Tuesday, 13 January 2009

A hard pill to swallow

is how I would describe my response so far to this war in Gaza. I tend to sympathize with Israel, but a fifty percent civilian death rate, in light of the fact that Israel itself has not always been as innocent as it claims, is too much for me. What do they expect after all this destruction? The result will be trauma, and trauma does not lead to the conditions of mutual trust necessary for any kind of agreement. I can't imagine what the future will look like after all this ... I know that Hamas are an "evil terrorist organisation" (to use a childish-sounding but true description, as these videos confirm), but Hamas are not the Palestinians and I can't help but wonder whether they voted for them in out of desparation with Israel's apparent lack of will to exchange land for peace ...

In order to form an opinion on this you need reliable information, and one theme of my posts over the last few days is that there doesn't seem to be any, or at least adequate criteria for judging. And not just reliable information, but also cultural and philosophical analyses to interpret what is going on (why did the Palestines dance with joy after 9/11, for example? What does that say about Israel's negotiation partner?). Nevertheless, the amount of information critical of Israel is overwhelming me at this point and I've not found too much to rebut it ... But then perhaps I haven't read enough.

The latest critical links come from a post by Roland Boer, the radical blogger at Stalin's Moustache, entitled Where have all the supporters gone? He links to a number of troubling articles on the rejection of Israeli action by Jews world wide. I struggle with some of their content (I cannot conceive how "genocide" is the best word to describe what is going on, it seems to me to be nothing of the sort; and when one article says that Hamas is "not a terrorist organisation" ... I'm sorry, but that article lost its credibility for me), but I also find myself looking around for some kind of justification of what's going on from the Israeli side. I need a response to each of the points that have been made, especially those in Avi Shlaim's article, which haunts me.

The latest troubling article is from Brian Hamilton of the blog Raids on the Unspeakable. The title says it all: Israel bans Arab parties from running in upcoming elections. Well, perhaps it doesn't. The fact that the motion is being taken to a high court, opposed as it is by other Israeli parties, and the fact that Arab parties exist at all, are, in my opinion, signs that Israel is not apartheid and not non-democratic.

But do feel free to contradict anything I say in the comments. In fact, I want you to. I'd just be grateful if you could provide evidence for your opinions.

Disclaimer: These are the relatively spontaneous thoughts of someone trying to follow a conflict in a foreign land, trying to find the time he has in an otherwise tight schedule. Nothing is absolute, and I welcome critique.

Update: I highly recommend you read the interesting and informative comment thread. In particular, Kevin, of the excellent blog biblicalia, has some eloquent statements of support for Israel in this current sitation (and in general), including a response to Avi Shlaim's Israel-critical article.


steph said...

I think terrorism exists on both sides - Hamas and Israel.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Well, Steph, I think that's jejune. Terrorizing, perhaps, but not terrorism. There is a distinction. Unless someone has changed the definition, "terrorism" has always connoted non-state entities (whether individuals or groups) targeting civilians for death, the more the better. The Israelis do not target civilians. Hamas does. Fatah does. PFLP does. Hizbullah does.

Phil, take a closer look at Shlaim's rhetoric. The very first sentence, characterizing Israel's action is Gaza as "senseless" shows that this is an opinion piece, not news. And we can tell from that point on exactly where it is going to go. His point about the initial occupation of the WB/Gaza territories after the 1967 war is, again, couched in divertive rhetoric. Acquiring that land would have made Israel more secure, as we now see perfectly in hindsight. But they didn't. And the few remaining settlements (legal and illegal) may be dismantled, if current trends progress. Why were refugess crammed into the Gaza strip? Because the UN said they would take care of them there, and their leaders were feeding them the lie that they would recover their lost lands (i.e. Israel!) any time now. Thus the 40-year old temporary housing, and the institutionalized welfare of the UNRWA. The settlers in Gaza had two strips of land, in the north and in the south basically. In the south, they prevented the tunnel-digging that (suprise!) has now led to Iranian weapons (shocking!) smuggled in through those tunnels. The zone in the north was another buffer, to keep them from shelling Israel proper. Foolishly Israel, caving in to the demands of "land for peace", forcibly evacuated its settlements/security zones in Gaza. And so, it didn't take a prophet to tell what would happen next: tunnels and shelling. Hamas didn't "drive an effective campaign" to drive Israel out of Gaza. It was only luck that their insane hatred coincided with the diplomatic insanity of the Israelis at that time. Shlaim complains about the witholding of tax revenue (he obviously doesn't read the news; they were paid last year!) from Hamas, and so on. They were witheld because of the shelling, the kidnappings, the murders, and so on. It would've been perfectly reasonable for the Palestinians of all parties to cease the violence, get paid, build hotels, and live well. Gaza used to be beautiful. Now it's a slum run by criminals. Why? Because of their deadly hatred, which has blinded them to life.

