Further thoughts about a couple of things near and far.

My son is back home recovering well. There are some more serious sequels to come, but for the moment we will enjoy the end of year respite and welcome in what we hope is a better 2024 even with the knowledge that he is not out of the woods yet.

I remain unhappy with much of the coverage of the Hamas-Israel conflict in NZ, so threw some thoughts together on the consultancy social media account. They are just sketches designed as food for thought rather than deep analysis. I have fleshed them out a bit here.

First. What does it take for Israel to be labelled a “pariah State” and subjected to international sanctions? North Korea, Iran and Myanmar have all been branded as such and sanctioned because of their behavior (seeking nukes, human rights abuses). So what is the threshold for Israel? Or is it because it is “of” or backed by the West (specifically, the US) that it gets a longer definitional rope? I realise that there is not specific criteria for why and when a State is designated as a pariah and sanctions invoked (which themselves are not uniform or standard in nature), but surely Israel has moved into that territory. Or not?

On the other side, when it comes to those who attacked Israel on October 7, note their differences. Islamic Jihad is a religious extremist movement that pursues holy war against non-believers, Jews in particular. Hamas are an ethno-nationalist movement with some religious extremist elements that seeks to reclaim traditional lands lost to Israel. Their alliance is tactical more than strategic because their objectives overlap over the short-term but differ over the long term. They have common patrons (Iran/Russia), allies (Hezbollah/Houthis/Iraqi militias/Syria) and enemies (Israel/US/ West/Sunni oligarchies) but should not be seen as being a single entity.

The difference is important because Western corporate media tend to treat islamic Jihad and Hamas as a single organization, which implies a unified command, control, communications and intelligence-gathering (C3I) hierarchy. Although there is certainly a degree of coordination of weapons and intelligence transfers between them and their allies and integration of operational units such as what occurred on October 7, the leadership structures of the organisations differ as well as their long term objectives. More specifically, it is my read that Islamic Jihad desires a holy war and the establishment of a Caliphate in the Levant and larger Middle East, whereas Hamas wishes to reclaim what has historically been known as Palestine (hence the phrase “from the river to the sea,” demarcating the territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean from the Lebanese/Israel/Syria border to the Red Sea). This well-known map shows the area of claim and what has happened to it since 1946.

The fact that Islamic Jihad and Hamas have different long-term objectives means that they are potentially divisible when it comes to both military approaches as well as diplomatic negotiating strategies.They and their patrons will resist the latter as a divide and conquer approach, and they will be correct in interpreting the situation as such. But for the larger set of interlocutors trying to achieve a solution to the current status quo impasse and endless cycle of violence, separating the approach to Islamic Jihad from that towards Hamas makes sense. Remember that Hamas wants to replace the Palestinian Authority as the main agent of the Palestinian people and has strong support in the West Bank in that regard (the Palestinian Authority is headquartered in the West Bank but is totally subject to Israeli edicts and controls). Islamic Jihad would prefer to see the current conflict broaden into a regional war out of which a new Caliphate will emerge from the ashes. The Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Shiite militia attacks on US bases in Iraq are part of that effort.

Remember that Islamic Jihad and its allies do not need to win any major war in order to prevail (they militarily cannot). But their efforts have already caught the attention of the Arab “street,” where restive populations see the indifference or complicity of their oligarchical leaders when it comes to Israel as further proof that they are Western puppets. The idea is to expose who the real Masters are, undermine their Arab servants and promote jihad on a regional, grassroots level. it may seem like a pipe dream to those of us far from the streets of places like Cairo, Amman, Tangiers or Riyadh, but if and when anger takes to the streets of such places, then the outcomes are by no means certain when it comes to regime status quo stability.

