La Guerre n’est Pas Finie

By Kindred Winecoff

I’ve been thinking about why the most recent flare-up of the Israel-Palestine conflict is happening now. Most off-the-shelf explanations of the relationship — ethno-religious animosities, long-standing rivalry, Western imperialism, etc. — only describe baseline characteristics even if they were fully acceptable as explanations (which they are not). There is a big gap between the long-running fundamentals and what is happening now.

I’ve had a nagging sense that all of this was somehow related to the revolutions, invasions, and civil conflicts that have been occurring in the Middle East for several years* but was having trouble filling in the picture. So I was happy to see David Brooks, who is not one of my favorite people, providing appropriate context:

Look at how the current fighting in Gaza got stoked. Authoritarians and Islamists have been waging a fight for control of Egypt. After the Arab Spring, the Islamists briefly gained the upper hand. But when the Muslim Brotherhood government fell, the military leaders cracked down. They sentenced hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leadership class to death. They also closed roughly 95 percent of the tunnels that connected Egypt to Gaza, where the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas, had gained power.

As intended, the Egyptian move was economically devastating to Hamas. Hamas derived 40 percent of its tax revenue from tariffs on goods that flowed through those tunnels. One economist estimated the economic losses at $460 million a year, nearly a fifth of the Gazan G.D.P.

Hamas needed to end that blockade, but it couldn’t strike Egypt, so it struck Israel. If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish state, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade. Civilian casualties were part of the point. When Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, dismissed a plea for a cease-fire, he asked a rhetorical question, “What are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege?”

The eminent Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff summarized the strategy in The Times of Israel, “Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel. But Hamas is firing rockets at Tel Aviv and sending terrorists through tunnels into southern Israel while aiming, in essence, at Cairo.”

Emphases added. This means, among other things, that John Kerry will be completely wasting his time in Cairo unless his trip is an attempt to reconcile the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters with the Egyptian military. (Hamas’ rejection of the ceasefire negotiated by Egypt and Israel makes additional sense in this light.) That is so unlikely as to be hardly worth hoping for, and it isn’t even clear what such hope would mean, but that is the only mission with a chance for success. Of course it’s not even that simple: all of this is occurring within a broader regional conflict environment, as Brooks also notes:

This whole conflict has the feel of a proxy war. Turkey and Qatar are backing Hamas in the hopes of getting the upper hand in their regional rivalry with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians and even the Saudis are surreptitiously backing or rooting for the Israelis, in hopes that the Israeli force will weaken Hamas.

It no longer makes sense to look at the Israeli-Palestinian contest as an independent struggle. It, like every conflict in the region, has to be seen as a piece of the larger 30 Years’ War. It would be nice if Israel could withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank and wall itself off from this war, but that’s not possible. No outsider can run or understand this complex historical process, but Israel, like the U.S., will be called upon to at least weaken some of the more radical players, like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Hamas.

It should be reiterated at this point that this is fundamentally a conflict over economics, not ideology. It is about control over the region’s resources at a time when those resources are dwindling and demographic pressures are mounting. Which is all to say that it isn’t 1967 anymore. Nor 1979 nor 1987 nor 2000.

None of this means that Israel’s response has not been disproportionate. It has been, and frankly it’s hard for me to believe that anyone could sincerely believe the opposite. Regardless of the tactics of Hamas, the Netanyahu government has shown a characteristic lack of maturity by lashing out with far less discrimination than it is capable of. It is, as the late Tony Judt put it, a sign of Israel’s inability to yet achieve its full height. Israel’s own blockade of Palestine only increased Egypt’s importance, it must be remembered. Still, Israel’s immaturity has a different flavor when half of Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East are supportive or indifferent, while much of the other half are engaged in their own domestic conflicts that are (in some cases) as severe as that in Palestine, or even much worse. It has a different feeling when ISIS is brutalizing Iraq while preparing to materially support Hamas.

The United States used to forestall Egyptian meddling in Palestine through military aid. It had a pacifying effect (pdf). Such aid had been frozen several times since the Arab Spring. Now the taps are open again, but it is much less clear if money will be able to soothe tensions if Egypt’s enemy is Hamas rather than Israel.

I am interested in this question in part because I cannot understand why Palestine remains cause célèbre for the left while support for Israel is de rigueur on the (American) right. This appears as a vestige of a Cold War mentality where imperialism was the primary concern of capitalists and socialists alike. Perhaps I’m thinking too much like a political scientist, but aren’t the stakes much lower today? Other than habit, why is Palestine’s struggle with Israel given so much more concern even than Iraq? Or this (h/t Dan Nexon)?