Shlaim is only partly correct on the timing of this action. On Dec 17, Hamas said it was unilaterally not renewing the cease-fire that had been in effect with Israel (and which it had ignored nearly throughout all the six months of its existence, with shells dropping at a lesser rate, but still dropping). The next morning, they started shelling again. Now, the surprise is that the Israeli response is actually something that any other state would do: targeting launchers, and sending in the troops. That may be related to various people (Livni & Barak namely) who want to impress. Whatever. Shlaim then goes to try and excuse the "primitive" shelling. It's irrelevant. Shelling another country is cause for war around the entire fricking world, but we're supposed to turn a blind eye to it when it's Palestinians.

This, though, takes the cake, showing this fool Shlaim doesn't even know his own heritage: "The Biblical injunction of an eye for an eye is savage enough." In its context, "eye for eye" is a limitation on the escalation of blood feud, that is, "only one eye for an eye, not two eyes and a whole head, etc." That he doesn't know this is telling. He need only have read it once in context to know that.

In short, he's basically full of it. Of course, he's at Oxford, and you've got to be of a particular mindset these days in any major university, but it's still surprising to find so much mendacity in one article. He must fit in so well. I'm sure his colleagues say behind his back, "Yes, he's a Jew, but he's one of the good ones." I wouldn't be surprised.

I hope that helps, Phil.

Phil Sumpter said...

Kevin, I'm away today. I'll read your post when I get back ... thanks.

steph said...

No, it's not. It's just plain reality. Israel bombs a densely populated area - those damn civilians get in the way. Israel dumps cluster bombs and white phosphorous as they did in 2006 against Lebanon. Israel seal the borders so supplies and doctors can't get in. Israel wants you to help with a pre-emptive strike of Iran. Your Israel apology is jejune - opinion and rhetoric. But of course you aren't appointed by any major university are you.

Phil Sumpter said...

Kevin, where do you get all this information?

Thanks for helping me think about this from different angles. Do you mind if I post this too?

At the moment, the answer to whether this war is justified hangs on Israel's innocence over the last few years. The number of civilian deaths is so nauseatingly high, that you really have to have a good excuse to do so (1/3 of the dead are children. 1/2 are civlians). I'm open for such things ... my Japanese culture professor said that due to the ideology of Japan in WWII, Hiroshima was needed, as otherwise the war would never have ended. I believe in the strength of sick belief systems (cf. Nazi Germany), and such a belief system exists in Gaza and to a degree amongst non-Hamas members too. But I struggle to see Israel as so innocent that their actions are nevertheless justified. You say that any country would respond to such continuous bombing. Maybe ... I guess the answer for me lies on Israel's behaviour over the past years and there I need to study more. I find the third video from top here also very challenging. Perhaps you could respond to that, if you have time ... :)

And how do you respond to their use of phosphorus and cluster bombs? Is that legitimate? I'm so uneducated in such matters! If you could recommend any reading on the matter I'd be grateful.


Britain did the same thing against Nazi Germany. Whether Britain was right or wrong, would you classify its actions as "terrorist"?

Phil Sumpter said...


sorry, I meant the first video here. It's 11 minutes long.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

If you deleted my message, I insist you also delete the vapid quip by steph as well. I won't be slandered by some anonymous trollette.

steph said...

Luckily they didn't have cluster bombs and white phosphorous. I don't know that killing civilians was necessary to stop Hitler but I'd get slaughtered if I called it terrorism. I don't know the answer to that.