It does not appear that Islamic Jihad will accept territorial concessions in order to achieve peace, as its project is larger than removing Israel and Jews from the Levant. Hamas, on the other hand, is arguably more nationalist than religious in nature, which means that the ideological focus is on specific ancestral territory rather than on religious orientation (even if Jews make for convenient historical scapegoats). It is also something that is obliquely seen in the fact that although Palestinians are largely Sunni Muslim in religious identification, Hamas’s main support come from Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite Iran and the Shiite Alawite (Assad) regime in Syria. These patrons and allies well understand that the Palestinians are much like the Kurds further to the East, claiming ancestral homelands that have long since been carved up by foreign occupiers (not just European colonialists) and who for many historical reasons are reviled by their co-religious neighbours (hence the refusal to grant or cede territory for either a Kurdish or Palestinian homeland by Sunni-majority regional neighbours or the acceptance of Palestinian refugee flows from the current conflict by these same States).

We must also factor in that both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have factions within them, including political and military wings, (comparatively) moderates and militants, pragmatists versus “idealists” in their ranks. Islamic Jihad has a more unified political-military command (which makes it vulnerable) even when using a decentralised guerrilla military strategy), while Hamas has separated its political and military wings while trying to professionalize its fighters. In any case, harder or easier, these divides can be exploited if the will is there. Conversely, if the divisions are self-recognised and there is a unity of spirit against an immediate foe n face of the odds, they can be mitigated even under the stresses of overwhelming kinetic assault.

In the end, Islamic Jihad is an existential threat to the Middle Eastern status quo because it, like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, want to overthrow the established order even if its current capability to do so is minimal and dependent on the help of others. Hamas is a stronger irregular warfare actor as well as an ideological movement in the local and international imagination because of its territorial focus, so does not pose as much a threat to the broader regional order other than the fact that it’s success could encourage similar insurrectionary movements in the near elsewhere.

Many difficulties exist on the other side of the road to elusive peace in Palestine. Israel will have to cede occupied territory for Hamas to even be approachable regarding negotiations, but what with the combination of recent orthodox Jewish immigrants from the US, Russia and elsewhere fuelling the settler movement, and with the Netanyahu government leaning hard right as a result of the conservative religious extremists in his cabinet, leading to the Israeli government arming of settlers and protecting them with military units, that is clearly not an option any time soon if ever. Israelis are hinting at the Sinai Peninsula as a place to re-settle Palestinians, but Egypt wants no part of that, nor for that matter do the Palestinians themselves. So the first thing that will need to happen is for the Israeli government to change and for it to abandon its settler policies. Again, this seems like a very high mountain to climb.

Another obstacle is that Netanyahu and his supporters may see the situation as a window of opportunity. They may liken the move to eradicate Hamas from Gaza and drive its population out of the Strip as being akin to the Six Day 1967 War in which Israel stripped Jordan of the West Bank, Syria of the Golan Heights and Egypt of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Moreover, given the surprise of the October 7 Hamas attack this year, it is clear that Netanyahu does not want to be seen as Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur (or Ramandan) War of 1973, when Israel was caught unprepared for an attack on October 6 by Egypt and Syria, leading to large early losses for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Even though Israel ultimately won that war in 20 days, Prime Minister Meir was castigated for the lack of preparedness or forewarning and her coalition lost a majority in the legislative election the next year, resulting in her resignation. Netanyahu is acutely aware of her fate as well of the actions he took that helped facilitate Hamas launching its attack (like ignoring intelligence warnings and re-deploying active duty troops from the Gaza border to protect illegal settlers in the occupied West Bank). He knows that politically he is a dead man walking unless he comes up with something spectacular.

In his mind and that of his supporters and colleagues, seizing Gaza may be just that. Since there is no credible international deterrent levelled against Israel and a lack of enforcement capacity to stop its prosecution of the war even if there was a consensus that it has gone too far with its collective punishment/ethnic cleansing campaign in Gaza, Netanyahu makes the plight of the Gazans a UN refugee problem while the IDF consolidates its physical control of the territory. That allows him to “eliminate” Hamas (and many innocents) as a physical entity in the Strip, opening the door for Israeli occupation and settlement. If that is the case, he may well overcome domestic anger at his pre-war actions and seeming disregard for Israeli hostages and instead ride a wave of nationalist sentiment to another term in office.

Should that happen, the shrinking map of Palestine shown above will have to updated yet again.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” returns to discuss Hamas/Israel.

