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Why the conflict is escalating and where it could go from here.
An American relief worker in Gaza tells his story.
Everyone who's ever spent time talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially on social media, knows that it's hopelessly, miserably partisan. A new study of tweets during the Gaza conflict — and the gorgeous visualization of its results, posted below — suggests one deceptively simple reason why that's true: the two camps are operating from totally different sources of information.
Gilad Lotan, the chief data scientist for the venture capital firm Betaworks, was curious about how, exactly, the social media conversation on the Gaza war worked. He used the July 24th attack on a UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school/shelter in Beit Hanoun as a test case, scraping Twitter between July 25th and 30th for any tweets mentioning "UNWRA or related words." He wrote up his findings in an extremely popular and interesting post on Medium.
You might notice something strange in Lotan's methodology. Rather than searching for the correct acronym, "UNRWA," Lotan searched only for UNWRA, a non-standard but nonetheless commonly used alternative to the official acronym. Regardless, it means his initial findings — widely cited around the internet— were based on incomplete data. After contacting Lotan about the acronym, he re-ran his analysis, including both acronyms and expanding the time period analyzed. Here, for the first time, are the complete results, which he's generously shared with Vox.
The visually engrossing chart below shows all major accounts tweeting about UNRWA or UNWRA over a recent 10-day period. The lines between them indicate interactions; the dots that are close together form a "cluster," which Lotan says show the degree of connectedness as measured by a statistical algorithm examining rates of interaction on Twitter. Unsurprisingly, you see two huge clusters — one pro-Israeli (in blue), the other pro-Palestinian (in green).
You'll also notice two clusters off to the right: those are almost all tweets in languages other than English. The kidney looking thing is largely Spanish, including the Spanish-language UNRWA account. It links up somewhat with the pro-Palestinian cluster. The other is Farsi. Lotan says that one is "most likely an Iranian bot-net (fake accounts) — based off of the structure of the cluster, and the profiles themselves."
The most important thing here is that these clusters exist at all. Lotan's research suggests strong evidence that pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian partisans barely talk to each other on social media, indicating that they're getting their information about the conflict from entirely different sources. Instead of using the same "neutral" sources of information and interpreting differently, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian partisans are just starting from different baselines. Here's a zoom on the pro-Israel cluster; you can see Israeli and right-leaning media sources in there:
And the pro-Palestinian cluster, which includes a number of Western mainstream and left-leaning sources:
Interestingly, major media organizations and official UN accounts (mostly in grey) are clustered near the pro-Palestinian side. That suggests that the folks embedded within the pro-Palestinian twitter community are interacting far more with mainstream media Twitter accounts than pro-Israel ones are.
That could be, as Lotan suggests in his original post, evidence of media bias against Israel. Or it could be a result of the fact that Lotan based his chart on a study of how people discussed the bombing of a UN school in Gaza. Straight news write-ups of that particular event that fit much better with the Palestinian narrative of the conflict ("innocent Palestinians killed at a UN shelter") and thus got more discussion on the pro-Palestinian side.
It seems plausible that, had Lotan instead examined tweets about Hamas rockets fired into Israeli towns, we would see the mainstream media accounts clustered with the pro-Israel tweeters because they would have more fully engaged with those news reports.
Here's a chart of the middle area, which shows accounts that get engagement from the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian side. You'll notice it's pretty empty, but there are two big poles in there: Ha'aretz and Gershon Baskin:
Ha'aretz is a widely respected and avowedly left-wing Israeli newspaper. Baskin is a high profile American-Israeli activist who has worked with Palestinians to develop ceasefire plans during past conflicts and a blueprint for a two-state solution (he now works on renewable energy initiatives with the Palestinian Authority). So both sides would have reasons to interact with each of the two accounts. But such accounts are pretty rare, which is part of the polarization.
To confirm that this apparent polarization wasn't a one-off result of just looking at UNRWA/UNWRA tweets, I asked Lotan if he might consider re-running the analysis with another event. He looked at a strike on the Shati refugee camp on July 28th. Israeli officials, supported by an Italian journalist at Radio Poplare, claimed the Gaza camp was struck by a misfired Hamas rocket; Hamas blamed an Israeli airstrike. Here's what the cluster chart looks like for that incident:
The pattern is largely identical, although you do see the mainstream media accounts (mostly in grey) nearer to the middle, which further suggests that conflict partisans engage with those accounts more when they report an incident that confirms their worldview. Still, mainstream media accounts like @BBCBreaking and @NBCNews are closer to the green pro-Palestinian bloc.
Lotan's findings tell us something interesting about how social media affects already-problematic hyper-polarized issues like Israel-Palestine. It unfortunately would seem to contradict a popular theory, among people optimistic about technology, that social media facilitates open flow of information and free communication. People, in theory, use it to connect with people who have different views and learn from them.
That nice theory appears to be totally wrong, at least as it relates to Israel-Palestine. People seem to use social media to seek out affirmation of what they already believe, to find evidence that their partisan narrative is correct.
This interpretation of Lotan's work fits with what we know about partisan psychology. One famous study showed two groups of people identical write-ups of fake studies about the death penalty. People who believed the death penalty deterred crime uncritically accepted the research coming to that conclusion, but tried their best to poke holes in the study showing no deterrent effect. The reverse was true for those who didn't believe in death penalty deterrence. The point is that people weren't neutrally evaluating arguments. They were simply reasoning to the conclusion they want.
The more you care about an issue, the worse this problem appears to be. A 2006 paper by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels studied what happened when you asked Democrats and Republicans whether the deficit had gone down under Bill Clinton (it had, dramatically). Achen and Bartels found that better informed Republicans were more likely to get the question wrong than less-informed ones. A prior Bartels paper found that better-informed Democrats were likely to say inflation didn't decline when Reagan held office (it did). It looks like the more you know and care about a political topic, the more likely you are to try to ignore evidence that makes the other side look good.
Israel-Palestine is about as partisan an issue as there could be. There's a metric ton of historical pain on both sides, and genuinely deep fear about the survival of both the Israeli and Palestinian people. The extraordinary significance of the conflict ossifies the camps: when the issue is so important and emotional, no one wants to give ground. Anything one says that helps one side's narrative is greeted warmly by its partisans, and denounced by its enemies. This creates a great deal of pressure to make one side your allies, and stick with them.
Social media, as Lotan's research shows, isn't challenging this basic tribalism. If anything, it's making it worse.
One of the toughest questions in the Israel-Palestine conflict is a very basic one of cohabitation: how can Jews and Arabs get along, side by side, after decades of fighting? It's a beloved cliché that food brings people together, but in Israel-Palestine even this can drive them apart. As with the land itself, there are competing claims for what dishes or flavors belong to whom, and bitter fights over possession and identity between two groups that have lots of shared history.
Could those fights over food actually be an opportunity for the Jews and Arabs of Israel-Palestine to come together? That was a major topic when, in early 2013, the authors of Palestinian cookbook The Gaza Kitchen, Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt, sat down with Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi for Bon Appetit magazine. Ottolenghi co-authored the cookbook Jerusalem, which explores intersections in Jewish and Arab food in the divided city, with Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi.
At this moment when Israel-Palestine conflict and heated rhetoric is highest, it's worth pulling out a few quotes from the conversation about how the food of Israel-Palestine, while often used to highlight differences between Jews and Arabs, also shows how much history they have in common:
Yotam Ottolenghi: Jerusalem is a very difficult story to tell. It's a very troubled place in a very different way from Gaza, and it's troubled because the occupation has sort of gone into the veins of everybody, Jews and Arabs. So in Gaza, it's not a positive thing, but the separation is much clearer. There's the Gazan cuisine, and it hardly ever comes into interaction with anything else. It's very easy to assert things with an Arabic name and give a sense of authority to a dish because it's cooked by that particular Palestinian person, in that particular house.
We always had to sort of tiptoe between various versions and stories, and which histories to tell is difficult to know. Jews were living in Arab countries for thousands of years, cooking those same things, and if I meet a Jewish woman from Aleppo and she says, "I used to make this kibbeh and my grandmother did," it's very hard to take a stand and say, "Oh, it's Arab."
Maggie Schmitt: Also your book does an important task because outside of Israel-certainly in the United States-very few people understand how complex Israeli society is. Very few people understand the whole history of the Mizrahim and the Sephardim. But the image of Israel is hugely Ashkenazi.
So it's important, I think, the work that you do to make it clear how false that is, how many other traditions there are, the fact that Arab and Jew are not somehow opposite, but rather have a long history woven together. That's also for me an extremely important history to tell.
Ottolenghi: That's absolutely true. And there are so many kinds of wrongdoing around that. Even when Sami and I initially tried to do just a recipe book, without addressing any kind of social political issues, I think we realized after about, three hours, that this is just not gonna happen.
The recipes are the context — there aren't recipes without a context, at least in this part of the world-and so we had to almost reconstruct the context once we had the recipes. The process was quite different from yours. Where you went out there and engaged with people came up with recipes, we had the recipes from memory or the meetings we had and then told the story in hindsight. This is where I found it really, really challenging to decide which narrative to use in each introduction to each recipe: whether it's the Jewish narrative or the Arab narrative, or if you can make them work together.
Laila El-Haddad: For me, when I kept seeing like "Jew" and "Arab," it almost felt reductionist. For me I consider, before '48, there were Arab Jews, too, but that's a different thing.
And then this is an excellent point about overlap — and one that applies far beyond food:
El-Haddad: Was there anything you were surprised by that you came across writing your book?
Ottolenghi: A million things. What was really interesting for me was the thing of access, from Libya and Palestine and Lebanon and Syria, because the best Jewish food in Jerusalem either comes from Tripoli in Libya or Aleppo in Syria. I was doing research on the Jewish part and Sami was doing the Arab part, but whenever there was overlap, it was fascinating to see how this Sephardic cuisine interacted with what was around it. And every time you come across one of those in a Sephardic Jewish recipe ,you come across an exact parallel in the Palestinian kitchen. That was the most fascinating for me to discover every time.
That shared history between Jews and Arabs in the territory of present-day Israel-Palestine is something that gets missed an awful lot in the conversation. Partly, that's because both sides end up so predominantly focused on what makes them different rather than what makes them similar, but it's also because there's so little discussion of the many Jews who came to Israel from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East, mostly after they were expelled by their governments in the 1950s. More deeply, there is a sense that the food, like the identity and the land itself, can be categorically Israeli or categorically Palestinian but never, ever both.
Both cookbooks, The Gaza Kitchen and Jerusalem, are excellent and well worth owning.
In one of the Gaza offensive's many awful tragedies, an Israeli missile struck near a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school in Rafah that was being used as a shelter, killing at least 10 people. Israel was targeting three suspected militants on a nearby motorbike.
In an interview with me last night on MSNBC, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness called for a full investigation, noting that the UNRWA had made 33 calls to the Israeli army telling them this school was being used as the shelter and making sure they had the precise GPS coordinates so that the Israel army knew to give it a wide berth. The last of those calls was put through an hour before the strike. The interview begins at 04:30:
This isn't the first time an Israeli missile has hit a UN shelter. The New York Times reports that, "though Israeli military leaders have declared definitively that no United Nations facility was targeted, Rafah was the sixth shelter struck during the operation." Those strikes also came, in some cases, after extensive warnings: Gunness notes that his organization notified Israel 17 times that it was using its school in Jabaliya as a shelter. A subsequent strike there killed more than 15 people.
There have been cases of Hamas launching rockets from near UNRWA schools, and even hiding rockets in abandoned UNRWA schools. But in a statement, the State Department warned Israel that that's not sufficient reason to strike so near the shelters. "The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians," they said.
Like the UN, the State Department is calling for "a full and prompt investigation of this incident as well as the recent shelling of other UNRWA schools."
At 1 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday morning, a 72 hour ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, took hold in Gaza. It's not the first temporary ceasefire in the ongoing Gaza war, or even the first time that both parties have agreed to a 72-hour ceasefire (the last one collapsed almost immediately). But Israel has pulled all of its troops out of Gaza, and the ceasefire appears to be holding. Hamas and Israel will now engage in indirect, Egyptian-mediated talks over the terms of a permanent ceasefire. It's the closest we've been to an end to the fighting since Israel's ground invasion of Gaza began.
Why does it feel like the end might finally be in sight? It's impossible to say for sure, but a big possible explanation is that both sides have gotten the minimum of what what they wanted out of the war. Israel has done serious damage to Hamas' tunnel network and demonstrated, again, that Hamas can't launch rockets without paying a serious price. And Hamas has plausibly won a political victory, one that may allow them to get some much-needed concessions from Israel and Egypt.
Israel was very up-front about the primary goal of its ground offensive: destroy Hamas tunnels into Israel. It's very close to having accomplished that: Israel says that it has destroyed the tunnel network, presumably meaning all of the tunnels. Indeed, Israel is so confident that it's telling evacuated Israelis who live in the south near Gaza to return to their homes because the tunnel threat has been "neutralized."
From Israel's perspective, that's a big win. Israel learned during the war that Hamas' tunnels were dramatically more numerous and sophisticated than they'd thought before. Some of the tunnels popped up near Israeli civilian communities, opening up Israel to the type of suicide bombing and shooting attacks Israeli border defenses had cut down on. Eliminating these tunnels thus means shutting down a major threat to Israeli civilians.
But the war isn't just about tunnels. According to Brent Sasley, a Professor of the University of Texas-Arlington, Israel wants "quiet." He argues that Israel would actually tolerate a number of rockets out of Gaza, so long as those rockets are not from Hamas. "They don't cause any damage, certainly don't kill any Israelis, and there's nothing else that requires a bigger response," he told me.
Israel's strategy for creating that quiet is called "mowing the grass." It's a pretty creepy term, as it implies that periodically killing people is the same as keeping your lawn groomed. But the point of the metaphor is that Hamas is like grass: you can't eliminate it, but you need to attack it regularly to keep it manageable.
This means regular attacks designed to destroy Hamas' military infrastructure and deter Hamas from major escalations in the near term. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisors seem to have concluded they've done enough damage to restore quiet for the foreseeable future.
In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said that the war sends a message that "it is high time to lift the siege on Gaza." Simple enough: Hamas wants Israel to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Hamas has been badly undersupplied ever since Egypt, whose government deeply mistrusts Hamas, destroyed the bulk of its supply tunnels under the Egyptian border. Those tunnels also supplied Gazan civilians, who are in a dire situation.
The Israeli blockade likely won't end entirely, but Israel may abate it somewhat as part of a ceasefire. "Israeli officials across the political spectrum have begun to admit privately that the previous policy towards Gaza was a mistake," Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis group, writes. "All parties involved in mediating a ceasefire envision postwar arrangements that effectively strengthen the new Palestinian government and its role in Gaza — and by extension Gaza itself."
Moreover, Hamas may be in a position to win some partial concessions from Egypt during the Cairo ceasefire negotiations. According to Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, Hamas is "hoping to get Rafah [the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt] open, and they're hoping to get the Egyptians to allow the transfer of Qatari and other money, which the Egyptians have been blocking." Getting a lifeline out of Gaza that Israel doesn't control would be a big deal for Hamas, as it would allow them to at least somewhat circumvent the Israeli blockade, no matter how much Israel tightens it.
But why is Hamas ready to negotiate for these concessions now? It seems, quite simply, that Hamas has likely determined it has nothing more to gain from the conflict. In purely tactical terms, Hamas is losing the war. The militant group is performing better than it has in past wars with Israel, but the IDF is doing way more damage to Hamas' warfighting capabilities than Hamas is doing to Israel's.
However, Hamas may well have gotten a significant political boost from the fighting. Before the war, Hamas was in a a bad way politically. "Hamas's recent troubles that compelled its leadership to seek a unity government with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas are a function of two factors," Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Steven Cook writes. Those factors are "political changes in Egypt that have made it difficult for Hamas to raise revenue through the taxation of smuggled goods and importantly, two years of relative quiet in Gaza that has forced Hamas to govern, which apparently it does quite badly."
Now, according to Cook, "Hamas is in much better shape than it was when its leaders reluctantly sought a lifeline from Abbas and the PA." The war "has only burnished its nationalist credentials, established that it cannot be defeated, and that it has a reservoir [of] international support." Hamas comes out of this war, it seems, with much more public support among Palestinians than it started with. And, at least nominally, Palestinian elections are supposed to be held in the next several months.
Quitting the conflict now, in other words, may allow Hamas to escape further military losses and simultaneously emerge with a political victory.
To be clear, this does not mean that either Israel or Hamas has "won," and you'll note that neither side seems to be basing its political calculus very much on the needs of Palestinian civilians, who have born the overwhelming brunt of the conflict. Nor has either side accomplished anything that will prevent another round of fighting — much as the 2009 Gaza war didn't stop the 2012 war, and the 2012 war didn't prevent this one. This is all about tactical victory in a conflict seemingly without end.
From the outside of the US-Israel alliance, it can look like the countries are so close that they are practically extensions of one another. From within, though, the relationship is a good deal more complex. One of the complexities that gets overlooked: Israelis get that the US is a crucial backer, but they sure don't trust President Obama.
That came through in a recent reader poll on the popular Israeli news and entertainment site Mako, which asked readers what Obama should get for his 53rd birthday, on Monday. By far the most popular choice is "An envelope of the ebola virus," which has tracked about 50 percent of votes since the poll went up.
Here is the poll and the results as of noon on Monday, with our English translations pasted over in red.
Big caveat: these results are of course far from statistically rigorous, and while Mako is very popular it's not clear how many people participated. But Israeli distrust of Obama, and the perception that he is secretly hostile to Israel despite all of his government's overt support for the country, is pretty well established in actually scientific surveys.
In February, for example, an Israeli poll found that 70 percent of Jewish Israelis "do not trust Obama to safeguard their nation's vital interests in negotiations with the Palestinians." A March 2013 poll found that only 10 percent view him favorably, only a third believe he is supportive of Israel, and 38 percent say he is hostile to Israel. A separate poll that same month found that 36 percent believe Obama is more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli, 26 percent say he is more pro-Israeli than pro-Palestinian, and another quarter called him neutral. And so on.
Israelis will argue that the Obama administration's pressure on Israel over settlements, peace talks, Iran negotiations and other issues are all unfair and hostile policies. The American perspective is that the US gives Israel a huge amount of aid, to the tune of billions of US dollars per year, lots of military and intelligence support, and a diplomatic shield at the United Nations Security Council, where the US famously vetoes anything unfriendly to Israel. From the American perspective, that should buy some leverage, or at least grant Obama the right to publicly pressure Israel a bit without Israelis wishing to give him ebola.
The point is that, while the world typically sees the US as categorically pro-Israeli to the extremest possible extent on every possible issue, Israelis are a good deal more skeptical of the US. From the Israeli perspective, the US not only could do more for them, but does things that are actively unfriendly. This is not to say that one perception is true or false, but to note that there's more complexity in the relationship, and much more turmoil, than is often portrayed.
More simply, though, the poll is also a reminder that people on the Internet can be jerks.
As controversial as Israel's military offensive in Gaza is internationally, there's something close to absolute consensus in Israel: a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 95 percent of Jewish Israelis say Operation Protective Edge is justified. That's higher even than the number of Americans who supported the Afghanistan War in the direct aftermath of 9/11.
This interview Deutsche Well conducted with Amos Oz, Israel's most famous novelist and one of its most prominent peaceniks, helps explain why. The interview begins with Oz taking over:
Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusal way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?
Deutsche Welle: Go ahead!
Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
With these two questions I pass the interview to you.
Oz complicates his position from there. He goes on to call Israel's military strategy "justified, but excessive," and argue that Israel's next move should be to approach Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and "accept the terms — which the whole world knows — for a two-state-solution and coexistence between Israel and the West Bank: Two capitals in Jerusalem, a mutually agreed territorial modification, removal of most of the Jewish settlements from the West Bank." If the people of Gaza see the people of the West Bank living in freedom and prosperity, he continues, they will "sooner or later do to Hamas what the people of Romania did to Ceausescu." He also argues that Israel's blockade of Gaza should be ended immediately.
Even so, he says repeatedly that Israel's current operation in Gaza is justified. And the way he manages the interview — which is, notably, in an international publication — shows he's puzzled that the rest of the world doesn't see that.
The gulf between how even self-described "peacenik" Israelis see this conflict and how much of the world sees it is significant — and is possibly making Israel feel less safe and, consequentially, making their military strategy more aggressive. As Jeffrey Goldberg comments, "for Israelis who are immune, unlike Amos Oz, to the criticism of outsiders, the world's inability, or unwillingness, to understand the Hamas threat in the way that Oz (and most everyone else in Israel) understands it suggests that there is nothing Israel can do, short of national suicide, to stop the condemnation of their country. Which, of course, frees Israel, in their minds, to take whatever action it deems necessary to take."
The interview ends with a question about Oz's health that is revealing as to how life feels for ordinary Israelis right now. "Personally I am not very well," Oz says. "I am just back from hospital after three surgeries and I am slowly recovering at home between one air raid siren and the next. During the air raid sirens we go to the shelter and wait there for a few moments and then try to continue our lives until the next alarm."
The English-language Israeli publication Times of Israel today published, and then quickly deleted, a blog post by the writer Yochanan Gordon with the extremely inflammatory headline "When Genocide is Permissible." The post does not explicitly endorse the genocide of Palestinians, but it asks if doing so would be morally justified after building up the case it would be and presenting only evidence in the affirmative.
"What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely?" Gordon asks. And later, arguing that Hamas will never accept peace and that Israel is justified in doing anything necessary to impose it, "If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?"
We've preserved the full text of the now-deleted blog post below; you can read it for yourself. This is not because Gordon himself is a particularly influential writer, much less a political leader of any kind, but because this post represents an extreme iteration of a much broader problem, in which the conflict and the discourse around it exacerbates and empowers extremism on both sides of the conversation. There is real social science behind this phenomenon, which pushes the politics of the conflict away from peace and toward more hard-line positions, as well as raising voices that de-humanize the "other side" in a way that makes it easier to perpetuate the fighting.
Again, this post is obviously an extreme position, which is why the Times of Israel deleted it, but it is most unusual not for his argument for the plain-stated clumsiness of it. Both the Israeli far-right and Palestinian militant groups will at times advocate for the absolute elimination of the other side from the land; they just know how to do it in a way that won't raise so many eyebrows.
Judging by the numbers of casualties on both sides in this almost one-month old war one would be led to the conclusion that Israel has resorted to disproportionate means in fighting a far less- capable enemy. That is as far as what meets the eye. But, it's now obvious that the US and the UN are completely out of touch with the nature of this foe and are therefore not qualified to dictate or enforce the rules of this war - because when it comes to terror there is much more than meets the eye.
I wasn't aware of this, but it seems that the nature of warfare has undergone a major shift over the years. Where wars were usually waged to defeat the opposing side, today it seems - and judging by the number of foul calls it would indicate - that today's wars are fought to a draw. I mean, whoever heard of a timeout in war? An NBA Basketball game allows six timeouts for each team during the course of a game, but last I checked this is a war! We are at war with an enemy whose charter calls for the annihilation of our people. Nothing, then, can be considered disproportionate when we are fighting for our very right to live.
