Paralyzed by Gaza

At this time where the elected governments of Israel and Gaza try to intimidate each other through rocket-bombs and guns, I have no brilliant, dispassionate analysis to provide. I admire those who can do this in a way that sheds light, not heat.

But that's not me. Not now. The vast majority of us, who can't do anything to restore a ceasefire, have to hope and pray that efforts of Middle Eastern and global leaders, through whatever combination of strategic self-interest and compassion works for them, are able to stop the triumphant march of death as soon as possible.

In the meantime, with the luxury of not being in harm's way like my Israeli and Palestinians friends, I can use the modest platform that my knowledge and experience gives me to share frustration directly, in the hopes that it strikes a chord, or makes a difference, with a few others. Though I generally have learned the futility of writing about Israel and Palestine, I find myself paralyzed by the strong feelings of people I care about on both sides of the tiny border that can only be passed now by soldiers and missiles, not empathy.

Here's the one insight that the marriage of this paralysis and deep knowledge of, and love for, Israelis and Arabs gives me.

Just because Israelis and Palestinians have different versions of the same history doesn't mean that we can compare (and then judge, and even dehumanize) them fairly on particular measures where one side doesn't measure up.

During the end of the U.S. election, I wrote about something similar, if much less deadly, as a problem of false political equivalence. In the Israeli-Gazan Palestinian situation, the issue is basic, if fraught with global diplomatic and security danger. Israelis and Gazans have different enough lives and issues that it is not fair to apply to one an implicit metric based on the other. Doing so is a polemic tactic, and no more.

Here are some examples, which are among the many in the media (and my Facebook page) that accompany the warfare, with brief illustrations of why a comparative equivalence is tricky:
"Palestinians cannot be expected to distinguish among Israeli civilians and the government with Israel's ongoing efforts by civilians, with government complicity, to continue to colonize Palestinian land."

Many Palestinians can, and more should understand the complex political context of a democratic Israeli political system that is fragmented, hard to govern and has to contend with the incessant pressures of a small minority of people determined to drag the country off its ideological settlement-construction cliff. Failing to appreciate the deep structures of a political system like Israel's, and its diverse underlying population, has helped bring to the fore some of the very monolithic politics that charges like this raise.

"Israel cannot hope to have Palestinian negotiating partners in Gaza, while Gazan children learn hate for Israelis and Hamas refuses to state Israel's right to exist."

Gazans generally consist of the descendants of people who were pushed off of their homes in what is now Israel proper. The crowded, difficult conditions they have lived in for decades have a lot to do with the Israeli occupation until 2006 and subsequent border control. Other than in terms of basic fear, trying to compare the experiences and perspectives of a government with very limited control of a tiny overcrowded territory with a fully functional, well-development modern state is illogical. A better point of analysis is what Israelis' and Gazans' lives are like, what realistic knowledge they have of each other, and what ways that their own current leadership embraces a combination of ignorance and dehumanization.

"Palestinians have to use every means at their disposal when Israel has such powerful Jewish and other allies in the U.S. who slant discourse to support the Israeli government."

Ignoring the immense diversity of opinion within the U.S., and, yes, even the American Jewish community or the New York Times, is a great way to marginalize and sometimes imperil people who care about, and take personal risks to expose, Palestinians' difficult lives. It is very easy from afar to point to the very real influence groups that support hard-line Israeli politics in Washington. But this makes it harder to see the complex nature of U.S. lobbying, the diversity of perspectives within the U.S. government, and the emergence of strong and representative Jewish groups who care deeply about Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians.

"Gazans target Israeli civilians indiscriminately and have sent hundreds of rockets at Israeli population centers, while Israel has been dropping leaflets in Gaza in Arabic trying to minimize harm to civilians."

The completely disproportionate military capabilities of the Gazan and Israeli governments make comparisons about the use of force rather meaningless. Clearly, with Israel's military superiority and the population density of Gaza, there are many more Gazan deaths than Israeli ones in the current conflict and the bombs have gotten worse on both sides since Israel started its new campaign. Seeing one or the other of two highly asymmetrical forces bombing the other one as more humane while the rockets fly seems, at this point, a way to justify continuing conflict.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Good people, with whom I try empathize, get so caught up in dwelling on standards of equivalence that their opponents don't meet that it's OK to dismiss their concerns in general. But this is just making the anger and violence worse.

In the end, there are only three comparative equivalences that matter. First, there are people on both sides who believe that the solution to this conflict is violence and dehumanization that can wear the other side out or make it act in ways that look bad. Second, there are many more people on both sides whose daily lives are disrupted, even destroyed, by the first group of people. And third, everyone it takes on each side of the conflict to stop it soon, rather than justify it, is what the rest of us must strive to see happen. This is because what we know, or at least should know, is that violence and indictments around exact equivalence in an asymmetric conflict have brought neither Israelis nor Gazans closer to security and stability.