Monday, January 19, 2009

Reading Gaza

For once, the word ’swamp’ is appropriate. Wading through some of the partisan and ignorant apologias that have flooded comment boxes, appeared in the mainstream media and infected on-line ‘citizen journalism’ was like battling through a stagnant, weed-choked morass, gagging against the foul air, unable to breathe. We need air, light and clarity. That can only come from thought.

I do not want to discuss the rights and wrongs of Gaza, instead I want to write about what I see to be the main rhetorical tricks, self-deceptions and lazy arguments that were used to try and reconcile current events with previously held commitments. It is about how to read Gaza.

A preliminary point: some of the claims that I refer to could be contested as fact. Without access to proper authoritative information it is impossible to challenge them with certainty. Therefore I am taking all claims at face value. My aim is merely to illustrate what I see as the false arguments that surround them.

Historical analogies

If you see an article or post that contains the words Apartheid, Warsaw Ghetto, Hitler, Nazis, Sarajevo, Holocaust, and, especially, any mention of the Second World War, do not pollute your mind by reading it. Delete it, throw it away, stamp on it. Do not read it.

Analogies can be useful to illustrate a general principle, but historical analogies are usually misleading. Historical events are rarely analogous, and the Arab/Israeli conflict has a pretty strong claim to singularity. When they are used, there is always a tendency to talk about the supposedly analogous situation rather than the real one under discussion. They take us further from the truth rather than closer to it.

However, the way they are predominantly being used at the moment is worse than that. Analogies are not being used to provide meaningful comparison; instead they are words that have been ripped from their historical context, from the reality of the situation in which they occurred, and have become symbols of evil. This is not the use of the analogy; it is a game of guilt by association. It is dishonest.

The people who use them are just like Joseph Goebbels – you see how easy it is, and how wrong.


This has been an interesting one. I have often heard the argument that the difference between Israel and Hamas is that Hamas intend to kill civilians, unlike the Israeli military who try and avoid it. This one has been all over the place and has led to endless irresolvable debates about whether Israel was deliberately targeting schools, hospitals and civilians. It sounds reasonable, but isn’t quite what it seems.

A consequentialist would say that all that matters is the consequence of the action, not its intent. I do not agree. Intent matters, it matters a great deal. For instance, in the British legal system we distinguish between murder, manslaughter, causing death by dangerous driving, etc. on the basis of intent. It is also true that our reaction to the early death of someone we loved and the process of mourning and recovery is affected by the nature of the death. An accident is a tragedy, but a murder is traumatic.

However, intent is not quite as simple as that. A drunk driver uses a car because of the expectation that they will not be caught and will not cause an accident. It is a risk, but the odds are on their side. If a child is killed, we vilify and punish the driver, though not for murder. Now imagine that if a drunk driver got in a car knowing that it was certain that they would kill a child and that the child’s death was the inevitable consequence of driving home from the pub. They wouldn’t drive; the intent not to kill would overwhelm the desire to get home without paying for a taxi.

And this is the problem when we come to Gaza. To launch an aerial assault attack on a densely populated urban area does not risk civilian casualties; it guarantees them. Intent and consequence blurs. Therefore the correct argument is that the difference between the two is regret not intent. Rather than celebrating and enjoying killing, one side regrets the necessity of killing civilians. It is a distinction, but a more morally ambiguous one. And perhaps a more meaningful debate would be on whether that killing was necessary or not.

The blame game

It should be easy. Drop a bomb and kill a child and it is your fault. Not necessarily, if the child is used as a ‘human shield’ then blame neatly passes from the bomber to the bombed.

Only it shouldn’t. If a target is protected by a human shield, you can either decide to attack it, killing the people in the process, or you can decide not to attack it, or you can try and get the target a different way. There is always a choice.

The use of human shields is absolutely abhorrent. It can be based on two calculations. One is that it will stop the attack, the other that, if it doesn’t, the deaths will be a propaganda coup. In the former, the ruthless are calculating to gain advantage from the humanity of the other side. In the latter, the ruthlessness of the one relies on the ruthlessness of the other. It is a dance of death in which both sides share a proportion of the blame.