The sad reality is that Israel gets it, but its hands are being tied by world leaders who over the past six years have insisted they are such good friends with the Jewish state, that they know more regarding its interests than even they do. But there's going to have to come a time where Israel feels threatened enough where it has no other choice but to defy international warnings - because this is life or death.
Most of the reports coming from Gazan officials and leaders since the start of this operation have been either largely exaggerated or patently false. The truth is, it's not their fault, falsehood and deceit is part of the very fabric of who they are and that will never change. Still however, despite their propensity to lie, when your enemy tells you that they are bent on your destruction you believe them. Similarly, when Khaled Meshal declares that no physical damage to Gaza will dampen their morale or weaken their resolve - they have to be believed. Our sage Gedalia the son of Achikam was given intelligence that Yishmael Ben Nesanyah was plotting to kill him. However, in his piety or rather naiveté Gedalia dismissed the report as a random act of gossip and paid no attention to it. To this day, the day following Rosh Hashana is commemorated as a fast day in the memory of Gedalia who was killed in cold blood on the second day of Rosh Hashana during the meal. They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over. History is there to teach us lessons and the lesson here is that when your enemy swears to destroy you - you take him seriously.
Hamas has stated forthrightly that it idealizes death as much as Israel celebrates life. What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely?
News anchors such as those from CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera have not missed an opportunity to point out the majority of innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of this war. But anyone who lives with rocket launchers installed or terror tunnels burrowed in or around the vicinity of their home cannot be considered an innocent civilian. If you'll counter, that Hamas has been seen abusing civilians who have attempted to leave their homes in response to Israeli warnings to leave - well then, your beginning to come to terms with the nature of this enemy which should automatically cause the rules of standard warfare to be suspended.
Everyone agrees that Israel has the right to defend itself as well as the right to exercise that right. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has declared it, Obama and Kerry have clearly stated that no one could be expected to sit idle as thousands of rockets rain down on the heads of its citizens, placing them in clear and present danger. It seems then that the only point of contention is regarding the measure of punishment meted out in this situation.
I will conclude with a question for all the humanitarians out there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable quiet for the citizens of Israel. We have already established that it is the responsibility of every government to ensure the safety and security of its people. If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?
Shortly after Israel and Hamas finally entered their ceasefire earlier today, what was hoped to be the beginning of the end of the three-week war in Gaza, the Israeli military announced that one of its soldiers had been kidnapped. The ceasefire is over.
On the surface, Hamas's decision to kidnap an Israeli soldier would seem irrational bordering on insane. This invited the Israeli military to push even further into Gaza, to deepen the war that has already been so disproportionately costly for Hamas and regular Gazans. Over 95 percent of casualties have been Palestinian, mostly civilians. One in four Gazans has been displaced. Hamas has been militarily weakened; many of its rocket batteries, and the tunnels it uses to ferry supplies and people, have been destroyed. By ensuring more war, Hamas ensures more losses for it and more suffering for the Gazans it claims to serve.
So what is Hamas thinking? Why would they do this despite the easily foreseeable devastation it will invite? There is, from within the Hamas worldview, potentially more logic to it than you might think. To be clear, this is not to endorse that worldview, but to explain why Hamas would do this, what it likely hopes to accomplish, and why.
First, a caveat: it is still not 100 percent clear whether Hamas's leadership was directly responsible for this. On the one hand, the kidnapping appeared highly a coordinated cross-border raid from beginning to end (unlike the much more amateurish murders of three Israeli students last month) and was timed in a way that maximizes Hamas's potential strategic gain. On the other, Hamas's political and militant branches are often out of sync, and the political leadership is already backtracking on claiming responsibility. That question is still shaking out; this is all premised on explaining why Hamas would plausibly decide to kidnap an Israeli soldier.
The most telling detail here may be the timing: it happened right as the ceasefire was coming online (probably just after, it seems). Daniel Nisman, president of the consulting firm Levantine Group, persuasively argued that Hamas likely wants to negotiate the kidnapped soldier's release separately from the ceasefire. This would also help explain why Hamas has (mostly) stopped firing rockets and is being so ambiguous about whether the kidnapping even happened.
In this thinking, Hamas would want the ceasefire to become "set" and then to reveal that it has the soldier, thus making it harder for Israel to resume military operations without looking like the bad actor. It allows Hamas to have its ceasefire and its international ceasefire negotiations, to stop the fighting that was so devastating for Hamas and Gazan civilians, and then to initiate a separate negotiation over the kidnapped soldier.
Hamas loses on the battlefield, and badly. But the group could plausibly see hostage-taking as an area where it can, in a certain sense, be the winner. Israel clearly places a huge premium on returning kidnapped soldiers. The fact that it has a draft, and that soldiers are often young, means that broader Israeli society is unusually sensitive to kidnapped soldiers. This makes the war more asymmetrical, which is more comfortable ground for Hamas.
For Hamas, this pays off: five years after Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006, they exchanged him for the release of over 1,000 Palestinians. Hamas also got substantial propaganda capital out of that kidnapping and release. Why wouldn't it want to repeat that, especially as a way to compensate for its heavy losses during the three-week war?
To be clear, if this makes strategic sense for Hamas, it makes sense only in the short term, and only if Hamas disregards the fact that it invites an Israeli counter-attack that would surely cost further Palestinian lives. In the long term, Hamas will continue to get the same thing that its larger strategy has always produced: an endless war with Israel that it will never win, in pursuit of an impossible mission to conquer Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the rest of Israel, at the cost of hundreds of Palestinian lives and the perpetuation of a conflict in which Israel is also not innocent but that disproportionately hurts the Palestinians that Hamas claims to fight for.
About a quarter of the population of the Gaza Strip may have been displaced during the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas, according to a United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) tally. That is very, very bad — both in humanitarian and political terms.
There are about 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, and OCHA estimates that up to 445,000 of them have been forced from their houses. Of that 445,000, about 245,000 are in UN shelters. The Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs estimates that "as many as 200,000" more are "taking shelter with host families:" family members, friends, or others elsewhere in Gaza who haven't been forced from their homes. Together, the two figures combined produce the high-end 445,000 estimate.
Gaza is a small, densely populated place — about as large and as dense as Philadelphia in total. During the war, the Israeli military declared about 44 percent of the Strip a "no-go" zone, telling the 250,000 living there to evacuate. This OCHA map illustrates what that looks like — the no-go area is in red — as well as where refugee shelters have been set up:
Combine the inevitable consequences of urban warfare with the no-go zone, and you get the terribly high displacement levels that OCHA documents.
One immediate concern is protecting civilians in crowded refugee centers and homes. Six schools, serving as shelters operated by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), have been hit during the fighting. One of those strikes claimed about 15 lives and wounded about 100; UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday that "all available evidence" points to an Israeli strike hitting the school.
This matters even beyond the immediate dangers and pains of displacement; after the fighting stops, it's not just a matter of putting displaced persons back in their homes. For one thing, their homes might be destroyed. But even for those whose homes are intact, returning may not be so simple. Patricia Weiss Fagen, a former senior fellow at Georgetown's Institute for the Study of International Migration, writes that displaced persons "lacked safety, economic opportunities, and essential services" and "may continue to live as strangers and second-class citizens even when they return to their original homes."
The upshot, according to Fagen, is that long-term relief efforts, and not just short-term humanitarian aid, are necessary to help refugees. In Gaza, where the unemployment rate is estimated at about 40 percent during times of non-war, long-term assistance may be particularly hard to provide.
There's also a political dimension to this. A number of studies suggest that displaced persons crises deepen support for extremist groups. Pakistani extremist groups, for example, have a history of using displaced person relief efforts as a means of disseminating their ideology. We're helping you, the line goes, so you should join us. Somali youths stuck in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, furious at their situation, are "a valuable source of fighters for [Somali extremist group] al-Shabaab," according to a Harvard Belfer Center report.
Similarly, the displaced persons crisis in Gaza could well translate into more support for Hamas and other hardline groups. Hamas' popularity, according to George Washington University's Nathan Brown, is a result of its ability to sell its "uncompromising" position on Palestinian rights and its "ability to articulate the deep senses of frustration and injustice that most Palestinians feel."
Brown thinks "the current path of the conflict, and its fiery rhetoric, offer Hamas opportunities to present itself as more in line with the times." The fact that up to a quarter of Gazans have been displaced could certainly give them that opportunity.
Globally — and even in the United States — Israel's military offensive in Gaza is incredibly controversial. But within Israel, a country famous for its fractious internal politics, Jewish public opinion is nearly unanimous: Operation Protective Edge, Jewish Israelis say, is right and justified.
The Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan Israeli think tank and polling outfit, conducts a monthly poll of Israelis on peace and security issues. Unsurprisingly, July's poll focused on the war in Gaza. It asked Jewish Israelis (Israeli Arabs were not polled), during both the air and ground phases of the campaign, whether they thought the Israeli operation was justified. It also asked whether they thought the Israeli Defense Forcers were using too much, too little, or the right amount of force.
The results are staggering. An average of 95 percent of Israeli respondents say they think the operation is "completely" or "moderately" justified. About 80 percent say it is "completely" justified. For some perspective, about 72 percent of Americans supported the 2003 Iraq invasion when it was launched.
Israeli discontent "spiked" — to about 7 percent — just before and at the launch of the ground invasion, on July 16–17. After the ground invasion was underway, on July 23rd, Israelis supported the war by a 97 to 2 margin.
That support may have increased in part because Israelis came to believe the IDF had increased its level of force to what they wanted. Just before the ground war, when the campaign was largely air strikes, a majority of Israelis believed the IDF wasn't using enough force. Afterwards, the majority flipped to saying Israel was using the right amount. That's despite the fact that IDF casualties went up significantly after the ground phase began.
These levels of support are almost unheard-of numbers in a democracy, but they do match public support for Israel's last two wars in Gaza. Both the 2008-9 and 2012 (the latter of which was an air war only) operations enjoyed massive public support — though in the 2012 war, only 30 percent supported escalating to the kind of ground operation taking place today.
Why are these Gaza wars so popular with Israelis? Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel and the threat of Hamas tunnel incursions naturally play a role. Israelis feel like they're under attack from a militant group that means to destroy their country (even though it can't yet), and thus feel justified launching a military response.
In the long run, this anger at militant groups is making the Israeli electorate increasingly hawkish and skeptical of peace overtures from the Palestinians. After the peace process collapsed in 2000, followed shortly after by the Second Intifada and then the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Israeli electorate has empowered parties that have been skeptical of the peace process. There's pretty solid political science, broken down nicely here, demonstrating that rocket attacks and suicide bombings have translated into more votes for right-wing parties. That said, the July poll still found that a majority of Israelis were in favor of renewing negotiations with the Palestinians.
One last result. Half of of Israelis said that the outcome of the current war would be "a further round against Hamas" — more conflict, in other words.
Correction: This post initially did not note that the survey was only of Jewish Israelis, rather than all Israelis. The text has been corrected.
It may be hard to follow what's happening in Gaza just by reading about it abstractly. But this excellent map of the conflict, put together by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, really helps clear up what's going happening on the ground. (The map is excerpted from a larger, terrific infographic you can view here.)
Ha'aretz's goal is to map out what they saw as the most important incidents and battle lines from the first three weeks of the conflict — that's July 8th through Tuesday the 29th. The map notes major battle incidents (the yellow explosions), major population centers in Gaza (the green and red blocks), tunnels out of Gaza into Israel (the black lines), and Israeli towns/cities (the black and white circles).
Three really important lessons pop out from this map:
1) Many tunnels exit near Israeli towns and kibbutzim. Tracing the tunnel lines out, you see a lot of them near small Israeli communities — kibbutzim like Be'Eri and Nir Am, and the Ne'tiv Ha'asara moshav. That's a big part of why Israel believes that the tunnels are designed to allow for Hamas incursions into these civilian areas, and thus must be destroyed for basic national security.
2) The Israeli Defense Forces hit a number of seemingly civilian targets. Looking at the battle sites where large numbers of Palestinians have died, you notice they're often killed in apartment complexes, hospitals, and sometimes even UN displaced person camps (six such camps have been hit). That's partially because Hamas deliberately places its weapon emplacements in such areas, and partially the simple, inescapable nature of urban warfare. Even if the IDF is as discriminating as it says it is, it's clearly not perfect.
3) At least one tunnel extends into the heart of Gaza. Look at the big tunnel in the south, the longest one on the map. It comes out near Khan Younis, the second largest city in Gaza. The tunnels are concealed on the Israeli side, and the IDF is intent on making sure they're destroyed. As the Ha'aretz map notes at the bottom, they've only yet demolished half of the ones they've found.
When you put all of these things together, you get a clear picture of why this conflict has been so deadly. The Israeli military believes Hamas is trying to infiltrate their territory in order to attack towns. They want to make sure every tunnel, including ones that begin near heavily populated areas, is destroyed. Yet it's impossible for the Israeli military to do that without inevitably hitting Palestinian civilian structures.
To date, 56 Israelis have been killed and 119 have been injured. 1,100 Palestinians have been killed; 6,500 have been wounded.
See the full infographic and more on Ha'aretz's Gaza conflict liveblog.
The Israel-Gaza conflict, since it began, has killed 1,170 people. Of those, a shocking 815 are thought to be Palestinian civilians, and 232 of those children. That means that about 7 out of 10 total deaths are innocent Palestinian civilians, and 2 out of 10 innocent Palestinian children, an appallingly high rate. Why is this conflict so disproportionately killing Palestinian civilians? What is responsible?
A lot of this has to with the big picture of how the conflict is structured (lots more on that here). But more immediately, at the ground level, there are two common explanations you hear for this, each putting the onus for the deaths predominantly on one side.
On the one hand, Hamas appears to be at best indifferent to the fact that, by firing rockets from heavily civilian areas, it knowingly invites or even desires Israeli strikes that will kill civilians. (Hamas is frequently accused of using civilians as human shields for this reason.) On the other, the plain truth is that Israeli bombs are causing most of the civilian deaths. While Israel has many guidelines to prevent civilian casualties, it also uses overwhelming force in civilian areas and makes strategic and tactical choices that dramatically and foreseeably raise the rate of civilian deaths, and has continued making these choices even as hundreds of Palestinian civilians have died.
Ultimately, both are deeply negligent in their responsibilities to avoid causing Palestinian civilian casualties, but in very different ways to very different ends, and there's a lot more complexity to both ends of this than you might think.
The truth to this is not simple; while Hamas does not appear to force civilians into the line of fire, which is the legal definition of human shields, the group is extremely cavalier about indirectly causing Palestinian casualties by firing from civilian neighborhoods and storing rockets in civilian buildings. This is a real, serious form of culpability.
Observers on the ground tend to say that Hamas's actions do not meet the legal definition of human shields. The BBC's Jeremy Bowen recently wrote, "I saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel's accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields." The New York Times' Anne Barnard and Jodi Rudoren wrote, "There is no evidence that Hamas and other militants force civilians to stay in areas that are under attack — the legal definition of a human shield under international law."
Amnesty International, which has a number of people on the ground in Gaza and consistently condemns Israeli and Palestinian abuses alike, announced recently on its site that it does not see proof of Hamas using human shield — but they added an important asterisk.
"Palestinian armed groups have stored munitions in and fired indiscriminate rockets from residential areas in the Gaza Strip," an Amnesty report noted recently. The groups have also "reportedly urged residents in some areas of the Gaza Strip not to leave their homes" after Israel had warned it would attack the area, all of which have the effect of putting Palestinians at risk in the fighting.
An important secondary question, though, is whether they do this out of a deliberate desire to hide behind (or even provoke the bombing of) Palestinian civilians, or out of simple disregard for putting those civilians at risk.
Some of these observers have met and interviewed Hamas leaders, some have not.The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who has interviewed Hamas members, wrote that the group "is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible" because "dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas." While that is not exactly akin to using unwilling human shields, if true, the effect would be in many ways similar.
The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente wrote, "Hamas openly encourages civilians to act as human shields," pointing out that a Hamas spokesman had encouraged Gazans to "defend their rights and their homes with their bare chests and their blood." While again this is not actually the same as human shields, it is another form of culpability.
While it is within the realm of possibility that Hamas at some level desires the deaths of Palestinian civilians, proving that the group is acting on this requires a lot of extrapolation and supposition about the internal motivations of Hamas officials. Speaking for myself, I will not pretend to possess special insight into the minds of Hamas leaders.
What can be proven is that Hamas makes tactical choices, particularly firing from dense civilian areas, that increase the odds that Palestinian civilians will be killed. Hamas could save lives by firing rockets from less crowded areas of Gaza City or storing those rockets in a building that is not a school. But it doesn't. Even if this is "only" coldblooded indifference, which is the most generous possible reading, this is surely a form of culpability.
Israel and its defenders further point out that the Israeli military does take measures to reduce Palestinian civilian deaths, such as dropping fliers or even calling people whose homes are about to be bombed.
That has not prevented Israel's campaign in Gaza from foreseeably killing an overwhelming number of innocent Palestinian civilians. Israel has bombed a number of civilian structures, such as a mosque and a school for the disabled, in attacks that kill civilians. Israel defends such attacks as necessary to target militants and rockets tucked within the civilians. Israel does not claim that it was unaware that mosques and schools might contain civilians.
On the one hand, surely Israel is responsible for the bombs it drops in areas it knows to be civilian, especially given its overwhelming military superiority in the conflict. On the other, Israel and its defenders argue that Hamas forces it launch these overwhelming campaigns in civilian areas; this is not totally unreasonably, due to the Hamas tactics explained above.
But Israel bears some responsibility for this end too. Part of this comes from an unresolved contradiction in Israeli policy, which is both to avoid civilian causalities and to punish Hamas with overwhelming force in a way that will deter it from attacking Israel. The Israeli Defense Forces "gets and gives somewhat contradictory orders on this," the Brookings Institution's Daniel Byman wrote recently:
"There is both a strong and formal "when possible, try to avoid killing civilians" order, but also a message of "show them we mean business" and, of course, "protect the troops at all cost" (which can mean you bring down the building rather than try to clear it room by room to avoid civilians). So I think Israel often tries to do both proportionality and deterrence, and as a result both suffer.
Israel is surely aware of this contradictory policy, which was also true during the 2009 Israel-Gaza war that also killed many civilians. And Israel is aware of the large number of Palestinian civilian deaths that this strategic contradiction helps to cause — indeed, Israel is highly sensitive to international opprobrium over it. The fact that Israel has still failed to resolve this contradiction, has still failed to re-align its larger strategy in a way that does not compel it (from Israel's view) to launch attacks that will kill hundreds of Palestinian civilians is a real, significant form of responsibility.
The Israeli argument is often to point out that, because Hamas embeds itself among Palestinian civilian communities, Israel is forced into a choice between bombing those communities or sitting passively as Hamas flings rockets into Israeli territory. It is true that no democratically elected government could choose the latter, declining to defend its own citizens, and expect to be reelected. Nor would any state ever abandon its need to defend itself; this is why US leaders so often invoke Israel's right to self-defense. This is all very true.
But there are two reasons, beyond even the strictures of international law, that this does not absolve Israel of its responsibilities to avoid killing civilians. First, it ignores that Israel has failed, since at least the 2009 war, to change its larger Gaza strategy so that these civilian-casualty-heavy wars would not so foreseeably and frequently recur (yes, Hamas also bears responsibility for this).
Second, the Israeli argument presents a false binary choice between passively accepting Hamas's rocket attacks versus bombing Gaza civilian neighborhoods into the stone age. Given Israel's overwhelming military superiority and its vastly lower exposure to fatalities (more than 100 Palestinian civilians have been killed for every one Israeli civilian), surely it could afford to be less enthusiastic in its utter destruction of civilian-heavy areas.
It may well be the case that sometimes Israel is forced into an impossible choice between ignoring rocket attacks and bombing a civilian structure, in which it is at least defensible for Israel to privilege its self-defense and bomb the building. But in a larger view it is very difficult to imagine that a Palestinian threat that has killed seven Israeli civilians is dire enough to justify attacks that have killed 815 Palestinian civilians.
Defenders of Israel often argue that, if Hamas is deliberately putting Palestinian civilians into harms way, while Israel at least makes an effort to reduce Palestinian deaths, then it's not fair to criticize both as if they are equivalent. Clearly Israel, they say, is displaying a greater degree of responsibility.
Meanwhile, many critics of Israel point out that Israel is the one dropping the bombs that have killed such an overwhelming share of civilians, and it is the one that has decided to respond with such overwhelming force. So isn't it ultimately Israel's responsibility?
The argument over moral responsibility for civilian Palestinians often makes a fundamental mistake by assuming that culpability is zero-sum: that either Israel is responsible because it uses unnecessarily overwhelming force in civilian areas or Hamas is responsible because it attacks Israel from within civilian communities.
This fundamentally misses the point; both sides independently bear responsibility for the degree to which their tactics lead to civilian deaths. If one side abdicates that responsibility then this does not absolve the other. Both sides, by treating moral responsibility as zero-sum, are giving themselves permission to overlook their own role in driving up the civilian casualty rate, and thus continuing the killing.
More symbolically, treating moral responsibility as zero-sum — Hamas is free of blame because Israel bombs too much; Israel is free of blame because Hamas embeds itself among civilians — assumes that Palestinian civilian deaths only matter for the degree to which they make one side look better or worse. And that lack of regard for the hundreds of Palestinian civilians killed, the apparent sense that their lives only matter at the moment of their death so that it can be blamed on one side or another, is perhaps the most fundamental truth of the Israel-Gaza war.
"I have become less pro-Israel," admits Jonathan Chait in a powerful piece for New York Magazine. But I don't think Chait has become less pro-Israel. I think he's become more pessimistic about Israeli policy. And so have I.
Chait and I used to argue a lot about Israel, in part, I think, because we disagreed about what it meant to be pro-Israel. In his post, Chait gives his definition: "a sympathy for the country's history vis-à-vis its critics, or an ongoing support for its political stance in relation to its international foes." I don't equate support for Israel with support for the current policies of any particular Israeli government, any more than I equate support for America with support for the particular policies of President Bush or President Obama. My definition of being pro-Israel was always more basic, and, admittedly, more subjective: I want to see Israel succeed. I want to see it thrive. And that makes this moment in Israeli history painful to watch.
The state of Israel is supposed to make Jews safer. But Israel itself is terrifyingly vulnerable: it is home to 6 million Jews in a tiny sliver of land surrounded on all sides by enemies. Israel is a fortress built in hostile territory. Its survival, and its strength today, is something of a miracle. But the nightmares are easy to conjure: the Six-Day War ending another way, or a dirty bomb detonating in Tel Aviv.
