Paul Pillar

The Costs, and the Futility, of Seeking Absolute Security

A report issued jointly yesterday by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the World Food Program describes the effects on Palestinian Arabs of just one element of the measures Israel has taken in the name of securing its own population against possible violence emanating from the occupied territories.  This element is the establishment of what amount to free-fire zones in the portions of the Gaza Strip that border Israel.  The specific Israeli steps have included barring Palestinians from agricultural land and other sources of livelihood in the affected areas, as well as the razing of orchards and other physical destruction.  The zones extend 1,000-1,500 meters from the Israeli border.  This necessarily covers a substantial portion of the Gaza Strip, which is only about four miles wide for most of its length and about eight miles at its very widest.  As George W. Bush would say, in Texas they have driveways longer than that.

The report concludes that these Israeli measures have had a "devastating impact on the physical security and livelihoods" of 178,000 residents of the Gaza Strip, or about 12 percent of the total population.  In addition to 17 percent of the strip's total land area and 35 percent of its agricultural land being affected, further Israeli restrictions on the seaborne movement of Gaza fishermen have barred them from 85 percent of the maritime area in which they were entitled to fish under the Oslo Accords.  The report details the numerous and diverse ways beyond immediate loss of livelihood in which residents have suffered, ranging from deterioration of diets, impoverished families marrying off daughters earlier to make ends meet, and lack of adequate water and sanitation.

These border measures are only one small slice of the deleterious effects that Israeli actions in pursuit of security for its citizens have had on someone else's citizens.  Most of the effects, like the ones documented in this week's report, are the stuff not of eye-catching dramatic events but instead of quotidian squalor.  Many of the infringements on daily life in the West Bank, such as farmers being cut off from their fields by the security fence, have taken similar form, notwithstanding the Israelis' efforts in recent years to loosen up enough to portray the West Bank as the good Palestinian territory to contrast it from the bad, Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.  And the blockade of the Strip, motivated not just by anything having to do with rockets fired as Israelis but by a vain hope to strangle Hamas into unpopularity or submission, has inflicted even more misery on Palestinian civilians than the border measures.

The physical impact of events that do generate headlines is in addition to all that, and the occasion for more immediate bloodshed.  Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009, is a still-recent example.  Probably the closest thing to an accurate tally of the casualties from that operation is by B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.  Total Palestinian deaths from the operation were 1,385, of whom somewhere between 330 and 375 were combatants.  Translating that 1,385 to what would be the equivalent proportional number in the U.S. population (a favorite device in discussing Israel's own casualties--see just about any George Will column about Israel for an example) yields the number 287,000.  (Israeli deaths from Cast Lead were 13, including ten Israeli soldiers, four of whom were casualties of friendly fire.)

These highly disproportionate impacts result chiefly from two things.  One is an Israeli determination to pursue absolute security for its own citizens, even if it means absolute insecurity for others.  Any measure that Israel sees has having even the possibility of curtailing possible future harm to Israelis is considered worth taking, even if it results in certain, substantial, direct harm to others.  The second thing is the military superiority that makes it possible for Israel to act on that determination.  Things are as they are in the occupied territories not because the situation bears any resemblance to the makings of long-term peace and stability, and certainly not because it is right.  Things are as they are because Israel happens to have the firepower.

The further tragedy in all this is that pursuing absolute security this way is bound to fail, because others never will be satisfied with their insecurity.  Israel can't kill all of its adversaries (or people it perceives as adversaries), and the overwhelming majority of Israelis are decent enough not to want to try.  So the unending state of war, insecurity, and instability in the Middle East continues.  And this means Israelis themselves can never feel secure.

This is a large part of what the negotiators are up against in the talks that Secretary of State Clinton announced today.  I wish them well.  If they are to succeed where so many others have failed, the Obama administration is going to have to draw on reserves of political courage it has not yet tapped in pushing for--maybe "imposing" is a more accurate term--a workable peace settlement the main lines of which have been known for some time.