Thursday, October 25, 2007

Collective Punishment in Gaza

This fascinating little item in the BBC allows me to add Israel to the list of countries whose legislatures seem hell-bent on working against their own national interest. Evidently, the Knesset has approved a measure authorizing Israel to cut power to Gaza in response to rocket attacks coming out of the small strip. Though the government has not specified exactly if or when it will act on this authorization, the plan's architect, Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai has spoken of cutting power "gradually, without causing anything that could create a humanitarian problem, like hospitals." Evidently the plan is to begin by cutting power for fifteen minutes following specific rocket attacks, then gradually increasing the length of time if/as the attacks continue.

Leaving aside for a moment Minister Vilnai's forgivable lapses in English grammar, this latest development touches on several important issues. First, however the Israeli government tries to spin it, this policy is a blatant form of collective punishment. I can see no tangible tactical military advantage to cutting power to Gaza, certainly not for incremental periods of time. Forgive me for stating the obvious fact that the rockets being fired at Israel don't plug into anything. Clearly, the objective is to impose pain on the people of Gaza in order to undercut whatever tacit support they give to groups that fire the rockets. That intelligent military and civilian leaders would employ such reasoning in this day and age simply baffles me. Ever since World War II, when the strategy of collective punishment was employed on an industrial scale, it has been obvious that it almost universally backfires. Rather than weakening and dividing an enemy's populace, it unites it through shared hardship and a common enemy. This is why drill sergants and team coaches often collectively punish those in their charge; to increase their effectiveness and cohesion. Israel, fresh from it's debacle in Lebanon in 2006, which greatly increased the prestige and popularity of Hezbollah in large part because Israel collectively punished the Lebanese populace as a whole for the group's actions, should have learned this lesson better than anyone. The notion that somehow Gazans will curtail their support for Hamas and other violent groups in response to Israel adding yet another hardship to their already difficult lives flies in the face of every conceivable historical precedent. Israel's leaders ought to know better.

There is also the question of legal and ethical justification for such tactics - which is weak at best, whatever semantic gymnastics Israeli lawyers have managed to perform (see "hostile entity") - but the question shouldn't even come up; on purely strategic grounds, this is an asinine policy.

I of course understand why the government feels it must do something - one cannont tolerate such violence indefinitely - but I would have thought it obvious to rational Israelis at this point that the realities of asymmetric conflict mean that a truly secure border with Palestine will come only in the context of a comprehensive and fair peace settlement. Absent that, groups in Palestine will always find some way to remind Israel of their discontent. The announcement that Israel will now hold Gazan's basic welfare hostage to the whims of the Knesset - justified or not - is simply one more counter-productive indignity that weakens Fatah and makes negotiating more difficult. It will also further reduce international sympathy for Israel's position at a time when it can ill-afford to lose the political capital.

Israeli leaders should resist the urge to engage in knee-jerk, ineffective responses to Gazan attacks and look at the situation with a more dispassionately strategic eye. Such a view, in my opinion, illuminates only one reasonable path: that of aggressive diplomacy.

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