After the hiatus that also forced me to suspend KP posts for a while, Selwyn Manning and I have resumed the “AVFA” podcast series. In the restart episode we dip our toes into turbulent waters by talking about the first order dynamics and potential second and third order consequences/repercussions of the Hamas/Israel conflict.

It is an emotion-laden subject but we do our best to be dispassionate. You can find the show here.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on Israel/Palestine and Samoa’s political power struggle.

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I work through some of the under-examined aspects of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stakes involved in Samoa’s disputed political transition. You can find it here.

Collective punishment can work both ways.

Using an “eye for a tooth” approach, the Israeli military has yet again adopted a strategy of collective punishment in its war against Hamas. The result, predictably, has been carnage and slaughter of innocents on a grand scale.

I am not going to debate who is right and who is wrong in this ongoing struggle. I have previously written about it and have found that the response is simply too emotion-driven for a rational discussion to hold. I will just say that I agree with those that say that Israel has forever lost whatever moral high ground it once had and is now no better than the enemies it fights. In fact, one can only despair for Israeli democracy as it descends into the type of reactionary intolerance that Hamas is notorious for. So I ask readers to please refrain from commentary about Israel.

Instead, here I wish to propose that collective punishment can be a two-way street, and that the global community can find ways to use it against Israel when the latter persists in disproportionately and asymmetrically meting out collective violence on the people of Gaza.

One way to respond is to collectively sanction all israelis for the actions of the political leadership and IDF. There are plenty of ways to do so: boycott Israeli goods; reduce diplomatic contacts with Israel, to include downsizing embassy and consular staffs; cancel contracts with Israeli businesses (to include rescinding investment contracts involving Israeli firms and export licenses for domestic companies trading with Israel, especially in the arms trade); refuse landing rights to Israeli flagged air carriers; deny all types of visa to Israeli nationals, to include tourist and student visas (John Minto has already suggested pulling the work-study visa scheme that allows young Israelis to do so in NZ); refuse Israeli participation in international sporting events; cancel touring Israeli art exhibitions, theatrical productions and musical events–the possibilities are many. The inevitable litigation that will ensue is an avoidable cost levied on Israelis as a result of their government’s policies regarding Gaza. As for the Israelis who carry multiple passports because of their lineage and the prohibitions against Israeli passports in Muslim states–visa checks, airline logs and residency checks can confirm who they are. It may cost to do so, but it  will cost the individuals involved much more.

Sanctions regimes already exist, but these are usually against government elites and their supporters (think of the current sanctions regime against Russian officials and elite entities and those (now lifted) enacted by Australia and New Zealand against the Baimimarama military dictatorship in Fiji). What is proposed here is different: complete sanction against all nationals of a targeted state.

This may seem unfair to the average Israeli who has nothing to do with the Netanyahu government or IDF atrocities. But that is the point: collective punishment of a majority for the actions of a minority is patently unfair. In this instance the collective punishment against Israelis may be unfair to them but is relatively benign when compared to what Israel does to Palestinian civilians in Gaza.  Forcing them to swallow a softer taste of their own medicine might give them pause to rethink their support for the “eye for a tooth” strategy.

More importantly, much like Israeli spokespeople who argue that the people of Gaza are getting what they deserve for electing Hamas into government, so too it can be argued that collectively punishing Israelis is justified in light of their election of the Netanyahu-led Likud government amid rising support for Israeli right-wing religious parties. After all, if we are to blame the electorate in one instance we might as well do it in another, although in the case of the Israelis the blame does not entail being subject to military force.

I realise that nothing will be done along the lines I propose. But I feel the need to put it out there because there seems very little else that anyone can do to make the Israelis desist from collectively punishing innocent Gazians.  In fact, the concept of non-lethal collective punishment or sanction could be used in other instances, say for example against Russians in response to their ongoing intervention in Ukraine. But that depends on some degree of international agreement on the necessity of pursing such a course of action and an equal degree of commitment to enforcing it over an agreed period of time or until certain corrective measures are undertaken by the targeted state.