*On that point, briefly: neoconservative “domino” theories look a lot better today than they did in 2006, don’t they? But it’s more of a “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” situation than neoconservatives would’ve expected, and the much-maligned Cold War policy of maintaining relationships with authoritarians for the sake of stability is more understandable all the time.

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6 thoughts on “La Guerre n’est Pas Finie”

  1. Where would a political science answer to the question of why it is such a dominant cause begin? The development of activist networks and large (relatively wealthy) disaporic communities on both sides(particularly in the US), the centrality of the Middle East in US foreign policy for the past 20 years(at least) and the centrality of Israel to US policy in the region, the relative ease of access to Israel itself and the occupied territories for journalists/analysts etc, the specific way it has developed as a conflict (largely non violent uprising, the start of the peace process, descent into violence, stagnantion) etc ?
    Not one of these needs to be dominant,but the way they feed into and reinforce eachother. Afaik there have been other conflicts/occupations (Tibet?) which have become cause célèbres while also existing alongside worse atrocities, which it could be compared to ? (Couldnt you just apply the case to something like Charli Carpenters model for how a cause becomes celebrated? – although I havent read her book yet so dont know what that is)

    I think, also, it is easier to understand and pick sides than other regional conflicts; the ‘colonial power’/’liberal democracy fighting terrorism’ dichotomy, the lack of a clear cut figure of ‘evil'(as Saddam or As’ad), the relative simplicity of the conflicts dynamics(as opposed to the complexity of Lebanese sectarian divisons, the supposed anarchy of Syria etc) I also do believe(personally) that a lot is in reaction to the Israeli PR machine, which is so extensive and at times nonsensical that it cant help but create a backlash.
    I’d personally agree that the primary cause of a lot of the uprisings are economic (specifically increases in food prices in 2010/11) but I(personally) don’t really think Hamas (or Bibi) were looking for a conflict this time. I think it just escalated from the west bank roundups, rocket fire from Gaza, response from Israel etc Certainly the economic strain on Hamas and change in regional politics could be said to have weakened them, caused unrest in Gaza, lessened their authority and ability to cut down on rocket fire from other sources, and changed the dynamics once the conflict started, but initially I dont think it they went looking for a conflict specifically to get concessions (although of course I could well be wrong) Also I don’t think the intial Egyptian ceasefire was offered in good faith. Hamas were never going to accept it as they weren’t included in any meaingful way in its negotiations and it didnt have any firm gaurantees that eased retrictions would be kept in place(which they weren’t after 2012)

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    1. Actually, the second part of my comment seems to be more in response to Brooks(which I’m not totally buying) than to you.
      I agree that these are primarily wars for resources rather than ideology, but how do you divide out the materialistic/ideological aspects of them ? For example IS(IS); is it primarily ideology that drives them(a specific vision of Pan Islamicism) or the desire to become a regional power by controlling a state, getting access to a regular flow of income etc.One can’t really be divided out from the other, the ideological desires require the material resources.
      I also think, although its role was overplayed initially, that ‘social justice’ concerns (human rights, more representative forms of government) did play a role in driving certain(important) demographics in 2010/11, independent of purely economic concerns. The same is true for the way resources are shared out in sectarian centred political economies (although that’s not neccesarily relevant in all cases, I think it is in Iraq?) that ethno nationalist/sectarian grievances are tied into distributional ones.
      That reads a little confused(and Ive probably partly misunderstood what you mean in terms of wars for resources) so if you get the chance,could you expand on that a little?

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    2. Hi RF,

      Regarding your first graf, many of those reasons make sense as to why these events are on the front page of the news every day — altho many of them are less salient than at any other point in my lifetime — but they don’t necessarily answer the question of why committed left intellectuals like Corey Robin (e.g.) would bother getting themselves thrown into prison at the Israeli mission to the UN but not (say) the Syrian embassy. Or even why Robin would be hanging out with folks like Norman Finkelstein in the first place. A lot of places have national borders that were contested in the fallout of WWII or some point since, and a lot of places have areas where minorities are oppressed by majorities intent on controlling the property the minority occupies… why is *this* the one that folks are still concerned with 75 years later? I mean, Tibet was hot in the late-90s but, like Bangladesh in the 1970s, nobody cares anymore.

      Neocons are consistent in their disdain for Islamic fundamentalists or anyone that looks like them so that’s more understandable, but even still this is a signal issue. (At the moment right-wing outlets such as NRO seem less occupied, but I take that as reflecting the state of play. If any of Hamas’ rockets actually hit any civilians in Tel Aviv that would change in a second.)

