Thursday, June 03, 2010

The flotilla, elusive peace, and the Israeli quagmire

I still have two more days’ worth of travel blogs to write and post from my trip to Israel last month, after which I’d planned to write a broader thoughts and lessons-learned piece. With the flotilla incident and related events this week though it seems prudent to move that last piece up, and so I’ve been pondering the incident and the wider picture thru the week.

Before traveling to the region my belief was that it’s a highly complicated situation with no easy answers, and that belief was certainly affirmed by the time I spent there. If there were easy answers, they’d have been thought of already. But there aren’t. And I think that, unless there’s some out of the box thinking or something happens to radically alter the current dynamics, nothing will change any time soon. Certainly not for the better, anyways.

My exposure to the Palestinian side was obviously very limited. We did speak to Israeli Arabs and a Palestinian journalist, and we did visit the West Bank, although Ramallah was a no-go, and obviously Gaza was off limits. So I won’t claim any great insight or perspective on their view – what I did learn was second-hand.

On the Israeli side though, I was struck by the near unanimity of the necessity and inevitability of a two-state solution. And I found a less prevalent but growing belief that Israel needs to get the heck out of Gaza. Many I spoke to felt strongly that allowing the status-quo to continue – blockade, occupation, poverty and suffering – besides being unacceptable on humanitarian grounds, will only weaken and hurt Israel. It likes to claim a certain moral authority as the only democratic government in the region, and it likes to boast of the Israeli Arabs in the Knesset, in the Supreme Court. But at the same time, democratic states don’t abide the suffering in Gaza, and by allowing it, no matter the reason, Israel fritters away that moral high ground.

I think a large percentage of Israelis would be happy to bring the troops home, open the borders, and leave the Palestinians to their own devices tomorrow – if it meant peace. The problem, though, is they’re quite certain it won’t. The reason for the blockade, the security wall/fence, the closed borders, is because Palestinian territory is being used as a base to launch terror attacks on Israel. Rockets are routinely fired into Israel from Gaza, including this week, smuggled in from Iran and elsewhere. Weapons are routinely smuggled in, and used to attack Israel. That’s why the blockade, and that’s why, even if they wanted to, they couldn’t just leave tomorrow. They just wouldn’t be safe.

The flotilla incident this week is like a microcosm of this entire conflict. However well-intentioned the activists were, and however in the minority those that thought it was a good idea to attack the Israeli soldiers with knifes and pipes were, this was all about sparking a confrontation and creating a conflict. If it was just about delivering aid, they’d have gone to an Israeli or Egyptian port. Make no mistake, they wanted the confrontation.

I think both sides acted stupidly. The activists had to know full well they’d likely face a military response. And Israel had to know rappelling troops armed with paintball guns down one-by-onto a ship of potential belligerents was stupid. It was a high-risk, low-reward play particularly knowing that, if anything goes wrong, you’ll take the brunt of negative public opinion. That’s just the way it is for Israel. They needed to find a better way of stopping those ships.

I’m not sure what the better ways might be though and that, like with the wider Israeli/Palestinian quagmire, is the problem. It’s not as easy as just ending the blockade, as the UN Secretary-General has called for. Yes, it’s a human rights issue. The right to live without rockets raining down on your home is a human rights issue too, but ending the blockade is just addressing the legitimate concerns of one side. And that’s not a viable solution at all.

As long as people keep searching for easy answers, and seeing the region in black and white, we’ll get nowhere. All that will happen is Israel will be increasingly isolated and disengaged, and will take a harder line. If peace is the goal, if two peoples living side-by-side in peace is the goal, this isn’t the way to go. Something needs to change.

Whether it’s on flotillas and the blockade or the wider issues, I think it’s incumbent on the international community to offer Israelis and Palestinians another choice. We need to change the dynamic. Before the next flotilla approaches Gaza looking to spark a confrontation, we need to give them both another choice. Another way. It almost seems to call for a peacekeeping scenario with 3rd-party border inspections, but I’m not sure you could find a party (the UN, NATO) that both sides would accept.

Long-term, there does seem to be hope in the West Bank, particularly compared to Hamas-controlled Gaza. It’s a long-term process but increasing economic prosperity, the thinking is, will lead to a lessening of tensions and allow for a lasting, just peace. Maybe H&M will indeed bring them together. It’s a hopeful thought. Certainly, poverty breeds desperation and anger, while prosperity breeds contentment.

But if that’s true, it only makes the Gaza situation all the more dangerous, as the blockade is just breeding more anger and resentment, worsening the security threat and feeding back on itself in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and despair.

Canada, and much of the international community, has cut-off direct aid to Gaza since the election of the Hamas government. It’s easy to say that’s the principled move to make, but given that it has only worsened the situation on the ground and driven the public more toward Hamas, is this really a policy that will achieve our desired ends? I cheekily asked one of our diplomats if we can seriously try to run foreign policy on principle – unsurprisingly, he didn’t directly answer. As I’ve said though something, clearly, has to give, because the status-quo isn’t working for anyone.

