Thinking about Israel’s Unthinkable Image in Palestine

A London Times

dispatch reads:  “Tony Blair makes his first trip to the Gaza Strip.”  In the growing global economic meltdown, the world has forgotten the suffering of the Palestinians who became victims of Israel’s “war” against Hamas.  How can there be a war between the most well equipped military of the Middle East and a state which does not even have an armed force of any credibility.  But this is the era of asymmetric war, and Hamas did launch rockets or missiles on Israel.  Those terror weapons did not cause much damage, but they provided a “justification” for Israel to let loose its military wrath on the civilian Palestinians.

In his book, Road to Lebanon, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times talked about Hama Rules established by the butcher of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, father of the current dictator, Bishara Assad.  According to those rules, if his authority were to be challenged by Islamist forces, he would completely destroy their villages, without any regard to civilian casualties.  He wanted to instill ultimate fear of destruction in the hearts and minds of the Islamists.  They understood that message, and Syria has remained just another “republic of fear” in the Middle East.  The other such republics are Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.  The message to all potential Islamists or those who challenge the political status quo in those states is that the brutal arm of the state will fall on them with utmost use of violence, and they will be eradicated.  That is how republics of fear maintain fear and, thereby, their continued rule.

Israel is also operating on the basis of a similar rule.  It tells the Palestinians within the occupied territory and the Hezbollah of Lebanon that if they challenge the Jewish state, it will be forced to “reestablish” its deterrence.  That phrase is merely a euphemism for using disproportionate military power to bring about enormous destruction of civilian infrastructure and human lives to sow so much fear in the hearts and minds of the Palestinians and the Lebanese that they will think twice about challenging Israel.  In this sense, Israel has remained another “republic of fear” for the Palestinians.

However, the Palestinians have not been impressed or fearful of what Israel’s American-supplied weapons will do to them.  In the information age, they understand how powerful the images of destruction and mayhem really are.  Those images continue to underscore the limits of using military power to deprive them of freedom and dignity.  The United States learned that lesson in Iraq the hard way.  Its proud campaign of “shock and awe” could not break the freedom loving spirit of the Iraqis.  Consequently, Washington worked diligently to pave the way for its departure from Iraq.  However, the Palestinians are not likely to encounter similar positive results aimed at ending the Israeli occupation of their land.  So, they periodically challenge the Jewish state, get killed, and have their properties destroyed as a result.  But in the process, they are also forcing the world to get its head out of the sand and face the urgency of bringing an end to the occupation of their homeland.  In the meantime, the Palestinians misery continues to grow.

When Barack Obama became President, there ensued a round of hoopla stemming from the appointment of Special Envoys to the Middle East and to Pakistan-Afghanistan.  George Mitchell became a special envoy for the Middle East, while Richard Holbrooke was named as a special representative for Pakistan-Afghanistan.  The high hope was that, by giving high visibility to conflicts afflicting those regions, the United States would be able to find solutions.  At least at first blush, no one can be critical of that approach.  However, what is lost in the period of high hopes following Obama’s election to the White House is that a lot of conventional thinking regarding the Middle East must also be discarded.

First, and foremost, it should be clearly understood is that the United States will not succeed unless it adopts a fresh approach toward Hamas.   The chief requirement of that approach is that Hamas should be dealt with directly by Special Envoy George Mitchell in his quest for common ground.  Isolating Hamas by depicting it as a “terrorist” organization will not do.  That was the simple-mindedness of the Bush era.  In the post-9/11 era, there were few entities in the entire world of Islam that the United States did not declare as “terrorists.”  After adopting such a wrong-headed blanket approach, one wonders why the lone superpower was perplexed as to why the Islamist groups were so persuasive in making an argument within the Islamic countries that their religion was under attack.  

In addition, there are two other obstacles in the way of the United States.  The first one is what emerges as the new government in Israel.  Considering the fact that the Likud and the Kadima parties failed to gain impressive majority votes in their own right, the coalition government–no matter who becomes Prime Minister–will only preside over an impasse on the Palestinian conflict for the foreseeable future.  There is nothing that Mitchell is likely to do or say to persuade the Israeli leaders to be daring or forthcoming in terms of offering major concessions to the Palestinians, when they have no such mandates from their voters.  

Then there also are ample divisions among the Palestinians.  Who really speaks for them?  Certainly not the Fatah Party, nor Mahmud Abbas who has a reputation among his people of being a sycophant of the Americans and the Israelis.  Hamas is too confrontational and Abbas is too diffident.   Under these circumstances, the issue of who speaks for the Palestinians remains unresolved.  Even though Hamas is elected by the Palestinians, there is that nagging question whether their representation should undergo a new endorsement through another round of elections.

So the real prospect of resolution of the Palestinian issue faces a very dim future.  In the meantime, special envoys called Tony Blair or George Mitchell periodically surface to make news without creating any real hope for realistic breakthroughs in negotiations between the warring Palestinians and Israelis.  The Israeli voters have established that they are not in favor of any major concessions, and concessions to whom?  Hamas, which has fired missiles over their homeland?  Certainly not Abbas, who has flimsy legitimacy–if any at all–among the Palestinians.  In the meantime, Israeli leaders might feel smug that they have established their deterrence, and Palestinians will think twice before launching more missiles toward Israel.   The new republic of fear is as much on shaky grounds as the ones led by Arab dictators.