Kevin - sorry to upset you so much but I did not write slander (or rather libel) and I am not an "anonymous trollette". anonymous. Just ask Jim or James or Maurice who I work with... To me, you too are only a name with a blog and a 'moderator' of the less academic or less moderated off shoot group, biblicalist. I am a moderator of biblical studies list.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Kevin, did one of your posts not get through? I can see it and I asked if I could repost it myself ...

As for the language used by participants in dialogues on my blog, this is new to me. I've never had to moderate anyone on the blog. I was tempted to delete some of the other comments which were outrageous, but then I decided not to because even ignorant bigots interest me in one way or another, and I figure people can simply ignore them ... Unless things just turn into a shouting match, in which case reading the posts in a waste of time. Perhaps I ought to take a heavier hand ... But you have more experience moderating, so if you think I should do otherwise, then I'd appreciate any tips.


they cluster bombed entire German cities, as far as I'm aware. They were utterly flattened. I would have thought that unless you can make a judgement about that, you should restrain yourself from making similar judgements about Israel. Hamas, on the other hand, are terrorist plain and simple. There's no ambiguity at all.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Well, sorry for that, Phil. Post it if you like, if it's there.

Steph, I recall you saying quite some time ago that you preferred to retain anonymity in order to protect yourself from repercussions related to your online opinions. The difference is that I use my full name, I always have and always will, in posting and no one has to ask anyone to find out who I am. Regarding academic appointment, I'm sure I'll see that down the road. I'm not in the least concerned about it, currently working on three different books (one of them the second, corrected edition of a very popular collection of translations) with two different internationally recognized professors of unimpeachable reputation, and with work on a series of translations to be published once those are complete and I have more time to complete them and clean them up. Not bad for a BA, I'd say.

A quick note on white phosphorus use by Israel: the International Committee of the Red Cross indicates it has no evidence of misuse by Israel. They will not find evidence, either, as Israel doesn't use these types of bombs as untargetable indiscriminate incendiary devices. Their use is not prohibited internationally, only their misuse.

If Israel really were out for the complete and utter destruction of Gaza, it would have been finished by now. The place could be completely leveled in a week, at most. But it isn't. What does that say to the conspiracy theorists that insist this is the goal of Israel in Gaza? Reality shows us something else is going on.

steph lou fish! said...

Phil - yes, I found that out last night, and yes, in that case I do think it was terrorism. I still don't see the justification of bombing German cities at all.

Kevin - I certainly don't recall saying that. My name is stephanie louise fisher, I am completing a PhD with Maurice Casey in Nottingham. It is more because my name is not recognisable accept to my friends and colleagues, that I don't bother putting my full name.

I know the use of white phosphorus used as a smokescreen isn't prohibited by international law, but the Geneva Conventions ban the use of phosphorus as an offensive weapon against civilians.

The point is that using it is immoral. White phosphorus bursts into a deep-yellow flame when it is exposed to oxygen, producing a thick white smoke and is capable of causing potentially fatal burns. Phosphorus burns are almost always second or third-degree because the particles do not stop burning on contact with skin until they have entirely disappeared — it is not unknown for them to reach the bone.

Your criticism of universities such as Oxford was weak and sounded like a regrettably resentful case of tall poppy syndrome. That is why I brought up academic credentials.

As to your final bit - I'm not sure of your point. You are still defending Israel's aggression which I see as utterly indefensible. Sure, Israel could completely destroy Gaza but so could Iran completely destroy Israel. Why haven't they? Apart from the uncertain consequences of nuclear explosions especially for Israel so close to Gaza, there are the international repercussions - the world wouldn't let them get away with it.

steph said...

except to my friends ... blinking typos :-)

steph said...

I have just heard from an Australian UN worker in Gaza - the attack on the UN Headquarters in Gaza (with white phosphorous) which not only sheltered many Palestinians, but was responsible for storing and distributing food to hundreds of thousands of Gaza's civilians as well as storing fuel and medical supplies is utterly indefensible and has been widely condemned.

Phil Sumpter said...

Steph, I agree. Hamas use it too, apparently, but that still doesn't excuse Israel.

steph said...

