to Learn from Lebanon

For the past few days, I have watched the tragic events unfold in Gaza and have tried to make sense of the unfolding situation. I realize that as an American Palestinian who has friends in Gaza, I could write a very frustrated personal rant which cries out for social justice, peace, change and the like. Instead, I would actually like to take this post in a different direction for various reasons. I wish to first, share some self-conscious reflections based upon my personal experiences and secondly, shift the latter part of this post into the analytical realm.

For starters, my family is admittedly pretty distant from the events in Gaza and I will not in any way suggest that I can truly understand, grasp, or even imagine the human horror of the situation, or for that matter other humanitarian crises worldwide. During my visit to south Lebanon in January 2007 (a few months after the summer war), I still felt distant even as I gazed at the glass bits that cluttered the streets, the exposed sewage, the main roads lined with armed soldiers, the barbed wire, the UN convoys, and the children playing in bombed ruins. I recall staring up at signs which in Arabic warned Tyre’s worn residents to not venture off the streets due to the presence of cluster bombs in the area. I just remember silently asking, “Why? Why? Why? Is it all really worth it? Is it?”

Even then as I tried desperately to understand the human face behind conflicts in the Middle East, I still could not possibly say that I was able to empathize with people or share their experiences. The reality of the situation was and still is I am an American citizen who lives a relatively comfortable life a world away from the world’s conflicts and human tragedies. My family may consist mainly of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, but we are still very fortunate–my relatives have created a comfortable middle class life for themselves in neighboring Arab countries.

What we Palestinians abroad and elsewhere then collectively share is a feeling of loss and grief–a lack of national actualization. We shed tears and grieve not because we can necessarily come to grips with the death and destruction occurring in the remains of Palestine–though many can. We distant travelers and wanderers cry for the remains of our beloved country, our homeland, and our very national identity because it has not been defined by peace or prosperity–such entities have been torn apart as they were defined by perpetual pain and loss. Perhaps this is a reason Palestinians have learned to journey through this world as permanent travelers; we are wanderers who collectively reminisce over our shared memories and experiences, yet never fit into any part of this world including a part we label ours.

I do not pretend to be an effective poet or artist who can capture our collective human spirit through creative expression. This task should be left to others who will likely perform it better than I possibly could. Instead, I would like to venture beyond self-conscious reflections to ask larger questions. Amidst inaction at the international level, individuals at a person-to-person level can try to learn from such experiences. I will thus use the remainder of this post to address the following questions: Have the parties to the conflict ignored their lessons from history? Are there parallels between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this stage compared to other aspects of this conflict in previous times (perhaps at the regional level)? If so, how can we analyze and address such comparisons? Furthermore, what dynamics of this conflict can we elucidate through historical analysis?

Given that this is already a lengthy blog post, I also do not pretend to offer concrete or sufficient answers to the above questions. I only ask that we consider them to reflect upon this complex situation. Consider this a basic start.

My first impression after hearing the news from Gaza is that there are quite a few parallels between this recent set of airstrikes and those which occurred during the 2006 summer war between Hizbullah and Israel. There are a few key points here to consider: Hizbullah arguably triggered the war initially through capturing two Israeli soldiers at the border, killing others, and constantly launching rockets into northern Israel. (Amnesty International’s 2006 report documented the details of the war and can be viewed here). In response, Israel launched a 34 day war of airstrikes by land, sea, and air which resulted in an estimated 1,183 casualties of which a third were children, 4,054 people injured, and 970,000 Lebanese and Palestinian people displaced. Hizbullah in turn launched rockets into northern Israel which killed 40 civilians including both Israelis and Israeli Arabs.

The Amnesty Report also provided the following insights based upon interviews with both Israeli and Lebanese officials:

“According to the New York Times, the IDF Chief of Staff said the air strikes were aimed at keeping pressure on Lebanese officials, and delivering a message to the Lebanese government that they must take responsibility for Hizbullah’s actions. He called Hizbullah “a cancer” that Lebanon must get rid of, “because if they don’t their country will pay a very high price.”

