This month a new flotilla is scheduled to set sail to Gaza. As will be recalled, in May 2010 a violent confrontation at sea between Israeli naval forces and pro-Palestinian activists led to the death of nine people and many more injured; before a Turkish vessel aiming at breaking the Israeli blockade of Gaza was escorted to a port. As a consequence, relations between Israel and Turkey dramatically soured and Israel's standing in the international community further eroded. Judging by the rhetoric of the parties involved today another collision seems imminent, with more flotillas forthcoming in the future.
As scholars of conflict resolution, we believe that such situations call for constructive adaptation on the part of those involved. To that end we propose the IDF take initiative and create the first ever Conflict Resolution Commando unit.
Imagine back in 2010 if instead of masked men with guns, trained for intense warfare at sea, boarding a ship in the dead of night, the IDF had dispatched an elite unit of conflict resolution specialists. Could the tragedy at sea been averted? Could it be that new tools must be designed to maximize the possibility of non-destructive outcome to occur? Could it be that a fundamental reframing to many situations could be offered by people willing to die for a cause but not willing to kill for it?
The fundamental idea is that military units are more and more specialized. Comprised of highly skilled individuals trained in conflict resolution, effective communication, negotiation, dialogue, participatory processes, the Conflict Resolution Commandos (CRC) will be part of the military structure. While completely integrated into the military force the members of the CRC refrain from killing or harming anyone. They are willing -- as any other military person -- to die for a cause greater than themselves and they are ready to serve within the established set of power, meaning and relationships. Their rank, command and control, pay and so on would be comparable with those of the other military units. CRC would be deployed before military action is taken as a way to expand the notion of 'last resort'.
Before the 2010 flotilla disaster the Israeli government (through its navy) had in fact tried to persuade the Free Gaza activists to dock their ship inside Israel, allow Israel to inspect the aid destined for Gaza, and provided that no undesirable material were found, transfer the aid by land (under the observation of the activists) through Israel into Gaza. The activist rejected this offer -- probably due to the fact that their goal was not only to bring aid to Gaza but also to raise awareness and break-through a blockade they consider illegal and immoral. The important point, however, is that the government (with the aid of the IDF) was open to exploring the conflict resolution channel. Perhaps if they approached the negotiation with more creativity and CR expertise, the results would have been different.
Besides the obvious benefit of resolving conflict non-violently, we believe that the CRC could appeal to Israelis for a number of additional reasons. For example, Israel's image around the world (with the exception of the US) is that of a pugnacious trigger-happy bully. By putting together a CRC unit, Israel could improve her image by appearing to the world as a country that leaves no stone unturned before opting to use violent as a means of coercion. For a country that is as concerned with making its case to the world as Israel, a CRC unit would surely be seen as a boon.
Another reason for CRC's appeal is the potential for social integration and equality that it allows. A unit like the CRC should be open to both Jews and Arabs (men and women). Regarding the latter, since serving in the IDF is (still) the ticket of admission into the upper echelons of Israeli society, greater Arab participation would go a long way in integrating Arab-Israelis into the larger society. Being a military unit dedicated to non-violence, Arab-Israelis may feel less compunction joining. Arab participation in any unit in the IDF is of course not an un-problematic proposal, but it would serve Israel's interest to encourage greater civic participation from its marginalized populations.
Israel spends around 7% of its GDP on military expenditures (sixth highest in the world). Out of the roughly $3 billion the US provides Israel annually, majority goes into military aid. If just a small percentage of that money went into training an elite unit of non-violent CRC, then Israel could develop the first ever non-violent commando unit in state military history. Doing so may prove to be a great long-term investment: potentially reducing the cost of military expenditure all together.
What are the risks? Deploying unarmed IDF personnel in a hostile zone is of course dangerous. Many of Israel's enemies have no compunction in harming unarmed Israelis (all the more if they are IDF!). One can easily imagine a terrible scenario where a group like Hamas kidnaps the CRC and forces Israelis to make giant concessions in return for her soldiers (as is currently the case with Gilad Schalit). One way around this, besides being judicious in the deployment of CRC troops, is if unit members sign a waiver stating the government of Israel will not be responsible for his or her welfare (as journalist sometimes do). However, it needs to be kept in mind that when it comes to IDF soldiers, Israel takes pride in the length it will go to protect and save its own - signing such documents will qualitatively differentiate CRC from the rest of the IDF.
From a conflict resolution perspective there is also the issue of impartiality and neutrality. These two terms are understood to mean that practitioners are not biased towards a particular outcome or party. While it seems that the CR field is moving away from the idea of an unbiased practitioner, not all "moving away" are equal. CR commandos, if they are part of the IDF, will clearly be serving the interest of their country (subject to the commands of their superiors) and as a result will be viewed with great suspicion.
Finally, we must be cognizant of the high risk of being manipulated by the Israeli government. As stated above, CRC would be used to show the world that the IDF does in fact live up to its self-described identity as the most moral army in the world. This would not be a problem were it not for the very real possibility that Israel could use the CRC to justify excessive use of force. The last thing a CRC unit needs to become is a token tool facilitating the very destructive actions it seeks to mitigate.
These objections and criticism must be treated seriously and will most likely raise further questions that will need to be properly addressed. There is no doubt that in a society conditioned by incessant war, the idea of a CRC unit will be a hard sell. But if the tragic events at sea have taught us anything, it's that for Israel to overcome its most pressing problems vis-à-vis the Palestinians, it will need more imagination and less muscles. Conflict resolution commandos may not be a bad place to start.