Yes but …

This is a simple way of shifting the debate away from something that discomforts you to something that bolsters your case. There have been two main ways in which this has been done. First when critics point out the damage being done in Gaza they are reminded of the rockets on Sderot and exactly the same happens in reverse. At best, all that happens is that we get drawn into a pointless argument about proportionality. Then one side reminds us that Israel has two homicidal militias on their Northern and Southern borders whilst the other counters with the bitter experience of the Palestinians of dispossession and military occupation.

Both are true. One does not excuse the other, but the trick in debate is to concentrate on one at the expense of the other, distorting the argument. A coherent position does not mean minimising the fact that diminishes your case whilst maximising the one that suits you best, it considers both as an intrinsic part of a single problem.

The misuse of history

Poor history, battered, bruised and abused, she staggers from the debate barely able to stand. There has been so much bad history used that it would take far too much space to detail all the examples.

Anyone attempting to bolster their case through the use of history who cannot distinguish research from propaganda, who is not be able to see whether a source they are using is credible or not, who doesn’t know the ‘historians’ who see their roles as standard bearers for a cause and thereby distort, misinterpret, and select material dishonestly, please stop now. Don’t clutter discussion boxes with bollocks and counter bollocks, argued with a passion out of all proportion to any pretence at knowledge. History is contentious, but not that contentious.

(An aside: I think the most significant historical fact is that the establishment of Israel necessarily meant the displacement of Palestinians, not merely physically, but also in terms of their own national self-determination and political status. This was obvious to all Zionists at the time, and, though there were pacifist alternatives to statehood put forward, talk turned to transfer on the model of the Greek/Turkish population exchanges agreed under the Treaty of Lausanne – which, please note, did not mean ‘ethnic cleansing’ and other anachronistic distortions. Of course, a managed settlement never happened and the war resulted in a transfer through flight and expulsion. There is so much mythology about that as well. Pro-Palestinians talk of a coherent plan to drive out all Arabs (apart from the ones that remained??); Israeli ultras have devised a range of scenarios that are all variations on a theme of ‘they expelled themselves’! Though I haven’t found one that says that they prevented themselves from returning – yet.

Thus the establishment of a Palestinian state within just borders, with a settlement of the question of Jerusalem, and at peace with Israel, is not an act of ‘generosity’ or a ‘concession’, it is an act of restitution, of justice. It ensures that justice for one people does not flow from injustice for another.]

Choosing sides

It was very easy for most, they had already chosen. The ‘we are all Hezbollah now’ crowd had embraced Hamas long before the fighting in Gaza. Theocratic totalitarianism is, after all, the latest fashion accessory for the ‘left’. Their language was redolent with scarcely concealed anti-Semitism and demonstrations against the war were filled with an iconography of hate and menace. Those who favoured the Israeli action in Gaza were only too ready to minimise and justify civilian casualties, attempt to discredit inconvenient witnesses for their supposed bias, and, at the margins, flirt with anti-Arab racism.

So whose side do we choose? How about ours? This is a left blog, written from different perspectives though sharing some common values; social justice, anti-racism, equality, respect for human life, a hatred of oppression. That’s the side to be on. Hold hard to our principles and use them as a guide, rather than rely on a blind partisanship. Some of the best commentary chose this path and called for long-term action for a settlement. Too often it was drowned out by the clamour of the committed.

A personal conclusion

In the last years of her life my mother was inclined, as many elderly people are, to wander back into the past. In her case this usually meant the war. She had lived in London throughout the blitz. I remember once when her face crumpled at the memory and the tears flowed. It was the same expression I saw from the historian E P Thompson in a TV documentary as he recalled sending a fellow officer into action and certain death. She looked up and said, “War is hell. It should only be used when absolutely necessary”. She had no doubt that the defeat of Hitler was just such a necessity, despite the pain of her lost friends and dead brothers. Now I look at Gaza and wonder if the hell inflicted on the people was “absolutely necessary”.

Was it?

1 comment:

The Plump said...

This has been reposted here after the sad demise of the DSTPFW group blog, to which I contributed, in the Autumn. The extensive comments thread has not been copied.

There were a number of links to the post, here are some that I know of:

And a total and almost comical misreading from someone with whom I cross swords when I am in a bad mood or in urgent need of amusement in Terry Glavin's comments boxes. I drafted a response but never posted it - life is too short.