28 December 2008

Israelis & Palestinians

Palestinians gather in the crater of an Israeli missile strike on a building
used by Hamas in Gaza City. Photograph © Khalil Hamra/AP.

A Palestinian hurled a stone toward Israeli soldiers during a
protest against the airstrikes on Gaza
Photograph © Jaafar Ashtiyeh/Agence France-Presse -Getty Images.

I admire John Berger immensely. I came across this open letter from him protesting the latest conflagration between Israel and the Palestinians.
In Face of the Israeli Attacks on Gaza
by John Berger

We are now spectators of the latest -- and perhaps penultimate -- chapter of the 60 year old conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. About the complexities of this tragic conflict billions of words have been pronounced, defending one side or the other.

Today, in face of the Israeli attacks on Gaza, the essential calculation, which was always covertly there, behind this conflict, has been blatantly revealed. The death of one Israeli victim justifies the killing of a hundred Palestinians. One Israeli life is worth a hundred Palestinian lives.

This is what the Israeli State and the world media more or less -- with marginal questioning -- mindlessly repeat. And this claim, which has accompanied and justified the longest Occupation of foreign territories in 20th C. European history, is viscerally racist. That the Jewish people should accept this, that the world should concur, that the Palestinians should submit to it -- is one of history's ironic jokes. There's no laughter anywhere. We can, however, refute it, more and more vocally.

Let's do so.

John Berger

27 December 2008

Berger is too simplistic here by half. There is no excuse. There is no excuse for Palestinian attacks on Israelis. There is no excuse for Israeli attacks - whether those be perpetrated by the Defense Forces or by "settlers" - on Palestinians. I agree with Berger that 'we' must speak out.* We need to speak out against the Israeli attacks on Gaza. And we need to speak out against the Hamas provocateurs. Images of Palestinian youth attacking the IDF with slingshots juxtaposed with the results of Israeli bombings in Gaza may make it seem like this is David and Goliath. There is an asymmetry of force here to be sure. But there also is more than enough responsibility to go around. If the Israelis have made the calculation to which Berger rightly refers, so too has Hamas made the reciprocal calculation that rocket attacks on Israeli civilians are worth provoking predictable response. Not to see that is to disable oneself politically. Is there racism here? Surely. Does it work in one direction only? Hardly. Not to see that is to disable oneself yet again.

As Berger rightly notes, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is indeed complex, perhaps even tragic. If we wait to sort out those complexities and vindicate one or another party we will be witnessing more attacks and counterattacks in perpetuity. Speak out - not by equating Israel and the Nazis or by screaming "Death to Israel" or by automatically identifying Palestinians as "terrorists" - but by demanding peace from both sides. It is time to define a 'we' - one consisting of those sick and tired of all perpetrators of violence in Israel & Palestine as well as their apologists.
Update: Monday 12/29/08: From John Nichols at The Nation here.
* I disagree with his calls for a boycott of Israel; if 'we' hope to persuade the Israels to cease and desist it is important to be in a position where they might well listen to our complaints and criticisms.

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Blogger Michael said...

What's strange is that he sounds surprised by this calculus, which has applied in every asymmetrical war ever fought.

The interesting thing about this calculus is, I think, that it's made by both parties. What I mean is that how shocking N deaths is in a given society seems to depend on what their other prospects were. The willingness of first-world countries to have their own soldiers slaughtered declined in tandem with improvements in health and in safety: if I remember right, if you were the father of a first world war soldier and had a job at a steel mill, your career chance of death in an accident was about the same as his, about 10%. Whereas the soldiers sent to Vietnam, or Iraq, or into Gaza, would otherwise have had a very low chance of dying in an accident.

And I think this applies on the other side too. The risks you can persuade your recruits to take on depends on how good their other options are. So the US army recruits people who would otherwise not be able to afford college, and Hamas can recruit suicide bombers.

I say all this not to justify any violence, I'd like it all to stop as much as J Berger would! But the correlation is interesting, much like the way correlations involving crime rates are interesting, and perhaps helpful for thinking about likely future events.

29 December, 2008 12:53  
Blogger Mark Curran said...

I am sorry but I think Berger is trying to address the power imbalance here and until that is addressed...nothing can be resolved...one needs to ask who has and holds the power in this relationship?

Mark Curran

29 December, 2008 14:25  
Blogger josean said...

It always surprises me when someone clearly able to retionalize politics, to set a definite and clear set of principles with wich estimate and judge every political situation, develops a blind spot towards one particular conflict or situation.
Your writings about so called Hamas provocateurs and Israeli response are clearly out of sync with your political thoughts and reasonings.