That simply will not happen in the current context. Heck, if New Zealand sees venal material opportunity arising from Russian counter-sanctions against the EU and US, then it is clear that there is not enough moral and ethical consensus to effectively implement a collective sanctions regime against citizens of a targeted state.

But it might be worth a try, if even in a piecemeal fashion or as a symbolic statement of repudiation of those who believe that lethal collective punishment is a just means of conflict resolution. If nothing else, raising the possibility of non-lethal collective sanction might force citizens of states like Israel to re-think their individual stake in pursuing the collective punishment of others as a matter of state policy.

Collective responsibility, terrorism and the conduct of war.

The Israeli offensive in Gaza has rekindled debate about the role of collective responsibility in the initiation and prosecution of war. Israel is specifically accused of collectively punishing all Gazans in retaliation for Hamas missile attacks on the Israeli population, with some claiming that aspects of Israeli military operations amount to war crimes. Such may or may not be true, but the issue is more complex than that.

Hamas argues that it is justified in firing missiles into Israeli population centers because all Jews are complicit in the Zionist enterprise and all Israelis eventually complete some form of military service. From that perspective better to kill a Jew in the crib than on the battlefield. Sunni extremists in Iraq target Shiia worshippers at their holy sites because they hold them accountable for the apostasy of their clerical leaders. Osama bin Laden has openly stated that the US public made itself a target for attack by repeatedly electing pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim administrations. Kurds and Armenians hold all Turks responsible for the sins of the Ottomans, Kemalists and their successors. Chechnyan militants hold all Russians culpable for the depredations of the Russian military in the post-Soviet republic. Germans are still held by some to be collectively guilty for the sins of the Nazis. The Japanese are accused on not feeling guilty enough for the depredations of Hirohito and company. The list of collective finger-pointing, responsibility, guilt, targeting and punishment is long.

The issue is complicated by the fact that, by the criteria of collective responsibility, open and honest elections increase the culpability of the electorate in the sins of their political representatives. That was Osama’s point about the US. Whatever one may think about the US electorate’s complicity in Bush 43’s follies, by that logic the Palestinians are collectively culpable for having voted in favour of a Hamas-majority parliament in 2006. Put another way, citizens of non-elected authoritarian regimes cannot be held accountable for the behaviour of those regimes unless there is some other mechanism to attribute direct support for the authoritarian project. An example would be Argentines during the Falklands/Malvinas war, which was initiated by a brutal military dictatorship feared by its own people. Conversely, the citizens of all democratic regimes are complicit in the behavior of their governments because it was their majority vote that brought those governments into power. The minority of those who voted against these democratically-elected incumbents may take issue with that (and indeed have), but the logic is inscrutable on the point: mass elections make the masses collectively responsible for the conduct of their elected leaders. Continue reading

Women are agents of their own political and military destinies

Yesterday morning I read Maia’s excellent post about the “women and children” rhetoric being used about Gaza in which she reminds us it’s not just the innocent who deserve protection. Later I walked past a pro-Israel rally outside Parliament in which someone held a banner saying “Hamas uses women and children for terror!”

The point about the phrase “women and children” is that they’re implicitly helpless. Women and children are people things happen to, bombs fall on them, soldiers shoot them, men rape them – they are powerless in the face of others.

In reality there are many women in the world who choose to engage in political or military struggle. There are women fighting for both Palestine and Israel, then there’s Rwanda, Eritrea and Iraq. There are women politically involved in determining their own destiny in every corner of the world. 

I take no pleasure, no pride, no secret feminist joy in reading those articles or watching those videos. But my horror is not because they are women, it is because they are human. When I see stories of women killed in bombings, women raped in ethnic cleansing and women forced to be soldiers my horror is because they are human – nobody of any gender or age should have those lives. 

Women, like men, can be victims of violence, and women, like men, can be be agents of their own destiny: they can fight for armies and they can struggle for peace. We are not the epitome of helpless, powerless vulnerability.

“You don’t throw a cup at your brother!”

Last week I was standing in a cafe queue in front of some mums talking about their children, one said “I told him ‘I don’t care who started it, you don’t throw a cup at your brother!'”