Israel's political ideals are similarly imperiled: it is a liberal democracy that intends to remain a Jewish state. The problem is that Jews might become a minority in the territory they control (though there's disagreement about the demographic projections behind that fear), and even if they don't, liberal democracies do not deprive millions of their native residents of a say in their government.
Israel's problems aren't easy to solve — and Israel cannot solve them without moderate leadership in Palestine and the region. But in recent years Israel seems to be making its problems insoluble. The continued growth of the settlements is morally indefensible, but it's also deeply counterproductive: every Israeli home built in the West Bank makes a two-state solution that much harder. Israel's peace movement has collapsed, and its government has become more bellicose and aggressive: Avigdor Lieberman's presence in the cabinet is painful proof that Israel's fear is outpacing its hope.
The excuse used to be that Israel did not have a partner for peace, and that was true. But it's clear today that Israel itself is not much of a partner for peace, either. As Chait writes, the best account of the recent talks show that "Netanyahu appeared on several occasions to approach the brink of agreement, but pulled back in the face of right-wing pressure within his coalition."
Israel's other problem is the way it wields its overwhelming military superiority. Hamas is an indefensible organization led by fanatics and murderers. But it's no conspiracy that the nightly news around the world shows so many lifeless Palestinian bodies; it's the bloody reality. In this conflict, around 100 Palestinian civilians have died for every civilian Israeli casualty. More than 200 of the Palestinians killed were children. The answer to this, of course, is not more Israeli dead; it's a more proportionate Israeli reprisal that leaves fewer Palestinian casualties in its wake.
It is impossible to credit Israel's promise that it makes every effort to avoid civilian deaths while so many Palestinian civilians are dying. Hamas's strategy of launching rockets from civilian areas and hiding weapons in schools makes it culpable in these deaths. But Israel chooses the force of its campaign, and a strategy based on unleashing air strikes in a crowded city makes civilian casualties an inevitability. The brutality of Hamas's tactics doesn't justify the brutality of Israel's response.
Netanyahu's aim, in part, is simple punishment: "Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing at Israeli citizens," he warned. The deeper plan is to crush Hamas's tunnels and cripple their supply lines. But while Israel's wrath weakens Hamas operationally, it strengthens them — and other extremists — politically. No Palestinian man who watched his daughter die in an Israeli air strike will moderate his politics. Each Palestinian boy who loses his home to an Israeli bulldozer will be that much more open to the promises of radicals. Meanwhile, Israel loses support around the world.
This is something Netanyahu knows full well. He has lamented the benefits Hamas derives from, in his cruel phrase, "telegenically dead Palestinians." But he continues the air strikes. He keeps making Palestine's extremists stronger and its moderates weaker. And there is no obvious next step; no compelling story for how it gets better. Chait expresses the feeling well:
Netanyahu and his coalition have no strategy of their own except endless counterinsurgency against the backdrop of a steadily deteriorating diplomatic position within the world and an inexorable demographic decline. The operation in Gaza is not Netanyahu's strategy in excess; it is Netanyahu's strategy in its entirety. The liberal Zionist, two-state vision with which I identify, which once commanded a mainstream position within Israeli political life, has been relegated to a left-wing rump within it.
This is true when the bombs aren't flying as well. The daily humiliations and hopelessness of life under the Israeli occupation (or, in Gaza, the blockade) radicalize the next generation of Palestinians — as well as others in the region who identify with them, or whose governments cynically use the Palestinian plight to drum up support. Israel may not have a much better choice than grasping security now even if it leads to more and more dangerous threats later. But it doesn't seem to be looking for another choice, either. And as Jeffrey Goldberg writes (in a piece, I should say, that's more sympathetic to Israel's operation in Gaza than this one is), there are other choices:
Israel, while combating the extremists, could do a great deal more to buttress the moderates. This would mean, in practical terms, working as hard as possible to build wealth and hope on the West Bank. A moderate-minded Palestinian who watches Israel expand its settlements on lands that most of the world believes should fall within the borders of a future Palestinian state might legitimately come to doubt Israel's intentions. Reversing the settlement project, and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, but it would convince Israel's sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace, and that it treats extremists differently than it treats moderates.
Even if Israel's actions make sense for short-run security, the likely outcomes begin to look very bad the further into the future you try to peer. This analysis from the strategic intelligence firm Stratfor is persuasive, though obviously not certain:
Israel's major problem is that circumstances always change. Predicting the military capabilities of the Arab and Islamic worlds in 50 years is difficult. Most likely, they will not be weaker than they are today, and a strong argument can be made that at least several of their constituents will be stronger. If in 50 years some or all assume a hostile posture against Israel, Israel will be in trouble.
Time is not on Israel's side. At some point, something will likely happen to weaken its position, while it is unlikely that anything will happen to strengthen its position ... Looking at the relative risks, making a high-risk deal with the Palestinians would seem prudent in the long run. But nations do not make decisions on such abstract calculations. Israel will bet on its ability to stay strong. From a political standpoint, it has no choice. The Palestinians will bet on the long game. They have no choice. And in the meantime, blood will periodically flow.
There's been an important debate recently about whether the media is "biased" towards Israel. I won't speak for the media, but I definitely am biased towards Israel. My grandparents took me there when I was a child. I spent a week there with my best friend after I graduated college. I have friends there. I have family holding tickets to go there. I care about Israel personally, rather than abstractly.
There's an opposite argument that's made by Israel's supporters: that people like me, who write about our disappointment with Israeli policy, are "blaming Israel first." But it's not about blame. If interest in geopolitics was driven by outrage and horror Israel and Palestine would spend less time on the front page. The suffering there is immense, but the death toll is dwarfed by the slaughter in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Syria. I pay unusual attention to what Israel does because, for family and cultural reasons, I am unusually invested in Israel. Focusing on Israeli policy is a byproduct of focusing on Israel itself.
For these reasons, I used to write about Israel often. It felt, even a few years ago, that peace was a live possibility, that Israel had choices — and that some of them might even turn out well. But Israel seems to have made its choice, at least for now, and the results are painful to watch. I haven't become less pro-Israel. But I've become much more pessimistic about its prospects, and more confused and occasionally horrified by its policies. My sense is that's happened to Chait, too. I notice he writes about Israel less these days, also. My sense is it's happened to a lot of us.
There is something about the Israel-Palestine conflict that often turns small moments into metaphors for something much larger. There was, for example, the Palestinian rocket attack that broke up an Israeli peace conference, or the many times that celebrities have made mildly pro-Palestinian statements, only to quickly retreat.
The latest metaphor-in-miniature began as an argument on a JetBlue flight from Palm Beach, Florida, to New York. That argument, which has dragged on now for three weeks and seems to be getting more petty all the time, was and remains a symbol for how even just the abstract idea of the Israel-Palestine conflict manages to turn adults into squabbling children. That phenomenon is well observed, and matters more than you might think.
The incident is complicated and involves conflicting narratives about what happened (I told you it was a good metaphor). Fortunately, unlike the real Israel-Palestine conflict, this incident is entertaining, and inconsequential enough that it's okay to laugh at. Here is a reconstruction of the events as they appear to have happened, based on accounts from the two outlets that have followed it most closely, which are, naturally, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the New York Post.
The drama began on July 7 when Lisa Rosenberg, a Queens gynecologist, boarded a flight in Palm Beach bound for New York. As the plane waited at the gate, Rosenberg was on her cell phone discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict, which was already entering some of its worst violence in years. It's not clear what she said, but everyone agrees she was speaking positively of Israel and doing it loudly enough that another woman two rows behind could hear it.
That other woman confronted Rosenberg mid-phone call, identifying herself as Palestinian. The Palestinian woman later explained that Rosenberg was speaking about Palestinians in such a manner that "I couldn't take it any more."
At this point, there are three versions of events. Rosenberg's version is that the Palestinian woman went on an anti-Semitic rant, calling her a "Zionist pig." The Palestinian woman's version is that Rosenberg "turned on me like a pit bull," saying, "You're a child murderer and a danger to this plane."
The third version comes from JetBlue itself, whose incident report describes Rosenberg as the sole instigator, indicating that she called the Palestinian woman a "Palestinian murderer." Rosenberg allegedly said, "Her people are all murderers and they murder children." The report says that flight attendants stopped Rosenberg, who was trying to "physically move through the cabin" to get nearer to the Palestinian woman.
Everyone agrees on what happened next: a JetBlue complaint resolution official (read: the person who kicks you off the plane) boarded the flight, which was still parked at the gate. Rosenberg's version is that she was asked to leave the plane, which she's implied was based in part on her religion. She recounted later, "When I asked to speak to the pilot, I was told, 'Jews don't make the rules on this plane.'"
JetBlue's version is that Rosenberg refused to stop yelling at the Palestinian woman, at one point implying that the Palestinian woman had explosives in her bag and planned to blow up the plane mid-flight. JetBlue says that Rosenberg, as she was escorted from the plane, pledged to make sure the flight attendant would be fired over the incident. She was re-ticketed on another flight.
You'd like to think the story ended there. But there is a second and far more absurd chapter to the drama, which by this point was already known as "the 7E/9C argument" for the seat numbers of its participants.
Late last week, the Palestinian woman, apparently seeing their argument as unfinished, called Rosenberg at her gynecology office in Queens. She called to chastise Rosenberg further and to reveal that she herself was not actually Palestinian at all — you cannot make this stuff up — but Jewish. Rosenberg recorded the phone call.
In other words, Rosenberg had been shouting at a fellow Jew all along, not a Palestinian. Both women later confirmed the phone call and its contents to the New York Post, which also confirmed the not-actually-Palestinian woman's identity.
"I told you at the time I was Palestinian because I wanted you to stop your rant. If I said I was Jewish, you wouldn't have stopped," the woman said during the call. "I shouldn't have said it, but I did."
It gets better/worse. The not-actually-Palestinian woman told Rosenberg, "I'm more Zionist than you'll ever be. My third cousin was [former Israeli Prime Minister] –Menachem Begin."
For all the terrible, racist things that Rosenberg allegedly told the woman whom she believed to be Palestinian, going by the JetBlue report, this may actually be worse. The woman who had earlier claimed to be Palestinian in order to make a self-righteous point, who used the Palestinian nationality to paint herself a victim, is now claiming to be Jewish and related to a famous Israeli leader in order to make a second self-righteous point. There is something worse than dishonesty at play when you position yourself as a Palestinian and a victim of Israel to win one argument, then claim "I'm more Zionist than you'll ever be" in order to win a second argument.
At least Rosenberg picked a side; the second woman seems to be happy adopting whatever position will make her look most righteous. But that, in a sense, is the pure, uncut core of many Israel-Palestine arguments: look at how much more righteous I am.
Obviously the great 7E/9C conflict of 2014 could not possibly be any less consequential. And it is not revelatory that talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict makes grown adults behave like children. But the depths to which both sides sank in their fight (again, metaphor) are accurately representative of our larger inability to maintain a civil Israel-Palestine discourse, which matters more than you might think.
There is a body of social science research that helps explain why the Israel-Palestine conversation is so polarizing and pushes people to such extremes. On a human, behavioral level, the argument becomes driven more by a need to seize and hold the high moral ground than by a desire to actually further the interests of Israelis or Palestinians (or, god forbid, both).
The truth is that both Israelis and Palestinians have done and continue to do bad things, but partisans on either end are often unable or unwilling to fully acknowledge those bad things, because this would compromise their moral high ground. So you end up with two narratives of history that simply do not overlap.
Reconciling your narrative with the truth is not easy and can require some mental contortions, which is part of why when people talk about Israel-Palestine, they can be even more prone to lunacy than usual. That's part of what drives a "pro-Israel" JetBlue customer to accuse a Palestinian woman two rows back of being a "child-murderer," and drives her "pro-Palestinian" adversary to claim both Palestinian and Zionist Israeli status.
Given that the outside world plays such an important role in mediating the Israel-Palestine conflict, the fact that public discourse around it is so broken has real-world implications for the conflict, way beyond just this one silly-but-sad incident.
On June 13, three teenage Israelis went missing in the West Bank, where they were studying at a religious school. They were later found shot to death. Their murders, which the Israeli government blamed on the Palestinian militant group Hamas, eventually led to the Israel-Gaza fighting that has already killed over 1,000 Palestinians and almost 50 Israelis.
But is the Israel-Gaza conflict premised on a lie, or at least a mistake? You may have read reports over the weekend suggesting as much: that Hamas actually did not murder the three Israelis, that they were in fact killed by a "lone cell." If true, many have argued, the murders would be somewhat akin to the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that served as justification for the 2003 US-led invasion but never materialized. It would be a huge scandal.
There is somewhat more ambiguity to this story, though, than what you may have read — both in terms of the evidence about the Israeli boys' killers and about how their deaths fit into the conflict still ongoing today.
The story was set off by Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, who told BuzzFeed's Sheera Frenkel and the BBC's Jon Donnison that the murders had been committed by a "lone cell" that was affiliated with Hamas but not acting under Hamas orders. He went on to explain that lone cells are very difficult for the Israeli police to track because they communicate less.
Both Frenkel and Donnison tweeted the quotes, which received widespread attention. It is not clear whether Rosenfeld was speaking for himself or for the entire Israeli police organization. But he was very clearly not speaking for the entire Israeli government, which maintains that it sees Hamas as responsible.
On Sunday, the Daily Beast's Eli Lake called up Rosenfeld to ask him about it, and the police spokesman would not confirm the story:
Rosenfeld said that he had told Donnison what the Israeli government had been saying all along. "The kidnapping and murder of the teens was carried out by Hamas terrorists from the Hebron area," he told The Daily Beast. "The security organizations are continuing to search for the murderers."
It seems next to impossible to imagine that either Frenkel or Donnison would fabricate or exaggerate the quotes, much less that both would happen to fabricate such similar statements. It seems most likely that Rosenfeld has decided to walk back the claim, which may help explain why neither Frenkel nor Donnison appear to have written articles about the quotes.
From the beginning, there has been uncertainty and disagreement on this question; Friday's revelation only furthers that uncertainty.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been insisting since the beginning that the murders were the work of Hamas and that the entire group was responsible.
For just as long, though, a small number of Israeli officials have being going off the reservation, saying that the killings were more likely done by loners who may have been Hamas members but were acting on their own. BuzzFeed's Frenkel has been especially good at fleshing out this ambiguity, pointing to signs that it was a "crime of opportunity" not sanctioned or ordered by Hamas leadership.
A month ago, when Israeli intelligence released the name of the Palestinian family it believes was behind the attack, Al-Monitor's Shlomi Eldar profiled the family's long history of going rogue from Hamas, staging attacks during times of Hamas-sanctioned ceasefire in order undermine the group's efforts at even the most basic compromise.
The murders always looked a bit off for a Hamas operation. The group has a record of coordinated attacks — like the series of million-dollar tunnels it used recently to insert fighters, disguised as Israeli soldiers, within rural Israel — and such a ham-fisted, one-off incident looked out of character. It also seemed strange that Israel's vaunted signals intelligence programs were not able to pick up chatter beforehand.
On the other hand, Hamas has used and encouraged kidnapping in the past. It is, after all, a terrorist organization that targets Israeli civilians. And its leaders, though they denied responsibility for the attack, still praised it. We have tried to reflect this ambiguity and uncertainty in our coverage, as have a number of other outlets.
Rosenfeld's statements deepen the doubt as to whether Hamas was really responsible, and indicate further that there is likely disagreement within the Israeli government over this question. That is significant on its own and should shed doubt on Netanyahu's statements asserting with total certainty that Hamas is responsible. But we are nowhere near the point where we can say definitively that Hamas was or was not responsible.
One reason that there has been some wariness around Netanyahu's categorical insistence that Hamas was responsible for the deaths is that he very quickly responded, in what looked like at least a degree of opportunism, by arresting hundreds of people in the West Bank thought or known to be associated with Hamas. Israel also launched a limited bombing campaign — small, relative to what came later — against targets in Gaza.
Within a couple of weeks, Netanyahu dismantled Hamas in the West Bank — at no small cost to Palestinian civilians whose lives were disrupted in the sweeps and arrests — which he framed as a response to the murders.
It would be an understatement to say that Netanyahu distrusts Hamas, and he has good reason to — it is a terrorist group committed to Israel's destruction. But Hamas is also, as of earlier this summer, supporting a Palestinian unity government with the West Bank-based moderate party Fatah. The US has supported the Hamas-Fatah deal as a step toward peace negotiations. Netanyahu has opposed it as empowering terrorists. The arrests have had the effect of undermining the unity deal.
So Netanyahu got two things he wanted pretty quickly: rounding up Hamas members in mass arrests, and weakening the unity government. He justified these actions by blaming Hamas for the murdered students. So if it turns out that Hamas did not kill them, or just that Netanyahu was aware of any uncertainty within Israeli intelligence, then that's a big deal and very damning.
Some have argued that Netanyahu's placement of blame for the murders on Hamas led directly not just to the West Bank raids, but to the current war in Gaza. This is both true and not true.
It is accurate that the crisis began with the murders of the three Israeli students and has since snowballed into the Israel-Gaza crisis. But it was not a straight line. And, unlike the Israeli mass arrests in the West Bank, it is not totally clear that Netanyahu wanted to invade Gaza from the get-go. In other words, it is not fair to say that Netanyahu used the murders in order to justify the Gaza war; the one did not lead so simply into the other. The Iraq/WMDs comparison is not accurate.
There were some big steps between the murders and the Gaza invasion that were outside of Netanyahu's control. First, Israeli right-wing extremists murdered a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem, in apparent "revenge" for the deaths of the students. Then, Palestinians in the West Bank, outraged over the murder and over the arrests, protested. Eventually outrage boiled over and Hamas launched 40 rockets from Gaza into Israel, the first time it had done so and taken responsibility since 2012.
Israel responded with more air strikes, Hamas responded with more rockets, and both escalated for several days. The war began, Israel says, when it discovered Hamas tunnels running from Gaza to Israel that it had attempted to use to attack Israelis. Israel invaded to destroy the tunnels and Hamas "infrastructure" more broadly.
In order to say that Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the Palestinians murders in order to invade Gaza, as President George W. Bush premised his Iraq invasion on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, two things would have to be true.
First, Netanyahu would have had to have planned the sequence of events from the beginning such that he would get to invade Gaza; the Middle East is rife with conspiracy theories but unless Netanyahu secretly controls Hamas, Israeli extremist gangs, and Palestinian protesters, he did not plan this. It seems much likelier that things gradually escalated out of control until both sides were sucked into war.
Second, Netanyahu would have had to have wanted to invade Gaza. You don't devise an elaborate conspiracy to do something, after all, unless you actually want to do it. This is ultimately a question of Netanyahu's personal internal motivation, which I will not claim to know. For whatever it's worth, an American veteran of the Israel-Palestine peace process named Aaron David Miller wrote in the Washington Post that he believes Netanyahu did not want or seek the war. Maybe, maybe not.
If you want to get angry about something, get angry about this: Israel has for years refused to change its strategy toward Gaza and the larger Israel-Palestine conflict, even though that strategy shows zero indication of yielding sustainable peace and leads Israel to occasionally invade Gaza to weaken anti-Israel groups there.
In this approach, Israel never fully makes peace with Gaza-based militant groups like Hamas, nor does it defeat them outright. The former would require at least an Israel-Palestine peace deal for separate states, which the current government is not really pursuing; the latter would require placing Gaza under a West Bank-style military occupation, which Israel did until it withdrew in 2005 and will likely not do again because it would be a disaster.
This leaves Israel to manage the conflict rather than solve it. In practice, that means tolerating a little bit of rocket fire, but periodically invading Gaza to degrade militant infrastructure and weapon stockpiles. It invaded last in 2009 and, unless Israel can find a way to change its approach (or unless Gaza militant groups unilaterally disarm), it was going to invade again sooner or later.
None of this is to deny that it matters a great deal whether Netanyahu was telling the truth when he blamed Hamas categorically for the murdered students, or whether he was papering over any internal Israeli intelligence disagreement on this question. He used that accusation to justify mass arrests, police sweeps, and other measures in the West Bank. Those events also led, however indirectly and potentially against the wishes of all involved, to a war that has so far killed over 1,000 people.
Still, in a much larger sense, in the view from 50,000 feet above the conflict, what may have mattered even more is that the conflict is structured in such a way that another war was likely going to happen whether Netanyahu blamed Hamas or not. To paraphrase the Brookings analyst Khaled Elgindy, the story here is not so much about the spark as about the kindling.
West Bank Palestinians demonstrating this week in solidarity with Gaza are calling for a "day of rage" today across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, by which they mean protests against Israel's week-long invasion of Gaza. Large-scale demonstrations erupted on Thursday in the West Bank; today is also Quds Day, an Iranian annual day of solidarity with Palestinians (Quds means Jerusalem) that is observed by many Palestinians, so the "day of rage" is expected to be big.
This is far from the first day of rage. The term, which will be familiar to anyone who has covered or been within five miles of an Arab Spring protest, has been used across the Arab world to refer to anti-government protests, typically held on a Friday, after end-of-week prayers. And, while not every protest or Friday protest in the West Bank is called a day of rage, it's been used especially by Palestinians for protesting Israel's occupation.
Why is it called a "day of rage"? Where does the expression come from and why is it so widely used in the Middle East? The answer is not settled history, but the most commonly accepted account is not what you might be expecting, a strange story of cultural cross-pollination.
The term was first widely used not in the Middle East but in the United States, by the 1960s leftist student movement called Students for a Democratic Society, particularly the militant leftist group Weather Underground. They used "Days of Rage" to organize October 1969 violent protests in Chicago against the Vietnam War. But it turns out that this incident, though famous in the US, likely has no direct connection to the days of rage now common in the Middle East.
The contemporary Middle Eastern use of the term may, strangely enough, still originate with the United States. That's according to a comprehensive investigation into the phrase's history by NBC News's Petra Cahill, who traced it back to a 1989 PBS documentary about Palestinian views of the Israeli occupation, called "Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians."
The PBS filmmaker who named the documentary, Jo Franklin, told NBC News that she came up with the title on her own. "All of a sudden it came to me — the core of the film was rage. Consequentially I named the film, ‘Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians,'" she said. She does not say that the phrase is a reference to the Chicago student movement; it seems plausible that it may have trickled into her mind subconsciously, but maybe not.
The documentary was widely controversial in the US, which may have helped propel it to Middle Eastern audiences. Here's NBC News:
The documentary became a polarizing topic of debate, with the New York Times widely denouncing the project to the Los Angeles Times championing it as a fresh look at the conflict from voices seldom heard in the American media. Channel Thirteen, the New York PBS station lists the controversy among "Thirteen's Most Shocking Moments."
After months of public debate, the documentary eventually aired to a huge audience, with the Israeli perspective edited in and a roundtable discussion held after the broadcast. It also aired across the Middle East - which is why Franklin believes the term became synonymous with protests in the Arab world to this day.
Franklin also says the program was broadcast widely in Jordan.