Yes - I am complaining about Israel because so many seem to be defending Israel. Nobody is defending Hamas - we all know they are wrong (except Iran). Both sides have histories with which they justify their current actions but in my opinion killing can't be justified.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Sorry, steph, I mixed you up with another steph who used to post on one of Jim West's several now-deleted blogs. I also apologize for my writing sounding too snippy. You're not my target. It's nice to know who and where you are.

My critique was not of Oxford (which would be ridiculous), but of Shlaim and the mentality of which he's an exemplar, with which I'm all too familiar. I'm at Berkeley, was in school and have lived in the city since 1986. I know very well what is the currently required mindset for anyone who wishes to have any potential of academic advancement, having been privy to any number of conversations on the subject. I've been here long enough to have seen an old and genuine liberality give way to a narrow list of opinions and talking points, straying from which will promptly get one labeled "stupid" in the minds of the pseudoliberal, though they may not know the first thing of any subject except what they're read in the New York Times. Real diversity of opinion has become an enforced pseudoliberality: only one narrow set of viewpoints is acceptable now. Part of that invariably includes, these days, "Israel is wrong; the Palestinians are right" as a kind of entirely unquestionable mantra among the supposedly thinking classes.

I've also seen here in Berkeley, and dealt with face-to-face more than once, a Palestinian recruiter for white, upper middle class kids to go and act in Gaza and the West Bank as "human shields." The mendacity involved in his spiel is repulsive.

This is the last thing I'll write here on the subject: the Palestinians, through Arafat's training up of two generations to idealize violence as an acceptable form of resistance (one might recall the the first intifadeh was initially successful in shaming the Israelis into concessions, because it was initiated by Christian Palestinians and was completely peaceful, taking the form of tax evasion; when it was overtaken by the more violent Muslims, everything changed) have come to such a point in their history that they're being confronted with an impossibility of peace without changing their own mindset. Arafat and his cronies were much more interested in their bank accounts than in the welfare of the people. But their advocacy of violence is the reason that the Palestinians are and always will be under such restrictions until they renounce the violence utterly, and eliminate those movements from their midst that advocate it, through whatever means. Otherwise: there will be no "peace in the Middle East" and there will certainly never be a state called Palestine. The Oslo Accords are not just in abeyance, but shattered beyond repair, it seems. The "Roadmap" is torn to shreds. Peace is available to the Palestinians if they really want it. But, having voted Hamas in the 90+ percentile into office, it's pretty clear that they prefer something else. They have a choice: "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live..." is a simple enough motto to live by.

steph said...

Well I know your name, but I don't know who you are. Unless we meet at a conference I probably never will. Jim West is a friend and I do comment on his blog occassionally (I even wrote a guest post once) but I certainly didn't say I didn't want to expose my name. I'm not afraid of who I am! :-) I have been renting a flat in Napier NZ for a year because my mother is ill, although I have daily communication with Maurice. I return to Nottingham in April, but I have lived in many places since I first left Napier and went to university in 1981.

I'm sorry but I don't believe you know the "mindset" of "these people" at all and neither do you understand the menality of 'Palestinians'. What you say is speculation and rhetoric and strikes me as arrogant.

Phil Sumpter said...

Guys, I greatly appreciate this fruitful dialogue.


Real diversity of opinion has become an enforced pseudoliberality: only one narrow set of viewpoints is acceptable now

Whether this represents this situation in Oxford, I do not know, but I certainly think it's present as a real danger in most humanities departments. I think it's a fashion thing, especially as long as Edward Said remains popular (who I like, to a degree, but I have issues with his book Orientalism).

And I didn't know that the first intifada was a peaceful demonstration by Christians. They really are stuck between a rock and a hard place, which explains why they are emigrating en masse (Bethlehem is now minority Christian).

As for Arafat, there is plenty of documentation of his manipulation of resistance movements for his own benefit in Said Aburish's excellent biography. He even contributing to the crushing of genuinely constructive revolts (like the Christian one you mentioned), simply because they occurred independently of his authority and thus didn't have his name all over it.

