The Symmetry and Asymmetry of Violence in Gaza

Paul Pillar

Flickr/ they go again—another tragic upsurge in the violent tit-for-tat between Israel and Hamas. As with most tit-for-tat contests, at each stage each side can point to what the other side just did as an action that warrants retaliation. Often the story that reaches American ears is instead more lopsided: a story of Hamas firing rockets and Israel responding with armed force. But the actual process is very much two-way, with Hamas responding to Israeli violence at least as much as the other way around.

Hamas had endeavored to maintain a cease-fire—despite difficulty in controlling the actions of smaller, more militant groups that have a presence in the Gaza Strip—most of the time since Operation Cast Lead, the brutal Israeli invasion of the Strip almost four years ago. That war resulted in 1400 Palestinian deaths, probably over half of whom were noncombatants. (Israeli deaths in the war totaled three noncombatants and ten soldiers, four of whom were killed by friendly fire.) But Hamas, as the only government the residents of the Gaza Strip have to turn to for security, came under increasing pressure from those residents to respond forcefully to Israeli actions that continued to claim Palestinian victims.

As Phyllis Bennis points out, who appears to be retaliating against whom depends on when you start the clock. Most American media accounts have begun coverage of the latest rounds of violence with a Palestinian attack on Israeli soldiers on November 8. Less noticed in the coverage was that the soldiers were part of an element of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), including four tanks and an armored bulldozer, that was operating inside the Gaza Strip at the time. Exactly what those operations included is still unclear, but the IDF did later say it was “investigating” the death of an 11-year-old boy that day. Within the next three days the Palestinian Center for Human Rights documented the deaths of five more Palestinian civilians, including three children, with 52 other civilians wounded. Most of the casualties were incurred in a single Israeli attack on a playground soccer field. The ensuing two-way violence continued until Egypt was able to mediate a short-lived cease-fire, broken when Israel launched this Wednesday a substantial aerial attack, including the assassination of a senior Hamas leader, Ahmed Jabari.

Israel, of course, has far greater and more sophisticated means (much of it U.S.-supplied) of inflicting death and destruction than does Hamas. The different means tend to carry different labels: ground-launched rockets are called terrorism, while the operations of attack aircraft are called a nation defending its borders. That difference in capability also helps to explain why Israel is the side that perpetrates the most marked escalations in this violent dialogue. If Hamas had anything approaching Israel's capabilities, it probably would feel obliged to respond right now to Israel's actions with much more deadly operations than anything it has been able to muster so far. But then again, it it did have such capabilities, there would be a major element of deterrence that would almost certainly dissuade Israeli leaders from perpetrating anything like the violence they have in fact inflicted.

The United States has no national interest in taking sides in any of this lethal tit-for-tat. And yet, to its own disadvantage and discredit, it does take sides. The statement the State Department issued on Wednesday “strongly condemns” rocket fire coming out of Gaza, says there is “no justification” for the “cowardly acts” of “Hamas and other terrorist organizations,” talks about Hamas attacking Israel “on a near daily basis” and supports “Israel's right to defend itself.” The closest the statement comes to even a pretense of recognition of the—substantially greater—pain and destruction being inflicted in the other direction is to “regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians” and to “encourage Israel to continue [sic] to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.”

This posture is especially discouraging as one of the administration's first official statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since President Obama's re-election. Scott Wilson writes in the Washington Post about how at the president's press conference this week “the customarily cautious Obama spoke like a politician with nothing to lose after winning the last race of his life” and exuded “confidence and ease.” If the lifting of the burden of re-election is going to enable the administration to formulate a more effective and more just policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the State Department's statement showed no sign of it happening yet.

A better statement would have begun something like this:

The United States deplores the latest upsurge in violence between Israelis and Palestinians. This tragic conflict is causing unnecessary suffering among innocent people on both sides. The United States calls on both sides to pull back from what has become a seemingly endless cycle of destruction. None of the acts of violence committed by either side does anything to advance a goal that the United States shares and that should be shared by all the people of the region: a resolution of differences that will enable Israelis and Palestinians alike to live side-by-side in peace and security.

That's just the start. The United States should address the long-term consequences of what is taking place, and specifically the consequences of the futile Israeli reliance on escalation and destruction. It might borrow the words of Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who was trying earlier this week to mediate a new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas; his principal Hamas contact was Jabari, the military leader whom Israel killed by obliterating his car with an airstrike. “I tell myself,” says Baskin, "that with every person who is killed we are engendering the next generation of haters and terrorists.”