      As I hinted in my post (and in my title), I believe it’s rehashing Cold War politics, which was rehashing 19th and early 20th century arguments concerning the relationship between imperialism and capitalism and (thus) the desirability of socialism. That’s what gets Robin and Chomsky and whoever else in the door. But even still it’s puzzling, because that argument makes no sense in today’s context. The second half of the 20th century showed that capitalists could be far less imperial than socialists in at least some contexts. Socialists’ erstwhile allies in the Arab world are the only ones making noises about empires today. And if it’s not imperialism but rather the generally oppressive nature of capitalism that is motivating folks then what are they doing hoping to materially support Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood?

      As Isaac would no doubt point out there is probably a dash or more of anti-Semitism involved, but I don’t actually think it’s the main issue. (Although the ludicrous use of the word “genocide” recently makes me wonder a bit, given its history and connotation. Israel is pretty clearly *not* trying to exterminate all Arabs. Same goes for use of the word “fascist” in reference to Israel.) Perhaps he’ll want to say more about this; perhaps not.

      Regarding your second post, I’d just say that when the materialist accounts work so well why bother bringing identity/ideology into it at all? It only muddies the picture.

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  2. When I studied the different historical methods for analyzing history in college, I remember having a distinct disdain for Marx and how seemed to equate human beings with variables. But the one thing that I did learn to appreciate about Marx was his depiction of economic factors as the driving forces behind history. We all love to read about dynamic individuals and the impact they had on their age, but history (and more specifically wars) is largely shaped by the competition for resources needed to sustain the economic structure upon which ruling institutions derive their power. It may be an over simplification of causes behind the current conflict in Israel and Palestine, but just as we have seen in the Eastern Ukraine (as well as the territorial disputes with China here in Asia), the move to secure valuable resources underlies everything.

    The fascinating thing about the Cold War dichotomy is how it pitted two economic philosophies against each other and tied each to a particular form of rule (authoritarian vs. democratic). As you pointed out, people can’t seem to let go of this dichotomy. I find it creeping into discussion of relations between the US and China, as if people are almost hoping this will become the next Cold War. But do we really need to do that? Our economies are completely entangled and connected in a way that we never saw happen in the Cold War, which prevents us from maintaining the distance that made it easier to disparage the other side and portray them as demons. Likewise, I see a resurgence of this rhetoric here in Japan with the recent move to reinterpret the Constitution (without putting it to a vote… but that’s another issue) and constantly make out China (albeit indirectly) a threat to Japan’s security. This is almost laughably ironic, for Japan’s number 1 trade partner is China.

    The rehashing of the Cold War dichotomy in pitting the EU and other Western powers against Russia doesn’t really hold up because once again the economies are so deeply intertwined. The sanctions have so many loopholes because the EU would in part be hurting itself in its efforts to punish Russia. The Olympics this past February, the World Cup in 2018… Russia is much more involved in the European community, which makes it difficult to create the aforementioned distance buffer that made it easy to depict the other as monster-like menace.

    I know my comment digresses from the main focus of your post, but the points you raised caused me to take a step back and re-evaluate the intellectual currents influencing media thought today. It’s a bit alarming to see so much of it is stuck in the past.

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    1. I agree with almost everything you’ve written here (and thanks for the great comment, Dave), but as someone trained in history you might recall that the World War I belligerents were each others’ largest training partners. This is what, in part, led to Norman Angell making his famous blunder: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Angell#The_Great_Illusion.

      Of course that proves nothing. I only mention it to remind us that, in the words of the immortal Battlestar Galactica, “all of this has happened before and all of it will happen again”.

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  3. Thanks for reminding me about that. I was a bit too caught up in the Cold War tangent. Not only were they trading partners, but many of the monarchs at that time were related. There is a great photo (number 2) of the European monarchs taken in 1910 here: http://www.theatlantic.com/static/infocus/wwi/introduction/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_term=*Situation%20Report

    There are many words of wisdom to be gleaned from the immortal Battlestar Galatica. A film definitely worth watching.

    Incidentally, Prime Minister Abe alluded to the close economic ties of Britain and Germany prior to the outbreak of WW1 when he spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. However, there was a lot of debate as to whether he was drawing parallels with the current state of Chinese-Japanese relations. The Japanese government claimed the translation company entrusted with the task of translating his speech botched it up (but that’s what happens when you give out work to the lowest bidder).
    http://japandailypress.com/japanese-government-rebukes-translator-in-charge-of-pm-abes-wwi-comments-in-davos-0443505/

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