Palestinian protesters were at that point already in the middle of a largely peaceful protest movement against the occupation, today called the First Intifada or first uprising. Some say they heard "day of rage" trickle into the Palestinian discourse to plan Friday protests, others aren't sure. But the term was definitely used by Palestinians during the Second Intifada, which occurred in the early 2000s and featured extensive violence by both sides of the conflict.
The term received its widest-ever usage during the Arab Spring demonstrations that began in 2011. In January 2011, activists in Tunisia and Egypt both used the term "day of rage" to plan and coordinate anti-government, pro-democracy protests, typically held on Fridays, that ultimately toppled their respective governments. (It's not clear whether it was used first in Tunisia or Egypt.) Friday protests quickly became one of the defining features of the Arab Spring, from Morocco to Yemen to Syria and elsewhere. It was so consistent for a time that those countries' security forces — not to mention local and foreign reporters — would plan for them in advance.
And now it has circled back to the West Bank, where Palestinian protests on Thursday alone were reportedly the largest since the Second Intifada. Outsiders, long wary that the failures of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the continuation of the Israeli occupation would lead to another mass uprising, are already asking if Friday's day of rage will be the start of the Third Intifada, though it is still too early to tell.
None of this is to say that Americans "invented" days of rage. Clearly, it is their execution that is far more consequential than the phrase itself, and protesters across the Arab world have made it their own. Still, the apparent cross-cultural history of the term is a revealing little glimpse into the cross-cultural currents, often invisible, that help shape our world.
Gallup has released the results of a poll on American views of the ongoing Israeli ground incursion into Gaza and larger Israel-Palestine issues, which it conducted on July 22 and 23. Gallup asked Americans whether they thought Israel's actions in Gaza were "mostly justified" or "mostly unjustified." Americans are split on that question, but overwhelmingly think Hamas' actions are "mostly unjustified." There are a number of other findings: Americans who have more education are more likely to support Israel's Gaza incursion, for example, while Americans under age 30 oppose it by a two-to-one margin.
There a number of interesting findings in the survey:
The top-line takeaway here is that Israel seems to be in a very strong position with the American public in the near term with regards to its Gaza incursion. The sorts of voters most likely to be politically engaged — older, more informed about the situation, more educated — took Israel's side in the largest numbers. That may help explain why the US is so pro-Israel, although there are a lot of other forces at work there as well.
Israel's weak numbers among the young and Democrats may be a long-term problem for the country. But right now, in the current conflict, some crucial components parts of the American electorate seem to be taking Israel's side.
An attack on a UN facility in Gaza sheltering Palestinians displaced by the ongoing fighting killed 15 people and wounded 200, according to the Wall Street Journal. As of right now, it's not clear who's responsible, but there's a growing dispute over who is to blame.
The facility, a school in the city of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, was operated by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). It's the third shelter for displaced persons to be hit during the conflict. Here's what the scene looked like after the attack:
Both the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Chris Guinness, the UNRWA spokesman, confirm that the IDF had asked UNRWA to evacuate the Beit Hanoun school (Hamas' official position on the strike is not yet clear). The IDF was planning to target what it claimed were nearby Hamas rocket launchers.
Precise co-ordinates of the UNRWA shelter in Beit Hanoun had been formally given to the Israeli army RT— Chris Gunness (@ChrisGunness) July 24, 2014
In recent days, Hamas has fired rockets from an area of Beit Hanoun where an UNRWA shelter is located.— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) July 24, 2014
Last night, we told Red Cross to evacuate civilians from UNRWA's shelter in Beit Hanoun btw 10 am & 2 pm. UNRWA & Red Cross got the message.— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) July 24, 2014
Today Hamas continued firing from Beit Hanoun. The IDF responded by targeting the source of the fire.— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) July 24, 2014
Both the IDF and UNRWA spokesperson also agree that Hamas rockets were firing from the area. Sometimes, Hamas rockets fall short of their intended Israeli targets.
Also today, several rockets launched from Gaza toward Israel fell short and hit Beit Hanoun.— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) July 24, 2014
Also being reported there were Hamas rockets falling in Beit Hanoun today RT— Chris Gunness (@ChrisGunness) July 24, 2014
Civilians yet again caught between two sides paying an unimaginable price RT— Chris Gunness (@ChrisGunness) July 24, 2014
The official accounts are hazy because no one is really sure yet whether an Israeli strike or Hamas rocket hit the Beit Hanoun school.
Initially, the local UNRWA director blamed an Israeli strike. However, the New York Times now reports that UN officials are saying "they could not be sure." Israel, according to the Times, is denying intentionally hitting the school.
The Times and other reporters in Gaza have been unable to independently verify any claims of responsibility for the destruction at the school. However, witnesses suggest that the UN facility was struck by shells, possibly from a tank (which would imply Israeli responsibility):
IDF has implied a Hamas rocket may have misfired and hit school at Beit Hanoun. Witnesses described multiple explosions from tank shelling— Kristen Chick (@kristenchick) July 24, 2014
Survivors at UNRWA shelter hit today told us that 3 4 or 5 shells hit, in courtyard, school building. 15+ killed, 100+ wounded.— William Booth (@BoothWilliam) July 24, 2014
This comes amidst a major controversy about Israeli target selection in the Gaza offensive. Two other UN facilities have been hit during the conflict, and the UN had found Hamas rockets hidden in the basement of two of its facilities.
More broadly, Israel has targeted schools, mosques, and homes that Hamas uses as rocket emplacements or shelters from which to fire on Israeli troops. Israel alleges that Hamas intentionally endangers civilians to put political pressure on Israel, which Hamas denies.
Regardless, the conflict's death toll keeps climbing:
Ashraf al Qedra, health ministry spokesman here, says 107 Palestinians killed in Gaza today alone. Alone.— Hugh Naylor (@HughNaylor) July 24, 2014
How does the Israeli government think about going to war? It's a critically important question for understanding its ongoing invasion of Gaza, which it launched on July 17, yet it's also surprisingly difficult to answer, at least in simple terms. Israeli politics is complex and fractious, and the Israeli bureaucracy and military establishment isn't always the easiest thing for outsiders to get a handle on.
I asked Brent Sasley, a professor at the University of Texas-Arlington whose research focuses on Israeli politics, to shed some light on these questions. We talked over the phone about the Israeli strategy behind the Gaza incursion, how the Israeli military affects the civilian government's decisions about war, and how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thinks about the most important challenges facing his country. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Zack Beauchamp: The public statements from the Israeli government say they're going after Hamas's tunnels, specifically tunnels into Israel. But they also say they want to get at Hamas infrastructure, which presumably would also mean tunnels into Egypt. What do you make of Israel's strategic objectives in the recent incursion?
Brent Sasley: Well, I wrote a whole piece about it for The National Interest. The first goal is quiet. It's not even tunnels.
In some media interviews, Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] says "sustainable quiet." Both "quiet" and "sustainable quiet" are utterly vague. Because Israel, including under Netanyahu, has accepted quite a few rockets, scores of rockets [fired from Gaza-based militant groups]. As far as I can tell, "quiet" is defined as a number of rockets, preferably not by Hamas, so long as they don't cause any damage, certainly don't kill any Israelis, and there's nothing else that requires a bigger Israeli response. That, I think, is the goal.
Now, my concern is that Israel doesn't have a strategic agenda for the region as a whole, which means it doesn't have a strategic goal in this operation. Not a Bibi problem, it's an Israel problem. There's a history to it — that's how Israel developed, it's been forced on the defensive, it thinks reactively instead of proactively, and so on. Those are all important explanations, but it goes beyond that. After a certain point, it becomes a cop-out to say "Israel just can't think long-term."
Now, some people say that there is a strategy — that horrible term "mowing the grass," or I guess a "war of attrition" is a more sophisticated way of saying it. That's a holding pattern, as far as I can see. Israel doesn't have a national security strategy, it's never really articulated one.
ZB: It does seem like "mowing the grass," the theory that Israel needs to regularly go to war with Hamas in order to weaken its military capabilities and deter attacks on Israel, seems to be part of Israel's broader strategy. Is that wrong? Do you think that term has been misunderstood?
BS: The term itself — I dunno. Putting aside the offensive idea that killing people, including civilians is "mowing the grass," I'm not so sure. Israel sees itself in a war. I'm generalizing, obviously: not every Israeli thinks that. Not even every Israeli leader thinks that.
But, generally speaking, Israel sees itself as caught in a constant siege. Bibi and others talk about Israel as a current incarnation of the Jewish people. Modern Jewish sovereignty has been under siege for centuries. That's how many Israelis in the defense establishment see Israel, constantly having to respond to different threats.
Which means that Hamas, like any of these other previous threats, needs to be managed. You can't defeat them completely. They need to be managed. Managed means degrading their capabilities, it might mean in some cases removing them and replacing them with someone else. But Israel's military doctrine has long been to cause damage to its enemies without being able to take them over completely because it never could.
ZB: Interesting. The way you describe it, the current strategy was designed for Arab states, when the Israeli-Arab conflict was principally about state-to-state relations.
BS: And non-state actors. Like the fedayeen in the 1950s, the Palestinian militant, terrorist, and guerrilla groups.
ZB: Do you think the Israeli strategy is still effective?
BS: I don't think it's valid anymore. It's too deterministic and essentialist to say that neither Israel nor its enemies have changed. Certainly, Israel faces threats, and conditions in the Middle East are fluid. There's a lot of things going on, and not all of it threatens Israel, but there's a general trajectory towards instability.
But Israel is much stronger than it ever was. There's just no comparison between it and its neighbors. The terrorism and limited military action its enemies can mount are not existential threats. They don't threaten the borders or the state itself. Iran is a bit of a separate issue — the Iranian nuclear program would be the biggest strategic threat in that sense — but there is no other threat like that.
Israel's very wealthy. It's very important to the global economy. There's dissatisfaction over settlements, but the Europeans aren't interested in anything that will lead to the end of Israel despite all the talk of BDS [international boycotts, divestment, and sanctions meant to pressure Israel]. Israel is more integrated into the world system than it ever has been — UN committees, world financial and economic structures, global international law, it's deeply embedded in these things.
That said, it's become clear that the status quo is not positive for Israel. Israel can weather the status quo and the occupation in the short and maybe medium term, but in the long term it can't. Israel can't maintain the status quo — I know it's a cliche, but it's true — and remain a Jewish and democratic state. Given that, it's not smart for Israel to not have a broader strategic agenda. And that agenda has to include political change.
ZB: Does that mean the current conflict grew out of a misapplication of an old, outdated theory? Is the Israeli defense establishment too wedded to an old approach to change?
BS: I wouldn't say that. There are a couple books I just reviewed that should be coming out shortly on this, but in brief: Israel has never been good at longer-term strategic decisionmaking. It's very good at the tactical, short-term level. At that tactical, short-term level, the defense and security establishment has long been predominant.
That doesn't mean they're always pushing for war. Sometimes they are; they do see things through a military lens. But because the security establishment, particularly the Israeli Defense Forces and the intelligence services, have the best tactical and operational decision-making capabilities, they're the ones who are coming up with these tactics and therefore these policies.
They're embedded in the civilian decisionmaking structures. That's not because of a military coup, or anything sinister. It's just how the state developed. There haven't been any civilian agencies that have been able to compete with them.
Now, that's changing. The Foreign Ministry, in particular, has a very good internal research institute. You have an increasingly effective national security council, which was strengthened in 2008. These groups matter. But even while they're getting stronger, getting taken more seriously, the military is still the dominant actor. So it presents these options that it has come up with.
Naturally, these options are put in a military framework using military concepts. Typically, what happens is that they present one of two options to the Prime Minister and the cabinet. It's not a broad range of options, and not a broad range of options that includes discussions of potential consequences. It's typically one of two things, or a one option, take-it-or-leave-it sort of thing. So cabinet discussions are typically constrained.
ZB: How does this relate to Israeli politics? When you read about Netanyahu's decision-making, it really does seem that he's concerned about political pressure to his right. And it seems that this pressure affects the way he thinks about decisions.
BS: Yes. I've been arguing this for a couple years. I think that BIbi is risk averse, ever since his first term in office. I think he learned a lot from that. He has a managerial style of leadership. He's not a bold visionary, though I think he does have a vision. I think he thinks it's better for Israel, and better for him, if he pursues it carefully. I think he's a pragmatist.
I think he would like to hold onto the West Bank. But what we know, from the information filtering out about the John Kerry-led peace process, is that can be moved. [Netanyahu] can be pushed, he can be cajoled. It takes a lot of effort, and he would move if there was serious domestic pressure on him.
But that's why he's sensitive to the pressure from the right wing in his party and in his coalition. He takes a very cautious approach to them. That's why he brought Kadima [a centrist party] into the coalition a couple of years ago. Everyone thought it was going to be to prepare for an attack on Iran. It wasn't. It was pure domestic politics, so Bibi could put off having an election.
The fighting between Israel and Gaza-based Palestinian militant groups, now in its 15th day, is so severe that it is visible from space. A German astronaut on the International Space Station named Alexander Gerst, who has been posting photos on his Twitter account, posted this on Wednesday, in which he says the explosions of Israeli air strikes and Palestinian rockets are visible:
The photo is oriented such that north is to the right and south to the left; that dark area at the top is the Mediterranean Sea and the brightest spot, on the coast, is Tel Aviv. To the left of Tel Aviv, just 44 miles to the south, is Gaza City, the largest city in Gaza and the location of a lot of the worst fighting.
Gerst posted the photo at 8:47 p.m. Gaza time.
Of all the many arguments about the Israel-Palestine conflict that are unfolding in the US and the around the world right now, one of the tensest and most fraught has to do with American media coverage. Is it objective? Does it privilege one side over the other, or hold one side to higher or lower standards? How does it shape American views of the conflict?
It's an important debate, and MSNBC host Chris Hayes invited on Rula Jebreal to discuss it after Jebreal had earlier criticized American media generally and MSNBC in particular for their coverage, which she argued heavily favored Israelis and the Israeli viewpoint. Their exchange is worth watching:
Two caveats to keep in mind. First: "The media" is an unhelpfully broad term; TV networks like CNN cover the conflict very differently than do national newspapers like the New York Times, much less online outlets like this one. So it is next to impossible to make a characterization about "the media" that accurately describes all of it. Second: There is an unfolding, semi-distinct media story, about Jebreal's status as a paid MSNBC contributor, that I am sidestepping here.
Few topics engender more disagreement than the Israel-Palestine conflict and questions of media fairness, so consensus is not going to happen, but there are four broad points that seem frequently converged on and that I would highlight here:
Jebreal points out, for example, that Americans who turn on their TV are not likely to hear about the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the suffering it causes Palestinians there. There are any number of possible explanations here: Israeli leaders are democratically elected, tend to be well versed in American media and skilled at navigating it, and American media consumers tend to show show greater affinity for and comfort with Israelis than Palestinians. Israelis and Israeli society can feel more familiar to Americans, and thus more relatable. And it doesn't help that American electoral politics sharply favor Israel, particularly on the right.
This trend in media coverage is still alive today, though it is improving. To be clear: that does not mean that all US media is biased in favor of Israel on all things at all times, it is just to say that the Israeli viewpoint of the conflict tends to be granted greater credence than does the Palestinian viewpoint.
To address a delicate point about identity politics: it is true and salient that commentators discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict on American media are more likely to be Jewish-American than they are to be Arab- or Muslim-American. This is not to say that Jews are equivalent to Israelis, that Arabs are equivalent to Palestinians, or certainly that Muslims are equivalent to Palestinians (a number of whom are Christian). It is also very much not to say that a Jewish-American commentator is going to be biased in favor of Israel or that an Arab-American commentator is going to be biased in favor of Palestinians. But there is an aggregate effect, for the viewer, of seeing and hearing overwhelmingly from commentators who look like the people from one side of the conflict and not the other, which contributes to a broader sense among Americans that Israelis are "like us" more so than are Palestinians.
As Hayes points out, during the now two weeks of the Israel-Gaza conflict, American media coverage has so emphasized the Palestinian perspective of the conflict that it has spurred a meta mini-genre arguing that Israel is losing the "media war."
There are obvious reasons for this: the fighting is largely located within Gaza itself and most of the deaths have been Palestinian, including a large proportion of civilians. Dozens of civilian Palestinian deaths is now a major component of this story, and it's getting (rightly) covered as such. It is possible to argue that this conflict may also be a moment of suddenly greater awareness among Americans about the larger conflict's toll on Palestinians, but it will be hard to say for sure without the benefit of time and retrospect. To be clear, this point and the previous point do not cancel one another out.
This is where I would differ with Jebreal, who argues that unbalanced media is why American popular opinion tends to favor Israel. American public opinion toward Israel is a complicated phenomenon with many drivers, and it is possible that media coverage plays into it, but it seems far likelier that Jebreal has this backwards: that preexisting "pro-Israel" attitudes among American public opinion are nudging media coverage in the same direction.
Again, the causes of those American attitudes are complex, but major factors include the 1970s shift in American foreign policy to draw closer to Israel as a Cold War bulwark in a region with heavy Soviet influence and a 1980s movement to support Israel driven by Evangelical Christians, who remain the most staunchly "pro-Israel" electorate in the US.
While he might not necessarily endorse every word in this post, I would urge you to read Jeffrey Goldberg's thoughts on media coverage of Israel-Palestine. He makes the point that reader/viewer interest in the subject is very high and that this drives the level of coverage; perhaps, I would argue, it might also help influence the nature of that coverage.
The "media front" is treated as a very real front in the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly when it comes to the American media. This is not to characterize Jebreal in particular (I don't know her work well enough to say whether she could be described as a partisan commentator on the conflict), but to make a point about the larger debate about media coverage of the conflict, which is not just a meta-debate or a media issue but a live extension of the conflict itself. That's why, as long as there is a conflict, this debate will continue.
As I wrote yesterday about Jon Stewart's funny bit on how toxic that conversation is, there are many reasons for this: decades of enmity, broken agreements, and violence only explain so much of why partisans to the conflict litigate it so aggressively. Partly, it's the stakes, which go beyond even the risks of death. Both sides see their very nation, and thus their identity, at danger of being wiped out, and they're not wrong. Both sides see themselves as the entrenched, encircled, endangered minority.
Crucially, both sides also believe that the world could be on the cusp of imposing an outcome either to their favor or disfavor; this sense of an imminent and decisive judgment from the outside world compels partisans on both ends to litigate their worldview as aggressively as possible. Given that the outside world does play an important role in mediating the Israel-Palestine conflict, the stakes of the media's treatment are unusually high, and thus highly litigated.
On the surface at least, it's pretty clear that Israel invaded the Gaza Strip on Thursday to destroy tunnels used by the militant group Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets out of Gaza into Israel and which relies on those tunnels to access Israel and Egypt. But, surely, this won't destroy Hamas outright. The group will be able to dig more tunnels or will find other ways to resupply themselves. And Israel knows that — its stated objectives, notably, don't include ending Hamas's rule in Gaza. Meanwhile, more Israeli soldiers have died during the ground offensive than in any war since 2006. And many, many more Palestinians than Israelis have been killed. So what's the point of all this suffering? Why did Israel launch an invasion that will cost Israeli lives but likely only have a near-term impact on Hamas?
Answering that requires understanding how Israel thinks about military threats. For a long time, Israel has believed that it can't ever fully eliminate the threats to its survival: it can only manage them. That means using military power to deter attacks on Israel and, sometimes, going to war to punish and weaken enemies that Israel thinks pose a real threat.
This approach served Israel well for a time, or at least has worked enough to stave off total defeat. But the emphasis on managing problems over solving them can lead to short-term thinking, and it's not clear that the way this strategy has been applied to Hamas — euphemistically called "mowing the grass" — is really working. Here's a rundown of the past, present, and future of Israel's strategy, and how it helps explain the current Gaza offensive.
For most of Israel's existence, conventional Arab militaries, of countries such as Egypt and Syria, were its greatest threats. Think the three wars Israel fought against its Arab neighbors in 1948, 1967, and 1973.
During that period, Israel believed that Arab states wouldn't willingly accept Israel's continued existence, making an immediate peace deal impossible. Israel also knew it couldn't coerce its neighbors into signing a peace treaty by force. So the country developed an alternative approach to managing a threat it believed could not be immediately solved. Israel would have to live with a certain level of threat, it believed, but would use its military to occasionally weaken those threats and ensure they didn't ever reach truly existential proportions. The point of Israel's strategy was to ameliorate its security problems until a political solution to the threat from Arab states could be found.
"Israel's military doctrine has long been to cause damage to its enemies, without being able to take them over completely," Brent Sasley, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who studies Israeli politics, says. "Because it never could."
Israel applied this strategy to militant groups as well. "Israel has suffered from a terrorism problem since 1948," Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown, writes in an exhaustive study of Israeli counterterrorism's successes and failures. In Byman's assessment, Israel's approach to individual wars has "border[ed] on brilliant." Yet it "often blunders from crisis to crisis without a long-term plan for how to solve the problem once and for all." That's because, in Israeli strategic thought, many of these problems just can't be fully solved by military force.
The applies today. "Israelis see themselves as being under siege," Sasley says. "Hamas, like any of these other previous threats, needs to be managed. You can't defeat them completely. They need to be managed."
Obviously, Israel recognizes that the threats from groups like the Gaza-based militant group Hamas aren't the same as the Cold War-era threats it faced from Arab invasions. So it's developed a new version of its long-held threat management strategy, which is often called "mowing the grass." It's a pretty creepy term, as it implies that periodically killing people is the same as keeping your lawn groomed. But that's the basic analogy: Hamas, like grass, can't disappear, but it can be regularly cut down to size. And, like mowing the grass, it's implied that this is a routine that will be continued forever.
According to Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, Israeli academics based at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the basic difference between "mowing the grass" and Israel's old strategy is that the end-goal has changed. In the era of wars with Arab conventional armies, Israel hoped that eventually "a long and violent struggle, punctuated by decisive battlefield victories, could eventually lead Arab states to accept the notion of Israel's permanence." In other words, Israel believed that its threat-management strategy would eventually lead to peace, which in cases such as Egypt it did.
Israel does not believe the same thing today about applying this strategy to non-state militant groups. Israel sees Hamas and other militants as "implacable enemies, who want to destroy the Jewish state and there is very little Israel can do on the political front to mitigate this risk."
That thinking points to regular Israeli military assaults, like the Gaza invasion, designed to "cripple" Hamas' military capabilities such as its ability to launch rockets, without any regard to finding a political solution. Mowing the grass attacks are also, according to Inbar and Shamir, designed to make future wars less likely. The idea is that if Hamas is afraid of Israeli retaliation, it'll voluntarily reduce its rocket fire into Israel, thus requiring fewer "mowing the grass" attacks by the Israeli military.
Inbar and Shamir see this week's Gaza incursion as a textbook example of this strategy. Sasley sees things similarly. Israel, according to Sasley, wants "quiet." He believes that Israel would actually tolerate a number of rockets out of Gaza, so long as those rockets are not from Hamas, "they don't cause any damage, certainly don't kill any Israelis, and there's nothing else that requires a bigger response." Once that's happened, Israel will see — here's that stomach-churning metaphor again — the grass as cut down to an acceptable length (until it grows back, anyway).