TopicsPost-ConflictTerrorism RegionsIsraelEgyptUnited StatesPalestinian territories

Twitter Warfare in Gaza

The Buzz

As Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense enters its second day, much attention has gone to the IDF spokesperson’s Twitter account, which has been announcing developments in the war regularly and with a measure of the bravado that most other military PR units try to keep under wraps.

We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.

While there are also repeated references to rocket attacks on Israel, the tone of remarks like these invites questions about who the IDF is attempting to reach, for this does not seem to be an attempt to convince key foreign publics that Israel is acting rightly. It seems instead to be aimed at sectors that are already supportive of Israel. Does Israel feel so isolated that its PR mavens have abandoned all hope of broad international support, even when attacking a loathsome extremist group?

Many figures in the Netanyahu government appear to have this mindset. While it likely has little impact on decisions to launch a deterrence campaign like this one in Gaza, it has unsettling implications for the broader peace process, for the crisis with Iran, and perhaps ultimately for Israel’s liberal political system.

Intriguingly, the al Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, have also been involved in the Twitter propaganda war. Many of the remarks have no basis in reality but spread like wildfire anyway—they claimed, for instance, to have struck a power plant in Tel Aviv. Unlike the IDF spokesperson, however, the al Qassam Brigades are a bit less careful in managing their image—while they usually refer to their activities as “Resistance,” they mark some of their attacks with the hashtag #terrorism.

TopicsMilitary StrategyTerrorismSecurity RegionsIsraelPalestinian territories

Putting the I Back in CIA

The Buzz

David Ignatius has a smart piece over at the Post today calling for the CIA to return to its roots after Petraeus. He claims that the agency's central failings are unrelated to the general's recent indiscretions but instead due to a step back from classic intelligence gathering in recent years. A stand-out quote:

The retired general, with his matchless experience in running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was seen as well-suited to run an agency that combined the trench coat and the flak jacket. But the Petraeus-era CIA had a hidden defect, quite apart from any errant emails, which was that the paramilitary covert-action function was swallowing alive the old-fashioned intelligence-gathering side of the house.

A case in point seems to be the recent Benghazi attacks, where CIA officers served as an (insufficient) de facto security detail for State while seemingly neglecting their crucial intel-gathering capacity. Ignatius makes a compelling case for the agency to do a little self-reflection beyond the surface in the wake of the mushrooming scandal at hand.

TopicsIntelligence RegionsUnited States

France and the Syrian Tar Baby

Paul Pillar

Flickr/jfgormet.The announcement by French President François Hollande that his government is formally recognizing, as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, the latest version of what purports to be a united Syrian opposition is the sort of development apt to stimulate more grumbling in the United States that the U.S. government is not exerting sufficient leadership, either from in front or from behind, regarding Syria. Actually, if any Western country is to be out front on this matter, it ought to be France. France was responsible in the 1920s and 1930s for what is now Syria, under what was called a League of Nations mandate and was really a colonial relationship. France staked its claim to this territory when the French diplomat François Georges-Picot and his British counterpart Sir Mark Sykes drew secretly negotiated lines on a map during World War I to carve up this part of the Ottoman Empire.

This is not to say, of course, that Syria's subsequent miserable history is all or even mostly France's fault. But the French did want this piece of the Middle East, and with the benefit of hindsight one can think of ways the mandate could have turned out better. The French divided mandated Syria into several dependent states of different ethnic or sectarian character, only one of which—the one corresponding to present Lebanon—would achieve its own independence. Given the sectarian divisions within Lebanon, maybe its independence wasn't a good idea. Maybe a better idea, given recent history, would have been to have groomed for independence the state that consisted of the largely Alawite-inhabited Latakia region of what is now northwest Syria.

The opposition coalition that France has recognized and to which, according to Hollande, it is considering providing arms, is barely deserving of the word “coalition.” It emerged only after prolonged and intense pressure from Arab and Western governments at a meeting in Qatar (with the U.S. secretary of state having taken a leading role in earlier exertion of such pressure). Perhaps because the new grouping, called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has a longer name than the ineffective Syrian National Council, it conveys the impression of greater viability by being more broadly based. But to pretend that this painfully-negotiated new structure is a truly unified opposition that can provide a basis for eventual political stability in Syria is to ignore how badly fractured the different elements opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad still are.