Forgetting for the sake of the brevity the argument the origins of the conflict, I'd like to point to you a fairly obvious an evident fact: that Hamas, and all the rest of the so called Palestinian terrorists are fighting a foreign invader that is, everyday, 24/7 365 days a year for 60 years now, abusing their rights and limiting their freedom and subjecting them to an unnacceptable apartheid regime. Consequently, they are as entitled to defend themselves as their South African counterparts of the ANC were. And Israel should be boycotted for the same reasons we did in fact impose a universal, UN approved boycott to South Africa, wich in the end proved quite effective. On moral and political grounds, both countries behave in an equally abusive and blatantly inhuman way. I must say that Israel's cruelty supasses that of the boers: They never ever dared to bomb Soweto or attack their inhabitants with fighter planes or Apache -whatever their army had then- choppers.
In this, as in many conflicts, there is no "both sides", rather victims and executioners, invaders and invaded. Whathever the point of view you choose to judge the situation, it's impossible to equal them. To me the bottom line is quite simple: What you expect to do? Humiliate their heads and keep on living in misery, with no rights no future and no dignity, in refugee camps -concentration camps for many of us- for another 60 years?
There is nothing particularly complex about the conflict. It's just another colonialist conflict: Foreign settlers invading a land that doesn't belong to them and enslaving, repressing and killing its original inhabitants. It is clear to me, it was clear to Ben Gurion, who wrote it as such literally in dozens of texts, it was clear to Sharon, who used to explain it in these terms and declared several times his fervent admiration for the South African system, a country he visited repeteadly. And who am I -or you, for all that matters- to contradict such authorities in the subject...

29 December, 2008 18:07  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for your comment. I am going to reply here to what you say here and to your other comments on other posts.

Let me repeat parts of what I said in the initial post:

"There is no excuse. There is no excuse for Palestinian attacks on Israelis. There is no excuse for Israeli attacks - whether those be perpetrated by the Defense Forces or by "settlers" - on Palestinians."

None. I do not care how oppressed or how powerful one is. Attacks on civilians are not justifiable.

"There is an asymmetry of force here to be sure. But there also is more than enough responsibility to go around."

Yes the Israelis (due mostly to American largesse) have an overwhelming advantage in military might. They should stop the bombing. Indeed, they ought never have begun it. Nor should they have constructed the wall or implemented the blockade of Gaza. Nor should they (the state) be allowing "settlers" to attack Palestinians and so forth. (I have posted on those things here before)

But what has changed since 1968 with the various violent attacks by Palestinians on Israelis? Nothing. All the bombings and so forth have accomplished not one single thing. And the upshot is predictable - the Israelis (justifiably or not) will retaliate.

As for your claims:

(1) To say that each side has a share of responsibility for the current violence is not to equate them. It is simply to say that there is no black and white in this mess. So I reject your claims that there are it is in any obvious sense possible to divide the world into "victims and executioners, invaders and invaded."

(2) This leads to your claim that this is "just another colonialist conflict." The Jews did not simply identify an economically attractive location and occupy it for purposes of extracting resources to send back to the motherland. They were chased out of Europe and they were chased murderously. So the notion that the Jews are a colonial power is entirely mistaken. And it is important to note too that the various states in the region have treated the Palestinians like pests as well... That does not excuse the Israelis, but it does complicate the situation considerably.

The only way that your claim about colonialism makes sense is if we see that this conflict, like many others in post-colonial circumstances (e.g., India-Pakistan) involves the playing out of a mess created by colonial powers. But that, I suspect, is not what you mean.

(3) There is little doubt that the Israeli regime has adopted apartheid tactics. Those tactics are despicable and deserve condemnation. But South Africa -(which was a colonial enterprise at the start - developed apartheid as a policy a racial separation.

Jews and Palestinians are not different races (if there is such a thing, which I doubt*). Like the Jews, the Arabs are Semites. There is no black and white here either.

So, yes, the Israelis are acting badly. Very badly. They are acting in oppressive ways toward the Palestinians. Their actions will do nothing but create more Hamas martyrs - and that is something no one but Hamas wants or needs. Perhaps their actions will also create more animosity elsewhere as well. All that said, epithets will not mark any way forward. And the political pressure that is needed to stop all this mayhem is likely misplaced if it directed at Israel. The pressure needs to be put on Israel's sponsors in the US and the EU.

That is it for now.

* For my doubts on the existence of races I refer to Anthony Appiah's essay "Race, Culture, Identity"

31 December, 2008 12:49  

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