Just for a moment, set aside whether "mowing the grass" is a morally acceptable strategy. Even on its own terms — enhancing Israeli security — does it work? Will the Gaza invasion actually make Israel more secure in the long-run?
That's far from clear. Israel's approach to Arab states worked, after a fashion, because it accomplished critical political ends. Some of Israel's greatest enemies, such as Egypt and Jordan, gave up on the quest to destroy Israel. They've even signed peace treaties with Israel, making the Jewish state far more secure than it was during the Cold War.
But there's no equivalent political endgame in mind here. Israel has no vision for how to "solve" the Hamas problem, which means rocket fire and periodic crises are inevitable for the foreseeable future. In both 2009 and 2012, Israel fought similar wars against Hamas, both designed to stop rocket fire out of Gaza. Yet here we are today.
"That horrible term, mowing the grass," Sasley says, is "a holding pattern. Israel doesn't have a national security strategy, it's never articulated one. That's the problem."
Hamas rocket fire isn't, in Sasley's view, an existential threat. What is, according to Sasley, is the country's continued inability to diplomatically resolve the dispute with the Palestinians. "The health of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," he says, "can't survive the status quo" of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza.
According to Ariel Ilan Roth, executive director of the Israel Institute, mowing the grass makes Israel's Palestinian problem worse. The current Gaza invasion, he believes, helps Palestinians put international pressure on Israel to concede to more favorable terms:
Hamas has already won. It has shattered the necessary illusion for Israelis that a political stalemate with the Palestinians is cost-free for Israel. It has shown Israelis that, even if the Palestinians cannot kill them, they can extract a heavy psychological price. It has also raised the profile of the Palestinian cause and reinforced the perception that the Palestinians are weak victims standing against a powerful aggressor. Down the road, that feeling is sure to be translated into pressure on Israel, perhaps by politicians and certainly by social movements whose objective is to isolate Israel politically and damage it through economic boycotts.
Inbar and Shamir disagree. "Buying time is a legitimate goal," they write. "In the current strategic situation Hamas is isolated, making the rebuilding of its military assets a longer process. ... A war of attrition against Hamas is probably Israel's fate for the long term."
This debate won't be settled by the current round of fighting in Gaza. The only thing that's certain about the current round of fighting is that more people are going to die.
It's no secret that the discourse around Israel-Palestine inside the United States is typically a mess of screaming matches, miles-apart polarization, and total disagreement that extends even to the basic facts. There are many explanations; one of them is surely the extraordinarily narrow confines of the debate among leading American politicians. But there's also an especially pernicious kind of tribalism that pervades the Israel-Palestine debate within the US — one that turns issues of fact into tests that determine whether or not you're the right kind of person. It's about the least productive possible way to think about public policy, but, on Israel-Palestine, it's seemingly inescapable.
A wealth of experimental evidence demonstrates that political life makes everyone think worse. People tend to seek out information that proves their ideology to be Good and True, their enemies to be Bad and Wrong.
For instance, one famous study showed two groups of people identical write-ups of fake studies about the death penalty. People who believed the death penalty deterred crime uncritically accepted the research coming to that conclusion, but tried their best to poke holes in the study showing no deterrent effect. The reverse was true for those who didn't believe in death penalty deterrence. The point is that people weren't neutrally evaluating arguments. They're simply reasoning to the conclusion they want.
But it's so much worse on Israel-Palestine. There's a broad range of positions that one could have on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But everyone who works on the topic feels a lot of pressure to take on one of two basic tribal identities: pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. That's defined less by your position on policy than on your sympathies: whether you believe Israelis have wronged Palestinians more, or the other way around.
The pressure to pick sides is partly a result of the issue's incredibly high stakes. There's a metric ton of historical pain on both sides, and genuinely deep fear about the survival of both the Israeli and Palestinian people. The extraordinary significance of the conflict ossifies the camps: when the issue is so important and emotional, no one wants to give ground. Anything one says that helps one side's narrative is greeted warmly by its partisans, and denounced by its enemies. This creates a great deal of pressure to make one side your allies, and stick with them.
The research on partisan psychology has a good explanation of why this might be. A 2006 paper by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels studied what happened when you asked Democrats and Republicans whether the deficit had gone down under Bill Clinton (it had, dramatically). Achen and Bartels found that better informed Republicans were more likely to get the question wrong than less-informed ones. A prior Bartels paper found that better-informed Democrats were likely to say inflation didn't decline when Reagan held office (it did). It looks like the more you know and care about a political topic, the more likely you are to try to ignore evidence that makes the other side look good.
Since American partisans tend to be so invested in the Israel-Palestine issue, you end up with a debate so tribal that even basic analytic issues become deeply, inextricably divisive.
Take, as an example, the long-ongoing debate in the US over "linkage." That's conflict-ese for the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes other problems in the Middle East harder to solve. Linkage proponents say that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian problem entrenches other Middle East problems, like violent Islamic extremism or the prevalence of dictatorship. Opponents say Israel-Palestine just isn't that big of a deal for other conflicts in the Middle East.
Logically, there's no reason why you have to accept linkage if you're critical of the Israeli occupation, or vice versa. Let's say you think Israel is in the right about basically everything in the conflict — Palestinians aren't partners for peace, the land is Jewish by right, the whole package. There's no reason, believing all of that, you couldn't recognize that many Arabs disagree. And that Arab frustration over the conflict contributes to bigger regional problems.
Conversely, it's entirely possible for someone who is highly critical of Israel to also reject linkage. Yet, when it comes to Israel-Palestine, Americans rarely if ever seem to hold such a set of viewpoints. Read through magazines and op-ed pages consumed by the Israel-Palestine debate, and it's obvious that linkage is a tribal issue. If you're "pro-Israel," then you almost never accept linkage. If you're "pro-Palestinian," then of course Israel's occupation is linked up with other Middle Eastern problems.
"The racist oppression and humiliation of Arabs in the Holy Land," former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman says," is "at the root of regional instability." Ron Paul and Noam Chomsky argue that US support for Israel contributed to al-Qaeda's rise.
In the reverse, the conservative pro-Israel magazine Commentary frequently runs pieces disparaging linkage. They have titles like "Final Blow to anti-Israel Linkage Myths?" There are numerous other examples of pro-Israel writers denying linkage.
The ideological battle lines settle where they are, of course, because the public debate on linkage isn't a dispute about facts so much as a debate about blame. The question isn't whether the Israel-Palestine conflict has contributed to the growth of Islamist extremism; it's whether Israel is to "blame," in some small part, for 9/11. The point of the debate isn't to get to the truth of the matter. It's a quest in defense of your tribe's moral superiority.
Another example. Whenever a round of open warfare, like the fighting in Gaza we're currently seeing, breaks out, there's always over a dispute over who started it. Pro-Israel people blame Palestinians; pro-Palestinian people blame Israel. Of course, it's conceivably to say "Yes, Israel/Palestinians started the current round of fighting, but they were right to." But almost nobody ever does. That's because admitting your side fired the first shot is a subtle admission of moral culpability in many people's eyes. And your side, of course, is always right.
Adam Shatz, a well-respected left-wing journalist, has a wonderful piece on this issue in the most recent edition of The Nation. Shatz is a sharp critic of Israel, and he doesn't let up in this piece. "I have witnessed the occupation's horrors firsthand," he writes. "The subjugation of an entire people through a system of pervasive control and countless petty humiliations, always backed by the threat of violence; the confiscation not only of that people's land, but of its future."
But the real target of Shatz' new essay, though, is something he calls "Palestine-centrism." Shatz detects a tendency among his fellow leftists to wrongly lay all of the region's problems at the doorstep of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and of the United States). Tracing the problem back to eminent Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said and his book Orientalism, Shatz argues that the left too-often misidentifies Israel or Western interference as the root cause of regional problems:
As the regional balance of power has shifted and American dominance wanes, I have begun to worry that an all-consuming preoccupation with America and Israel leads progressive writers to become strangely incurious about the crimes for which the West can't be blamed and the developments, such as the politicization of sectarian identity, that are shaking the region far more profoundly than the Israeli-Palestinian arena. This paradigm also leads them to belittle, or simply to overlook, what academics call "agency": the fact that people act in this region, and are not merely acted upon by more powerful external forces. And it has increasingly been my sense that much of the work Said inspired fails to examine the lived experience of people in the region; it often relegates much of that experience to silence, as if it were unworthy of attention or politically inconvenient.
Enormously liberating when it was developed, the critique of Orientalism has often resulted in a set of taboos and restrictions that inhibit critical thinking. They pre-emptively tell us to stop noticing things that are right under our noses, particularly the profound cleavages in Middle Eastern societies — struggles over class and sect, the place of religion in politics, the relationship between men and women; struggles that are only partly related to their confrontation with the West and with Israel. Indeed, it is sometimes only in those moments of confrontation that these very divided societies achieve a fleeting sense of unity.
The theoretical intricacy of academic anti-Orientalism, its hermetic and sophisticated language, sometimes conceals an attempt to wish away the region's dizzying complexity in favor of the old, comforting logic of anti-colonial struggle. Anti-Orientalism will continue to provide a set of critical tools and a moral compass, so long as it is understood as a point of departure, not a destination. Like all old maps, it has begun to yellow. It no longer quite describes the region, the up-ender of all expectations, the destroyer of all missionary dreams.
You could imagine a conservative version of Shatz making a similar argument chiding overly zealous defenders of Israel for simplifying the conflict. What's so refreshing about this is that it cuts through the typical fights over narrative and factual intricacies that suffuse the Israel-Palestine conversation. Each side's narrative is all-consuming; either you accept the right set of facts or you are punished as a deviationist.
This disagreement includes basic facts. How many civilians have Israeli military operations killed? How fast are the Israeli and Palestinian populations growing? Did Israel believe an Egyptian attack was imminent when it launched the Six-Day War in 1967? How much does the Israeli occupation hurt the Palestinian economy? There's an acceptable set of answers for each question, depending on which ideological camp you fall into.
This makes productive debate on Israel-Palestine essentially impossible. No one agrees on a set of shared facts, because agreeing to give ground on a factual issue means compromising on your side's moral superiority or policy prescriptions. How can you agree that the Palestinian population is growing faster than Israel's, to take one example, if you're fundamentally unwilling to accept that there is tension between Israel's status as a Jewish state and as a democracy?
Now, this doesn't mean that we should collapse into false equivalence. Sometimes, one of the two sides' narratives is just right. My colleague Max Fisher's piece on the West Bank occupation's essential, fundamental wrongness is a clear example of calling out one side's dissembling for what it is.
But dispelling myths about the conflict should help solve it. As things stand, the broken Israel-Palestine discourse admits little in the way of helpful policy thinking. Meantime, the situation on the ground in Israel-Palestine gets worse, and no one in the US seems to have any idea what to do about it.
Multiple air carriers have suspended service to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, which is by far the largest airport in Israel and acts as the international hub for the entire country. The decisions have come in reaction to at least one rocket, presumably launched by Palestinian militants in Gaza, landing near the airport. A Delta flight from New York to Tel Aviv was diverted to Paris because of the incident.
Presumably, this is at least in part a reaction to Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which on Thursday was shot down over eastern Ukraine, and concerns about the safety of flying over conflict zones.
As Ha'aretz journalist Chemi Shalev explains, this has implications beyond just interrupting travel plans, given Israelis' sensitivities to how they and the conflict are perceived abroad:
Decision of American airlines to suspend flights hurts tourism and is psychological blow for Israel, deepening peoples' sense of isolation— Chemi Shalev (@ChemiShalev) July 22, 2014
Even if you see the joke coming, it's still pretty good. Jon Stewart begins to introduce a segment on the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict but on saying the word "Israel" is immediately shouted down by overly zealous supporters of Israel (what we in the business call "pro-Israel trolls") who accuse him of unfair double-standards, being a self-hating Jew, and so on. He says the word "Hamas" and is mobbed again, now told he supports the murder of Palestinian children and is a Zionist pig.
Just to be clear: this is a zero-exaggeration, 100 percent accurate portrayal of what it is like to cover Israel-Palestine during times of conflict.
An article about Palestinian casualties from Israeli air strikes is met with outraged accusations that the author hates Israel and secretly wishes for the deaths of Israelis; an article about Israelis suffering under Palestinian rocket fire is met with outraged accusations that the author hates Palestinians and is complicit in their deaths. On any given day during periods of conflict, the New York Times is accused of both.
To be clear, that's not to whine about how covering Israel can be difficult — Western journalists are obviously just bystanders in the conflict, which causes actual real-world harm to Israelis and Palestinians far beyond the mild annoyance of getting yelled at by people. But there is a serious point to be made here: starting and having an actual, reasonable public conversation about the conflict is made next to impossible by this effect, to the point that non-partisans have fewer opportunities to learn about it, and that partisans have almost no opportunity to discover the shades of grey, or god forbid the humanity of people on the "other side."
Why is the Israel-Palestine conversation so uniquely polarized, and so angry? There are many reasons: decades of enmity, broken agreements, and violence only explain so much. Partly, it's the stakes, which go beyond even the risks of death. Both sides see their very nation, and thus their identity, at danger of being wiped out, and they're not wrong. Both sides see themselves as the entrenched, encircled, endangered minority.
Crucially, both sides also believe that the world could be on the cusp of imposing an outcome either to their favor or disfavor; this sense of an imminent and decisive judgment from the outside world compels partisans on both ends to litigate their worldview as aggressively as possible. The fact that the world has not yet come around to your preferred side's obvious righteousness and moral superiority just proves that the media is unfairly skewing against you. And that makes shouting down any public conversation less 100 percent compliant to your worldview not just justified, but a moral imperative. Given that the outside world does play an important role in mediating the Israel-Palestine conflict, the fact that public discourse around it is broken has real-world implications way beyond just making it annoying for people in the media like Jon Stewart.
The fighting between Israeli forces and Gaza-based Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas has killed at least 445 people up through Sunday, of whom 425 are Palestinian. That's according to a tally compiled by the New York Times, gathering from United Nations, Palestinian, and Israeli sources.
Here is the death toll charted out by day since this round of violence began on July 8, with Israeli and Palestinian deaths distinguished:
For the first ten days, the fighting was limited to Israeli air strikes on Gaza and Palestinian rockets fired into Israel. On July 18, Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza, for the first time since early 2009. You can see the death toll increase significantly after that, among Palestinians as well as Israelis.
Deaths from the fighting were overwhelmingly Palestinian before the July 18 ground invasion, which Israel says is to shut down Hamas's system of underground tunnels into Israel (and possibly also its tunnels into Egypt). Two United Nations agencies estimated, in the week before the ground invasion, that 70 to 77 percent of the 160 Palestinian deaths up to that point were civilians.
The previous Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, in 2009, ended with nine Israeli deaths and 1,398 Palestinian deaths, according to the Israeli peace organization B'Tselem. It lasted for 22 days.
We'll keep this chart updated throughout the fighting so check back.
The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is the worst round of Israeli-Palestinian violence in five years. Here's a quick two-minute video that tells you how we got here — and what this terrible conflict says about the prospects for real peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israeli officials often make the point, when violence flares between Israel and the Gaza-based militant group Hamas as it is now, that only Hamas deliberately targets civilians. Israeli forces, they note, only target militants, and they have procedures to reduce civilian deaths, for example with "roof knocking" or by simply calling the house they are about to bomb and warning the occupants that they should leave immediately.
This is true enough. But even when those procedures work at saving civilians from dying in an air strike, they can still cause terrible suffering. Here, to convey what it feels like to have the Israeli Defense Forces call your home and tell you it will be bombed in minutes, is a message from a Gazan passed along by Palestinian-American filmmaker Annemarie Jacir:
This note is a reminder that the toll of the ongoing Israel-Gaza violence, and of the larger Israel-Palestine conflict that has gone on for so long, goes well beyond fatality counts. Families are touched by the conflict in numerous ways, often not well expressed in statistics. The decisions a parent has to make in the moments between an IDF phone call and an IDF bomb, and the dread of displacement, are among them.
Any policy that reduces civilian casualties is a good thing, but that does not make the conflict anywhere near cost-free for the many Palestinian civilians who are deeply affected by it. Thousands of Palestinians have been displaced by the fighting so far, and with few safe places to go leaving home is often just the beginning.
The Gaza conflict didn't have to go this way. On July 15th, two days before Israel began its sure-to-be bloody ground invasion of Gaza, Egypt proposed a plan for an indefinite ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Israel accepted it. Hamas' political leadership was considering it. But Hamas fighters kept firing rockets, which convinced the Israeli leadership that the cease fire wouldn't hold. Israel resumed military operations six hours later.
Why did the ceasefire fall apart and fighting resume? According to one journalist who's spent years covering Gaza, the answer partly has to do with Hamas' military branch, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He argued that they really believe — despite all evidence to the contrary — that they can defeat Israel through sheer force of arms. That makes Hamas more likely to choose war, even when it's (in rational terms) for both sides.
Shlomi Eldar, a well-respected Israeli reporter who has extensive first-hand experience with Hamas, argues in his new al-Monitor column that there's a clear divide between Hamas' political and military leadership. Hamas' political leaders "are not beholden to too many delusions," Eldar writes. "The reality and the balance of power between Gaza and Israel is clear to them." In other words, they get that Israel has a stronger military.
But the story is different for the Qassam Brigades, the militant wing, which the political wing can't always control. "Hamas militants have forgotten that across the Erez crossing [with Israel] there's a country with a larger, more sophisticated army, with capabilities that are beyond comparison with Gaza's."
It's not that the Hamas political wing opposes fighting Israel at all. Far from it. Rather, they've long supported an approach Eldar calls "controlled violence" — an idea that military struggle against Israel needs to coexist with political operations at home, and sometimes the needs of the political struggle dictate limiting military operations. "The military wing," Eldar concludes, "has ignored the concept," opting for direct combat against Israel whenever possible.
Why are the military and political wings so far apart? Eldar, in a fascinating passage, suggests its a matter of age and experience. The older political leadership knows Israel, and its strengths, better. The younger Qassam fighters don't have that experience and overestimate the feasibility of military force as a result:
In the past, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel, learned its language, got to know its culture and even formed ties of friendship with their Israeli employers. In the course of the second intifada and Hamas' rise to power, these ties have all been severed. The older generation found itself unemployed and without income and the youth found work with the militant wing of Hamas and the other organizations (Islamic Jihad as well as the popular resistance committees).
These young men, who have not once in their lives left the borders of the Gaza Strip and have never seen Israel, have been fed the stories of the wonders of the Palestinian rocket, which was developed in Gaza's workshops and can shake Israel. The stories of the glory of Hamas have been impressed well in the young recruits and the doctrine that has been so deeply etched in them has given them the feeling, or the delusion, that salvation could be gained through the rockets that have been developed in Gaza.
The major takeaway here is that it's impossible to understand the Hamas-Israel dynamics without looking at Hamas' internal politics. Hamas doesn't make decisions as a monolith. And while internal Hamas politics are more subtle than a stark military-political binary, there's an essential fault line there — one that seems to have played a big role in escalating the current crisis.
Anyway, Eldar's whole column is fascinating. You should read the whole thing.
President Obama's Friday press conference focused on the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine. But there was a short aside on Israel's ground incursion into Gaza, which began Thursday, including this really interesting paragraph at the end:
I also made clear that the United States and our friends and allies are deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life. And that's why we've indicated although we support military efforts by the Israelis to make sure that rockets are not being fired into their territory, we also have said that our understanding is the current military ground operations are designed to deal with the tunnels.
It's hard to read that, especially the last clause, as anything other than a subtle admonition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep the ground operation limited. Here's why, and how it fits into the bigger picture of the Israel-Gaza fighting.
Israel says the central goal of its operation in Gaza is to destroy "terror tunnels" built by Hamas into Israel. That means tunnels under the Israel-Gaza border that could be used by Hamas or other Palestinian groups to sent gunmen or suicide bombers into Israel.
But there's a basic tension between Israel's tactical and strategic goals in Gaza. The broader aim, according to the prime minister's office, is to "to restore quiet and safety to Israelis for a long time to come, while significantly harming the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip."
Tunnels into Israel aren't the predominant way that militants in Gaza attack Israel; rocket fire is. In infrastructure terms, Hamas' tunnels into Israel are way less important than its tunnels into Egypt, from which it supplies itself. So if Israel wants to achieve its stated strategic goals, it would need to expand its tactical goals well beyond tunnels into Israel. But Obama doesn't seem to want Israel to do that.
An operation to destroy tunnels into Israel would be way more limited than an operating aiming to cripple Hamas' entire military and resupply operation. The tunnels that go into Israel are near the border and limited in number, but Hamas' infrastructure is extensive and spread throughout the Strip.
What Obama seems to be implying with his statement on Friday is that any escalation beyond tunnels would unacceptably risk "the loss of more limited life." In other words: the US will tolerate or even support what Israel is doing right now, but the more that the ground operation expands into a broader, Gaza-wide, anti-Hamas campaign, the less comfortable America will be.
As far as diplomatic warnings go, this is a very oblique one. There's no threat of consequences or punishment for the Israeli government. Presumably, Obama said more in his private conversation with Netanyahu today than he did in a public conference. Still, in Israeli-American relations, even subtle signals carry big meanings. And Obama seems to be subtly, but surely, telling Netanyahu that America does not want to see an extended ground war in Gaza.
A common theory for why arriving at a peaceful settlement in Israel and Palestine is so difficult is that each violent provocation tends to promote hawks on the other side. That makes intuitive sense, but in the Israeli case at least, there's solid social science to back it up. According to new political science research, when Palestinian groups in Gaza launch rockets into Israel, Israeli popular support for right-wing parties spikes in affected areas, even though such attacks are rarely lethal.
In a forthcoming article in the American Political Science Review (which they summarize at The Monkey Cage here), Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya's Anna Getmansky and American University's Thomas Zeitzoff find that "the effect of being in the rockets’ range is an increase of 2 to 6 percentage points in the right-wing vote-share" in the affected areas. This effect isn't present for right-wing parties as a whole when they're in power. But Likud specifically, which is the largest conservative party and the head of the current governing coalition, gains 2 percentage points in the affected area regardless of whether or not it's in power. Likud is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party.
Because the rockets' ranges have grown considerably over time, the importance of this effect has been growing. In 2003, only about 1 percent of Israel's population was in rocket attack range. By 2009, around 14 percent was:
The range has grown even more since then; a number have flown near Tel Aviv since the latest fighting began. Given that rocket strikes are frequent but most don't result in fatality of injury, Getmansky and Zeitzoff conclude that "experiencing an attack is not necessary to influence voting, and … voting could be also affected by the mere threat of being a target."