Certain unjustified assumptions about the struggle in Syria have been creeping into discussion and reporting on the topic, as exemplified by the front-page New York Times story about Hollande's announcement. The new coalition reportedly “came together” in Doha when a more appropriate term would be “papered over differences under pressure.” Reference to Western and Arab efforts to build “a viable and effective opposition that would hasten the end of a stalemated civil war” suggests the unjustified conclusion that a less fractured opposition would indeed mean an earlier end to the war. The article correctly notes that Assad has “survived partly because of the disagreements and lack of unity among his opponents,” but he also has survived partly for other reasons, including fears among Alawites and some others that not just their status but their lives would be endangered by the regime's forcible overthrow.

Thomas Friedman has a somewhat breathless column about dangers of the Syrian situation that sustains the common but incorrect view that civil wars inevitably spread across borders like spilled molasses unless forcibly prevented from doing so, and that incorrectly credits an American military presence inside Iraq for having prevented political molasses there from oozing into other countries. But he is correct that just as it was removal of the old regime that triggered civil war and prolonged violence in Iraq, removal of the regime in Syria would hardly be an omen of stability in that country. Friedman is right to point to the only visible (but still slim) hope for such stability: cooperation with the Russians to try to arrange a power-sharing deal to be overseen by a UN-sponsored multilateral force. The voices in the United States who speak disdainfully about pursuit of a negotiated outcome are offering nothing else that is any more promising, and for the most part they are pursuing agendas other than peace in Syria.

We need to resist the temptation to think that every messy situation overseas has a feasible solution, and furthermore to think that the United States needs to be leading part of that solution. As for what Hollande is doing, go right ahead, Monsieur le Président. Just don't get your hopes very high.

TopicsUNForeign AidPeacekeeping RegionsRussiaFranceIraqLebanonUnited StatesSyria

The Susan Rice Disaster

Jacob Heilbrunn

President Obama is reportedly digging his heels in on nominating Susan Rice to become Secretary of State. It's a strange choice, but then Obama has a history of making questionable selections for high-level officials, particularly when it came to the financial sector. He's apparently bedazzled by establishment credentials, which Rice holds in spades--former Rhodes scholar, Stanford graduate. Throughout her career, Rice has seamlessly ascended the escalator of success. Until now, that is.

With Republican Senators breathing fire over her bungled defense of the administration's reponse to the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, a Rice nomination would simply create a new brouhaha for Obama. Why would he want that? Yes, the charges that Rice willfuly manipulated the evidence are overheated. The blunt fact is that ineptitude rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead the public was behind Rice's comments. But the GOP is seizing upon them for political gain, which is what opposition parties do even if foreign-policy professionals recoil at discovering that raw domestic politics often buffet their cozy little world. According to Senator Lindsey Graham,

I’m not entertaining, promoting anybody that I think was involved with the Benghazi debacle. We need to get to the bottom of it. The president has a lot of leeway with me and others when it comes to making appointments, but I’m not going to promote somebody who I think has misled the country or is either incompetent. That’s my view of Susan Rice.

Rice is not worth the fight, and it would be a testament to Obama's obstinacy rather than discernment if he insists on nominating her. His infatuation with her is somewhat mystifying. Her record in New York as United Nations ambassador has been undistinguished. What's more, she has already attraced the ire of neocon circles as she is perceived as hostile to the Jewish state. Is Obama's apparent eagerness to have Rice partly predicated on the notion that she will be more receptive than John Kerry to pursuing a tougher line against Israel?

Kerry, who resembles a human pinstripe, would seem like the more logical choice for Obama. He would win easy confirmation and boasts vastly more experience abroad than Rice. The most daring pick would be Jon Huntsman, who falls into the tradition of Republican mugwumps--the tradition of Elihu Root and Henry Stimson, Republicans who served in Democratic administrations. But then again, Obama may find that he has to wait before he plunges into choosing a new Secretary of State. With the ever-widening David Petraeus scandal, his national security team is melting down. If he insists on tapping Rice, Obama will embolden the GOP to attack him. It would be no small irony if it turns out that there is more bipartisanship in domestic than foreign affairs in Obama's second term.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States