As I said at the outset, I don’t know what the answers are. But I do know that it’s not easy, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Note: Disagree with my take as violently as you’d like in the comments but do keep it clean and on the issues. Personal attacks won’t make it out of moderation.

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CanadianSense said...

We both agree it was handled poorly and IDF have a role in protecting against smuggling of weapons.

Only one boat did not cooperate, their backers had planned for a confrontation and a "happy ending".

Using paintball guns was silly, the injuries on the IDF were a result of not using deadly force earlier.

Blues Clair said...

"troops armed with paintball guns"

One of the activists, Edward Peck (an 80 year old former American diplomat) claims the the IDF were "heavily armed" and that the "the paint guns were attached to the automatic weapons". (link)

"an autopsy showed that Mr. Dogan had been shot at close range, once in the chest and four times in the head."
June 3, 2010

CanadianSense said...

Blues Clair,

You cite a comment by an anon poster as proof?

Videos show the IDF using paintball guns before getting swarmed by the mobs that were using poles.

The Mound of Sound said...

"Run foreign policy on principle"? When did Canada last do that? We were clamouring for democratic elections in Gaza until the side we didn't like won. Then we (the US) got outed by Vanity Fair for engineering a Fatah insurrection.

The West Bank? Please. As many Israeli activists and scientists have been pointing out for years, the West Bank sits atop a key aquifer that Israel has no intention of turning back to Palestinians. That's why Palestinian orchards get bulldozed, Palestinians are denied permission to plant without Israeli army approval (in other words they're forbidden outright) yet illegal Israeli settlements are lush and green with abundant water supply from the Palestinians' aquifer.

Water is the 800-pound gorilla that nobody save the hydrologists and activists is willing to mention.

Blues Clair said...

sorry here is the link...

Jeff said...

Mound, I don't know that we've ever run foreign policy on principle -- that was really the rhetorical point I was trying to make. What's the saying, nations don't have friends, they have interests? Something like that.

On water, I'm not familiar with the incidents you describe but I do know water is a major issue. The Sea of Galilee is shrinking, and I was surprised to learn the Dead Sea is dying. Certainly water has the potential to cause conflict, whether it be Israeli/Palestinian or Lebanese/Israeli (Lebanon is up-water from the Galilee). Maybe joint efforts to address that gorilla could be a way to make it a positive? Who knows.

Speaking of gorillas no one is talking about, I found the demographic issue much more of an interesting ticking time-bomb. The day is fast approaching when Israeli Arabs and Palestinians will outnumber Israeli Jews. Without resolution and peace, Israel risks either dying as a Jewish state or becoming the Apartheid State it's critics like to call it in order to maintain the power of the by then minority.

CK said...

Wow! I really don't quite know how to begin here.

I realize that you were recently there and therefore in a position to share observations, but that stuff you wrote about the flotilla; I have to ask where all this came from? Parts of it looks like it came out of Professor Gil Troy's last article in The Mark.

I realize paint balls hit hard, but not to shoot and kill young Furkan Dogan at such close range. Just sayin'.

Also, that blockade has been deemed illegal. And so is storming a ship on international waters. If the tables were turned; the ships were Israeli and the commandos were Turkish or another Middle-Easter nation, this attack would have been called piracy and terrorism. Why the double standard for Israel is what I would like to know?

This column from the NY Times offers some interesting ideas...

I am also not getting that the flotilla passengers are being chastised because they dared to defend themselves.

Netanyahu as recent as last March made his intentions clear of building a new housing settlement of units in the thousands (don't recall exact figure) that put Pres. Obama off. It was known during his first term in office that Netanyahu never had any intention of accepting a Palestinian state, but rather to just continue building settlements.

Netanyahu and Hamas solely exist to destroy the other.

Jeff said...


I haven't heard the article in the Mark, I'll check it out.

I believe the troops were also carrying sidearms (pistols), which obviously came into play at some point. The IDF will say self-defence, the activists will dispute that. I doubt we'll ever know who really "started it" and I think that's really secondary anyway.

I won't debate you on the legality of the blockade. As for the boarding of the vessels, which I think we can both agree was a stupid move by Israel, I think international law isn't that cut and dry.

I can see, though, why they'd feel they need to do something, and why they feel the need for a blockade.

I want the blockade down too, but I don't think just demanding it come down, without paying any attention to the reasons why they felt it was necessary in the first place, is going to accomplish that goal. If the goal isn't just to score political points, if the goal is to really put down the blockade and reduce tensions, why not look for a way of addressing the security concerns that allows the blockade to come down?

Instead, I seem to be seeing the advocation of a policy of isolationism, which I think will only lead to harder lines all around. Would engagement not be preferable?

As for double-standards, I think they abound on both sides, and it's hard to say otherwise.