Prior research on the topic by economists at Hebrew University has suggested that Palestinian suicide terrorism increases support for right-wing parties. A 2008 paper by Claude Berrebi and Esteban Klor found that "the occurrence of a terror attack in a given locality within three months of the elections causes an increase of 1.35 percentage points on that locality’s support for the right bloc of political parties out of the two blocs vote."
However, a 2010 paper by Klor and Eric Gould complicates the research. It found that while suicide attacks increase support for right-wing parties, they also spur those parties to move to the left on the issue, and that the sum effect is to "move the Israeli electorate towards a more accommodating stance regarding the political objectives of the Palestinians." A big caveat is in order, though. That study tracked opinion and voting patterns from 1988 to 2006, which is an inauspicious year to conclude. That's before Hamas battled Fatah to take over Gaza in 2007, before the Israel-Gaza wars in late 2008-2009 and November 2012, and before the current conflict. While the moderating effect of attacks may have held up until 2014, it's hard to argue that attacks during Netanyahu's current premiership have lead him to soften his stance much.
Interestingly, the effect of Israeli violence — which has resulted in dramatically more casualties than Palestinian violence has over the course of the conflict — on Palestinian public opinion seems to be more subtle. There are some signs of a similar dynamic at work; in 2009, support for Hamas among Palestinians grew considerably following Israel's attack on Gaza in late 2008-2009, which produced huge numbers of Palestinian casualties. But a study by Klor, CUNY's David Jaeger, Tel Aviv University's Sami Miaari, and the Boston University's Daniele Paserman found that while "the average member of the Palestinian population holds more radical positions immediately after the occurrence of a Palestinian fatality in their district of residence … This effect is temporary and vanishes completely within 90 days. As a consequence, the overall effect of Palestinian fatalities is not statistically significant."
The researchers do find evidence that Palestinian views of the conflict are affected by the era in which they grew up; those who came of age during the First Intifada of the late 1980s, which saw largely non-violent Palestinian resistance violently put down by the Israeli military, hold less conciliatory views than those who came of age during the Oslo Peace Process of the mid-1990s, for example. But it's interesting that political backlash to attacks is easier to detect among Israelis than it is among Palestinians.
Almost everything about Israel and Palestine is controversial, but you actually don't hear much in the United States about the American government's direct involvement in the conflict. But after a number of years in which war-related spending pushed Iraq and Afghanistan to the top of the list, in the Fiscal Year 2015 foreign assistance request Israel is returning to its long-time state as America's #1 recipient of aid:
But this somewhat understates things, since many fewer people live in Israel than in Nigeria. In per capita terms, Israel's lead is positively enormous:
This is particularly striking because compared to those other countries, Israel is quite rich:
This all tells us something about the conflict, but also a lot about American foreign aid.
Even Egypt and Pakistan are not, in the grand scheme of things, particularly poor countries. It's just that American foreign aid mostly isn't economic assistance to needy people or needy countries. If it were, India would get more aid than Israel and Haiti would get more aid than Egypt.
Instead, the bulk of the money is spent on buying American military equipment, serving as a kind of indirect subsidy to the military-industrial complex. That's part of how a country like Israel that isn't objectively hard-up for money winds up getting more assistance than anyone else. Israel does have a healthy appetite for advanced military hardware, and it's considered a geopolitically reliable nation that can be trusted with it. So American foreign policy is committed to helping Israel maintain a qualitative military advantage vis-à-vis other Middle Eastern countries. Meanwhile, part of the Carter-era Camp David Accords is a guarantee of a lot of money to the Egyptian military to keep it favorably disposed to a pro-American foreign policy and détente with Israel.
Israel announced a ground offensive into Gaza on Thursday afternoon, which it has already commenced. It's a major escalation in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. It's also the first major Israeli ground incursion into Gaza since the 2008-2009 war between Israel and Hamas. Here's what's happening and why Israel is doing it.
The Gaza Strip is one of two Palestinian territories; the other is the West Bank. Hamas, an Islamist political group, took control of Gaza in 2007, splitting the Palestinian leadership (Fatah, a more moderate party, controls the West Bank). Despite an Israeli blockade of Gaza that strictly limits the movement in or out of people or or vital goods, Hamas has remained in firm control of the Strip.
Israel and Hamas have clashed frequently since shortly after the group was founded in 1987, and the tension between them has escalated into outright war several times since 2007. The current crisis began with the kidnapping of three Israeli students in the West Bank on June 10th, who were found murdered. Israel blamed Hamas, and arrested a number of Hamas operatives. Israel also hit Gaza with airstrikes, and Palestinian militant groups fired rockets into Israel.
Later, a Palestinian boy in Jerusalem was murdered, allegedly by Israeli extremists retaliating for the murder of the students, and another Palestinian was beaten in Israeli custody. Palestinian anger at Israel increased considerably. There had been sporadic rocket fire from Gaza throughout the crisis, but Hamas launched a wave of 40 rockets on July 8th, for which it claimed responsibility for the first time since 2012. Then Israel launched more strikes in Gaza, as part of what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said was an effort to make Hamas "pay a heavy price."
By July 11th, 100 Palestinians had been killed in about 1000 Israeli airstrikes. Roughly 700 rockets had been fired by Palestinians, making this easily the most significant escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 2012 Gaza war. By July 14th, the total casualties had exceeded the 2012 conflict. Currently, at least 230 Palestinians and one Israeli have been killed.
Because of the Israeli blockade, Hamas maintains a network of tunnels designed to smuggle in military equipment and civilian goods. The tunnels generally cross to the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza, but on Thursday, Israel claims to have foiled a Hamas incursion into Israel through a tunnel that passed into Israel.
The move, which came after both sides agreed to a temporary UN-brokered cease fire, is the immediate justification for the ground incursion. "The prime minister and the defense minister have ordered the IDF to begin a ground operation in order to damage the underground terror tunnels constructed in Gaza leading into Israeli territory," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement. Israeli Defense Force sources say the primary goal will be to shut down the tunnels that allow Hamas entry to Israel in the eastern part of Gaza.
According to Netanyahu, the objectives of the incursion do go beyond shutting down the tunnels into Israel. The operation is designed, he says, "to restore quiet and safety to Israelis for a long time to come, while significantly harming the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip."
It's possible this will expand to targeting the western tunnels into Egypt as well. Egypt's military government, no fans of Hamas, had earlier cracked down on the Gaza tunnels under its border, shutting down many of them. It also heavily restricts traffic through the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, the only above-ground route into Gaza Israel doesn't control one side of.
This makes Hamas more uniquely vulnerable to an offensive right now, as it's having trouble resupplying. One of the major reasons Israel was considering a ground offensive in Gaza before Thursday morning, according to a senior IDF official, was to shut down Hamas supply tunnels. It's possible that when Netanyahu says "infrastructure," he also means the supply tunnels.
Israel's last ground offensive in Gaza began on January 3rd, 2009, during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, which Israel calls operation Cast Lead. Like the current operation, the previous ground invasion was preceded by air strikes. It was also particularly bloody — the very tallest spike in the chart below is Israeli and Palestinian casualties during the two worst months of the conflict.
Some of that bloodiness, according to Georgetown University's Daniel Byman, was due to greater Israeli willingness to fire artillery and other imprecise weapons into densely populated areas during ground operations. "The contrast with previous operations is striking," Byman wrote in a 2011 book. "The IDF took great pride in not using artillery during the 2002 fighting in Jenin because of the risk to civilian casualties, but in Cast Lead they used artillery and otherwise were more willing to risk civilian lives."
The purpose of those risks in 2008-2009, according to Byman, was to avoid a repeat of its disastrous 2006 invasion of Lebanon, where the IDF stalled out against the vastly weaker Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Whether IDF rules of engagement will be closer to Cast Lead or previous Israeli military operations remains to be seen.
Cast Lead failed to dislodge Hamas from Gaza. It did, however, successfully reduce rocket fire for a time. However, the rockets game back, and Israel bombed Gaza in 2012 again to try to put an end to rocket fire. And, yet, here we are again.
About an hour after Israeli ground forces entered Gaza, the first invasion of the Hamas-controlled territory since 2009, there is already one unconfirmed report of "dozens" of new deaths in the fighting.
That's from Israeli reporter Alon Ben-David of Israel's Channel 10, who tweeted in Hebrew that there had been "dozens of deaths" in the first hour of the operation, according to Palestinian sources.
Before today's Israeli incursion began, ten days of fighting between Israel and Gaza-based militants had already killed at least 235 Palestinians and one Israeli. That fighting has consisted of Israeli air strikes into Gaza and Palestinian rockets fired into Israel. Last week, when the death toll was about 130 Palestinians, two different UN agencies estimated that between 70 and 77 percent of those killed were civilians.
Israel's previous invasion of Gaza, in early 2009, was part of two months of brutal fighting that killed 13 Israelis and between about 1,100 and 1,400 Palestinians (counts differ).
It is not yet clear whether this Israeli invasion will go as far or be as sustained as 2009's; Israel says it is aiming just to destroy Hamas-run tunnels that connect the Gaza Strip to Israel and could be used for smuggling and to launch terrorist attacks against Israelis. Still, at any scale, it seems likely that a number of Palestinian civilians will be vulnerable to the violence.
A United Nations agency dedicated to helping Palestinians discovered 20 rockets hidden in one of its Gaza Strip schools on Wednesday, according to an alarmed press release from the agency. Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas dominate Gaza and use rockets as a tool to terrorize nearby Israelis.
"This is a flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law," said the release from the agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). "This incident, which is the first of its kind in Gaza, endangered civilians including staff and put at risk UNRWA's vital mission to assist and protect Palestine refugees in Gaza."
Israel has long accused Gaza-based Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas of using schools and other civilian buildings to store weapons and from which to launch rockets at Israel. Israel's argument has been that this demonstrates Hamas's disregard for Palestinian civilians, justifies Israeli air strikes on civilian buildings that are used in this way by Hamas, and shifts the blame for Palestinian civilian deaths off of Israel and onto Hamas.
Both Hamas's use of civilian Palestinian buildings and Israel's strikes against those buildings are highly controversial, and rightly so. It would be understating things pretty dramatically to say that this an aspect of the Israel-Hamas conflict where both sides are behaving badly. But that does not make them equivalent.
Only the people responsible can know for sure why Palestinian militants would use civilian buildings, but any real possibility is bad. Maybe militant groups use civilian buildings like this UN school simply because they don't mind the danger this creates for the Palestinians they claim to protect. Maybe it's because they are hoping that the rockets will be safer in a UN school because Israel won't want to bomb it, which means using Palestinians kids and teachers as human shields. An argument you hear from Hamas's harshest critics is that they are hoping Israel will target the schools, thus rallying people to their side.
None of these speaks well of militant groups or the effects of their rocket campaigns on Palestinian civilians. It is not a great secret that "resistance" campaigns by groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad bring far greater harm to Palestinian civilians than they do anything resembling liberation, but this incident is a small glimpse of how, and of the effects of militant groups firing hundreds of rockets into Israel from densely populated neighborhoods in Gaza.
Here's the thing, though: while incidents like this force Israel to decide between bombing civilian structures or allowing Hamas to use those structures as rocket storage depots, it does not actually force Israel to choose to bomb civilian buildings. It is entirely within Israel's power to not bomb civilian buildings.
Israel has overwhelming military superiority in the conflict, and while that does not make Hamas rockets disappear or obviate their very real effects on Israeli civilians, Israel is strong enough to choose not to bomb a mosque and a center for the disabled in Gaza, as it did on July 12. It can choose not to bomb Gaza beaches frequented by civilians, as it did on Wednesday, killing four boys between the ages of 9 and 11.
There is no indication that Israel deliberately targets civilians, as Hamas does. But Israeli air strikes in Gaza, targeting Hamas and other militant groups that choose to embed themselves among civilians, kill an overwhelming number of Palestinian civilians. Last week, two UN agencies separately estimated that 70 to 77 percent of the Palestinian deaths have been civilians. Human Rights Watch on Wednesday accused Israel of "targeting apparent civilian structures and killing civilians in violation of the laws of war."
This is the one thing that both Hamas and Israel seem to share: a willingness to adopt military tactics that will put Palestinian civilians at direct risk and that contribute, however unintentionally, to the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Partisans in the Israel-Palestine conflict want to make that an argument over which "side" has greater moral culpability in the continued killings of Palestinian civilians. And there is validity to asking whether Hamas should so ensconce itself among civilians in a way that will invite attacks, just as there is validity to asking why Israel seems to show so little restraint in dropping bombs over Gaza neighborhoods. But even that argument over moral superiority ultimately treats those dying Palestinian families as pawns in the conflict, tokens to be counted for or against, their humanity and suffering so easily disregarded
Everyone has heard of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Everyone knows it's bad, that it's been going on for a long time, and that there is a lot of hatred on both sides.
But you may find yourself less clear on the hows and the whys of the conflict. Why, for example, did Israel begin invading the Palestinian territory of Gaza on Thursday, after 10 days of air strikes that killed at least 235 Palestinians, many of them civilians? Why is the militant Palestinian group Hamas firing rockets into civilian neighborhoods in Israel? How did this latest round of violence start in the first place — and why do they hate one another at all?
What follows are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. Giant, neon-lit disclaimer: these issues are complicated and contentious, and this is not an exhaustive or definitive account of Israel-Palestine's history or the conflict today. But it's a place to start.
That sounds like a very basic question but, in a sense, it's at the center of the conflict.
Israel is an officially Jewish country located in the Middle East. Palestine is a set of two physically separate, ethnically Arab and mostly Muslim territories alongside Israel: the West Bank, named for the western shore of the Jordan River, and Gaza. Those territories are not independent (more on this later). All together, Israel and the Palestinian territories are about as populous as Illinois and about half its size.
Officially, there is no internationally recognized line between Israel and Palestine; the borders are considered to be disputed, and have been for decades. So is the status of Palestine: some countries consider Palestine to be an independent state, while others (like the US) consider Palestine to be territories under Israeli occupation. Both Israelis and Palestinians have claims to the land going back centuries, but the present-day states are relatively new.
This is not, despite what you may have heard, primarily about religion. On the surface at least, it's very simple: the conflict is over who gets what land and how it is controlled. In execution, though, that gets into a lot of really thorny issues, like: Where are the borders? Can Palestinian refugees return to their former homes in present-day Israel? More on these later.
The decades-long process of resolving that conflict has created another, overlapping conflict: managing the very unpleasant Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, in which Israel has put the Palestinians under suffocating military occupation and Palestinian militant groups terrorize Israelis.
Those two dimensions of the conflict are made even worse by the long, bitter, violent history between these two peoples. It's not just that there is lots of resentment and distrust; Israelis and Palestinians have such widely divergent narratives of the last 70-plus years, of what has happened and why, that even reconciling their two realities is extremely difficult. All of this makes it easier for extremists, who oppose any compromise and want to destroy or subjugate the other site entirely, to control the conversation and derail the peace process.
The peace process, by the way, has been going on for decades, but it hasn't looked at all hopeful since the breakthrough 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords produced a glimmer of hope that has since dissipated. The conflict has settled into a terrible cycle and peace looks less possible all the time.
Something you often hear is that "both sides" are to blame for perpetuating the conflict, and there's plenty of truth to that. There has always been and remains plenty of culpability to go around, plenty of individuals and groups on both sides that squandered peace and perpetuated conflict many times over. Still, perhaps the most essential truth of the Israel-Palestine conflict today is that the conflict predominantly matters for the human suffering it causes. And while Israelis certainly suffer deeply and in great numbers, the vast majority of the conflict's toll is incurred by Palestinian civilians. Just above, as one metric of that, are the Israeli and Palestinian conflict-related deaths every month since late 2000.
The conflict has been going on since the early 1900s, when the mostly-Arab, mostly-Muslim region was part of the Ottoman Empire and, starting in 1917, a "mandate" run by the British Empire. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were moving into the area, as part of a movement called Zionism among mostly European Jews to escape persecution and establish their own state in their ancestral homeland. (Later, large numbers of Middle Eastern Jews also moved to Israel, either to escape anti-Semitic violence or because they were forcibly expelled.)
Communal violence between Jews and Arabs in British Palestine began spiraling out of control. In 1947, the United Nations approved a plan to divide British Palestine into two mostly independent countries, one for Jews called Israel and one for Arabs called Palestine. Jerusalem, holy city for Jews and Muslims, was to be a special international zone.
The plan was never implemented. Arab leaders in the region saw it as European colonial theft and, in 1948, invaded to keep Palestine unified. The Israeli forces won the 1948 war, but they pushed well beyond the UN-designated borders to claim land that was to have been part of Palestine, including the western half of Jerusalem. They also uprooted and expelled entire Palestinian communities, creating about 700,000 refugees, whose descendants now number 7 million and are still considered refugees.
The 1948 war ended with Israel roughly controlling the territory that you will see marked on today's maps as "Israel"; everything except for the West Bank and Gaza, which is where most Palestinian fled to (many also ended up in refugee camps in neighboring countries) and are today considered the Palestinian territories. The borders between Israel and Palestine have been disputed and fought over ever since. So has the status of those Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
That's the first major dimension of the conflict: reconciling the division that opened in 1948. The second began in 1967, when Israel put those two Palestinian territories under military occupation.
This is a hugely important part of the conflict today, especially for Palestinians.
Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967. Up to that point, Gaza had been (more or less) controlled by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan. But in 1967 there was another war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, during which Israel occupied the two Palestinian territories. (Israel also took control of Syria's Golan Heights, which it annexed in 1981, and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, which it returned to Egypt in 1982.)
Israeli forces have occupied and controlled the West Bank ever since. It withdrew its occupying troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but maintains a full blockade of the territory, which has turned Gaza into what human rights organizations sometimes call an "open-air prison" and has pushed the unemployment rate up to 40 percent.
Israel says the occupation is necessary for security given its tiny size: to protect Israelis from Palestinian attacks and to provide a buffer from foreign invasions. But that does not explain the settlers.
Settlers are Israelis who move into the West Bank. They are widely considered to violate international law, which forbids an occupying force from moving its citizens into occupied territory. Many of the 500,000 settlers are just looking for cheap housing; most live within a few miles of the Israeli border, often in the around surrounding Jerusalem.
Others move deep into the West Bank to claim land for Jews, out of religious fervor and/or a desire to see more or all of the West Bank absorbed into Israel. While Israel officially forbids this and often evicts these settlers, many are still able to take root.
In the short term, settlers of all forms make life for Palestinians even more difficult, by forcing the Israeli government to guard them with walls or soldiers that further constrain Palestinians. In the long term, the settlers create what are sometimes called "facts on the ground": Israeli communities that blur the borders and expand land that Israel could claim for itself in any eventual peace deal.
The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is all-consuming for the Palestinians who live there, constrained by Israeli checkpoints and 20-foot walls, subject to an Israeli military justice system in which on average two children are arrested every day, stuck with an economy stifled by strict Israeli border control, and countless other indignities large and small.
Music breaks like this are usually an opportunity to step back and appreciate the aspects of a people and culture beyond the conflict that has put them in the news. And it's true that there is much more to Israelis and Palestinians than their conflict. But music has also been a really important medium by which Israelis and Palestinians deal with and think about the conflict. The degree to which the conflict has seeped into Israel-Palestinian music is a sign of how deeply and pervasively it effects Israelis and Palestinians.
Above, from the wealth of Palestinian hip-hop is the group DAM, whose name is both an acronym for Da Arabian MCs and the Arabic verb for "to last forever." The group has been around since the late 1990s and are from the Israeli city of Lod, Israeli citizens who are part of the country's Arab minority. The Arab Israeli experience, typically one of solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and a sense that Arab-Israelis are far from equal in the Jewish state, comes through in their music, which is highly political and deals with themes of disenfranchisement and dispossession in the great tradition of American hip-hop.
Christiane Amanpour interviewed DAM about their music last year. Above is their song "I Don't Have Freedom," full English lyrics of which are here, from their 2007 album Dedication. Sample line: "We've been like this more than 50 years / Living as prisoners behind the bars of paragraphs /Of agreements that change nothing."
Now here is a sample of Israel's wonderful jazz scene, one of the best in the world, from the bassist and band leader Avishai Cohen. Cohen is best known in the US for his celebrated 2006 instrumental album Continuo, but let's instead listen to the song "El Hatzipor" from 2009's Aurora.
The lyrics are from an 1892 poem of the same name, meaning "To the Bird," by the Ukrainian Jewish poet Hayim Nahman Bialik. The poem (translated here) expresses the hopeful yearning among early European Zionists like Bialik to escape persecution in Europe and find salvation in the holy land; that it still resonates among Israelis over 100 years later is a reminder of both the tremendous hopes invested in the dream of a Jewish state, and perhaps the sense that this dream is still not secure.
On the surface, this is just the latest round of fighting in 27 years of war between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that formed in 1987 seeks Israel's destruction and is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization for its attacks targeting civilians — and which since 2006 has ruled Gaza. Israeli forces periodically attack Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza, typically with air strikes but in 2006 and 2009 with ground invasions.
The latest round of fighting was sparked when members of Hamas in the West Bank murdered three Israeli youths who were studying there on June 10. Though the Hamas members appear to have acted without approval from their leadership, which nonetheless praised the attack, Israel responded by arresting large numbers of Hamas personnel in the West Bank and with air strikes against the group in Gaza.
After some Israeli extremists murdered a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem and Israeli security forces cracked down on protests, compounding Palestinian outrage, Hamas and other Gaza groups launched dozens of rockets into Israel, which responded with many more air strikes. So far the fighting has killed one Israeli and 230 Palestinians; two UN agencies have separately estimated that 70-plus percent of the fatalities are civilians. On Thursday, July 17, Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza, which Israel says is to shut down tunnels that Hamas could use to cross into Israel.
That get backs to that essential truth about the conflict today: Palestinian civilians endure the brunt of it. While Israel targets militants and Hamas targets civilians, Israel's disproportionate military strength and its willingness to target militants based in dense urban communities means that Palestinians civilians are far more likely to be killed than any other group.
But those are just the surface reasons; there's a lot more going on here as well.
The simple version is that violence has become the status quo and that trying for peace is risky, so leaders on both ends seem to believe that managing the violence is preferable, while the Israeli and Palestinian publics show less and less interest in pressuring their leaders to take risks for peace.
Hamas's commitment to terrorism and to Israel's destruction lock Gazans into a conflict with Israel that can never be won and that produces little more than Palestinian civilian deaths. Israel's blockade on Gaza, which strangles economic life there and punishes civilians, helps produce a climate that is hospitable to extremism, and allows Hamas to nurture a belief that even if Hamas may never win, at least refusing to put down their weapons is a form of liberation.
Many Palestinians in Gaza naturally compare Hamas to Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, who have emphasized peace and compromise and negotiations — only to have been rewarded with an Israeli military occupation that shows no sign of ending and ever-expanding settlements. This is not to endorse that logic, but it is not difficult to see why some Palestinians might conclude that violent "resistance" is preferable.
