Neve Gordon: Talking down the war

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and can be reached at nevegordon@gmail.com.]

BEER-SHEVA, ISRAEL ONLY AFTER A Katyusha rocket killed her neighbor did she agree to come. For more than a week, I had been pleading with my mother and her 80-year-old partner, a veteran of many Israeli wars, to leave their home in the northern city Nahariya and spend time in our small two-bedroom apartment far from the line of fire. Within a week the fighting will subside, I assured her, while asking myself whether this new cycle of violence will indeed end so soon.

Although the immediate motives for Israel's campaigns in Gaza and Lebanon were the abduction of three soldiers, releasing the captives is only part of the government's overall objectives. In Gaza, Israel used the abduction as an excuse to reenter the region to stop the firing of Qassam rockets on Israeli cities and towns as well as to try and topple the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

In the north, Israel aspires to defang Hezbollah, clean south Lebanon of Hezbollah's military bases, and force the Lebanese government to clamp down on Hasan Nasrallah's militias.

In order to examine whether these objectives are prudent and whether Israel's actions can in fact bring about the desired results, one needs to consider the two regions separately.

It is crucial, for example, to remember that despite its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last August, Israel still controls the means of legitimate movement in the region. And as long as Israel maintains control over the movement of Palestinian inhabitants, labor, goods, and money, then -- as any first-year political science student knows -- it continues to be the sovereign power and Gazans remain under occupation.

While no country should have to stand by and watch its cities and towns being shelled by rockets, a distinction must be made between a sovereign people launching rockets at a neighboring country and people living under occupation engaging in the same activity.

Taking this difference into account does not justify the use of rockets, but it does help us understand the root causes underlying their employment and provides some clues on how the Qassam can be stopped.

Insofar as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about real grievances, primarily the denial of self-determination to an entire people, then the only tenable solution is political. Israel, however, has decided to ignore the political route and has chosen the military one instead. Yet, cutting off 700,000 people from electricity, redeploying troops in the middle of Gaza, and causing intense suffering to 1.4 million civilians has not produced the desired results.

Short of transforming the Gaza Strip into a gigantic football field and killing hundreds of thousands of people, Israel will not be able to stop the Qassam by military means. Ending the occupation, though, will.

Interestingly, Hamas is ready to stop launching rockets and return the captive soldier if Israel discontinues its assassination policy, releases Palestinian prisoners and returns to the negotiating table to carve out a peace agreement based on Israel's withdrawal to its 1967 borders. This needs to be seen as an opportunity. Israel should immediately put a stop to the Gaza campaign, pick up the glove, and start talking with Hamas, since, as the cliché goes, one negotiates with one's enemies and not with one's friends.

Regarding the Lebanese front, matters are different, not least because Lebanon is a sovereign country. Yet, unlike other sovereign states that have a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, the Lebanese government does not control Hezbollah, which has been attacking Israeli targets against its government's wishes.

While this situation must be resolved, Israel's attempt to bring about structural change within Lebanon by using extreme force aimed mostly at a civilian population is boomeranging. If before the war there was considerable internal Lebanese criticism of Hezbollah, Israel's ruthless violence, including the erasure of whole neighborhoods in Beirut as well as the forceful evacuation of half a million Lebanese citizens from their homes, has managed to sway popular support in favor of the fundamentalist organization. When all is said and done, the Israeli campaign is actually empowering Hezbollah.

Consequently, my support for my mother and all other Israelis who are being bombed does not translate into support for the policies of the Israeli government. Employing lethal force to advance political objectives seldom works, and employing more force after the first military assault fails only sows additional seeds of hatred. Despite what many people may think and what most commentators suggest, standing with Israel at this juncture means pressuring its government to stop the trumpets of war. It's time to lay down the guns so that words can begin replacing bullets.

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