Finding Moral Light through a Tangle

Finding Moral Light through a Tangle

T. Gitlin: Oppose the conflict but also Hamas

THOSE OF us who oppose Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza, who are revolted by the pictures and reports of the mangled bodies and miseries of Palestinian children, dare not let Hamas off the hook because the residents of Gaza are victims. Don’t forget what Hamas professes and what it does. Many things are true about Hamas even if you don’t like the people who say them. Keep all this in your mind.

For example, here’s a clip of Hamas MP Fathi Hammad on Al-Aqsa television, February 29, 2008, bragging about Hamas using women and children, among others, as human shields:

[The enemies of Allah] do not know that the Palestinian people has developed its [methods] of death and death-seeking. For the Palestinian people, death has become an industry, at which women excel, and so do all the people living on this land. The elderly excel at this, and so do the mujahedeen and the children. This is why they have formed human shields of the women, the children, the elderly, and the mujahedeen, in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine. It is as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: “We desire death like you desire life.”

I checked out the translation with two Arabic speakers, who confirm that it is accurate. Hussein Ibish, Executive Director of the Foundation for Arab-American Leadership and a Senior Fellow of the American Task Force on Palestine, e-mails me that “such declarations are in keeping with a good deal of the rhetoric of Hamas and some of its supporters.”

Consider also these words of Hamas leader Nizzim Rayyam, interviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg two years before he was killed, along with two of his wives and several of his children, by an Israeli air attack last week:

Israel is an impossibility. It is an offense against God….You [Jews] are murderers of the prophets and you have closed your ears to the Messenger of Allah….Jews tried to kill the Prophet, peace be unto him. All throughout history, you have stood in opposition to the word of God.

If we want to argue that Israel will have to deal with Hamas, cannot pulverize it at gunpoint, cannot “eliminate” it, and indeed heightens its prestige by piling up the bodies of civilians whether they are deliberately targeted or not–and I don’t know any alternative in the real world to dealing with them as a political force–we mustn’t think we can win the argument cheaply by pretending that it will be easy. It will not be easy. It’s only necessary.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government claims that it was justifiable to restrict foreign journalists because Hamas gunmen have used journalists’ vests. It also defends firing on ambulances because, it says, Hamas has used ambulances. YouTube indeed has a video that seems to show a UN ambulance being used by Hamas gunmen. It is certainly then understandable that the IDF would take exquisite precautions. But to say understandable isn’t to say that it’s morally defensible to open fire at will. Israel claims to operate under a principle of “purity of arms”: “The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.” I’m a literalist about “all that he can.” “All” is all.

The fact that representatives of Hamas deceive, even brag about deceiving, cannot justify the shooting of ambulances and the killing of children.

(January 10, 2009)

Jonathan Chait at TNR online reasonably asks what the hell I mean by “dealing with Hamas”:

If Hamas truly is seized by an implacable desire to wipe Israel off the map, then I have trouble seeing what there is to negotiate over. The only thing to do is persuade Hamas to change its goals, or persuade the Palestinians to adopt new leaders. The latter can be done by making territorial concessions in the West Bank and promoting economic development, in order to demonstrate the comparative benefits of non-Hamas government. But the task would also seem to involve some combination of crushing Hamas’s power and/or persuading it–or, more precisely, the Palestinians who follow it–that Israel cannot be terrorized into making concessions. How a group of Hamas’s nature could be drawn in through a purely concilliatory approach escapes me.

To which I have three responses and a preface. The preface is that, although I’ve never negotiated an agreement with an enemy force, I don’t think I have any illusions about how easy it is. I just don’t see a decent alternative.

That said, the hoary peacenik cliché remains no less true for being a peacenik cliché: All kinds of agreements have been worked out with states and quasi-states that had sworn undying hatred. Even during the cold war, the U.S. and USSR negotiated arms control and other treaties. Consider the deals Israel has made with Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO. They’ve held. They haven’t brought the millennium but they’ve held. Each time, deals were made with other parties whom the U.S. or Israel would have left out of their ideal worlds but realized they didn’t have the luxury of building castles in the air.

Second response: Hamas isn’t just an organization that fires rockets. It strategizes. It observes constraints. It doesn’t just attack Sderot, Ashkelon, Beersheva–it’s a political actor. (Here’s a plausible-seeming analysis arguing that Hamas has actually been better at observing cease-fires than Israel.) It has factions. They live in a world of other factions, and adjust accordingly. They already have. This doesn’t make them warm or fuzzy. It does make them calculating.

Third: Hamas and Israel are hardly the only two players in the region. If Israel concludes a peace with Syria–conceptually not so difficult–the collaboration of Damascus resident and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal could be part of it. Meanwhile, Scott MacLeod in a Time blog reminds us that the 2002 Saudi omnibus peace deal proposal is still on the table:

The Arabs offered the peace initiative as a sincere effort to end a conflict that has caused needless destruction throughout the region for decades. In effect, the Arabs are saying, “OK, we’ve failed to eliminate Israel, enough already. We accept Israel now, so let’s get on with life.”

(H/t: Matt Yglesias)

In other words, bring in the whole neighborhood.

Isn’t it pretty obvious that it’s going to take a huge investment of political capital from the Obama administration to “get on”? Before Gaza blew up, I expected Obama to wait before committing to a new Middle East deal. Now I expect him not to wait. Who knows? But how well is the current approach working for anyone?

Todd Gitlin is on Dissent‘s editorial board and is a professor at Columbia’s Journalism School. These postings originally appeared on TPMCafe.

Photo: An IDF tank before the Dec. 24 hostilities(Wikimedia Commons / SirKiss)