That sense of Palestinian hopelessness and distrust in Israel and the peace process has been a major contributor to violence in recent years. In the early 2000s, there was also a lot of fighting between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank. This was called the Second Intifada (uprising), and followed a less-violent Palestinian uprising against the occupation in the late 1980s. In the Second Intifada, which was the culmination of Palestinian frustration with the failure of the 1990s peace process, Palestinian militants adopted suicide bombings of Israeli buses and other forms of terror. Israel responded with a severe military crack-down. The fighting killed approximately 3,200 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis.
It's not just Palestinians, though: many Israelis also increasingly distrust Palestinians and their leaders and see them as innately hostile to peace. In the parlance of Israel-Palestine, the expression for this attitude is, "We don't have a partner for peace." That feeling became especially deep after the Second Intifada; months of bus bombings and cafe bombings made many Israelis less supportive of peace efforts and more willing to accept or simply ignore the occupation's effects on Palestinians.
This sense of apathy has been further enabled by Israel's increasingly successful security programs, such as the Iron Dome system that shoots down Gazan rockets, which insulates many Israelis from the conflict and makes it easier to ignore. Public support for a peace deal that would grant Palestine independence, once high among Israelis, has dropped. Meanwhile, a fringe movement of right-wing Israeli extremists has become increasingly violent, particularly in the West Bank where many live as settlers, further pulling Israeli politics away from peace and thus allowing the conflict to drift.
There are three ways the conflict could end. Only one of them is both viable and peaceful — the two-state solution — but it is also extremely difficult, and the more time goes on the harder it gets.
One-state solution: The first is to erase the borders and put Israelis and Palestinians together into one equal, pluralistic state, called the "one-state solution." Very few people think this could be viable for the simple reason of demographics; Arabs would very soon outnumber Jews. After generations of feeling disenfranchised and persecuted by Israel, the Arab majority would almost certainly vote to dismantle everything that makes Israel a Jewish state. Israelis, after everything they've done to finally achieve a Jewish state after thousands of years of their own persecution, would never surrender that state and willingly become a minority among a population they see as hostile.
Destruction of one side: The second way this could end is with one side outright vanquishing the other, in what would certainly be a catastrophic abuse of human rights. This is the option preferred by extremists such as Hamas and far-right Israeli settlers. In the Palestinian extremist version, Israel is abolished and replaced with a single Palestinian state; Jews become a minority, most likely replacing today's conflict with an inverse conflict. In the Israeli extremist version, Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza entirely, either turning Palestinians into second-class citizens in the manner of apartheid South Africa or expelling them en masse.
Two-state solution: The third option is for both Israelis and Palestinians to have their own independent states; that's called the "two-state solution" and it's advocated by most everyone as the only option that would create long-term peace. But it requires working out lots of details so thorny and difficult that it's not clear if it will, or can, happen. Eventually, the conflict will have dragged on for so long that this solution will become impossible.
The one-state solution is hard because there is no viable, realistic version that both sides would accept. In theory, the two-state solution is great. But it poses some very difficult questions. Here are the four big ones and why they're so tough to solve. To be clear, these aren't abstract concepts but real, heavily debated issues that have sunk peace talks before:
Jerusalem: Both sides claim Jerusalem as their capital; it's also a center of Jewish and Muslim (and Christian) holy sites that are literally located physically on top of one another, in the antiquity-era walled Old City that is not at all well shaped to be divided into two countries. Making the division even tougher, Israeli communities have been building up more and more in and around the city.
West Bank borders: There's no clear agreement on where precisely to draw the borders, which roughly follow the armistice line of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, especially since hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers have built up suburban-style communities just on the Palestinian side of the line. This one is not actually impossible — Israel could give Palestine some land as part of "land swaps" in exchange for settler-occupied territory — but it's still hard. The more time goes on, the more settlements expand, the harder it becomes to create a viable Palestinian state.
Refugees: This one is really hard. There are, officially, seven million Palestinian refugees, who are designated as such because their descendants fled or were expelled from what is today Israel; places like Ramla and Jaffa. Palestinians frequently ask for what they call the "right of return": permission to return to their land and live with full rights. That sounds like a no-brainer, but Israel's objection is that if they absorb seven million Palestinian returnees, then Jews will become a minority, which for the reasons explained above Israelis will never accept. There are ideas to work around the problem, like financial restitution, but no agreement on them.
Security: This is another big one. For Palestinians, security needs are simple: a sovereign Palestinian state. For Israelis, it's a bit more complicated: Israelis fear that an independent Palestine could turn hostile and ally with other Middle East states to launch the sort of invasion Israel barely survived in 1973. Maybe more plausibly, Israelis worry that Hamas would take over an independent West Bank and use it to launch attacks on Israelis, as they've done with Gaza. Any compromise would likely involve Palestinians giving up some sovereignty, for example promising permanent de-militarization or allowing an international peacekeeping force, and after years of feeling heavily abused by strong-handed Israeli forces, Palestinians are not eager about the idea of Israel having veto power over their sovereignty and security.
Those are all very difficult problems. But here's the thing: time is running out. The more that the conflict drags on, the more difficult it will be to solve any of these issues, much less all of them. That will make it harder and harder for Israel to justify keeping Gaza under blockade and the West Bank under occupation; eventually it will have to unilaterally withdraw, which the current leadership opposes, or it will have to annex the territories and become either an apartheid-style state that denies full rights to those new Palestinian citizens or abandon its Jewish state.
Meanwhile, extremism and apathy and distrust are rising on both sides. The violence of the conflict is becoming status quo, a regularly recurring event that is replacing the peace process itself as the way by which the conflict advances. It is making things worse for Israelis and Palestinians alike all the time, and unless they can break from the hatred and violence long enough to make peace, that will continue.
The violence in Israel and Gaza has even come to impact American television, which had increasingly been turning to Israel as a location that could sub in for a generic Middle Eastern location in any one of the number of series set there in recent years.
FX's Tyrant has announced it will move production of the final two episodes of its first season from Tel Aviv to Turkey, while USA's upcoming miniseries Dig, a Da Vinci Code-style adventure set and filmed in Jerusalem, will wait to produce its further episodes until things hopefully quiet down. Gideon Raff, the creator of both series, said of the Dig hiatus at the Television Critics Association summer press tour: "Hopefully everything will calm down and we'll go back to working there, and if not, we'll sort it out."
It's worth noting here that Raff himself is Israeli. He's the creator of Hatufim, which brought him international recognition and was remade in the U.S. as Homeland. That series actually filmed a handful of episodes early in its second season that substituted Israel for Beirut, a move that provoked some ire when the show depicted Beirut as a largely violent city constantly in danger of falling into chaos.
The move to Turkey will mark Tyrant's third country in a 10-episode first season. The pilot was filmed in Morocco, but production of the series moved to Israel, where FX said it would be easier to build the sorts of soundstages and facilities an ongoing television series would need. (For more on the decision to swap Israel in for the fictional country of Abuddin, read this essential Hollywood Reporter piece on the show's troubled production history.)
Tyrant attracted a fair amount of criticism from both Muslim and Arab-American advocacy groups, as well as TV critics, for its seeming portrayal of a long string of Muslim and Arab stereotypes, but it's performed fairly well in the ratings. A renewal would have been likely in a few weeks, but if the series is unable to return to Israel, things become more complicated, as moving the show's base of production could prove too expensive for a series that's only a marginal performer.
It's no secret that the death tolls in the Israel-Palestine conflict are lopsided, with Palestinians far more likely to be killed than Israelis. But just how lopsided is driven home by looking at the month-to-month fatality statistics, which the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem has been tracking since September 2000. Those numbers also tell some important stories about the conflict, how it's changed, and maybe where it's going.
Here are the monthly, conflict-related deaths of Israelis and Palestinians since September 2000:
You'll notice right away that the overwhelming majority of the deaths are Palestinian, and have been for the almost 14 years since B'Tselem began tracking. Overall, the group has recorded 8,166 conflict-related deaths, of which 7,065 are Palestinian and 1,101 Israeli. That means 87 percent of deaths have been Palestinian and only 13 percent Israeli. Put another way, for every 15 people killed in the conflict, 13 are Palestinian and two are Israeli. (Statistics for the past two months are from United Nations Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs.)
That number is even more staggering when you consider that there are about twice as many Israelis as there are Palestinians. This means, very roughly, that a Palestinian person has been 15 times more likely to be killed by the conflict than an Israeli person. Of course the conflict impacts Palestinians and Israelis far beyond just conflict deaths, but these statistics help show how utterly disproportionate the conflict has become in its toll.
The disparity has widened dramatically over time. Since January 2005, when the conflict began to change dramatically, it has killed 4,006 people, of whom 168 have been Israeli and 3,838 Palestinian. That means that, since January 2005, only four percent of those killed have been Israeli, and 96 percent Palestinian. Since January 2005, in other words, the conflict has killed 23 Palestinians for every one Israeli it claims.
Still, even though Israelis are killed at a far lower rate than are Palestinians, that does not make Israeli deaths any less real or traumatic. Here are just the Israelis killed in the conflict:
This chart shows just the 1,101 Israeli deaths in the conflict since September 2000. Of those, 744 were civilians and 357 security forces, meaning that an Israeli killed in the conflict is much more likely to be a civilian than uniformed — a legacy of the bus bombings and other terrorist attacks frequent during the early 2000s. But the most striking thing about this chart may be how dramatically the rate of Israeli deaths has declined since the early 2000s, with many months passing with no deaths at all. Here are a few bigger-picture lessons from these two charts.
B'Tselem began tracking these numbers when the Second Intifada, or second mass Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation, began in September 2000. And you can see that reflected in the numbers of deaths of Israelis as well as Palestinians.
The Second Intifada included riots, large-scale clashes, bus bombings and other acts of terrorism against Israelis, Israeli targeted killings against Palestinians, and perhaps most costly of all large-scale Israeli military assaults. This is when Israeli deaths hit their peak, with 283 killed in a five-month run from February through June of 2002. Even then, though, Palestinian deaths were much higher, with 659 killed over that same period. This is the closest that Israeli and Palestinian deaths have gotten to symmetrical, and still more than twice as many Palestinians were killed than Israelis.
That is when Israel, fed up with the violence of the Second Intifada, responded in part by dramatically increasing the size and number of walls separating Israeli from Palestinian territory. Israel also withdrew its military and all settlers from Gaza, which is the smaller of the two Palestinian territories.
Both of these actions did a lot to remove Israelis from harm's way, which you can see reflected in the dramatic — and sustained — reduction in Israeli deaths. But they did not end the conflict, especially not for Palestinians, who continued to be killed in large numbers even after the Second Intifada felt like it had ended for most Israelis.
These two Israeli changes — installing more walls and withdrawing from Gaza — have also done their share to perpetuate the conflict. They drastically deepened the physical and metaphorical barriers between Israelis and Palestinians, further raising the pain of occupation for Palestinians and making it easier for Israelis to accept the conflict as status quo, and thus less likely to elect governments that will take risks for a long-term peace deal.
After the withdrawal from Gaza, the terrorist group Hamas took power there and has held it since, using the territory as a base for regular rocket attacks against Israel. While those rocket attacks do not in themselves cause nearly as many deaths as the violence of the Second Intifada, they are part of the conflict between Israel and Gaza-based militant Palestinian groups that occasionally flares up to cause massive numbers of Palestinian deaths, as is happening this week.
Since 2005, the conflict has settled into a new pattern: fewer Palestinian deaths during "calm" months with occasional spikes into catastrophic numbers of Palestinians killed.
These spikes, of which the chart shows four since 2005, are all times when Israeli forces attacked Gaza, where Israel was targeting Hamas and other militant groups but also ended up killing large numbers of Palestinians civilians. In mid-2006, form June through November, Israeli forces invaded Gaza as part of Operation Summer Rains, which was sparked by Palestinian rocket fire into Israel and by the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was released five years later.
In late 2008 and early 2009, Israel again invaded Gaza as part of Operation Cast Lead, which caused only 13 Israeli deaths but ended with well over 1,000 Palestinians killed and devastated the Gaza Strip. Those two months were by far the deadliest for Palestinians since B'Tselem began tracking in 2000.
Israel launched extended bombing campaigns in Gaza in late 2012 and again this month, both of which have killed dozens of Palestinians. While Israeli strikes are targeting Hamas and other militant groups that are firing rockets into Israel, a local UN office estimated on Friday that 77 percent of people killed in Gaza up to that point were civilians, including 30 children. A separate UN agency estimated on Sunday that 70 percent of the killed were civilians, including 27 children.
You can see the pattern of the last several years clearly on the top chart: the conflict remains at a relatively low level until, every couple of years, it flares up with heavy Israeli strikes on Gaza that also cost a large number of Palestinian lives. This status quo, on net, clearly causes a large number of Palestinian lives. But it kills very few Israelis, which is a big part of why Israeli voters and leaders have appeared willing to accept it.
This Israeli strategy is sometimes described as "cutting the grass." In this thinking, Israel never really solves the conflict or even tries; it tolerates a level of violence from Gaza-based militant groups, but every few years bombs and maybe invades Gaza to weaken militants there and destroy their weapons – to cut the grass. It treats the Israel-Palestine conflict, at least as it pertains to Gaza, as something to be managed rather than solved.
It is important to stress that this strategy is not one that ever produces peace or that is designed to lead to a solution. It accepts a low level of Israeli deaths from rocket fire, and occasionally dozens or hundreds of Palestinian deaths from air strikes, as status quo.
Correction: This post initially reported erroneous fatality statistics. I had misread B'Tselem's data tables in a way that significantly under-counted Israeli deaths, as well as some Palestinian deaths. The charts and statistics in this post have been corrected to reflect the accurate count. I regret the error and thank Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner for pointing it out to me.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, discussing the escalating Israeli air strikes in Gaza and the rockets fired into Israel from Palestinian militant groups there, said at a press conference Friday that this latest violence shows why Israel cannot withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank as it did in 2005 from Gaza. While many have interpreted this as opposition to any two-state solution whatsoever, it reads to me as something a little different: a major Israeli requirement for any peace deal to work, and one that precludes Israel from ending its West Bank occupation without Palestinians agreeing to a deal that would satisfy that requirement.
"I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan," Netanyahu said in response to a reporter's question. That's according to a translation from Netanyahu's Hebrew by the Times of Israel's David Horovitz, who explains that the press event received little attention in the English-language press.
In other words, a lesson that Netanyahu has drawn from the seven years since Israel unilaterally withdrew all of its military occupation forces and settlers from Gaza is that they cannot do the same thing in the West Bank, because it would too badly compromise Israeli security. (Netanyahu opposed the 2005 Gaza withdrawal at the time.) Whether you agree with his analysis or not, and surely many will not, the point is that Israel's head of government has categorically ruled out any peace plan by which Israel unilaterally pulls up stakes and leaves the West Bank outright.
Some, including Horovitz, have interpreted this as meaning that Netanyahu opposes any two-state peace plan or independent Palestinian state at all. Michael Omer-Man of 972 Magazine writes, "It's official. Not that this should really surprise anyone, as long as Netanyahu is the Israeli prime minister the occupation is forever and there will be no sovereign Palestine." While Netanyahu has previously declared his support for a two-state solution, it was under heavy American pressure and there is widespread speculation that he was not sincere.
I'm not sure I share this analysis. There are valid and numerous reasons to doubt Netanyahu's commitment to reaching a two-state peace deal that would establish Palestine as an independent state, but this latest comment does not appear, to me anyway, to say that.
There are a number of two-state peace plans that simultaneously grant Palestine an independent state while also meeting Israeli security concerns. This would most likely require at least some infringements on Palestinian sovereignty over security matters, for example by allowing a long-term mutli-national peacekeeping force in the West Bank, and a number of Palestinians are skeptical of any such deal on those grounds.
The point, though, is that it is within the realm of possibility to simultaneously end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank while also meeting Netanyahu's apparent demand for some continued Israeli security control. However, it's only possible to do both as part of a negotiated peace deal agreed to by Israelis and Palestinians, since it would require Israeli and Palestinian cooperation over West Bank security issues. In other words, it is not possible to do this by Israel unilaterally withdrawing from its occupation of the West Bank, as it did from Gaza in 2005.
That, to me, is the big takeaway from Netanyahu's comments here: he has drawn, from the latest Gaza violence, the lesson that Israel can only end its occupation of the West Bank if there is a deal to grant Israel some continued role in West Bank security matters. That is not to endorse his logic, but to recognize the condition he is apparently setting on peace and what it means for the Israel-Palestine conflict.
After six days of Israeli air strikes on Gaza, part of a recent and still-spiraling escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict, over 160 Palestinians have been reportedly killed. While Israeli strikes are targeting Hamas and other militant groups that are firing rockets into Israel, a local UN office estimated on Friday that 77 percent of people killed in Gaza up to that point were civilians, including 30 children. A separate UN agency estimated on Sunday that 70 percent of the killed were civilians, including 27 children.
What does it feel like to be in Gaza right now, under ever-looming threat of bombardment from above? Mohammed Suliman, a resident of Gaza City who identifies himself on his blog as a 22-year-old graduate student, has been tweeting, often poignantly, of the experience.
In bed. Drones buzzing dully. Everyone fell asleep. An F16 flies scarily before its noise fades into the distance. I anticipate a blast.— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 10, 2014
I turn on the TV. I hear a doctor describe how one wounded child pleaded with him to stop treating him and treat his baby brother instead.— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 11, 2014
Shahd, 9, was killed in an airstrike that targeted a municipality car. Her sister Salwa, 10, was critically injured. They were passing by.— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 11, 2014
In a hospital room, dad cries in agony over the body of his baby son. Holding him in his hands, he tearfully cries: Wake up, I got you a toy— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 11, 2014
I wake up. I hear warplanes fly. I turn on the radio. Patriotic songs are blaring. Death toll has risen. With a heavy heart, I send a prayer— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 12, 2014
— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 12, 2014
Yasser receives a call from IDF. Evacuate in ten minutes. He wasn't home though. His family was. Hysterically, he phoned home. No one picked
— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 12, 2014
I hear two Palestinian missiles. I duck and raise my head again. Frantically, Israeli warships resume shelling. I throw myself on the ground— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 12, 2014
Anas is a doctor. During Cast Lead, a missile hit his house killing his parents. He survived. Yesterday, a missile hit his house killing him— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 12, 2014
I had a Linguistics professor, who always sounded critical of Hamas. His house was bombed today. He and his family escaped an imminent death— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 12, 2014
I walk into the kitchen. The smell of explosives, of death, penetrates my entire flat. Warplanes fly overhead. I anticipate more blasts.— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 13, 2014
I declared myself an excellent anticipator of coming blasts. Four terrifying blasts hit what seems to be the same target. Death is nearer.— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 13, 2014
Petrified, my ears buzz and don't seem to recover. Leila's stomach starts hurting. Each blast sounds louder and more horrifying. Death nears— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 13, 2014
I've lost my words. Bombs rein down on my area. Behind the dining table, Leila and I sit close to each other. Death is what we are tweeting.— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 13, 2014
The Israeli strikes on Gaza are the most intensive since late 2012, which began with a air strike to kill a senior Hamas militant leader in Gaza. The worst round of fighting before that, in 2008, eventually escalated into an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza; it is not clear whether that will happen again now. This most recent round of violence began when members of Hamas, apparently acting independently from Hamas leadership, murdered three Israeli students in the West Bank, two of them children.
Suliman is also victim of one of the conflict's less overt but still pernicious effects: of driving people to themselves endorse the killing of innocent civilians on the "other side" while they lament the deaths of innocents on their own. This does not in the least soften the suffering in Gaza that Suliman well conveys, but it's a reminder of how the suffering can become self-perpetuating. It's also a reminder of how people become desensitized to, or outright reject, the suffering of certain civilians simply because they have the wrong nationality — a problem that persists on both sides of the Green Line.
Israelis have been living for years under the threat of rockets fired indiscriminately by Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups, particularly from Gaza-based terrorist groups such as Hamas. As in any conflict, the people affected by it find ways to cope and to integrate the reality of conflict into their lives. For Israelis, this often takes the form of humor.
To give you a sense for what that coping looks like, here's a 2012 cartoon teasing Israelis in Tel Aviv for their typical response to rocket attack warning sirens. It's by Israeli artist Tomi Zandshtein, who has generously given permission for it to be reproduced here (Tomi typically writes in Hebrew but you can read English translations of his work):
"Israelis, in general, tend to view these things with a mixture of nervousness and light heartedness," Zandshtein told me over email. "We get angry or scared by these things just as often as we laugh at them or act like they're no big deal. We'll run for cover (usually), but then we'll also go outside and look up at the sky looking for the little puff of cloud that marks the spot where the rocket was intercepted, then we'll take pictures of it and upload it on Facebook."
This tracks with what Israelis in Tel Aviv and other cosmopolitan coastal cities have told me about the experience of coping with rocket sirens. There's a small but popular sub-genre of Israeli rocket jokes. See, for example, this November 2012 video, "Shit Tel Avivians say during an attack" (turn on English subtitles by clicking CC in the bottom-right corner):
Zandshtein says he drew his cartoon in late 2012, when Hamas and other groups fired a number of rockets toward Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli air strikes in Gaza and rocket sirens sounded over normally peaceful Tel Aviv, as they have been again this week.
In southern Israel, near the Gaza border, rockets are far more common, the warning time much shorter, and their physical and psychological damage much deeper, with bomb shelters and evacuations and explosions a part of daily life.
"We don't have to deal with as many sirens here in Tel Aviv as the people who live closer to the Gaza strip who get fired at a lot more frequently and have a lot less time to get to the shelters," Zandshtein says. "Over here we have the privilege of looking at it as a strange, hopefully temporary experience."
"Although," he adds, "I have a friend who lives close to the Gaza strip, and she says that she has a massive collection of rocket jokes from her friends there." I have been told this as well by Israelis who live near Gaza, although everyone also seems to know someone who was injured or maimed by a rocket. Zandshtein says a friend lost his eye in an attack while visiting southern Israel.
When I asked Zandshtein if he thought that joking about the rockets was a coping mechanism for Israelis or just humor for the sake of humor, he answered, "It's a little of both. The sirens, and hearing random explosions through the day are all scary things, and there's a lot of nervousness in the air, but at the same time, the missile interception system keeps us feeling relatively safe."
These exchanges of Palestinian rockets and Israeli air strikes are experienced very differently, of course, in Gaza itself. It does not obviate the suffering of Israelis to note that many more innocent Palestinians are killed by Israeli air strikes than Israelis are by Palestinian rockets. Gazans do not have warning sirens to alert them or American-funded missile-defense systems to protect them or, typically, bomb shelters strong enough to shield their families. None of this eases Israeli suffering one iota, nor does in any way soften or excuse Hamas and other terrorist groups from firing at Israeli civilians, but it is worth pausing to remember.
Zandshtein made clear that making light of the rockets was not the same as making light of the conflict itself, or of the real suffering it causes innocent civilians on both sides of the Green Line.