With that rather heavy-handed allegory I start another post about Gaza: I don’t care who started it; it’s not ok to bomb civilians, fire missiles into towns, or invade and start killing innocents.

Every time someone criticises Israel’s actions they get slammed for being anti-Semitic, pro-Palestinian and/or for standing up for terrorists. When someone criticises Hamas’ actions they get attacked for being blindly pro-Israel, a lapdog of the US and/or for standing up for terrorists.

I don’t know whose fault the current situation is, I don’t know the ins and outs of all the wars, the politics, the negotiations, the ceasefires and truces and the breaches, the overt ties, the covert ties and the financial ties.

But I know that I don’t care who started it and that it’s not ok to use the lives of innocents as leverage in a political power game.

P.S. Maia has and interesting post about why innocence should not be required for us to care.

The Rationale of Hamas Rocket Attacks

There is much argument about who started the latest Gaza conflict. Many believe that the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel were the precipitating event, and that Israel has the right to respond. Perhaps that is true. Many question why, during a supposed truce, Hamas would have continued to stage rocket attacks on Israeli territory. The reason, in my view, was both tactical and strategic.

Hamas demands the illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land be withdrawn before any durable peace can be achieved. It believes that it has the right to armed resistance against illegal occupation of its land. Israel demands that the rocket attacks stop before talks on a land-for-peace swap can begin. Hamas militants believe that to cease their attacks will be a tacit surrender to Israeli demands. They also believe that stopping the attacks are a sign of acquiescence on the terms of  any deal. Thus the rocket attacks are designed to frame any discussions in a way that is favourable to Palestinian interests. They are, in a word, part of a “moderate-militant” negotiating strategy by which the attacks are designed to give Hamas’s political wing more room to maneuver when negotiating the terms of any land-for peace agreement. Anyone familiar with negotiations understands the principle: you drive a hard bargain and settle for something less. In this instance the bargain being driven has an armed edge.

There is more to the picture. The reason that rocket attacks are used is that since 2006 no successful suicide bombing attacks have been carried out in Israel (although many have been thwarted). Given the heavily fortified nature of the border, rocket attacks are the only way to make the militant point. Moreover, the point is not only being made to the Israeli authorities. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, being made to the Hamas moderates who make up the bulk of its political wing, and who are the potential negotiators on the Gazian side (since Fattah represents the Palestinian community in the occupied West Bank). Thus the rocket attacks served episodic notice of militant conviction on two fronts, internal and external, with the internal message to the political wing being “sell us out at your peril.”

Regardless of whether this explanation of the rationale behind the rocket attacks is correct or not, one thing is now clear: the rocketeers seriously underestimated Israel’s determination to eradicate Hamas’s militant wing while allowing its political moderates to live to negotiate anther day ( I elaborate on this and some other aspects of  the conflict over at www.scoop.co.nz in an essay titled “Who Benefits from the Gaza conflict?”). That process is now taking place.

What could NZ do in response to Israel’s actions against Gaza?

If the NZ government wanted to do something about Israel’s actions what could we, a tin pot little country on the other side of the world, do?

It’s hard to know what we could do, it’s easy to understand why the government’s response is vague wafflings (although a statement that we think its wrong wouldn’t go amiss), and I’ve struggled to come up with any options, but here are my thoughts

  1. A public statement that Israel’s action is disproportionate, unacceptable and should stop. That seems like the easy one, but I’m sure someone with a foreign affairs background might explain it’s not without cost.
  2. We could go to the UNHCR and offer to take Palestinian refugees in addition to our existing quota. It’s not a public high profile measure, but it would make a real difference to some real lives. 
  3. Working for a UN statement. We might never get one, but it would keep up the international pressure
  4. A travel ban on government and military officials and families? I was scraping the barrel to come up with this one, it seems like something we could actually do and, again, it’s a sign to the international community.

Anything else?

What we can do as individuals is slightly easier; as usual Indymedia is providing a space for people to advertise events. There’s a protest in Wellington today, and one in Auckland on Saturday.