The widespread destruction of apartments, houses, electricity and water services, roads, bridges, factories and ports, in addition to several statements by Israeli officials, suggests a policy of punishing both the Lebanese government and the civilian population in an effort to get them to turn against Hizbullah. Israeli attacks did not diminish, nor did their pattern appear to change, even when it became clear that the victims of the bombardment were predominantly civilians, which was the case from the first days of the conflict.”

There are two interesting developments here to consider: 1) based upon the above report, a few parallels exist between Gaza’s present situation and that of Lebanon’s in 2006 which merit attention, and 2) there are a few lessons that can be learned from the war in Lebanon that can be applied elsewhere. After all, Israel is not the only state that has launched airstrikes in an attempt to weaken militant or insurgent movements.

South Lebanon, like Gaza, is not only a politically volatile region, but is also extremely difficult to govern given previous humanitarian crises, frequent wars and violent skirmishes across the border, and the lack of a strong central government which enjoys full sovereignty (sounds strikingly similar to Pakistan and Afghanistan at times doesn’t it?). The end result is that non-state actors (in this case, political Islamist movements like Hizbullah and Hamas) are able to enjoy free reign in a politically unstable environment that is ripe for mobilization of new recruits.

All such movements need is a worthy cause and an extra reason to adopt politically violent resistance in the name of God and country. Israel’s fundamental error in Lebanon was not merely tactical–in my view, it would not matter whether or not they restricted their attacks to the air or pursued an actual ground raid. Likewise, in Gaza, it will not matter if they shift tactics and try to ‘learn’ from their encounter with Hizbullah. They committed the same mistake in 1982 that they did in 2006 and arguably will in 2008 in Gaza: by assuming that national security can be increased solely through military means, that an influential social movement can be defeated through sheer force or weakened, and by assuming that the local population will turn against such movements under extreme duress, Israel’s actions in Lebanon and Gaza have and will likely undermine its security and its political position in the Middle East. These airstrikes have already angered both Arabs and Muslims across the region–moderates and extremists included.

Hamas, like Hizbullah, will likely end up the unintended victor of this scenario since even moderate Gazans, other Palestinians, other Arabs, and quite possibly other Muslims elsewhere will likely support the political actor they believe opposes the state that is responsible for killing 300 civilians. I would argue the historical lesson to be learned from Lebanon is that airstrikes and sheer force will not necessarily lead to greater national security, but will instead produce the opposite result. The attacks in Gaza will not win the hearts and minds of moderates throughout the region, but will instead harden them, embolden them, and intensify their polarization at a time when negotiations are desperately needed and a comprehensive peace process is sorely absent.

In environments where central governments (or in Gaza, the inherent lack thereof) do not enjoy full sovereignty, the military intervention or attack by another state or political actor ultimately undermines any remaining sovereignty, power, and influence the central government previously enjoyed. The end result of the recent attacks in Gaza may very well be a further fractured Palestinian government, increased support for Hamas over other Palestinian political actors that embrace negotiations, and a further shift in the regional balance of power towards militant movements that have no desire to sit down at the negotiation table.

If Israel truly wanted to increase its security or to progress in the steps of restarting the peace process, its political and military establishment would rethink the lessons learned from Lebanon and pursue ’solutions’ beyond simple tactical changes. Likewise, if Hamas truly cared about Palestinian civilians, they would not commit the same mistake as Hizbullah and provoke violent responses across the border that usually result in the loss of human life.

The tragedy inherent in this situation is that both sides lack the politically courageous leadership needed to resolve conflicts and pursue tough negotiation. The Palestinian and Israeli leadership is weak, fractured, and all too willing to pursue temporary solutions that will likely fail and set us back further than initially imagined.

Nawal Mustafa, Palestinian

Washington, DC

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