Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Life during wartime

I hate to say it, but I told you so.

The war in Lebanon has entered its second week, and, as all the war correspondents keep saying, there is no end in sight. According to the BBC, 230 Lebanese and 25 Israelis have been killed to date, the vast majority of them civilians.

Leaving aside the reasons for the conflict, I am amazed by the refusal of the international community to demand an immediate ceasefire. It is becoming increasingly clear that the United States tacitly supports the Israeli army’s stated goal of “neutralizing” Hezbollah, and that it is willing to risk the destabilization of the Lebanese government, as well as the lives of countless civilians, to achieve it.

I’m far from an expert on the Middle East, but this strategy strikes me as being dangerously naive. Even if Israel succeeds in routing Hezbollah--which, by all accounts, is unlikely--this will only displace the problem it is attempting to solve. The anger and resentment that fuels Hezbollah will inevitably find another agent, and the cycle of violence will continue.

Setare just sent me a link to this Guardian piece, which neatly summarizes the problem:

[T]here is nothing in the history of the region to suggest that Israel's destruction of mass popular movements such as Hamas or Hizbullah (even if this were possible) would drive their successors closer to western-style democracy, and every reason to believe the opposite. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 did away with the PLO and produced Hizbullah instead, the incarceration and elimination of Arafat only served to strengthen Hamas, and the wars in Afghanistan, the Gulf and Iraq gave birth to Bin Ladenist terrorism and extended its reach and appeal. And we should not be surprised if the summer of 2006 produces more of the same.

What the author describes is a series of actions that have had unintended but entirely predictable consequences, all of which have taken Israel farther away from its goal of securing peace for its citizens—which, I should add, no sane person would suggest that they do not deserve. The average person in Haifa has had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of Israel, with the displacement of the Palestinians, or with the invasion of Lebanon. The average person in Haifa, like the average person in Beirut, is simply trying to live amidst forces over which she has absolutely no control.

That being said, what the Israeli government and its Western allies consistently fail to understand is that few human beings will respond to being attacked by embracing their attacker. When confronted with soldiers, or snipers, or missiles, most of us will feel fear above all else, and fear inexorably drives us to seek protection for ourselves and our loved ones. If the only protection that is available comes from a terrorist organization, then we will gladly take it, regardless of our political inclinations, because it gives us a chance to live.

Moreover, what those of us who have never experienced mass killing cannot possibly comprehend is that identity becomes profoundly essentialized in war. The desire for physical survival leaves little room for discussion about our political or philosophical views, or the precise degree of our empathy for the other side. In conflicts that are based on ethnic and/or religious affiliation, the attacker confronts you as one of them, which is to say, not one of us, and in the milliseconds before violence occurs, it is infinitely more sensible to run for cover than to protest.

Even more dangerous than fear, though, is grief, which is as much a factor in armed conflict as political ideology. For every person who is killed, there is a larger community of family and friends who are wounded by loss. For them, the conflict ceases to be an abstract argument about rights or land or power, and instead becomes a violation of their deepest personal bonds.

What does it do to a person to collect the scraps of flesh of their child from a bomb crater? What is politics then? At best, the experience will radicalize them; at worst, it will destroy them. Either way, the experience will haunt them for life, and often for the lifetimes of their children and grandchildren as well. This historical memory may fade as the conflict fades, but it remains sequestered in the DNA of the family, ready to reemerge when violence next erupts. Governments and terrorist groups understand this, and both are all too willing to turn grief to their advantage. They know that it is the lifeblood of power.

This, in essence, is why I am a pacifist, even when great injustice has been committed. It is also why I am not optimistic about the outcome of current events in the Middle East, even if a ceasefire is reached tomorrow. It still wouldn’t be over.

Postscript: According to this UN report, over 3000 people were killed in Iraq during the month of June alone. See above.


Frank said...

Extremely well said. I recently came to the realization that those are the reasons that military action will never do what diplomacy can. It just becomes a vicious circle.

Caron said...

Vila: I, like you, pray that peace comes to this region and that the cycle of violence comes to end. However, as horrible as it is for us to see hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing from the war zone - and we should support immediate humanitarian assistance to the 45,000 of these (and all others) who need it - it is important to note that Israel is taking action against legitimate Hezbollah military targets which it has willfully placed within urban and other civilian areas, all while continuing their offensive on Israel. Israel has fully complied with the laws of war by giving sufficient warning to the Lebanese civilians affected by its operations against Hezbollah military targets. But we must accept the tragic fact that even the most just wars may result in many civilian casualties - foreseeably and unintentionally - yet justifiably, with the full and terrible weight of law and morality.