"I find it very important to make the difference between a government and it's citizens," he says. "Whether you agree or disagree with anything the people in charge of Israel or Gaza do, at the end of the day both sides have many people who'd rather not have anything to do with it, and are just going about their lives, trying to make the best of any situation, I do that by drawing comics about it."
NBC News reporter Ayman Mohyeldin is in Gaza, where three days of Israeli air strikes have killed over 100 Palestinians. Gaza-based militant groups, including the terrorist group Hamas, which rules over the territory, have been firing hundreds of rockets into Israel.
Mohyeldin posted this video showing what it was like to cross into Gaza from the Israeli-controlled checkpoint at Erez. Since 2006, when Gazans elected Hamas into power, Israel has put the territory under military bloackade and sharply restricted border crossings, driving up unemployment and the prices of basic goods there.
Even just this three-minute video of crossing at Erez, which Mohyeldin says is "like coming out of a maximum security prison," conveys the Gazans' experience of being locked-in by the blockade — and unable to evade the ever-recurring tit-for-tat violence of Palestinian rockets out and Israeli air strikes in.
"You can understand why some human rights activists call Gaza the world's largest outdoor prison," Mohyeldin says, pushing his equipment through the long, fenced-in walkway out of Erez.
"One of the major complaints and frustrations among many people is that this is a form of collective punishment," he says of the blockade, which includes the Egyptian government blocking off Gaza's border with Egypt. "You have 1.7 million people in this territory now being bombarded, with really no way out."
Reading the Israeli press, you get a sense of profound national reckoning. After members of Hamas murdered three Israeli students in the West Bank, which inspired national outrage, a group of Israelis burned a 16 year old Palestinian alive — allegedly in retaliation. Israelis have dealt with Jewish terrorism before, but the national revulsion at the murder makes this time feel different. "This is a wake-up call," Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel's most respected political scientists, told the New York Times. "A line has been crossed ... this is absolute evil."
While anti-Arab racism is not rising among Israelis as a whole, according to research by Haifa University, what has happened is that, since the violence of the Second Intifada, Israelis have become much less eager to challenge anti-Palestinian racism on the Israeli far-right - they've become, in other words, more tolerant of intolerance. This has allowed far-right anti-Arab movements to fester, even as they've remained small minorities within Israeli society. The horrific murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir was, for many Israelis, a wake-up call - an indication of just how ugly these movements had become.
But, for many Palestinians in the West Bank, the murder was shocking but the existence of an increasingly violent Israeli far-right was not. They've been burdened for years with the violence of a different sort of anti-Arab movement, but one that has grown in the same climate of mainstream Israeli indifference: "price tag" attacks by fundamentalist settlers. And while the murder of Khdeir was an isolated but grisly act, the price tag attacks have been less deadly but far more frequent, with 400 in 2011 alone. As Israelis wake up to one form of anti-Arab violence, the far-right soccer-hooligan nationalism of La Familia that killed Khdeir in Jerusalem, they may also want to look to the other Israeli anti-Arab movement wreaking havoc just across the Green Line.
Right-wing extremists have been a significant force in Israeli politics. The openly racist Kach Party won a seat in the Knesset in 1984, and was polling even higher in the 1988 elections before being banned from participating. Baruch Goldstein, a significant Kach member, killed 29 worshippers at a mosque in the Cave of the Patriarch in the West Bank city of Hebron. Jewish radical Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, while the minister was in the midst of a major push for a peace deal.
The murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir is of a piece with the ultra-violent Goldstein and Amir tradition. However, the sort of settler violence that has been on the rise is usually lower profile: burning down Palestinian property, scrawling graffiti on mosques, or physical assaults on Arabs that stop short of deadly force.
These so-called "price tag" attacks have been getting worse in recent years. According to the UN, settler attacks on Palestinians doubled (from 200 to over 400 per year) between 2009 and 2011.
These attacks are more than just random anti-Arab abuse. Price tag attacks "target Palestinians, pro-peace Israelis, and Israeli soldiers alike for supposedly anti-settlement measures taken by the Israeli government," Georgetown's Daniel Byman and the Brookings Institution's Natan Sachs wrote in a 2012 report on the violence. To make the point truly obvious, the attackers often scrawl the Hebrew word for "price tag" on the wall near attacks.
In a follow-up interview, Sachs said these attacks "have certainly got worse in the past two years." Though no complete data on price tag attacks exist for 2014 yet, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reports that the problem has gotten acutely worse over the course of the past several months, with the rate of attacks rising.
Price tag vigilantes now enjoy a "whole system of support for the perpetrators, from Rabbis who give their blessings to friends who help the perpetrators cover their tracks," according to Noam Sheizaf, editor of Israeli magazine +972.
But where does this particular kind of anti-Arab violence come from? And why has it gotten so much worse in the past few years?
The price tag attacks are, in a sense, an unintended product of Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. When Israel pulled its ground presence out of the Palestinian territory, it also removed about 8,500 settlers. This convinced a radical fringe of the settlement movement that it could no longer trust the government; that to preserve their homes, they needed to take action into their own hands.
"Price Tag actions do not only target Palestinians, but also (and in an almost similar frequency) IDF commanders and equipment," Hillel Ben Sasson, director of projects at the Jerusalem-based Molad think tank, told me. "The goals of attacks on the IDF are to put a price tag on evicting settlements and demolishing illegal construction in them by putting pressure on government authorities and officials to think more than twice before interfering with settler business."
The desired endpoint of this is the demolition of the two-state solution, which would grant separate states to Israelis and Palestinians. For an independent Palestine to be viable, a significant number of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank would have to leave (some settler communities along the Israeli border would likely be allowed to stay as part of a land-swap). If the settlers can convince the Israeli government and public that uprooting enough of the roughly 500,000 West Bank settlers will be more trouble than it's worth, they will have practically ended any chance for a viable Palestinians state.
"To stave off another disengagement of any kind," Byman and Sachs write, settlers "resolved to retaliate against any attempt by the Israeli government to crack down on the movement — hence the birth of the 'price tag' attacks."
There's been little pressure from the Israeli public to anything about this because mainstream Israeli has becoming increasingly numb to Arab concerns. Since all of the violence targeted at Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada, Israeli attitudes toward Palestinian suffering have hardened. "The brutality of the Second Intifada," according to Sachs, made Israelis "extremely impatient with the argument that they need to think about the justice and the human needs of a society that supports these actions. It negatively affected "the degree to which they're tolerant of hate speech."
"The fringe has chosen a strategy of ongoing, low-level violence that's convenient for Israeli society to write off as a nuisance," Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion analyst, explains. Israelis "say that it's not really comparable to what the Palestinians do."
The lack of public anger contributed to lax Israeli enforcement, allowing price tag to escalate with impunity. Data compiled by Yesh Din, a group that monitors settler violence, shows that "between 2005 and 2013 just 8.5 percent of investigation files ended in the indictment of Israelis suspected of harming Palestinians and their property."
What's more, the July 2013 report found that "no meaningful action has been taken to correct the situation and improve the quality of investigations." Sachs believes there"there has been a concerted effort by the Shin Bet [Israeli FBI equivalent] and the police" to address price tag in 2014. However, he allows, "it's not been as forceful as one would like."
Instead, Israelis are increasingly uninterested in aggressively challenge the minority who are outright racists — be they soccer hooligans like La Familia or violent price tag settlers. There's just not a lot of willingness to get out and demand that the government do something about these groups in the name of Palestinian rights. And without any enforcement, the price taggers have had a free hand to escalate as much as they'd like.
"Price Tag is a very political crime," Sheizaf, the journalist, says. "It aims to cause a public effect" — convincing the Israeli public that a withdrawal from the West Bank would cost more than it's worth.
The public's critical role is why the Abu Khdeir murder, and the subsequent fighting throughout Israel and Gaza it sparked, is such a watershed moment. The violence has brought an enormous amount of public attention to the question of anti-Arab violence in Israel — attention for good and ill.
Start with the good: mainstream Israeli society was horrified by the murder. Even the hardline settler parties condemned it in absolutely uncertain terms. "What happened with Muhammed Abu Khdeir," according to Scheindlin, "throws off people's narratives [about price tag]. I know a lot of people on the right are having a spiritual crisis."
It's not clear whether this existential shock will prompt an Israeli backlash against price tag violence, or whether any such backlash would lead to more robust enforcement against the movement.
But there's a dark side to this story.
After the bodies of the three murdered Israeli boys were found, an Israeli Facebook page called "People of Israel Demand Revenge" had received 35,000 likes before being taken down. A mob of 100 Jews attacked three Arabs on the streets of Jerusalem, part of a wave of "revenge" attacks against Arabs for the killings.
Both Sachs and Sheizaf worry that social media could strengthen price tag. The easier it is for extremists to find and radicalize one another, the stronger extremist groups get. The ongoing fighting in Gaza could intensify that effect. Palestinian rockets and Israeli deaths or injuries could make Israeli fringes more receptive to the hardline anti-Palestinian message.
So this may be an inflection point for price tag. We'll find out soon enough.
An Israeli peace conference held in Tel Aviv by the left-leaning newspaper Ha'aretz, established to put "peace [with Palestinians] at the top of the national agenda" and "to end the occupation and the settlement project," was abruptly halted on Tuesday when the audience had to evacuate due to incoming rockets launched by Palestinian groups.
It was a coincidence, yes; the rockets are barely accurate enough to be aimed at a single city, let along a single building holding an Israel-Palestine peace conference, and no one was hurt. But it is a moment of profoundly tragic symbolism, exceptional even in a conflict that produces many such moments, that a Palestinian militant group with the desire of ending the Israeli occupation would fire rockets at Israeli civilians who had themselves gathered with the express purpose of ending the occupation.
Observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict often say that the violence committed by both sides is self-defeating, but rarely is this so demonstrably and immediately true as with today's evacuation of the Ha'aretz peace conference.
The conference itself is part of a larger effort by the Israeli political left to overcome Israeli apathy toward the conflict and build political momentum for peace; that movement is squeezed between Israel's political right and militant Palestinian groups, both of which in action and rhetoric tend to polarize Israelis and Palestinians against one another and against even the idea of compromise. It's often said that there is not enough "political space" for the Israeli pro-peace left, and while typically that is meant metaphorically today it was true physically as well.
While Hamas and other Palestinian groups have launched a number of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel over the past week, they almost never reach all the way to Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city and a cosmopolitan haven rarely touched by the conflict. The rocket siren sounded over the city for the first time since 2012, when Gaza groups fired hundreds of rockets into Israel as Israeli forces bombarded the Palestinian territory. The rockets appear to have landed harmlessly and the conference attendees eventually returned to the hall. The incident ended bloodlessly, but it was a perfect symbol of the conflict's tragic absurdity and endless cycle of self-perpetuation.
As I have written repeatedly, Israel's continued military occupation of the Palestinian territories remains by far the most significant driver of the conflict and the greatest single cause of the conflict's many daily torments. However, today's rocket attacks, and their symbolic and literal damage to grassroots Israeli efforts to end the occupation and find peace, are a reminder that militant Palestinian groups absolutely contribute to the conflict and its perpetuation as well.
It was not the first moment of political symbolism at the Ha'aretz Peace Conference. Naftali Bennett, an increasingly popular far-right Israeli politician who became economic minister last year, was shouted off the stage by conference attendees who called him "fascist" and "murderer;" he says someone punched him in the back as he left the hall. At another panel, Arab-Israeli journalist Sayed Keshua walked off stage after settler leader Yisrael Harel made racist comments against Arabs. And so on.
Meanwhile, in Gaza, the effects of Israeli violence were less symbolically resonant but far costlier: 15 Palestinians were killed and 92 injured in air strikes today. This latest round of violence is continuing to escalate with no clear end in sight.
On Monday night, between 5 and 12 people were killed in Israeli airstrikes in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, from which Hamas has been firing rockets into Israel. Israeli's cabinet authorized the military to call up 40,000 reservists, and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said that "we are preparing for a battle against Hamas which will not end within a few days." Tensions between Israel and the Palestinian militant group were already at a high point, but now there's a real chance of the first full-blown war between the two sides since 2012. Meanwhile, Palestinian protests in the West Bank are growing, and a number have ended in violent clashes with Israeli security forces.
Why is this happening? It all started with the killings of four young boys, three Israelis in the first incident and one Palestinian in the second. The fallout of these murders has devolved into a crisis that's challenging some of the most important features of Israeli and Palestinian society.
About a month ago, three teenage Israeli students — Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel — disappeared in the West Bank, where they were studying at a yeshiva. Israel conducted a massive manhunt for them in the West Bank, on the basis of intelligence that they were kidnapped by Palestinian militants. Thousands of Israeli soldiers swept the Palestinian territory, arresting hundreds of Palestinians and shutting down Palestinian movement in wide areas.
The boys were found, dead in apparent gunshot executions, last Monday. The leading suspects are Hamas members, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that the entire group bears responsibility, though Hamas itself denies any role in planning or carrying out the killing. Israel responded with a limited bombing campaign in Gaza. Palestinian militant groups (though, notably, not Hamas) in Gaza fired rockets into Israel.
That could have potentially been the end of the fighting — were it not for the murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir. Israeli authorities found the 16 year old Palestinian boy's body last Wednesday, apparently burned to death. Police arrested 6 Israelis over the weekend for Khdeir's murder, and told reporters that the killing was "nationalistic." In simpler terms, that it was a revenge killings by Jewish extremists for the murders of the three Israeli boys. Buzzfeed's Sheera Frenkel reports that the alleged perpetrators were part of a racist Israeli soccer gang, La Familia. It followed a string of violence against Palestinians by settlers and other Israelis, within a climate of anti-Palestinian sentiment and some inflammatory statements by right-wing Israeli politicians.
A few days later, Tariq Abu Khdeir, Muhammed's 15-year-old Palestinian-American cousin, was brutally beaten while detained by Israeli police after a Palestinian demonstration in East Jerusalem. Footage of his assault made it to YouTube.
Palestinians are furious about the Khdeir boys, about the bombings in Gaza, and about the clamp-down on the West Bank during the search for the murdered Israelis. There were riots in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and some Israeli Arab towns. On Monday, Hamas fired rockets into Israel, for which it claimed responsibility for the first time since 2012. Then, Monday night, Israel launched more strikes in Gaza, as part of what Netanyahu said was an effort to make Hamas "pay a heavy price." The conflict is continuing to escalate with no clear end in sight.
So that's how we got here. Here are three major things that might happen next.
First, there's a real possibility of a third intifada, or popular Palestinian uprising against Israel. A number of Palestinian militant groups are calling for a violent uprising, and one reporter on the ground in East Jerusalem called the clash between rioting Palestinians and Israeli police the worst "since the second Intifada," which claimed thousands of lives in the early 2000s. If the rioting, rocket fire, and Israeli air strikes beget more violence from both sides, an all-out war between Israel, Hamas, and other Palestinian groups is a not implausible possibility.
Second, the Palestinian unity deal may be falling apart. Since 2006, the Palestinian leadership has been split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah, a more moderate group, which controls the West Bank. In April, Hamas and Fatah agreed to join a interim government and hold Palestinian elections in both territories. However, this crisis is sharply dividing these two groups. While Hamas has openly fought with Israel, Fatah has stayed out of the fighting and tried to urge calm. The two groups have been furious with each other throughout the current crisis, are split further by Fatah's reliance on Israel in the West Bank, and are behaving like separate governments. The longer this fighting goes on, the more likely it is that the split becomes formal.
Finally, the treatment of the Khdeir boys has sparked a public debate inside Israel about the direction that Israeli society is being taken by the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories. Most Israelis reacted with shock at Khdeir's murder, which the Israeli government formally condemned. The Israeli left, which has been politically weak for some time, has argued that these murders are a natural outgrowth of Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and even its self-definition as a Jewish state. But while this episode has brought renewed attention to the consequences of the Israeli occupation, so too has it brought widespread Israeli outrage over the murders of the yeshiva students; anger and polarization are rising on both sides, and will likely continue to rise along with the violence.
Yuval Diskin, the chief of Israel's internal security agency the Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011, has posted a withering criticism of the Israeli government and its handling of the recent violence on his public Facebook page. He squarely blames Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government for the recent crisis, which began with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli students in the West Bank and has spiraled into much wider violence, including the murder of a 16-year-old Palestinian by Israeli extremists.
Diskin, who has frequently criticized Israel's occupation of the West Bank and its role in the Palestinian conflict since retiring, writes that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is primarily responsible for the worsening violence. Here is the core of Diskin's argument, translated from Hebrew by the Jewish Daily Forward's J.J. Goldberg. (Unsurprisingly, he lavishes praise on the Shin Bet, but the rest is worth reading.) You can read Goldberg's full translation of Diskin's post here.
Dear friends: Take a few moments to read the following words and share them with others. I see the severe and rapid deterioration of the security situation in the territories, Jerusalem and the Triangle and I'm not surprised. Don't be confused for a moment. This is the result of the policy conducted by the current government, whose essence is: Let's frighten the public over everything that's happening around us in the Middle East, let's prove that there's no Palestinian partner, let's build more and more settlements and create a reality that can't be changed, let's continue not dealing with the severe problems of the Arab sector in Israel, let's continue not solving the severe social gaps in Israeli society.
This illusion worked wonderfully as long as the security establishment was able to provide impressive calm on the security front over the last few years as a result of the high-quality, dedicated work of the people of the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Israel Police as well as the Palestinians whose significant contribution to the relative calm in the West Bank should not be taken lightly.
However, the rapid deterioration we're experiencing in the security situation did not come because of the vile murder of Naftali, Eyal and Gil-Ad, may their memories be blessed.
The deterioration is first and foremost a result of the illusion that the government's inaction on every front can actually freeze the situation in place, the illusion that "price tag" is simply a few slogans on the wall and not pure racism, the illusion that everything can be solved with a little more force, the illusion that the Palestinians will accept everything that's done in the West Bank and won't respond despite the rage and frustration and the worsening economic situation, the illusion that the international community won't impose sanctions on us, that the Arab citizens of Israel won't take to the streets at the end of the day because of the lack of care for their problems, and that the Israeli public will continue submissively to accept the government's helplessness in dealing with the social gaps that its policies have created and are worsening, while corruption continues to poison everything good, and so on and so on.
Diskin was featured in the award-winning 2012 documentary "The Gatekeepers," which interviewed all the living former heads of the Shin Bet. While Israeli security chiefs are not exactly left-wing peaceniks, they and many members of the country's security establishment have long warned that the occupation is unsustainable and wrong, is a threat to Israel itself, and have placed the blame on Israeli political failures.
Twenty days after three Israeli high school students were kidnapped in the West Bank merely for being there, two days after they were found murdered in an apparent execution by Hamas members, and one day after Israelis gathered nationally to mourn the deaths, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies on Israel's political right appear to have extracted what they wanted from the crisis.
And that has been disastrous for Palestinian civilians, who are suffering what, by every indication, appears to be collective punishment by the Israeli government for the actions of a few rogue militants.
Netanyahu's government is launching attacks against Hamas, which Netanyahu insists is collectively responsible for a kidnapping that appears to have been conducted by rogue members. This makes it far more likely that full-on conflict will resume between Israel and Hamas, a dynamic that Netanyahu seems to prefer, because it favors Israel's overwhelming military strength and marginalizes Hamas politically. The last round of Israel-Hamas violence, in November 2012, killed dozens of civilians, almost all of them Palestinian.
The Israeli campaign is also driving a wedge between Hamas and the more moderate, West Bank-based Fatah. In April, the two groups joined in support of the first Palestinian unity government since 2007, but the Israeli response to the kidnappings risks splitting them again. This is a success for Netanyahu, who opposes Hamas's involvement in Palestinian politics, whether it moderates the group or not, and wants to break it away from Fatah. If the groups splinter, this will also have the effect of making peace talks far more difficult. Israel has said for years that a peace deal is impossible without a unified Palestinian government.
The greatest immediate effect of the Israeli response, though, is humanitarian, rather than political. Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza have suffered Israeli responses that have certainly felt like collective punishment, including mass arrests and military raids across the West Bank. These responses have killed at least five Palestinians, led 400 to be arrested, and disrupted the lives and work of many others. Hundreds of Palestinians who live in the West Bank and work in Israel were prevented from crossing over. On Tuesday, Israel launched dozens of air strikes in Gaza that it said were retaliation against Hamas for 18 rockets launched into southern Israel. But given Netanyahu's recent insistence that he will dismantle Hamas in retaliation, it seems unlikely the rockets were the primary instigation. As always, Gazan civilians will feel the brunt of the violence.
Part of what makes this so troubling is that Israeli tactics in the Israel-Palestine conflict have recurrently veered into actions that certainly appear to have the effect, and very possibly the intent, of collective punishment of Palestinians. Perhaps the most famous ongoing example of this is the Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip, imposed shortly after Hamas won legislative elections there. Israel says the blockade is necessary to limit rocket attacks, but it has the effect of causing widespread poverty and unemployment.
Now, with Israel's kidnapping response, Netanyahu himself has fed into the perception of collective punishment. His heavy-handed rhetoric most recently blamed all of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for the kidnappings, before it was clear who had actually committed them. Similarly, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel argued that Israel should retaliate by expanding settlement construction in the West Bank — an act that only makes sense as "retaliation" if you blame, and seek to punish, all Palestinians for the actions of a few.
Collective punishment is designated as a war crime by the Geneva Conventions, which regulate warfare under international law. It's also deeply harmful to the Israel-Palestine peace process, polarizing Palestinian political groups and civilians against Israel. It also polarizes Israelis against Palestinians. Israeli government rhetoric and actions implicitly blaming wide swathes of Palestinians for the kidnapping have coincided with incidents of Israeli mob violence against Palestinians, including what appears to be the abduction and murder of an Arab teenager.
This does nothing, of course, to excuse or soften the kidnappings and murders that sparked the crisis, which appear to have been committed by rogue Hamas members. They belong to a group with a record of opposing and undermining Hamas's ceasefires and negotiations with Israel.
Hamas is not so much a victim here, though. There is an important and valid case to be made that Hamas leaders, or at least some members of its armed wing, do bear some responsibility for the teenagers' deaths. The group has previously encouraged and funded kidnapping Israeli civilians as a tactic. Hamas is labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. and E.U. for good reason, after all. But that does not mean that the group is directly responsible for this kidnapping. More to the point, Hamas joined in a Palestinian unity government in April, which would seem to at least potentially shift its incentives a bit away from militancy and toward cooperation.
In any case, the Hamas political leaders based in Gaza seem unlikely to have participated in a kidnapping in the West Bank committed by rogue Hamas militants, so it's not clear that air strikes on Hamas political leaders in Gaza are an appropriate or justified response. Whatever you think of Israel's political leaders, they're intelligent enough to see the distinctions here. It's hard to conclude that the air strikes are anything other than either blunt collective punishment or an attempt to damage Hamas's political position. What the strikes are not doing, though, is deterring future kidnappings of Israeli students or punishing the suspected culprits of this one.
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