I'm coming to the conclusion that the greatest threat to the Palestinian cause is the cultural "corruption" that they have devolved into (I've read Palestinians making a similar point, e.g. in relation to the growing culture of suicide bombing). It's not that they don't have legitimate concerns, or that Israel is all innocent, but that they lack - at the moment at least - the kind of morally strong leadership necessary for making a difference. I'm not too clued up on international affairs, but something along the lines of Nelson Mandela in South Africa would be far more constructive than anything that I have seen offered so far.

steph said...

I agree that a Mandela would make a needed and ideal Palestinian leader but a Mandela would go down well as an Israeli leader too.

I hope you too, are not assuming that Schlaim has a motive to write this - to please his peers and conform to a fashion. That is wild speculation at best. Most British universities probably wouldn't appoint an angry Zionist or a militant Islamist, but to suggest that Schlaim writes this to conform is ludicrous.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Steph, I've posted some of the main points that disturb me about his article here: Israel and Gaza: Some questions I'd like answered.. Nevertheless, I'm open to what Kevin says about academic fashion. I don't believe that being an academic at Oxford automatically guarantees you objectivity in evaluating such situations. My BA was in cultural anthropology and I also came into conflict with what seems to me to be unhealthy academic fads.

steph said...

Hi Phil, As you know, I didn't say that being at Oxford "automatically guarantees you objectivity" and what I did suggest was that being at Oxford does not mean that you have to conform to a particular way of thinking or fashion. In some university theology departments you have to subscribe to particular beliefs and maintain these throughout your academic career. Oxford did used to be the way, theologically, which Kevin describes, a generation or more ago, as did Nottingham to a degree (don't rock the boat) but to assume this still exists is unfounded, and just a cheap shot at Schlaim. Schlaim is not a reporter, reporting the 'facts' - he is a scholar, analysing the facts. From what I've read, I don't see anything false in his main points.

Phil Sumpter said...


I did suggest was that being at Oxford does not mean that you have to conform to a particular way of thinking or fashion.

I'm not sure we necessarily disagree with each other in principle. I'm not saying that this exists in any formal level. I'm saying it exists as part of the unspoken academic culture. "Schools" of thought are inevitable in the humanities, each one hiding various presuppositions about the way the world ought to work, what it really means to be human, definitions of "freedom" etc. Shlaim may well subscribe to the kind of world view (or what Kevin called a "mind set") that is dominant in many intellectual circles today which Kevin and I find problematic. At the end of the day, however, it isn't very constructive simply pointing the fingure. Kevin and I have our own world views, our own conscious or unconscious answers to the questions I just brought up, and that will influence and bias us too. We just have to stick to the facts. Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my other post, Shlaim asserts more than he backs up. That has to do with the genre of the article, so it's not a problem. But that's also why I'm looking for contrary or confirming evidence. Did Israel re-settle the West Bank with 12,000 settlers? Have they been consciously de-developing the Strip? Is Israel purely motivated by territorial expansion?

steph said...

Yes sure, everyone has a worldview and presupposition - and experience. However to claim that he conforms to an Oxford "mindset" is anachronistic and simplistic rhetoric. I'm interested - I'm pretty sure Kevin hasn't studied in the UK but have you? Are you English or American?

As for those three points, I've seen similar reports elsewhere in the media so I don't doubt Schlaim. Without doing your homework for you, perhaps Robert Fisk, Juan Cole and John Pilger are obvious places to start, BBC news, and even NZ foreign correspondent reports (not all Oxford graduates..).

Phil Sumpter said...

I'm English and have studied at the University of Wales and the University of Gloucestershire. I'm currently studying in Germany. Kevin's comments jive with some of my experience.

steph said...

Thanks Phil: Are you suggesting that Wales and Gloucestershire have political agendas behind their appointments? appoint people with political prerequisites? It seems that because you don't like his judgement of the facts, you question his motives. I'm sending Kevin's earlier comment to an academic friend at Oxford and also I'll get Maurice to read it when he gets back from the library. I'd like to know what they think.

steph said...

It's hard to imagine a university with the like of Richard Dawkins and some of their theologians, as having a particular 'mindset'. Much the same as Nottingham where in one department alone we have the likes of John Milbank and Maurice Casey, hardly one particular 'mindset'. We understand the angry accusations of a Berkley man to come from reading his own absolutely self centred experience into Oxford.

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