As to your reference of "the displacement of the Palestinians," l could comment quite lengthily. Look, I sympathize with the Palestinian people, a people who have been ignored even by their Arab brothers in neighboring countries and who elected a terrorist organization (Hamas) to govern them only to yeild further suffering and the devastation of their infrastructure. However, the myth of displacement by European Jewish refugees (first in the 1880's and later in the mid-20th century) of a large, stable long-term Muslim population that had lived in part of Palestine for centuries is false and historical demographic data supports that. In fact, at the time of the first influx of Jewish refugees, the small and decreasing Arab-Muslim population of the area was also a transient and migratory population of complex lineage. So, while the population of Arabs in Palestine has grown since then, so has that of the Jewish refugees whose close historical and idealogical connection to the land of Israel drew them back to the region.

It is important to remember that Israel is a democratic state (even Palestinian citizens of Israel have political representation in the parliament) surrounded by nations and people who wish for her demise and the destruction of all her people, both in the land of Israel and the diaspora. Israel was created from the ashes of the Holocaust and has been fighting for her survival ever since. Unfortunately, the events of past two weeks are evidence of the fragility of the region, though the strength and determination of the Jewish people and Israel to survive are anything but - after all, history has proven that the Jewish people have nowhere else to go.

Again, I join you in praying for a peaceful resolution to ALL the people of the Middle East.

Vila H. said...

Thanks for writing, Caron. I’ve thought about you during these last weeks, and have wished that you were still keeping your blog so that I could read your thoughts on all that has happened. I’m glad that you shared some of them here

As I tried to suggest earlier, the reasons for my pacifism are intensely pragmatic. I believe that the consequence of Israel’s present actions in Lebanon, even if they are immediately successful, will be to further radicalize the population of not only of Lebanon, but of Syria, Iran, Iraq, and other countries in the region. This will lead, if not immediately then in the relatively near future, to more threats against Israel, more suicide bombings, and, ultimately, more deaths of innocent Israeli citizens. Further, it will bolster support for both terrorist organizations and for political leaders like the current Iranian president, whose hate-filled pronouncements about the Holocaust and Jews in general are designed to appeal to the most extreme segments of his country’s citizenry as well as those of his neighbours. And, I should add, it will intersect with the consequences of other military actions in the region in ways that will once again yoke the plight of Israelis to Western interests in the region that have little to do with humanitarian concern for any of its inhabitants.

As I have previously stated, Israeli Jews have every right to live in peace, no less so than any other people, but I fear that the current campaign in Lebanon will bring them exactly the opposite. I am willing to hear evidence to the contrary, but it must at least acknowledge the questions I implicitly posed earlier: how will the cause of peace be served by mass killing, unintentional or not? How will it help the Israeli family who is cowering in their bomb shelter in Haifa to kill a Lebanese family who is fleeing their village for safety? How likely are the survivors to reject the use of violence as a political strategy, to turn their backs on Hezbollah, or to continue to support a moderate Lebanese government? How likely are they to set aside their own sense of grief to feel empathy for the Israelis who also suffer, to value their lives as their own and to therefore accept their right to live free from the threat of violence?

I do not expect to persuade you to think differently than you do, not because we don’t share a hope for peace in the Middle East that will benefit all of its peoples, but because I suspect you are far more optimistic about what military action is capable of achieving than I am. I felt a similar pessimism in the early stages of the war against Iraq, when a surprising number of my colleagues and acquaintances insisted that some good would come of the invasion of that country. Time has shown them to have been fatally wrong, and I fear that time will be no less forgiving in this case. Still, I trust that you understand that although we differ on this point, that the outcome we hope for is the same. It is, of course.

I don’t know if you have family in Israel, but I assume that you at least have friends there, as I do. I pray that they are safe, and I hope, for their sake, that this miserable war is truly over soon.


Caron said...

Vila, thank you 1) for your prayers for safety for my friends in Israel... and 2) for allowing me to vent a bit on your blog (it is time for me to restart mine, isn't it?).

These feelings I have about the situation in Israel are somewhat unnerving As you have gathered from our virtual friendship this past year or so, I too define myself as a liberal (LIBERAL) pacifist. However, the events of the past two weeks leave me deeply conflicted. Logically, I understand the pragmatism that underlies your pacifism. I too fear, as you so eloquently wrote, that Israel's actions will yoke the nation to Western interests in the region, stir up radical forces, and belabor the cycle of violence.

However, when it comes to Israel I admit that my reactions are more emotional than logical. It is hard to express in words the deep connection I feel to Israel and Jews around the world; it is what drives me to try to defend and explain her posture in this conflict. And ultimately Israel's posture is, though blinded I may be by my emotions, that of self-defense: Israel is not fighting just Hamas and Hezbollah, but for her very existence. Israel cannot dare to imagine peace without ensuring security.

I don't expect to persuade you on this matter either, but simply to shed some light on the other point of view. It is an honor to respectfully disagree with one another... Ah, and what an amazing venue for public discourse this blogosphere is, isn't it?

Vila H. said...

It certainly is. I really appreciate the honesty of your response, Caron, which is terribly rare in discussions like these. I sometimes think the key is find ways to acknowledge this dimension of feeling in political discourse, and to make a sincere effort to understand it in others. Shrinks, not bombs, or something like that.

So, when did you say you were starting up your blog again? ;-)